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.

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