Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Church Magazines (Not the Ones You Think)

Exactly eighteen years ago today, I started working as an associate editor at the Liahona. About three and a half years later, a rogue organizational reshuffling sent me down the hall to the Ensign. It was an interesting transition, in more ways than one. I’ve delved into some of that in a previous post, but today I want to focus on periodicals. The Liahona was its own entity, with its own managing editor, its own editorial staff, its own art director, designers, and production staff (who converted the basic English design into a number of other languages). As far as I can remember, just about the only periodical the Liahona subscribed to was BYU Studies (where I now work). When it came in the mail, it was circulated among the editorial staff (I guess someone figured the designers and production staffers either didn’t read or couldn’t). If my memory serves me correctly, I was the only one who spent much time reading BYU Studies.
When I was shuffled over to the Ensign, I experienced a bit of culture shock. The Ensign subscribed to a rather impressive array of periodicals: BYU Studies (of course), Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Utah Historical Quarterly, FARMS Review of Books, Pioneer (published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers), and Desert Saints (a little pulp magazine out of Las Vegas). These might all be expected, since they all deal with Mormonism. But the Ensign also subscribed to the Salt Lake Tribune (not the Deseret News), Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Reader’s Digest, and Biblical Archaeology Review. This is not all, and this is actually where I’m heading today. The Ensign also subscribed to the Herald (Community of Christ), Vision (a magazine published by Richard Price, aimed at the Restoration branches that broke off from the RLDS Church), Decision Magazine (Billy Graham), and Insight (Seventh-day Adventist). There may have been others, but you get the idea.
I don’t know who thought the Ensign needed to subscribe to all of these periodicals, but I suspect it was Jay Todd, longtime managing editor, who retired a couple of years before I joined the staff. I wondered at the reason for all these periodicals. I just assumed somebody wanted the editorial staff to be informed. And I wanted to be informed, so I read them. Not cover to cover, but you’d be surprised at how much I did read. I made it a practice to read every day during lunch, and I also took these periodicals with me on the bus, so over midday meals and on the freeway between Salt Lake and Orem I became informed. The only two I didn’t read much of were Biblical Archaeology Review and Desert Saints. Sorry, you archaeologists and Las Vegans out there. I didn’t have time to read all three weekly news magazines cover to cover, but I did read everything that looked interesting or pertinent. I read the humor pages in Reader’s Digest and any articles that caught my attention. The rest, believe it or not, I read pretty much cover to cover, passing over an occasional dull article. And I believe I was the only editor who read much of this print smorgasbord.
I was very interested in the church magazines, especially those from our distant cousins in the RLDS galaxy. I found it fascinating to see how drastically the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ had changed over the years. But my favorite had to be Richard Price’s attempt to provide a literary glue to hold the fractured traditionalists together. His mission in life, it appeared, was to prove that Joseph Smith DID NOT COMMIT POLYGAMY. That was all Brother Brigham’s doing. A tough row to hoe, but Richard wouldn’t yield an inch. In some ways, he reminds me now of Donald Trump supporters. No matter how many facts you send their way, they just dig their heels in deeper. At BYU Studies, we don’t get either the Herald or Vision (if it still exists). And I miss them.
At work, I do receive Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, the Ensign, and Mormon Historical Studies (by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation). And that keeps me pretty busy because now I read a lot more books than I did when I was at Church Magazines, and there are gobs of Mormon blogs, The New Yorker, the Salt Lake Tribune, Paul Krugman, and other online material to keep up on. But this past year BYU Studies has received twice, out of the blue, a magazine titled Freedom. It is the magazine of the Church of Scientology International.  Now, I’m not a big fan of Scientology, but I’ve found their “church magazine” quite fascinating. The June/July 2016 issue featured a series of articles on the military-industrial complex and how it squanders billions (“The War on Taxpayers”). These seemed to represent pretty decent journalism. The October/November 2016 issue features a series of articles condemning the unregulated and resurgent practice of electroshock therapy.
I couldn’t help but contrast the Scientology magazine with the mind-numbing material that often clutters the pages of the Ensign. Now remember before you start lobbing virtual tomatoes my way that I worked there for over four years. I know what battles they face to get anything in print. I recall having to get fourteen approvals for one particular article. And it wasn’t even controversial. If Correlation didn’t kill or eviscerate a perfectly good article, then any number of middle managers or General Authorities just might. What survived was usually so safe that it was totally benign. Reading Freedom, I couldn’t help but wonder why the LDS Church can’t tackle some serious current moral (or, heaven forbid, political) issues head-on. Well, I suppose there are lots of answers. But I do yearn for a church that can be more relevant in today’s modern world and less frightened of either offending or surprising someone. I’ll be honest. I am much more inspired by Pope Francis than by any Mormon leader, local or superlocal. Maybe this has something to do with the gerontocracy. The Dialogue article in fall 2016 by Greg Prince and company does raise some really good questions.
I know I’m asking too much. I always do. But, heck, if the Catholics can do it, why can’t we?

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