Letting the Gods Go?: A Review of Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in An Age of Doubt

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”–Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” 1918.

The world of Mormonism has changed, even within the span of my relatively short lifetime. We live in a time where networks of information have become decentralized, enclaved, and destabilized through the sheer quantity of data available. Sociologist Max Weber did not find disenchantment to be a particularly desirable outcome. It would not result in moral perfection disinvested from the superstitions of old theologies. Weber warned that “calculation” would invade the bonds of “traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.”  Frederick Schiller spoke of “Entgötterung”—literally translated to be “letting the Gods go.”

        Yet the new relationship does not lack appeal; postmodern theorist, Jean-Paul Sartre, acknowledged that admitted that “like all dreamers, [he] mistook disenchantment for truth.” Conventional wisdom would suggest that increased access to information would necessarily lead to more exacting and nuanced conclusions about the documentary trail. As a chorus of scholars have shown, increased information does not lead us down a linear path into increased awareness but into a world of fragmented knowledges and ideological tribalism.  A plenitude of documentation destabilizes not only our typical conventions about the historical record but even, our faith in our ability to know.  Access to knowledge has created not a sense of security but a “crisis.”  We have, as Jean-Francois Lyotard has observed, cultivated a profound skepticism toward any kind of grand explanation of the world.  The grand narrative, Lyotard argued, “is losing. . .its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.” One need not be a Mormon history scholar to recognize this; anyone who has roamed the circles of an LDS mid-singles activity can sense what it’s like to feel a dream slipping from your fingertips. While the academy may have left behind the heyday of such immense skepticism, its carbon footprint remains clear on the mind of Western thinkers. To be an institutional religion with a Big Picture narrative is a tough game in the West of the 21st-century.

Patrick Mason’s devotional volume, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, argues that “the most important thing we can do in the face of our current challenges is to make the church a more welcoming place for those who struggle, creating the conditions in which they can feel comfortable . . .in the midst of the body of Christ rather than feeling excluded from it.”  A Mormonism that is “more embracing. . .may thus be the most important factor in helping people more fully embrace Mormonism” (Mason, 8). Whether we are talking about Joseph Smith and the seerstone, polygamy, the race-based priesthood and temple restrictions, or myriad other subjects, the disenchantment born of increased access to information represents no ordinary paradigm shift but often, a profound recalibration of one’s spiritual narrative or more often—whether one should embrace a narrative at all.  As Mason observes, “facts and emotions are never so far apart.” As new information comes, “new feelings have arisen in the questioner’s heart—sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes hitting immediately and like a ton of bricks” (Mason, 15).  Mason hopes to provide tools for believing Latter-day Saints to navigate a Western world increasingly unfriendly to metanarratives, institutions, and belief in foundational, overarching truths.

To some extent, Mason owns the contradictions–or “scandals”–of religious conviction.  “If there was ever written a tell-all history replete with religious scandal,” Mason observes, “the Old Testament is it” (Mason, 53). And while time has been kind to the now “malleable and customizable Jesus of modernity,” the Jesus of scripture ought to “scandalize you and your modern sensibilities” (Mason, 54).  And at day’s end, “on this side of the veil Mormonism does demand a willingness to appear the fool in the face of exclusivist rationalism” (Mason, 57).  Mason’s line of reasoning finds resonance with company of the early Christian epoch; as Tertullian observed, “the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd/And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” One second-century anti-Christian critic, Celsus, railed against the early Christians, declaring that Christianity “thrives in its purer form among the ignorant”; claims like those of Tertullians are “so absurd that [they do] not merit my ridicule but rather my pity and contempt” (Celsus, On The True Doctrine, 77). Yet Mason acknowledges the instability that  Ivory Tower ethos invites. “There is nothing more unstable than basing one’s life and outlook purely on the latest scholarship, let alone one’s casual perusal of it” (Mason, 72). Indeed, “the entire modern academic enterprise is founded upon the notion that scholars will say something novel in their published writings” (Ibid.)  Mason feels that “scholarship makes for a fairly wobbly foundation upon which to build one’s profoundest commitments” and “can’t imagine a more maddening life than to rise each morning to consult the learned journals to see what one’s position du jour is” (Ibid.).

For those seeking in-depth documented answers about myriad topics in LDS history, they would be best served looking at other volumes—volumes to which Mason himself readers in his Suggested Reading list.  Mason makes no claims to offering a definitive doctrinal treatise on any of the issues that plague him.  While he offers a fairly detailed discussion of Joseph Smith and money-digging, his discussions of the origins of the race restriction and polygamy introduce the readers to the bare minimums of the subject.   As he acknowledges, “entire books have already been written” on these subjects, so “it is impossible to say everything in a few thousand words” (Mason, 5)  He is “less concerned. . .with delivering definitive answers than with having a conversation.” This is not about apologia or “scoring points in debates that can probably never be decisively won.”  Mason seeks only “pastoral dialogue” with “a certain amount of vulnerability.”  As an author on one of his topics–race in Mormon history–I found the surface-level discussion a bit frustrating but ultimately, understandable.

These caveats established, Mason takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of the Greatest Hits in the list of Troubling Aspects of Church History. Written in accessible prose for the interested non-specialist, he offers not only devotional pastoral care but also a dash of the historian’s trade to people unfamiliar with mechanics of how one discovers, relays, re-constructs, and contextualizes historical accounts. “History is a construction zone,” Mason observes, and “we have to put on our hard hats when we enter.”  Its limitations notwithstanding, “the only thing more foolish than limiting ourselves to current scholarship is to abandon it altogether” (Mason, 71-72).

He starts by delving into the world of what 21st-century Westerners (and I emphasize—Westerners) find to be odd, even bizarre: seer stones and Joseph Smith’s deployment of folk magic traditions. Early Mormonism grew in a world with different assumptions about the “rational,” about spirituality, and about religion. In an agrarian society that interacted with, while not being defined by, more mainline Christian denominations, those in Joseph Smith’s circles did not feel bound to strictly Biblical teachings for their religion. God could be found not only in the Bible but also in the trees, the earth, and in stones. Mason acknowledges the problems that this poses for Latter-day Saints of modern times.  But he warns the ever family-attuned Saints: “If we are not careful. . .we run the risk of actually silencing our ancestors by turning their rich and textured lives into simple, two-dimensional fables that offer either uplifting morality tales or grist for our own contentions with the church” (Mason, 61). After all, “the past is just as morally complex as the present.” Mason does a particularly good job of emphasizing one of the attributes of the best historians: intellectual humility.  When we step into the world of the past, he enjoins readers, “it is we, not the people whom we encounter, who are out of place.”  Not only is it historically irresponsible; it is also elitist. “By the Smiths’ time,” Mason observes, “magic was questioned and even scorned by the enlightened upper classes, but it remained a part of the life of plain people,” a conclusion that has been borne out in my own rather casual examination of contemporary newspaper articles (Mason, 65).

This is no fault of Mason’s but it is worth observing that the intellectual and religious problem presented by Joseph Smith’s use of magic is one that seems to vex Americans and Europeans far more than, say, Igbo or Yoruba Christians even of the past two generations. African religiosity thrives not rigid denominationalism but on syncretism. Take Rosemary Elendu, a convert to Mormonism who in 1988 observed that she married her husband when she did lest future suitors “will try to be wicked on [her], and use their witchcraft.” (Elendu, 3, E. Dale LeBaron Oral History Collection). For Chinua Achebe, the conflicts between mainline Christianity and indigenous Igbo tradition “created sparks in [his] imagination.”  Achebe followed Christian customs at the hands of his parents and wandered through indigenous religiosity outside the home; this, for Achebe, meant merely enjoying a “rich childhood.” He was “part of a lucky generation,” he observed, “to be planted at a crossroads, a time when the meeting of two cultures produced something of worth.”  But For Westerners, the notion that “a person could embrace Protestantism and magic simultaneously” is an anthropological observation about a foreign time and place; for an Igbo Christian, it is, more often than not, a lived reality.

To me, then, the fact that Joseph Smith engaged in what we Westerners style “magic” is less significant than the meaning we attribute to it, and if Clifford Geertz is right—that the human experience is but a “web of meanings” upon which we are suspended—then what we attach to Joseph Smith’s practices is the main event. When we cringe at Joseph Smith’s dabbling,  then, what makes us so fearful? Because of the oddity of using otherwise ordinary physical objects as channels for revelation? If so, then we must be prepared to continue down the same road even further. We must be prepared to scoff at the Hmong shamans, recoil from the Yoruba Bablawo, or tiptoe away from the Buddhist Priests.  Joseph Smith’s dabbling in religious practices has less to do with their inherent oddity and more to do with their seeming Otherness. Living in an era that valorizes verifiability, measurability, and observability, we must condemn all such religious practices alike or none at all.

In tackling how the institutional LDS church has handled historical matters, Mason addresses the deficiencies with notable candor, particularly given the volume’s Deseret Book imprimatur.  He critiques the Brigham Young manual published by the LDS Church for its concealing of Brigham Young’s polygamist marital status.  “The compilers of the text. . .even changed some of President Young’s original references from ‘wives’ to the singular ‘wife.” While their alterations were “somewhat understandable,” Mason observes, “it was bad history, it was misleading, and it treated some of the church’s most intrepid pioneer women and their faithful sacrifices as if they never existed” (Mason, 77-78). Yet Mason insists that “steer[ing] clear of the more controversial aspects of our past” has not been a “massive conspiratorial cover-up campaign” but “an act of ministry.” He chides those who expect religious services to resemble an academic graduate seminar; after all, they “would surely not expect or appreciate a sermon from their college professor” (those of the scholar-activist ilk might politely disagree) (Mason, 79).

Mason’s injunction is at its most powerful when he encourages us to “plac[e] Christ at the center of our stories” (Mason, 120).  Pushing back against those who would prefer to imagine Jesus after the image of their own god, Mason maintains that Jesus “does not reinforce our values—he demands that we accept his.”  Mason is no relativist; after all, “there are certain inequities, iniquities, and injustices in this world that no amount of historicizing, contextualizing, or theologizing will satisfy” (Mason, 129). But Mason goes further. Mormonism, he submits, suggests that accepting Jesus Christ fully demands membership in an institutional church unit, and at a time “when it is increasingly in vogue to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ (Mason, 139). Mason takes care to moderate the jingoistic strain in Mormon discourse that emphasizes, often ad nauseum, that “the Church is true.”  Mason adeptly moderates the extremities of how Saints valorize the institution of the Church. “The Church is not an end in itself,” he quotes Elder John A. Widtsoe, and “when the church or any part of it does not function for the good of man, it fails to function properly, and corrective measures should be undertaken” (Mason, 140-141, quoting Widtstoe, Programs of the Church, 17).

And Mason is clear too that the Church need not negotiate on its claims to self-identity. “Adaptation, acculturation, and acceptance need not equate with or devolve to relativism. . .the Church does and will make real claims, many of which must be countercultural if it is to fulfill its prophetic function to preach repentance” (Mason, 178).   After all, the “church cannot be so pliable as to have no meaningful form or shape, nor so rigid so as to break (or break people) at the merest application of stress or pressure.” Mormonism works, Mason argues, because it “operates within a culture while simultaneously offering testimony and evidence of a godly alternative” (Ibid.).

Above all, activity in church must be thought about theologically “to help us situate these experiences,” thus “simultaneously reshaping their meaning for us and empowering us to cope” (Mason, 153). C.S. Lewis’s complicated relationship with church service comes to mind, as he observed in the sneering voice of the demon Screwtape: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. . . [not] the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity,” but the “half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate” with the hard pews, oily grocers, and disheveled hymnals “containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad.”   If those in attendance “sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes,” Screwtape observes, anyone will “quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 5).  Mason makes no secret about what our expectations should be from involvement in the institutional church life. The institution serves a vital function, Mason maintains, as “our modern culture [grows] unrelentingly oriented toward the self” (Mason, 147).  “Church” for Mason is not an plush office but time in trailer parks and hospital rooms, the homes of “people whose opinions, grooming habits, childrearing techniques, or wall décor are odious to our tastes.” This “unpleasantness,” Mason declares, “is precisely the stuff of discipleship” (Mason, 146).   While Mason calls for increased involved in the LDS religious community, he warns against retrenchment.  In an age of disenchantment, we cannot go back to where we were before.  “We are liberated in and from tradition,” he writes (Mason, 176).  Mason does not suggest that we reach into the sky and call back the gods as weak mortals begging for a crutch.  Mason suggests that we see the godliness here, now—a kind of humanism with a divine flair. We might be compelled to navigate through a disenchanted world, a world stripped from the spirits.   But even if the world is, we need not be.If we are to save faith, then, must we believe that the magic is gone? Must we accept Weber’s assumptions?  Have miracles ceased?

Mason concludes, “there are no magic words or ready-made formulas that will make [doubts] immediately go away,” rendering doubt as perhaps the great theological knot of this, a secular age.  And as we work through it,  we must, as Reinhold Niebuhr, admit that “nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope” and that “nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”  Until then, we struggle, hope, stumble, love and embrace, yearning for the day when we will fall upon the necks of our loved ones and “kiss each other”—for “there shall be mind abode, and it shall be Zion” (Moses 7:64).