Saturday, June 29, 2019

Romanticized Notions

One morning in the spring of 2005, when I was a senior editor at the Ensign, the new managing director of the Church’s Curriculum Department called an emergency meeting for the editorial staffs of the magazines. He had learned, he said, that in August President Hinckley was going to challenge the members of the Church to read the Book of Mormon before the end of the year. This was a big deal, he said, and we needed to discuss a strategy for supporting this initiative. What could we do with the magazines’ content to complement President Hinckley’s challenge? This initiated a brainstorming session, with all sorts of ideas being put forward. After maybe fifteen minutes, Don, the managing editor of the Ensign, spoke up. “David,” he said, “we probably ought to slow down for a minute. President Hinckley doesn’t know about this yet.”
David was new to the department, so he can be forgiven for not understanding how First Presidency Messages were created. At that time—and it had been this way since the Ensign was first published in 1971—the managing editor of the Ensign created First Presidency Messages, usually by recycling old material from talks and articles by members of the First Presidency. He would then submit these for approval or alteration. Sometimes with President Hinckley, because he was so vigorous and was speaking frequently in various locations around the world, some of his messages were simply compilations of quotes from his various speeches. But for this particular message, the Book of Mormon challenge, the text was recycled from a talk President Hinckley had given in October 1979 as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
In that talk, Elder Hinckley challenged members of the Church to read the entire Book of Mormon in the 183 days between the date of his talk and April 6, 1980, the sesquicentennial of the organization of the Church. But because he was merely a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and not the prophet, I don’t think this challenge gained much traction among Church members. I was a recently returned missionary in 1979 and paid close attention to general conference, but I don’t recall any sort of widespread excitement to follow Elder Hinckley’s proposal. In 2005, however, he was the prophet, so this challenge became a BIG DEAL.
I never asked Don how he came up with the idea. I suppose he was just looking through old Hinckley talks and came across this one. He probably thought it would fly, and so he changed the dates (read the book between August and the end of the year rather than between October and April) and also changed the number of chapters that members would have to read each day (one and a half chapters instead of just over one per day). Don then submitted this proposed message to the First Presidency, and obviously President Hinckley thought it was a grand idea. After all, it had been his own idea some twenty-six years earlier. But this time, people would pay attention. And the rest is history.
My point here, though, is that most members of the Church are like our new managing director. They don’t understand things like this. They don’t understand how the Church works in so many ways, and so they have some very unrealistic notions about things like revelation and inspiration. Sometimes it’s a lot more prosaic than we imagine it to be.
In our next issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, we will be publishing an article about the history of name changes for the Church over its relatively short lifespan. There are some surprises here for most Latter-day Saints. One is that the name we now use (more than ever since President Nelson’s renewed emphasis), the one “revealed” in D&C 115, was actually in use before the revelation was given. In other words, it didn’t come out of the blue as a new and novel name. There’s a significant backstory here that I don’t want to give away, so I’d invite you to read the article when it is published in late August or early September.
But a good deal of our history is like this. When you know the details, you realize how romanticized the version is that most members of the Church believe. I guess there’s no getting around this. But so it goes. Whenever I run into these romanticized notions, I can’t help but hear the echo of Don’s voice in my head: “President Hinckley doesn’t know about this yet.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Mitt and Me

Last week we were in San Diego for a little vacation. On Sunday (June 2), we attended church in the ward on Fanuel Street in Pacific Beach. We got there a few minutes early, and just before the meeting started, I looked to my left, and who should be walking down the aisle but Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann. We were mildly surprised, but we knew Mitt had built a house in the area, so we assumed this was his “home” ward when he is at his home away from home away from home. During the meeting, I Googled “Mitt Romney’s California home” and was sent to a couple of local newspaper articles about the small uproar Mitt’s construction project caused among the neighbors. I guess he was knocking down a 4,000-square-foot beachfront house in La Jolla and replacing it with an 11,000-square-foot beachfront mansion, complete with a four-car garage and the infamous car elevator. The neighbors were none too excited. More on this later. Interestingly, one article gave the address, so we plugged it into the Church’s meetinghouse locator, and sure enough, we were attending Mitt and Ann’s ward.
I posted a picture to Instagram of the ocean view from the balcony of the timeshare where we were staying along with a sentence about seeing Mitt at church. My daughter posted a comment: “Did you go shake his hand and give him a bit of voting advice?” Of course that would have been fun, but not at church. When we left, Mitt was busy talking to one of the ward members, so we just slipped out quietly and drove back to the condo. He should be glad.
Now, here’s where things start to get a little odd. The next day I received an email from the office of Senator Mitt Romney. The odd thing is the timing. Sometime between when Mitt was elected and when he took office, I wrote him a three-page letter telling him that while I hadn’t voted for him, he was still my representative in the Senate, and I expected a few things from him (advice he hasn’t taken, I should add), much of it related to our boorish Tweeter-in-Chief. Anyway, it took that long for his office to reply to my letter, but I found it an odd coincidence that it would come the day after I had seen him at church in San Diego. The email was just a form letter thanking me for contacting Senator Romney and telling me that he would speak out now and then when the president said or did something outrageous. Definitely not the approach I advised.
Well, the same day I got the email, since we had the address and were heading out to La Jolla anyway to play on the rocks at Cuvier Park and see the seals at La Jolla Cove, we decided to drive by and see the 11,000-square-foot Romney beach mansion. We found it, but we couldn’t get closer than a hundred feet or so, because he “lives” on a very narrow dead-end street that has a no-access sign posted at its entrance. Only residents and their visitors are allowed, I suppose, for both the Romneys and the two houses across the street. All the streets in this neighborhood are very narrow. With cars parked on either side, there’s only room for one vehicle to drive down the center. So I can imagine what a nightmare it was for the neighbors to have backhoes and cement trucks and lumber trucks trying to access the property.
And now the story gets even a bit more strange. Several days later, after we were home, I had a dream. Now, usually I don’t remember my dreams, and when I do, they are generally the bizarre, frustrating kind where you’re trying to get somewhere but you can’t get your legs to move, or where you’re trying to find something and can’t locate it. But this particular dream was crystal clear and not frustrating at all. As with all dreams, it just sort of started in the middle of the story. I was on my way to drop in on Mitt (I’m sure my daughter’s comment triggered something in my subconscious). I arrived at his house, but it wasn’t the one in La Jolla. It was in a different type of neighborhood. So I parked my truck and walked up to the door and rang the bell. Mitt answered and invited me in. I sat down on the couch. Ann was on the opposite end, and several grandkids were in the room. A couple of them came and snuggled up next to me like I was a family member. It was a very comfortable setting and I didn’t feel at all out of place. Mitt was seated across the room in a chair, and he and I chatted for a while about this and that. Then I informed him that he and I didn’t see eye to eye politically, but I hoped he could do something about the disaster in the White House. He agreed noncommittally that the situation was indeed unfortunate, but he didn’t make any promises.
At that point, I guess I ran out of things to say, so I excused myself and walked out to my truck and drove off. And got lost in the neighborhood. I guess there had to be a frustrating element or it wouldn’t have been one of my dreams. So I drove back to Mitt’s house, where he gave me instructions. I drove off again, and as far as I can remember that’s where the dream ended. But it was all extremely vivid and left me with a rather warm feeling toward the Romneys. Now, I’m pretty sure this dream doesn’t mean anything. I doubt that I’ll ever meet Mitt Romney. I doubt that I’ll ever get anything more than that form email from his office. But these events have created some sort of connection that I feel to Utah’s junior Senator. I still disagree with his politics. I’m still not happy with his response to Trump’s incessant assault on our republic. And I will certainly never vote for Mitt. But, hey, I’ve visited him at his house and had a nice chat—even if it’s only in my dreams.