Fan Culture and General Conference

Elder Holland’s talk at the conclusion of the Saturday Afternoon session of the April 2019 General Conference, Behold the Lamb of God, is one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever heard or read. I challenge anyone to read or listen or watch the talk and think that Elder Holland was anything other than deadly serious in his chastisement of the Saints for our failure to fully appreciate and honor the solemn significance of the sacrament. 

We are to remember in as personal a way as possible that Christ died from a heart broken by shouldering entirely alone the sins and sorrows of the whole human family. Inasmuch as we contributed to that fatal burden, such a moment demands our respect.

These are loving words, but also stern and passionate. This is a sacred topic–the most sacred of topics–and Elder Holland was plainly telling us that we’re not doing as well as we could be. 

This makes the laughter the follows all the more jarring. (Start watching around 9:00 into this video to see what I mean.) Elder Holland is talking about arriving for this sacred event on time, and he expresses gentle accommodation for mothers of young children who have a lot to struggle with in terms of getting their families to church at all. He also says that it’s understandable for any of us to be late from time to time, but he insists that ongoing tardiness is incompatible with the respect that our Savior’s sacrifice “demands” of us.

Furthermore, there will be others who unavoidably find their ox in the mire on a Sabbath morning. However, to this latter group we say an occasional tardiness is understandable, but if the ox is in the mire every Sunday, then we strongly recommend that you sell the ox or fill the mire.

This was not a joke. Elder Holland was not being funny. This should be clear from the preceding context of his talk–which, aside from one genuinely light-hearted aside, was very, very earnest–and also from the succeeding paragraph, where he goes on “in that same spirit”, specifically the spirit of an “apostolic plea”.

You may think I’m making too much of this or just being a humorless scold, but I sincerely submit that if an “apostolic plea” is met with laughter by the audience attending in person at General Conference then there is a failure to communicate that threatens our capacity to receive the messages of our General Authorities in the spirit in which they are intended. And I think I know the problem.

We live in the age of the ascendancy of geek culture. As someone who grew up in the last days when being a geek was something with a genuine social cost, excitement has given way to trepidation as I’ve watched geek culture (or something that at least bears its outward trappings) swallow pop culture whole.

Fan culture is one facet of geek culture. It’s the facet that fueled the rise of cons (short for fan conventions like San Diego Comic-Con). It’s the now-routine uprising of fans to save their favorite shows from cancellation. It’s the rise of fan-fiction, some examples of which become mega-hits in their own right, and nostalgia-fests that are almost inseparable from fan-fiction. It’s the rise of fan-art, a lot of which you can find for sale as posters, phone covers, t-shirts, backpacks, and more.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, fan culture has led to the proliferation of fan service. This is the name for the phenomenon of artists inserting elements–lines of dialogue, specific shots, or entire scenes–to respond directly to fan requests. These run the gamut from entertainment-based requests (e.g. to showcase specific romantic pairings that are popular with the fans) to politically-based requests (e.g. to feature same-sex characters and the same-sex relationships more prominently).

Fans are consumers who exercise unprecedented and often direct control over the works of art they consume and through that the broader popular culture. Fan culture is an entitled culture. 

There is a long-lasting and deep overlap between American LDS culture and geek culture. American Latter-day Saints have long been fans of core works in the geek canon–from The Princess Bride to Star Wars–and Utah in particular is a thriving center for fantasy and sci-fi writing and has its own healthy ecosystem of cons. 

Which brings us back to General Conference.

When sci-fi fans attend a convention–like FanX in Salt Lake City, which drew 127,000 attendees in 2015–they are there to be served. Obviously I’m not suggesting that someone could confuse FanX and General Conference as the same kind of thing just because “convention” and “conference” both have “con” in them.

But I do think that the attitude, mores, and expectations of fan culture have naturally infiltrated the attitudes of faithful American Latter-day Saints who are excited about General Conference. It’s a big event. Friends and family come together in-person and online to watch together. Social media is aflame with hot takes and live tweets and on-the-spot memes. Even dissident Latter-day Saints watch avidly, ready to offer their own takes on why and how and to what degree the General Authorities continue to fall on the wrong side of history. 

Unfortunately, the relationship of a fan to studio executives unveiling the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at ComCon or video game developers talking about the technical advancements in the upcoming release in the Halo franchise is fundamentally different from and incompatible with the relationship of Latter-day Saints to the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

The studio executives and the game developers are there to please the fans. 

Prophets are not there to please anyone. Their distinctive and most important job is quite the opposite: it is to point out mistakes, warn of danger, and call to repentance.

It would be good for faithful Latter-day Saints to keep this in mind when listening to the General Conference talks. It is exciting. We’re all invested in changes like removing the third hour or announcing new temples. But when we react to these events like fans applauding for an exciting new trailer, our enthusiasm is leading us astray. 

And when that happens–when we come to General Conference to hear pleasing and interesting and exciting new things–we may fail to hear the counsel the Lord has asked His servants to tell us. 

We may even mistake an earnest apostolic plea for a joke.

20 comments for “Fan Culture and General Conference

  1. mP
    October 14, 2019 at 11:45 am

    In content and delivery, Holland’s lines showed an intention to elicit laughs. There’s nothing unusual or inappropriate about using levity and humor in making serious points.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    October 14, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    This post reminds me of a few friends who have jokingly started calling General Conference “Gen-Con” as a reference to Comic-Con or similar events. I do agree, though, that there is always the risk in our excitement over the event of getting carried away or bringing the wrong frame of mind to the conference and missing something important as a result.

  3. Truckers Atlas
    October 14, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    I tend to agree with mP. If the “ox in the mire” line wasn’t meant to be funny, it was certainly meant to be clever and showy, as one can expect from all of Holland’s talks.

  4. IDIAT
    October 14, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    Just like I don’t think President Oaks’ comments in Trust the Lord were meant to elicit “loud laughter,” I likewise believe Elder Holland’s comments were a not so subtle nod to the perpetually tardy without being downright aggressive. I heard various accounts of a meeting with Elder Bednar where he plainly and no no uncertain terms chided adults and youth for their lack of reverence. I think if Elder Holland had not meant to be at least a little humorous he would have followed up his comment with an immediate rebuke to the congregants seating in the conference center. Still, I appreciate your notion that members might be getting a little too carried away with conference enthusiasm.

  5. ji
    October 14, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    Inasmuch as the original posting wants to caution against a tendency of looking at General Conference as entertainment, I agree. General Conference is probably best approached in an attitude of worship.

  6. Nate GT
    October 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    “Elder Holland was not being funny”

    He seemed to be solemn and a little funny. You shouldn’t take offense to people who found it funny.

    “Prophets are not there to please anyone”

    What about the people who hang on their every word and are the exemplars in their respective wards and branches? The leaders most certainly speak to them. The church is a voluntary organization. In many ways it is like Comiccon. The main difference I would say are that the church is non-profit, white Comiccon is for-profit. Church leaders work hard to deliver members experiences and good feelings; give them direction, reassurance, encouragement, with some doses of reprimand here and there. The leaders are very concerned about projecting an image of growth and are very preoccupied about any data that would suggest that the church is in decline. Members, collectively, most certainly have quite a bit of influence in how the church leaders guide their policies and deliver their talks. To some extent, the leaders are trying to accommodate the members much in the same way that Comiccon is trying to accommodate its fans. Leaders know darn well they can’t just say and do anything they want and expect its membership to automatically follow. Sure, some essentially practice blind obedience. But most are fairly selective in what they believe and in how they behave. And there is nothing really to stop them from doing that.

    “It is exciting”

    Really? I find conference rather repetitive and at times soporific. The spate of changes have all been rather small. The church isn’t that different as a result of them, is it? OK, women and 8-year-olds can witness baptisms. Is that really that big of a change? It isn’t like said women can perform the baptisms.

  7. Mapinguari
    October 14, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    Bah. I think you’re straining for something that just isn’t.

  8. October 14, 2019 at 10:22 pm

    There seems to be a bit of controversy about humor at GC. The feminists are unhappy with Oaks’ humor. Some people are not happy about Hollands’ attempt. I suspect that God has a sense of humor. And He understands that some jokes bomb and some jokes may be unintentional. This is all much ado about nothing.

    I don’t think God likes boring. Or pseudo-religiosity.

  9. Simple thoughts
    October 15, 2019 at 5:47 am

    Overall, I think general conference is hilarious.

    It is hilarious that there is so much leader worship from people who haven’t done very much deserving of such devotion.

    It is hilarious that they take themselves so seriously, and expect that we should take them seriously too…

    It is hilarious that they will claim at the same time to be speaking just their own opinions, but also that it is also the will of the Lord…

    I laugh, but not in a nice way.

  10. H
    October 15, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    I think it’s possible to chuckle at a clever turn of phrase while imbibing the lesson being taught. Indeed, the clever turn of (scriptural!) phrase can stand a better chance of being recalled later than a new, non-clever phrase, IMO.

    I also think some General Authorities can contribute to the sense of General Conference as fandom-adjacent pseudo-entertainment, especially under Pres. Nelson: the constant policy and program updates, the drama around temple announcements (including some that are huge stretches), the refrain that every conference is “historic,” and, most lately, the cliffhanger that the next General Conference will be entirely different — in an unspecified way.

  11. October 15, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    I have been surprised by this reflection, I had never meditated on how I have done it in this article, the faithful American saints of the last days, this phrase makes me think many times about the wrong thing and the opposite of the world, if everyone will meditate and we were revealed the truth so open, I really believe that something else would be of this world ..

  12. E.C.
    October 15, 2019 at 8:47 pm

    While I agree that apostolic pleas should be taken seriously, my sense, as I watched this talk, was that he intended that line to be humorous. I laughed, but it was because I’ve KNOWN some of those people with their ox perpetually in the mire. Therefore, I assumed that was what people were laughing at – the remembrance of someone they know, who perhaps needs to sell an ox or fill in a mire.
    I do agree with your point, though – that there is an attitude that’s become pervasive recently, that General Conference is to entertain, not to instruct, edify, or call to repentance.

  13. SDS
    October 17, 2019 at 8:50 am

    Although this post seems just a little bit off-base (IMHO), it does raise for me an interesting question– one someone here might be able to help with.

    The post seems a bit off-base because it seems to assume that if Elder Holland was discussing a serious and sacred subject, and was making an “apostolic plea,” it would have been inconsistent with that purpose to mix a little humor into his talk. But gifted speakers (like Elder Holland) often do that sort of thing. Humor can help to make their point, can make their audience more receptive to the message, can make what might otherwise seem like unrelenting prescription and chastisement seem more loving and understanding. In his talk beginning the most recent conference, Elder Holland spoke on a similar theme– on making the Savior central to all of our doings and church activities. He was surely making an “apostolic plea.” And yet he led off with a humorous observation, and I count at least four points in the talk where he quite clearly used humor to help put across his very serious message. The quote given in the post from the April talk surely reads like another such instance.

    The assumption implicit in the post reminds of critics who found it difficult to accept Joseph Smith and Jesus because these leaders didn’t conform to the stiff, puritanical model that the critics apparently thought suitable for a serious prophet. Jesus, as we know, hung out with dubious characters and frequented parties and feasts where drinking and laughter were surely common.

    And yet I realized that although Jesus was not averse to parties and feasts, I don’t recall an instance in the Gospels in which he actually cracked a joke, or laughed. Maybe that’s because I read the Gospels with a more rigid expectation, like the expectation that seems implicit in this post, and so I miss the jokes? But I have to admit that my own attitude toward the Savior would be affected if I could think of Him as someone who can share a joke, or have a good laugh with His friends. So, can anyone point to such instances in scripture?

  14. Chad Nielsen
    October 17, 2019 at 11:44 am

    When I read through the Gospels, I do see hints of Jesus having a sense of humor, even if it’s not straight up jokes. He used a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole to drive his points home (i.e. calling out your neighbor for having a spec of dust in their eye when you have a log in yours, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter heaven), which can be taken as humorous. He had a penchant for giving nicknames, some of which seem to be gently mocking, such as “Sons of Thunder” for James and John, the disciples who wanted to call down lightning on the Samaritans. He also used puns, like when he called Simon “the rock” {Peter} and then commenting that “upon this rock….” While denouncing his opponents, he could use some very stinging and sarcastic humor, such as significant portions of Matthew 23. Another expression of sarcasm comes in Luke 13, when Pharisees warn him about Herod wanting to kill him, and Jesus responds that he’ll get on his way to Jerusalem because “it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem,” basically saying “I know you Jews love to kill prophets, so I’ll make sure Herod doesn’t get the chance first.”

    I think there are several things contributing to a view of humorless Jesus. First, we only have a small glimpse into his life in the gospels, most of which was written down later on. Second, our sense of humor is a little different than the eastern part of the Classical world. Third, we use a translation that was meant to sound formal and grand more than down-to-earth and common-placed. Fourth, we are so familiar with the text that we often miss out on potential moments of humor.

    A point of comparison in this case is how Joseph Smith is seen. You don’t catch his sense of humor by reading the Doctrine and Covenants or a lot of the Church’s official histories. The point of the Church histories are often to emphasize his role as a spiritual leader and the humor gets left out as a result. But, he did have a keen wit and sense of humor that shows in some of his sermons and in many of the stories we have about his life. Many people in the Church have been surprised when I talk about it, though.

  15. SDS
    October 17, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks, Chad, I really appreciate those insights.

  16. Taiwan Missionary
    October 19, 2019 at 9:32 pm

    “Charitable comments welcome.” OK, I’ll try.

    Please lighten up. I always enjoy Elder’s Holland’s talks, because he is one of the more entertaining GC speakers
    and has the ability to make a clever turn of phrase, and often elicits laughter. He was making a serious point in a way that amused the listening audience, and it drew laughter. To assume that amused appreciation and laughter show a lack of respect for the point he was making is ….. wrong and DEPRESSING . Elder Holland, I think, realizes that a serious point delivered with humor is MORE effective than a sour-faced approach. I joined the Church at age 22, and am now 67. Over my 45 years as a member, I have come to love this Church with all my heart, but that is despite a significant class of members who view any humor and laughter with suspicion. To everyone who obsesses over Alma 37:47, I respond with Proverbs 15:13 and 17:22.

  17. October 20, 2019 at 7:38 pm

    No one who comes to my Sunday School lessons would be under any mistaken impression that I don’t like humor. One of my favorite things to do is find the humor in the scriptures, including one of my all-time favorite stories. That’s the one where Nephi, Mr. Large-in-Stature himself, prays for the strength to “burst” the bands his brothers have used to tie him up. Instead of getting a miraculous, divine superflex, the bands are “loosed” and just fall right off. The image is hilarious. (And kudos to Nephi for including such a self-deprecating story!)

    But–after reading these comments with an open mind–you guys have not swayed me. There’s a lot to laugh about in the Gospel, but the suffering of Christ on our behalf isn’t in that category. Between Elder Holland’s explicit reference of that suffering and his later characterization of his own words as an apostolic plea, I don’t think this is an example of his humor.

    Beyond that, there’s the bigger picture. We do live in a period of unprecedented fan influence. And some aspects of General Conference are a lot like the pop rituals of our entertainment culture. The announcing of new temples is a lot like the unveiling of the next sequence of films in the MCU or the new features in the upcoming iPhone. This is why President Nelson had to ask the Latter-day Saints to stop applauding when those new temples are announced.

    I’m absolutely not opposed to humor in the gospel, humor in the scriptures, or humor in General Conference. I just think we should have a little bit of caution in separating spiritual devotion from secular devotion.

  18. GEOFF -AUS
    October 21, 2019 at 1:26 am

    It may be a cultural thing, but when a succession of speakers loves RN, I think sycophant. The covenant path is strange too. Saying it shows they are totally in, but what does it mean? As far as I am aware the last covenant required for exaltation is sealing. after that you are not on the path to another covenant, are you?

  19. SDS
    October 21, 2019 at 8:49 am

    I didn’t suppose for a moment that the author of the post is a humorless person (although if this particular post were the only thing one had to go on, one might draw that inference). It’s also surely true that there are subjects about which humor would be inappropriate, and the suffering of the Savior would be one of those subjects. But the particular remark that drew laughter was talking about tardiness in arriving at church meetings. That may be a serious concern, but it isn’t one about which a little humor is out of line. As Elder Holland seems to have understood. Even so, the bigger point about fan culture seems right, and important. So it’s a small disagreement.

  20. SDS
    October 21, 2019 at 10:21 am

    Speaking of humor in the Gospel: a friend suggested to me years ago that D & C 130: 14-15 is an instance of the Lord’s sense of humor. Joseph keeps asking the Lord when the Second Coming will occur. The Lord could just say, “I’m not going to tell you,” or “Would you please stop asking,” or “This is an unhealthy curiosity on your part.” But, having a sense of humor, the Lord instead says, “Hmm. . . . Well, I’ll tell you this much: if you live to be 85, you’ll see it.” And then chuckles. Seems like a plausible interpretation to me.

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