Declining Sunstone: An Argument Against Bloggernacle Participation By The Faithful

Many of you know that back in 2008 I created  a portal for Mormon Blogs at NothingWavering.org to promote mainstream and orthodox LDS blogs as an alternative to the often questionable, fringe views of the LDS bloggers collectively known as the “Bloggernacle.”

A couple of months ago I was contacted by the organizers of the 2012 Sunstone Symposium and invited to participate in the symposium as part of a panel discussion on the different communities of LDS Bloggers as a representative of the more conservative, orthodox blogging community. Sunstone magazine and the Sunstone symposium, of course, have a well-established reputation for cultivating fringe LDS views long before the advent of blogging.

After considering it, I decided to decline the invitation with an explanation of why I cannot support or participate in either the “bloggernacle” or “Sunstone.”

My friend, Bruce Nielsen, received a similar invitation and also decided to decline. He recently published his reasons for not participating at Sunstone and his thoughts about LDS blogging. Bruce’s insights into the dynamics of LDS blogging communities are very perceptive. If you haven’t read them, you should take the time to consider what he has written.

Having read his thoughts, I felt that I should also publish mine, since my views about LDS Blogging and not participating at Sunstone are a little different, though not incompatible with what he has described.

The following is adapted from the email I sent to those representatives of Sunstone by whom I was contacted:

——————–

I empathize a great deal with those who struggle with belief in the church and who are troubled by what they perceive as difficult aspects of church history or doctrine. So I think it is important to identify what exactly is wrong with the “bloggernacle” and separate it from having struggles or questions about the church.

Let me outline briefly my main concerns with the bloggernacle and then give a more detailed explanation of each. The arguments are somewhat interrelated so I hope that I can present them in a coherent way.

1. Blogs are public media, not private conversations
2. The “Taking Marriage Problems to the Pub” analogy
3. The problem of wolves in sheep’s clothing
4. The dynamics of “public debate” – trying to convince the audience rather than your opponent
5. Spiritual terrorism & human shields
6. George Q. Cannon’s definition of apostasy
7. Brigham Young on apostasy & losing confidence in church leaders
8. Elder Eyring’s warning about writing that weakens faith by focusing on human weakness of priesthood leaders
9. Google & Facebook

I’ve had a long time to think and debate about this topic since 2005. I have presented some or all of these arguments to various bloggernacle defenders. Often they call me judgmental and complain about anti-intellectualism or chalk it up to a misunderstanding of what they are doing. Few have bothered to address the actual concerns (though perhaps that is more the fault of my flawed ability to explain them in the first place).

1. Blogs are public media, not private conversations

In conversations with bloggernacle participants about my concerns, they almost always downplay the public aspect and emphasize the community aspect of their blogging. They want to think of it as a big religious discussion in someone’s living room where “…all they’re doing is talking through things.”

In addition to their public discussions, many, if not all, of the bloggernacle blogs also have private “backroom” email lists, or facebook groups, in which they discuss things that are not discussed on the blog. The fact that these private email lists and facebook groups exist means that they are purposefully picking and choosing which parts of the conversation happen publicly and which parts happen only in the private venue. By so doing they show that, contrary to their remonstrations, they are well aware that the public conversation is inherently different from a private, backroom conversation. Clearly they recognize that some discussions about the church are best had in private.

So what they post on their blogs is not just a conversation among friends or community, but a conscious (or at least semi-conscious) act of public advocacy. “Talking through things” is what you do in private with friends. Blogging is a form of public media, no matter how much they want to characterize it as innocent conversation among friends.

2. The “Taking Marriage Problems to the Pub” analogy

Of course I understand that there are some benefits to these public conversations. It does show the public that the members of the church are not brainwashed automatons and that we have a diversity of views and opinions. That can be a good thing as long as the diversity does not amount to negating the real authority of prophets and apostles, or the logical justification for having them. Unless the directions of the united prophets and apostles in general trump individual views then what purpose is there in having them at all? If the views of the watchmen on the tower are not generally superior to the workers below, then we might as well be Protestants. When the prophet speaks the thinking should certainly not be done, but the public debate and controversy should be over among members, as Elder Tanner indicated in 1979.

Back in 2005 I wrote: “I question the propriety of discussing doubts, criticisms, and concerns about the church in such a public forum. It is a little like discussing one’s marriage difficulties, concerns, or criticisms in a pub, and soliciting public comments from everyone present, while avoiding discussing the problems with one’s own spouse. That, I think, would be completely inappropriate. One might rightly wonder if someone who did so was not looking more for a sympathetic ear and justification for their disenchantment than real solutions to their marital problems.”

I am perfectly willing to discuss questions and doubts in private; to offer my love, sympathy, and testimony to a sister or a brother that is plagued by doubts and questions, in the same way that I would offer private help and advice to a friend who was struggling with his or her marriage. But just as I would be suspicious of a man who goes down to the pub to discuss his marriage problems, I am suspicious of anyone who takes their questions and problems with the church to a public online forum with a reputation for being sympathetic to the gripes of those with doubts and complaints.

3. The problem of wolves in sheep’s clothing

As I said, I have a great deal of sympathy for members of the church who struggle with doubt and questions. But it is just as wrong to assume that all those who question are merely struggling sheep as it would be to assume that everyone who expresses doubt is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the surface they all look like poor struggling sheep, but inwardly some really are ravening wolves. Common sense says that between the obvious wolves who are quickly identified and guarded against and the wolves in sheep’s clothing, it is the latter that pose more of a threat to the sheep.

This poses a serious problem to those who take their concerns to a public forum. Because it is public and anyone can participate, it becomes an attractive venue for wolves disguised as struggling sheep to prey upon those who are vulnerable. It’s an automatic sorting machine that gathers the weak into an easily identifiable group through self-selection. It’s kind of like advertising yourself as a target. It will inevitably attract predators, the most effective of which will be disguised as prey. And anyone who has read the New Testament knows that not all questions are offered sincerely.

4. The dynamics of “public debate” vs “private debate”

People frequently appeal to the importance of dialogue for people of differing views to come to understand and maybe understand, or even convert each other. But when the debate becomes public a new dynamic is introduced. A blog “conversation” is a kind of public performance. It’s a public debate, not a real discussion. In a public debate the goal is not to come to understand your opponent and then convince him of your position. Instead your objective is to win over the largely silent audience to your side.

The debater who makes the mistake of thinking they are trying to convince their opponent instead of the audience loses. So wolves can leverage this inherent dynamic of public debate to their advantage.

What happens when we mistake a public performance for a “conversation” or “dialogue” is that we spend our time trying to work with people who have doubts and questions (struggling sheep). Meanwhile, the conversation serves as a platform for those who have no real interest in overcoming doubts and questions to commandeer the “conversation” which they rightly recognize as a public media platform, to subtly push an anti-church agenda under the guise of being a “poor confused sheep with questions and doubts in search of answers.” Really they are playing for the hearts and minds of the silent audience in an effort to undermine faith and the church.

Pride also comes into play in a public debate in a way that it does not in private. Once a position has been staked out publicly, it is much harder to walk back. Plus there is motivation to appear smart, informed, & witty to the “audience.” You see this dynamic all the time in the bloggernacle, where the discussion is often really a public performance by the commenters. It is completely different from a real discussion with someone about concerns about the church.

5. Spiritual terrorism & human shields

Part of the asymmetrical warfare waged by terrorists is that a terrorist takes advantage of the decency of his enemy by firing shots at them from inside a hospital or church full of innocents, knowing that their opponent will be loath to retaliate for fear of hurting the hospital patients or church goers. If they do accept the collateral damage and fire on him, the terrorist can then use that fact as propaganda to paint the enemy as a monster who attacks innocent hospital patients or church congregations.

I first noticed a similar dynamic with Mormon feminists. The term “feminist” as employed by them has so many possible meanings and implications, even ones that should be logically mutually exclusive, that it has become essentially meaningless. Some definitions of feminist are completely compatible with the church while others are completely incompatible. Those whose definitions of feminism are incompatible with the church’s truth claims benefit from the confusion of the term because it allows them to lump themselves with those whose idiosyncratic definitions are in harmony with the church. Muddling the definitions allows those who seek to tear down the church to mingle among the faithful women under the illusion of a superficially shared title, while sniping at the church.

A similar dynamic is also often seen by muddling the terms “Mormon,” “faithful,” and “believing.”

Those who are apostate leverage the kindness of those who are not apostates to give themselves cover to undermine the church by blurring lines and mixing their voices with those who truly believe. Then like terrorists who build their bases in hospitals, schools, and churches, when they get attacked for their apostasy they paint the attackers as monsters attacking the innocent sheep who are just “talking things through” and have legitimate concerns.

So those who participate in these public forums act, inadvertently, as spiritual human shields to protect apostates who undermine the faith of the vulnerable. It’s Asymmetrical Spiritual Warfare.

6. George Q. Cannon’s definition of apostasy

The previous arguments help illuminate why Elder George Q. Cannon’s definition of apostasy should be considered in relation to the bloggernacle:

“We had not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the authorities constituted apostasy; for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate, but we could not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate; for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.”

It is not the difference of opinion with the united prophets and apostles that makes it apostasy. Most of us have some differences of opinion with the leaders of the church. Many individuals in the bloggernacle like to point to this fact and say, “See! We are all ‘Buffet-Mormons.’ We all pick and choose.” The difference is that they publish their differences publicly and defend them with arguments meant to convince others that the acts and counsels of the united authorities are wrong, and agitate to produce division in the church over those issues with which they disagree. It is not the disagreement but the public opposition that make it apostasy.

7. Brigham Young on apostasy & losing confidence in church leaders.

Heber C. Kimball, reported that President Brigham Young told the apostles:

“I will give you a key which Brother Joseph Smith used to give in Nauvoo. He said that the very step of apostasy commenced with losing confidence in the leaders of this church and kingdom, and that whenever you discerned that spirit you might know that it would lead the possessor of it on the road to apostasy.”

There is a difference between disagreeing privately with the united authorities of the church and losing confidence in them. “Taking your complaints to the Pub” is an act of no-confidence. Those who have confidence in the leaders of the church don’t publicly agitate against them. Faith is fundamentally Trust and when you cease to trust you cease to be faithful.

8. Elder Eyring’s warning about writing that weakens faith by focusing on human weakness of priesthood leaders.

Elder Eyring said in the October 2004 General Conference (when the bloggernacle was still a newborn, and I was still participating):

“Satan will always work on the Saints of God to undermine their faith in priesthood keys. One way he does it is to point out the humanity of those who hold them. He can in that way weaken our testimony and so cut us loose from the line of keys by which the Lord ties us to Him and can take us and our families home to Him and to our Heavenly Father.

The warning for us is plain. If we look for human frailty in humans, we will always find it. When we focus on finding the frailties of those who hold priesthood keys, we run risks for ourselves. When we speak or write to others of such frailties, we put them at risk.”

Much of the bloggernacle discourse is focused on finding and exposing the frailties and errors of those who hold priesthood keys. It puts people at risk by undermining their confidence in those to whom the Lord has given authority to bind us to Him.

9. Google & Facebook

Unlike the previous generation of Mormon intellectual dissent, the Internet allows a level of visibility never before available. Unlike a private discussion between people with concerns or questions, the public conversations on the bloggernacle show up in Google Searches and are linked to on Facebook and shared with friends. Those who come upon the conversation through a web search have little context. They are oblivious to previous posts and conversations on the topic by the other participants. So when wolves take advantage of the public debate dynamic, and engage in spiritual terrorism, the effects last longer and reach a much larger audience.

For a while the bloggernacle would excuse this problem by saying that the church would rather have semi-friendly posts coming up in search results than blatant anti-Mormon sites. But with the advent of automated sentiment analysis (like I ran on the Book of Mormon in a recent blog post) the mood (positive/negative) of the content becomes important too. The computer algorithm doesn’t care if the site is generally friendly to the church or not. It is just going to report that negative sentiment increased on keywords related to the church.

Conclusion

To wrap up, I think that these arguments must be addressed by those who support and defend the bloggernacle. They have no explanation for how they can prevent their platform from being used by wolves and spiritual terrorists to undermine the church. They cannot explain why their public arguments are different from what Elder Cannon described. And they usually just say that Elder Eyring is plain wrong. At some level they know that what they are doing is inappropriate, but they justify it nonetheless.

All of this serves to undermine the church.

I created NothingWavering.org specifically to help marginalize the bloggernacle; to give faithful LDS bloggers a venue in which they could publicize their blogs without having to mix their voices with apostates and wolves. Admittedly I have to rely on my own flawed judgement. But sometimes all you have to do is provide an alternative, draw an imperfect line, in order to create the contrast needed to help marginalize and separate. The more faithful, believing members who withdraw from the bloggernacle, the more marginal it will become, and the less influence it will have.

Many of these arguments also apply to Sunstone. The fact is that the church doesn’t need Sunstone at all. If Sunstone were to suddenly fall apart and disappear it would have zero effect on the church. Sunstone, on the other hand, is completely dependent on the church for its continued existence. If the church were to suddenly fall apart and disappear, Sunstone would be completely obliterated.

Sunstone is a kind of religious organizational parasite; it weakens and hurts the host upon which, ironically, it depends to survive.

Likewise, Sunstone and the bloggernacle both depend on the participation of at least some faithful members of the church in order to claim a degree of legitimacy. They need to be able to point to at least a few articles and symposium participants who are faithful in order to not be marginalized completely. They rely on mixing their voices with the faithful in order to have any influence at all. As Orson Scott Card put it when discussing his own participation at Sunstone many years ago, “They weren’t running my column to be balanced, nor were any of them interested in balance. I was there as window dressing, the way Playboy ran respectable essays and fiction in order to mask what they really were.”

That is why I will not be participating at Sunstone. If all of us who who believe firmly in the church and the authority of the Brethren refuse to mix our names and reputations with Sunstone, it will become further marginalized. It’s reputation will be re-enforced in a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Agreeing to participate would only help feed and legitimize it.

So the best way to minimize the influence of Sunstone upon the church is to starve it of faithful participation. For that reason I will also encourage all of the believing LDS bloggers I know to similarly abstain and to turn down any invitation they might receive.

I have been writing about this for a long time. Here is a convenient list of links to previous articles I have written that relate to this topic in chronological order as they build up to the present:

[Note: Bite the Wax Tadpole principles of discussion apply here.]

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13 Responses to Declining Sunstone: An Argument Against Bloggernacle Participation By The Faithful

  1. I think you make some powerful arguments that need to be thought about and addressed. I have chosen to participate actively in the ‘Nacle, though I’ve gradually scaled back participation over time (for a variety of reasons).

  2. “wolves disguised as struggling sheep to pray upon those who are vulnerable”
    I think you mean prey

    I appreciate the clarity this post has brought me.

  3. Thanks Dan and Rich.

    I fixed the typo. :)

  4. Jmax, very good, thoughtful points as always.

  5. J Max,

    Thanks for giving your reasons too.

    I have been trying to think of the answer to a question. “What topic exists that I would actually feel like going to Sunstone was the right forum for this topic?”

    I don’t disagree with your statements that starving Sunstone of believing Members would probably undermine it. They need believing members more so then believing members need Sunstone. But I keep wondering if there aren’t some topics where it might make sense to participate.

    So here is the question that keeps running through my mind:

    How would I like to see Sunstone change such that I feel it’s participants would do less harm and more good to believing members? If I can answer that question, I might have my theoretical topic. Of course this is all assuming it can be put into a format that doesn’t violate any of Sunstone’s value-boundaries. And perhaps that might prove difficult.

  6. JMax, another eloquent and well thought out post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject.

  7. JMax, love this. You know I agree with every word. Keep up the good work.

  8. Thanks, Geoff, Brian, and Jamie.

    Bruce,

    The problem is that even if one topic could be justified, a symposium typically treats multiple topics and has multiple sessions so unless there is an institutional change, it would be difficult to avoid the problems in my post, though not impossible.

  9. J. Max, I tend to agree with you on two points you’ve made above:

    1 – the caution about table talk (public vs. private criticisms) is valid, IMO, and can be damaging to the church. We all have to make our call on this one. I too would draw the line when I think someone’s motives are activism. In fact, it is where I have drawn the line. I am not an activist. Are there changes I would like? Sure. Who wouldn’t? But I’m not going to chain myself to a tree either, and I think it’s often more productive (and overlooked) to examine our motives for wanting change. However, the discussion is already public. The critics (who often have very valid points) are public and accessible. I’d rather someone links to us at W&T than at some outreach ministry when they google a thorny church issue. To your point, it makes it clear we aren’t a cult, and honestly, it is a more accurate representation of the faithful in my experience. Manuals can be correlated; minds cannot.

    2 – the caution about wolves / terrorists in sheep’s clothing. I have seen plenty of idealists who find victims where none exist and who fail to notice how individuals’ behaviours contribute to their acceptance in a community. I’m not a rescuer by nature for this reason. But I also think your comment implies that others don’t see who the wolves are, perhaps because many of the ‘naclers are bleeding heart libs. I’d just dial back a little on that because a) there are some actual lost sheep/victims out there, and b) there are plenty of us who participate in the ‘nacle who also know the difference between the wolves and the sheep. Honestly, it seems so obvious to me at times that the wolves don’t have a lot of teeth.

    You make another assertion I don’t agree with, that public debate changes how we debate from private debate. I doubt this on the whole. I think whether public or private, people want to be right, and they only listen to differing viewpoints in a welcoming environment or because they have to.

    I too wouldn’t participate in Sunstone (I know I’m in a minority of ‘naclers on that one) because I don’t like activism, and I do feel that there are some active participants there who wish the church ill. But many of my friends who participate do so for reasons I respect even if they aren’t compelling to me.

  10. Thanks for your observations, Angela. I agree that there are real lost sheep, who, as Elder Oaks put it for some reason do not hear the voice of the Shepherd. I do not mean to imply that it is primarily wolves, only that the dynamic inherently attracts wolves.

    I agree that people like to be right in both public and private, however the dynamics are fundamentally different when you have a potential audience than when you discuss something without an audience. That is the point. And the kinds of argument and comments you make are inherently different when you are playing for the hearts of the audience instead of your opponent. That is just common sense. How can you disagree with that?

    In any case, I find it curious that you wouldn’t go to Sunstone when you run a blog that prominently features regular posts by apostates and when you have yourself publicly advocated for changes to the church contra the prophets and apostles, at least regarding gay marriage. Some consider you a potential wolf yourself…

  11. Good stuff. Your reasons explain most of my experience with exiting the Bloggernacle.

    One quibble: I think your terrorist metaphor is too muddy to do useful work.

    Another thought is that in this life there are very few actual sheep and actual wolves. Most of us are just trying on skins to try the fit. Some, wearing wolfskins, claim to be working at being sheep.

  12. Lowell

    Thanks so much for this post and the link to Bruce Neilson’s Millennial Star post. J. Max and I have communicated from time to time for almost 10 years now but I never found this blog, and I lost touch with M*. Glad to be with you all again.

    I’ve been struggling with my online efforts to be a “bridge” to disaffected members. J. Max’s and Bruce’s posts have helped me get clarity. I’m done with those sites now and I really feel great about that.

    More later.

  13. Lowell

    I’m also going to follow M* much more closely now.

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