‘Directly to God’

Launched In 2011, The Book of Mormon (musical) was a critical and commercial success from the very beginning. It tells the fictional story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, a Latter-day Saint missionary companionship serving in Uganda. Given its pedigree – including South Park veterans Trey Parker and Matt Stone – it should come as no surprise most Latter-day Saints would be horrified listening to any of the songs past “You and Me (but Mostly Me).

“And we can do it together, you and me – but mostly me.”

(Just… don’t listen to any of the songs past “You and Me (but Mostly Me).” Take my word for it.)

Late in the second act, the naive and overconfident Elder Price musters up the courage to confront a local warlord. He’s hoping to ensure safety for a nearby village friendly to the missionaries. On his way he reviews different aspects of his personal witness in the song “I Believe” (okay, that one is actually pretty PG), affirming, “I am a Mormon, and, dang it, a Mormon just believes.”

We don’t, of course, “just believe,” and the song is far from doctrinally accurate. Richard Bushman, a prominent Latter-day Saint scholar, spoke to CNN not long after the musical opened. “The musical gets a lot of laughs,” he said, “but it is not meant to explain Mormon beliefs. Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.”

This song in particular tries to highlight outlandish Latter-day Saint beliefs. That way, the audience can chuckle at Elder Price’s blind adherence to these Church “teachings.” And yet, more than once, the fictional Elder Price gets it right. He sings, for example,

“I believe that the current president of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.”

“I Belieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve”

And even though the audience is chuckling… we do believe that. In fact, this belief is absolutely central to the Church and its teachings. There are few principles more unique, and more important, than the belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is led by a man who “speaks directly to God.”

The Lord told Ezekiel,

Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, ‘When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman: If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people… he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul

So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.”

Latter-day Saints believe that God has continued this practice of setting watchmen upon towers to warn the people in our day. He does this in the form of prophets and apostles. Just this week Elder Paul V. Johnson spoke about the importance of heeding the prophets. In one form or another, these men receive inspiration from God. As we pay attention to the things they tell us, we can find deliverance for our souls.

The Camp of Israel

There’s a type of this inspired leadership in the Camp of Israel, better known today as Zion’s Camp. Zion’s camp was an effort in early Church history to stand up to Missouri persecution. For all of its unintentional camp, I absolutely adore the Church video. (I’ve come to appreciate that perhaps history didn’t take place exactly as portrayed in that video, and I tell you that breaks my heart into tiny pieces).

“If we don’t repent, WE WILL DIE, like…”

(Goodness I love that video so much.)

In the aftermath of Zion’s Camp, Joseph taught,

Brethren, some of you are angry with me, because you did not fight in Missouri; but let me tell you, God did not want you to fight. He could not organize His kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.”

The company didn’t end up fighting in Missouri like they expected to, but it’s easy for us to see how the Lord used that experience. He strengthened testimonies, prepared Church leaders to take the gospel to the world, and perhaps even prepared the saints for their future trek west.

Rather, it’s easy for us to see today, given almost 200 years of distance and the benefit of hindsight. The Lord’s purposes were not so clear to the Camp of Israel, and we shouldn’t forget they suffered greatly. Over 800 miles lay between Kirkland, Ohio and Independence, Missouri, and the journey took an incredible physical toll. At the end of their march, they returned without redeeming Zion as they had expected. More than 10 men died after cholera struck the camp.

Do you think the men and women of Zion’s camp had questions? I bet you they had plenty of questions.

Still, the Lord asked for their faith, just as He asks for ours. We may see Zion’s Camp clearly, but it can be a bit more fuzzy looking at our own circumstances – after all, in this life, we “see through a glass darkly.” We don’t see what the Lord sees, nor do we see what his watchmen see.

But fuzziness or not, who leads the camp?

The God of Israel leads the camp.

To the saints in Missouri preparing to build Zion years before Zion’s Camp, the Lord said,

Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand.

Remember this, which I tell you before, that you may lay it to heart, and receive that which is to follow.”

The Changing Honor Code

The Church updated it’s Handbook of Instructions this week. In conjunction with those changes, BYU also saw an update to its Honor Code. Perhaps most significantly, this update removed explicit prohibitions against homosexual activity.

BYU handled the rollout of these changes… poorly.

There has been a great deal of confusion over the change, and as of right now, the best information we’re getting from BYU (through second-hand sources, which is a problem in and of itself) is that gay students can now date. Or hold hands. Or kiss (within FTSOY bounds).

As long as there is no explicit violation of the Law of Chastity – and the meaning here is not entirely clear, either – there will be no offense with the Honor Code Office.

To put it delicately, this change has caused some consternation.

I’ve been critical of the rollout – I even wrote a limerick! – and this (reasonable) derision even earned me a block from Jon McBride, who runs the BYU Twitter account.

(This obsessive, tantrum-esque reaction is one I will never understand from university personnel, particularly those with whom I share religious faith. It’s the height of embarrassment for academic professionals to respond to legitimate criticism this way. But I digress.)

While I’ve been critical of the rollout, I’ve been less critical of the decision itself (outside of highlighting the inconsistency demonstrated effectively by Tom Stringham here as applied to, say, currently married men and women).

I’ve really just been confused, and I’ll tell you why.

A Proclamation and a Proposition

In 1995, then-President Gordon B. Hinckley presented “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” It highlighted the vital family values our Church stands for and called for members and citizens to support measures aimed at upholding the traditional family unit. This proclamation reads, in part,

“We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children….

“We warn that… the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.

“We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

Almost 15 years later, Prop 8 was on the ballot in California. The First Presidency, led by then-President Thomas S. Monson, sent a letter to local congregations. It encouraged Latter-day Saints to do all that they could to support the measure. It read,

“Preserving Traditional Marriage and Strengthening Families:

“In March 2000 California voters overwhelmingly approved a state law providing that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The California Supreme Court recently reversed this vote of the people. On November 4, 2008, Californians will vote on a proposed amendment to the California state constitution that will now restore the March 2000 definition of marriage approved by the voters.

The Church’s teachings and position on this moral issue are unequivocal. Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children. Children are entitled to be born within this bond of marriage.

“A broad-based coalition of churches and other organizations placed the proposed amendment on the ballot. The Church will participate with this coalition in seeking its passage. Local Church leaders will provide information about how you may become involved in this important cause.

“We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman. Our best efforts are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage.”

Since then, Church leaders have regularly reiterated and expanded on these principles and the application of these principles, and nothing has really changed. We are to do all we can to support measures that strengthen traditional families. “Truth is truth.”

So when I see BYU making these kinds of changes, or allowing same-sex couples to dance in the upcoming ballroom dance competition, I am perplexed. I have difficulty reconciling how an institution representing the Church that teaches about the family in this way – that presents these principles as paramount, in fact – would endorse these kinds of changes.

I’m confused, and I’d like to understand a bit better.

But confusion or not, who leads the camp?

The God of Israel leads the camp.

The God of Israel Leads the Camp

Of course, I wouldn’t equate this confusion to any saint’s persecution, whether in Missouri or up to the present day. I wouldn’t equate it to the difficulty that my LGBTQ peers go through as a result of their personal situations.

I wouldn’t discount it, though, either. We are a church of questioners! And my questions aren’t just about, or even really about, the Honor Code at BYU. My questions are about how I can sustain the prophets given what they’ve taught about the family, and what this change to the Honor Code signals.

It certainly doesn’t help that those cheering on these changes are the same ones who misunderstand the balance between love and law, or cry four at every hint of judgment, or wish quick passings on President Nelson and/or President Oaks. (This bishop, for example, prays President Nelson has a long life so that President Oaks won’t take the reins.) The same people so eager to remind us about who serves on the Board of Trustees for BYU are the ones that spend conference weekend griping about the things being taught over the pulpit.

We may end up hearing, effectively, “Mind your business.” I’m no longer at BYU, and I have no kids at BYU, and this change impacts a relatively small group of students, so maybe “mind your business” is the best answer. The Honor Code isn’t really my concern.

But like I said, it’s not about the Honor Code. It’s about how to sustain the prophets in light of what we’ve been taught about the family. I still have those questions.

But I’m content to wait for more information. That information may never come, and that’s okay, too, because I’m really waiting on the Lord, and I trust Him.

Who leads the camp?

The God of Israel leads the camp.

Whatever your questions or concerns, don’t forget that.

“The God of Israel Leads the Camp.”

Supplemental Reading:

You can follow Danny on Twitter @backfromthat. Also, check out his fabulous blog.

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