[Jim Bennett is the author of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee“]
So it’s been a few days since Bill Reel published our twelve hours of recorded conversations we had for his Mormon Discussions podcast. And since then, I’ve been wading through the comments and finding that the consensus seems to be that in our Historic Podcast Battle for Church Trueness, Bill won handily, and I, and the Church, lost.
That assessment comes from the regular audience for Bill Reel’s podcast, which I’d be willing to bet includes far more disaffected or former church members than it does active Latter-day Saints. I expected their reaction to what I said to be interpreted through a far more skeptical lens than my own, and it doesn’t surprise me to see them giving the victory to “their guy” instead of me. Even so, I don’t think their interpretation is a fair or objective assessment of the discussion that took place.
I did not know Bill Reel prior to these podcasts, but a mutual friend thought it would be fun to see the two of us go “toe to toe” about the response I’d written to the CES Letter. My reply, perhaps naively, was that I was happy to speak to anyone about it, but I wasn’t interested in a debate so much as a discussion. Bill agreed to that, and we had the first of six early-morning recording sessions a few weeks ago. I thought the exchanges were respectful; I thought Bill gave me ample opportunity to represent my position, and I was overall pleased with the conversation as a whole.
Then they were published, and comments like the following started rolling in:
The reason I think it historic is because of what others are discovering as they listen.
Overthe course of 12-hours, Bill Reel gets Jim Bennett to ultimately concede on every important issue.
Amazing as it may sound, Bill gets Jim Bennett to be much more critical of the church than Bill!
Bill manages this by being courteous, fair, and by conceding issues to Jim at the outset. In response, Jim also concedes issues to Bill.
But the issues Jim ends up conceding to Bill are much more important than the issues Bill concedes to Jim.
it is like Bill is giving Jim a dime and in return, Jim gives Bill a million dollars. It is really quite the experience to hear.
I kept having to pick my jaw up off the ground, saying, “I can’t believe Jim Bennett just agreed with Bill on that!”
Bill Reel himself responded to that comment and listed the areas where I had apparently made my greatest concessions. According to him, I admitted that:
- As an outside observer the top 15 men of the Church give no impression of being anything more than 15 older men behind the times and making serious mistakes
- They are completely wrong on the LGBT issue
- He wouldn’t let his daughter work in the Smith Home knowing what he does
- The Book of Abraham in a vacuum is deeply in favor of the critics conclusion
- Priesthood blessings to an outside observer have no more power to heal than the healing rituals of any other system
- Joseph lacked integrity and fidelity with Emma
- The Church teaches us to harm others at times (Prop 8, Miracle of Forgiveness, LGBT policies)
Now, I like Bill Reel, and I consider him a friend, but I have to say that this message felt like a punch in the gut to me. The implication seemed to be that this wasn’t a discussion; it was a war, and by my giving up so much ground without a fight, Bill had won by forfeit. And in a foolish attempt to provide a faithful perspective, I had thrown the Church under the bus, and in so doing, I had participated in a project that will diminish faith as a result.
Such was the polar opposite of my intent.
My purpose, both in writing the CES Letter Reply and in participating in these podcasts, was to demonstrate that faithful members of the Church need not be afraid to address hard questions head on. It was to give courage to those who find themselves confronted by CES Letter issues and hostility and show that one could not only survive such an encounter but come out with a strengthened testimony on the other side. It was not to provide a definitive answer on any of these questions, but to provide an example that intellectual honesty is not incompatible with an abiding faith in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
At no point, however, should anyone assume that I speak for anyone but myself. I have no special ecclesiastical authority or academic credentials, and in both projects, I was trying to provide an accurate reflection of my own personal faith, not define authoritatively the Church’s official position on any subject. With regard to expressing what I personally believe, I gave up no ground whatsoever.
1. As an outside observer the top 15 men of the Church give no impression of being anything more than 15 older men behind the times and making serious mistakes
Isaiah wrote of the Messiah that “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2) His point was that outside observers and even believers would look at the Savior and see nothing particularly remarkable. If that was true of the Son of God, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that anyone can look at the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve and only see human beings, not demigods.
As for being “behind the times” or “making serious mistakes,” those kinds of conclusions require greater context to understand. We are not a church that believes in infallible leaders, as infallibility would require an extraction of agency. I was more than willing to concede that leaders of the Church, as fallible humans with agency, are capable of error and being influenced by the faulty mores of their times, but the discussion did not provide enough focus on the fact that they get far more right than they get wrong. The teachings and actions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have brought millions of people to Christ and blessed the lives of innumerable people in and out of the Church. To conclude that any mistakes leaders have made define the totality of who they are is a gross distortion of the truth, and it certainly does not represent what I believe.
2. They are completely wrong on the LGBT issue
They are not completely wrong on the LGBT issue, as they now recognize that people do not choose which gender they will find attractive, which is something I consider to be a huge, huge step in the right direction.
I find it interesting that LGBT issues were not addressed at all in the CES Letter reply, but they became the main focus of our last two podcast discussions, as Bill recognized that this is one area where Jim Bennett and the Church are not in full agreement, so it would be helpful in efforts to tear down the Church to highlight my discomfort. I’m deeply frustrated that my individual struggle to come to terms with this issue is being used to discredit the Church. On this subject, the Spirit has personally counseled me to be as patient with the Church and with its leaders as I hope them to be with me.
I also tried to point out that I do not believe that the leaders of the Church are callous or unfeeling on these issues. I believe that they have arrived at their current position in good faith, and Bill Reel’s conclusion that they’re just old men who couldn’t care less about LGBT people is not supported by anything I said. I didn’t advocate temple sealings for homosexuals and even pointed out the doctrinal obstacles to homosexual sealings where eternal increase is the greatest of all blessings promised in the next life.
3. He wouldn’t let his daughter work in the Smith Home knowing what he does
It’s true; I wouldn’t. I don’t think that answer, however, means what Bill is implying it means. Bill constantly tried to frame Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy as predatory and possibly pedophilic, and I pushed back hard against that interpretation. Yet by getting me to agree that I wouldn’t be eager for my daughter to work in a circumstance where she might get a polygamous marriage proposal, he seems to be suggesting that I agree with his entirely negative assessment of Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage. I do not.
4. The Book of Abraham in a vacuum is deeply in favor of the critics conclusion
Key words there are “in a vacuum.” I kept coming back to the Book of Mormon as the anchor of my testimony and as the best evidence of Joseph’s gift of divine translation. I readily conceded that if the Book of Abraham were the only evidence of Joseph’s abilities as a seer, I would likely be unimpressed. But it isn’t the only evidence, and not even close to the best evidence. Critics who want to consider the Book of Abraham in a vacuum are trying to pretend that the Book of Mormon doesn’t exist.
In the podcasts, I referenced the following statement (https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2012/book-of-abraham-i-presume) by Dr. John Gee, a Latter-day Saint Egyptologist who has written more about the Book of Abraham from a faithful perspective than just about anyone else in the Church. His statement is reflective of the position I was trying to take.
“It will probably come as a surprise to many that I do not have a testimony of the Book of Abraham. That is, I have never received a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Book of Abraham. I do not need one. I have those for the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the gospel, the calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the continuation of those keys and authority through the present day. If you have these things confirmed to you, you do not need to get a cold from every wind of doctrine that blows. It does not matter what some Egyptologist says about the papyri. You might be perplexed for the present, but you have already proved God in days that are past.”
5. Priesthood blessings to an outside observer have no more power to heal than the healing rituals of any other system
This discussion kept coming up in the form of some kind of “statistical analysis” of the effectiveness of healing rituals used by different religions. I readily admitted that such a “statistical analysis” would prove nothing and be pointless, because miracles require interpretation, and what a believer calls a miracle can almost always be dismissed by a skeptic as something else.
I provided the specific example of my daughter’s skiing injury where she suffered a spinal cord injury, and I gave her a priesthood blessing promising that she would walk again. That blessing was fulfilled, despite the fact that her surgeon predicted she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. I consider that a miracle, but there is no way that its designation as such would survive any kind of objective statistical analysis. Miracles require faith, both to perform them and to believe in them. The Lord seldom produces miracles that scoffers are incapable of dismissing.
Bill also kept trying to get me to make judgments about miracles that take place outside of the workings of the priesthood. What do I say, for instance, to someone who claims that they were healed by a Catholic priest? My answer, then and now, is to applaud the faith of any who see God’s miraculous hand in their lives. I do not think the validity of the priesthood or the miracles performed therewith require me to invalidate someone else’s miracle.
6. Joseph lacked integrity and fidelity with Emma
Bill pressed very hard on this issue, and I interpreted that as an attempt to get me to admit that Joseph had committed adultery in the practice of plural marriage. I do not believe that. “Fidelity” is a charged word, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my concession that Joseph was not always honest with Emma about plural marriage was an admission that Joseph was engaged in adultery. The Church’s essay about Plural Marriage in Nauvoo admits that “Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph’s sealings,” which would mean they have conceded the same ground that I conceded. This gets back to the idea of prophetic fallibility that both I and the Church have conceded on multiple occasions.
7. The Church teaches us to harm others at times (prop 8, miracle of forgiveness, LGBT policies)
Notice that the three example he cites are all with regard to LGBT issues, where I admitted to my own personal struggles with regards to the Church’s position. It became clear that as the discussions wore on, Bill was interested in identifying areas where I would be most vulnerable, and he concluded that getting me to admit to my personal discomfort would make the Church look as bad as possible.
I don’t think that’s fair to either me or the Church. I do not believe Church leaders intentionally teach us to harm anyone, and I believe any harm the Church may do as a result of human error or misunderstanding is vastly outweighed by the countless lives it has blessed and the souls it has helped to save. I think judging a person or an institution only by their worst moments is a profoundly uncharitable thing to do.
I love The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; I fully sustain its leaders, and I am proud to be a member of it. I have a solid testimony of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ that is rooted firmly in the Book of Mormon. I am confident that whatever mistakes I may have made in defending that testimony will not prevent the Church from accomplishing its divine mission, regardless of what Bill Reel or his listeners may say.