Author: Stephen Fleming

If you're at all familiar with Mormon studies or Mormon blogging, Stephen Fleming requires no introduction. He's been a regular contributor over at Juvenile Instructor for over a decade and has been making scholarly contributions since finishing his PhD in religion at UC Santa Barbara in 2014. He's got a book in progress and, after years serving as bishop of his ward, has some thoughts on faith, research, belief, history, and the challenges people face today.

The State of Israel, Follow Up

So quite the discussion a few weeks ago, and my apologies for returning to it since the last one got a little heated. I did mean the post as a Bloggernacle topic, or how do we interpret the issue of the State of Israel in in terms of our religion? Again, that’s why I brought up my teachers’ quorum adviser’s comments those many years ago. A few commentators said I should not bring up Jesus, but again, the point of the post was to think about this topic in religious terms. The point was our religious constructs and not simply a debate over foreign policy. Like I said a few times on the post, many experts say that solutions aren’t likely, and I have no illusions to solving the problem myself. However, I am against the idea that because solutions are illusive that Israel needs to “defend itself” and keep doing what it’s doing in Gaza. I oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza and I oppose US military support for the State of Israel for the reasons I listed in the previous post.

Let’s Talk about the State of Israel

When I was 14 c. 1990, my teachers’ quorum instructor was giving a lesson (hard to remember what the particular topic was) when he went into a diatribe about what a horrible injustice the creation of the state of Israel was. I’d never heard anybody say that before, but I’ve come to agree whole heartedly with that adviser. In 1947, the UN under pressure from the US and Soviet Union, passed Resolution 181, giving Israelis 56% of the land of Palestine even though Israelis only owned 7% of Palestine [this number is apparently overly simplistic; see DSC’s maps below] prior to that. There’s no other word for such an act than theft. Religiously motivated theft is even worse, I’d argue.

Rethinking the OT Narrative

Christians expressed concerns about stories and divine commands in the Old Testament since early in Christian history. Setting aside Isaac and Abraham, things get so much worse with the conquest of Canaan and all the genocidal commands. Christians have long attempted to make sense of the contrast of the significant difference between the divine commands in the OT and NT: “the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24-27), allegory, Gnostics who said the OT God wasn’t the highest God but was the lower, problematic demiurge. I heard growing up that God gave the law as a result of the rebellion of the golden calf (sort of like DC 84:24-26 and Exodus 32:19 mixed together). I’ve heard the idea in Mormon circles of Jesus as Jehovah got a lot nicer after he lived on earth.

What Historical Claims Does God Insist We Believe?

I mean that question in terms of scriptural claims, especially related to the Old Testament. Readers may be aware of scholarly skepticism of the existence of major biblical figures and events and I’ve often gotten the sense from my fellow members and other Christians of seeing scholars with such views as problematic, secular people not properly holding biblical claims as they ought. I’m well aware of the limits of historical study, but also think that historical methods and lots of work by scholars as a whole do tell us something. I don’t think scholars in any field go about what they do as some kind of malicious pact with the devil. Scholars are happy to debate with each other so though I’m not arguing that scholarly consensus is anything like infallible (consensus can certainly be overturned), but for, me, scholarly consensus suggest a whole lot of work and evidence. Thus if there is consensus on something, I believe scholars have come to that position in good faith. I do not feel the need to hold doggedly to all scriptural historical claims, nor do I believe that God insists that I do so.

My Atheist Conversion, 3: A Lack of Theology

My own research played a role in the atheist conversion I described in previous posts. Like I said, I believe I’ve been able to track down the sources of all Mormon ideas from books to Joseph Smith, which, like I said, was something I’ve been generally okay with. Again, this was a gradual process for me that I felt I could make spiritual sense of, and concluded that any means that God used for the Restoration was okay with me. Yet every now and again I’d stop and notice how far I’d drifted from orthodoxy. I recently did a podcast where I described it as occasionally feeling like this Naked Gun clip: with so much on his mind while he wandered around, Frank finally said to himself, “and where the hell was I?”

My Atheist Conversion, Part 2: Spiritual Experiences

In part one, I talked about coming to the conclusion of deciding to both be an atheist and also remain as bishop a year or so into my time as bishop. Part of the conundrum that I was working through was how I felt about my spiritual experiences. I mentioned in my last post that I was not feeling very content with where those experiences seemed to have led me. Furthermore, my PhD education had introduced me to some basics of cognitive science as my adviser had shifted her focus to that field. I talked about this in these posts at JI from a few years back, but had felt strongly prompted to work with Ann Taves, whose work had been in religious history, but was then shifting to cognitive science and its uses in studying religion. Again, I’d felt very prompted to work with her but kind of wanted to do more standard religious history and I had no training at all in this brain science stuff.

My Atheist Conversion, Part 1

This post got a little long so I decided to break it in two. The title is a little bit click bait as I am not an atheist, but I do want to tell a story of what I call (in my head) “my atheist conversion.” Real atheists may find this disingenuous as my atheism lasted a very short period of time (half a day), but nonetheless it had a significant impact on me and I don’t know what else to call it. The impact was in a “pro-church direction,” and allow me to explain as such an experience frames a lot of my thinking on things I’d like to share on the blog. All of us can have challenges to our beliefs and perhaps mine are a bit unusual. Back around 2010, I shared at “Mormon Scholars Testify” about dealing with getting into scholarship and getting comfortable with the unknown. As I shared in a recent post at the JI, I’ve also worked to make adjustments to faith assumptions along the way.

A “Secular” Case for the Church

A little bit more about my own story relating to developing some alternative views of the church and coming to gain a as I said testimony of what I see as an “imperfect” church. The series I’m working on at the JI gives come context for ways in which historical research has influenced me, and over time I’ve seen myself becoming increasingly different. Spiritual experiences, however, have  helped me to be okay with that, though the journey has been a struggle at times. I’ve felt a sense of calling to find ways to make my research helpful to others, but, again, that’s often seemed a little confusing how to do so. I felt this confusion much more acutely in my first months as bishop. I felt like I had a lot to sort out, but during the process I did feel like I gained a number of insights helpful to me.

“A Little Hippyish”

I got M and J’s permission to share this on the blog and M read it before I published it though she made me take out the best line. :( “So are they pretty straight arrows, all good with them?” SP2 asked me when he called a little less than a year before my released to get some info on the J&M who he was thinking of asking to perform a musical number at the adult session of stake conference. He’d called to ask about their musical aptitude, but included the above question as well. To me J&M, a late 20s couple, were all good, but I felt that they didn’t really fit SP2’s definition of “straight arrow”/orthodox member and thus saying yes to that question felt a touch misleading. M (wife) had ruffled feathers from the get go, calling out people in casual settings for uncharitable speech in woke ways, her husband J has shoulder length hair and a beard, and both had given the WILDEST talks I’d ever heard in church when we had them speak after moving to the ward. M talked about how the church had been a good place for her, but had struggled since the pandemic, had lots of LGBT+ friends and those sympatric who had struggled with and left the church. M said something like, “while the church has been a good place for me, I also acknowledge those whom I love that…

“Who Do We Want at Church?”

As I was brainstorming about starting the safe-space group that I mentioned in a previous post, it was December 2021, and I started seeing people commenting online about the upcoming final (or nearly final) lesson in gospel doctrine that would cover the two official declarations. Since those cover what are generally considered controversial topics—polygamy and Blacks and priesthood—lots of people were interested in whether their wards would cover those topics, and if so how they would approach it. So since I was thinking about how to talk about hard issues, the morning of that lesson, I pitched the idea to my wife— who was then the gospel doctrine teacher—that I teach a lesson on “how do we talk about difficult issues related to church history?” for the GD lesson. She was a bit apprehensive, but said okay, and I started brainstorming ideas. But as I did so, I felt the strong impression, “Run the idea by the ward council first.”

My Testimony of an Imperfect Church (But the Best One in My Opinion)

So in previous posts, I made it clear I’m unconventional and disagree with some policies. A process I would describe as coming to a testimony of an imperfect church. I’ve expressed a few disagreements, but also wanted to share some of the reasons why I believe very strongly that the church is where I should be, where I should try to help others to stay, and a good place to expend my efforts. The biggest reason is simply “because God told me so,” or spiritual experiences. As a middle-aged dude, this had been a journey and a process, and “study and faith” (my series on the other blog) has been both enlightening and challenging.

Church Concerns and the Command to Mourn with Those That Mourn

Responses to my last post reminding me of something I’ve been thinking recently: the fact that individuals can have quite different experiences with the church. The most extreme form of differences would be the extreme faith crises and a couple of examples serve to illustrate the pain these can cause. Alma 7 says Christ “will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people … that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people,” which I see as linked to the command to mourn with those that mourn. Those in faith crises are clearly mourning. The examples in the links are of the more extreme type, but I think we also know that struggling with concerns at a less extreme level is also common, and can also be quite painful as well. For instance, just a few months ago, the new bishop’s wife gave her first talk in the ward as bishop’s wife, saying she’d been assigned testimony. She took the opportunity to give a talk I’ve rarely ever heard and NEVER from a bishop’s wife: how she has been struggling with the church, how she would appreciate people being kind to her during her struggles, and how we all ought to be kind generally to those who struggle. The only other time I’d heard anything like that was about a year earlier from another young couple recently moved into the ward, who addresses…

The Refiner’s Fire

“Was the refiner’s fire hot?” my stake president (SP2) asked me on the night he came over to give me my release a little less than a year ago. This was a bit of a surprise since it was at 4.5 years, but SP2 explained that they were reworking the boundaries. His question was in reference to the hard time he knew I’d had as bishop, and I appreciated his acknowledgement of that. Lots of reasons why and I consider an instance I’d had a couple of months before my release to be most indicative of the experience. My wife (Lee) and I were on a date and had stopped to do some grocery shopping. As we sat in the car, Lee cried and expressed how difficult and emotionally exhausting my time as bishop had been and how she couldn’t wait for it to be over. My radiantly positive and confident wife doesn’t do much crying in the car, but was that evening.* SP1, who called me, told me that he hoped my time as bishop would be the very best time for my family; that goal didn’t seem to have been achieved.

Not Really Bishop Material

So Jonathan invited me to come do some guest posting over here, and we talked a bit about some matters related to the series I’d started over at the JI. When Jonathan invited me to share some of the material here, I had a whole lot of ideas. We’ll see where this goes, but by way of introduction to my guest posting here, I wanted to start by sharing some of my experience with having been bishop from which I was released a little less than a year ago. I got some heads up that I could be called as the next bishop very quickly after we moved to the new ward. “You know we’re going to need a new bishop this January,” the bishop’s counselor said to me when he gave me my first calling in July. He said so in a way that he was clearly referring to me. Such a statement was pretty new to me. I was not really bishop material.