By Dana Haight Cattani
DANA HAIGHT CATTANI was diagnosed with uterine cancer in April 2012. She lives with her family in Indiana.
How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.1 —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When the sacrament meeting speaker began telling a story about a young mother who had been diagnosed with cancer, my shoulders tensed. In my head, I thought I heard a distant tornado siren. With the instincts of a ten-year Midwesterner, I looked around for shelter, but no one else in the congregation demonstrated visible alarm.
The speaker explained that fortunately an apostle lived nearby, and he gave the young mother a blessing that she would live to raise her children. In fact, she did live to see her youngest boy reach the age of accountability and be baptized. Then she died. According to the speaker, the young mother’s family took great comfort in knowing that this priesthood blessing had been fulfilled.
I did not. Cancer stories in church rarely inspire me. As a survivor, I generally find them maudlin and unrepresentative, long on noble death scenes or miracles and short on vomiting. Worse, speakers often torture the facts until they confess God’s merciful and just master design. The thought of taking comfort in a story that ends with a motherless 8-year-old boy makes me cringe.
However, it is uncharitable and socially inappropriate to critique a volunteer speaker. In a lay organization, there is no way to en- gage in a conversation about toxic stories without judging or offending someone.
Yet what happens to our church culture when we allow stories with harmful theology and insupportable doctrine to go unexamined? What happens when we accept exclusive, unrealistic, and harmful stories so often that they seem accurate and reasonable or even inspiring? What happens when stories fail to serve and no one seems to notice?
STORIES OF EXCLUSION
THESE STORIES DOCUMENT God’s preferential treatment of the righteous or beloved. They can be reassuring—unless, of course, you find yourself among the excluded, invisible, or unloved. For instance, I once heard a speaker describe working for several years at a gas station convenience store in a tough area. Although he was concerned about the possibility of a robbery, it never happened—until he moved to another state. Then a spate of frightening robberies at the convenience store rocked the neighborhood. This sequence of events affirmed the speaker’s testimony that God loved and protected him. The speaker did not mention whether or not God also loved the remaining employees, the owners, the customers, or the nearby residents who saw their streets become more dangerous and intimidating.
I have never forgotten a related story I heard years ago. In 1991, an urban firestorm fueled by seasonal hot winds took 25 lives and destroyed 3000 residences a few miles from the Oakland California Temple. A few weeks later, I heard the testimony of a firefighter who was called from out of town to fight the blaze. He spoke of the great miracle he had witnessed: the Pacific fog rolled into San Francisco Bay and kept the flames from the House of the Lord. The story has a certain appeal: God miraculously saves the things that really matter. However, neither the facts nor the interpretation bear weight. As a 30-year resident of the Bay Area, I did not find this near-daily weather pattern odd—certainly not as odd as the fervent belief that God would intervene to save a building but not 25 people from terrifying deaths.
By celebrating a capricious god who loves some of the earth’s children more than others, stories of exclusion fail to serve.
IDEALIZED STORIES CAN be inspirational. They can also be discouraging or immaterial. For example, a few years ago a general conference speaker read the following letter from a Church member:
Thirty minutes after the worldwide broadcast on hastening the work of salvation, we held our family mission-ary council. We were thrilled to find that our teenage grandchildren wanted to be included. We’re happy to report that since our council meeting, we have expanded our family teaching pool by 200 percent.
We have had grandchildren bring friends to church, have enjoyed sacrament meetings with some of our less-active friends, and have had some of our new contacts commit to take the missionary discussions. One of our less-active sisters has not only returned to church but has brought new investigators with her.2
Presumably, the author hoped to share a positive experience when actual teenagers wanted to attend a family council and lapsed Mormon friends welcomed invitations to sacrament meeting. However, even if the facts are true, the story rings false. These teenagers do not resemble in form or substance the living, breathing people who regularly appear at my dinner table, in my youth Sunday school class, or in my under-graduate courses. The letter writer’s inactive Mormon friends apparently are not, like mine, lapsed for more substantive reasons than want of an invitation to sacrament meeting. Stories in this idealized vein set off sirens in my head and make me wonder who is crazy: thee or me.
A variant on the idealized theme is this general conference life-as-mission metaphor:
We have a Father in Heaven, who knows us—our strengths and weak-nesses, our abilities and potential. He knows which mission president and companions and which members and investigators we need in order to be-come the missionary, the husband and father, and the priesthood holder we are capable of becoming.
Prophets, seers, and revelators as-sign missionaries under the direction and influence of the Holy Ghost. In-spired mission presidents direct transfers every six weeks and quickly learn that the Lord knows exactly where He wants each missionary to serve.3
Anyone who has ever been in a presidency or attended a ward council will recognize this description as aspirational Church governance. We may hope that all personnel and staffing decisions are inspired, but in fact, life requires timely decisions even when the spiritual signal seems weak or absent. The metaphor is likely comforting to parents who worry about the safety and well-being of their sons and daughters. It may be less comforting to the missionary who suffers through hazing at the hands of a senior companion or who is scarred by the realization that the president cares more about baptisms than about conversions—or the valid concerns of missionaries.
Unrealistic stories create the impression that the Church is a parallel universe that never intersects the world where many of us live. Unrealistic stories fail to serve.
AT A RECENT regional meeting broadcast to thousands of members in the Mid-west, I heard a speaker tell a story about an unnamed couple in an unnamed country. They wanted to attend a temple. Since their nearest option was in a neighboring country, the couple worked hard, saved their money, and made preparations for the trip. Then civil unrest and violence broke out in this neighboring country, and the couple’s own government leaders officially advised citizens, for their own safety, not to travel there. Undaunted, the couple tried anyway, only to be turned back at the border. A second attempt at a different checkpoint succeeded, and they were able to enter the neighboring country and at-tend the temple. The speaker then quoted President Monson on the temple: “There are never too many miles to travel, too many obstacles to overcome, or too much discomfort to endure.”4
This story, quite possibly true, feels deeply inauthentic to me for several reasons. With only the sketchiest details, it is impossible to understand the situation, much less the motives and the risks. The story is a little like a four-sentence synopsis of All Quiet on the Western Front which gives the impression that the traumatized soldier, Paul, is a coward and a quitter. Context gives these decisions meaning. This story implies that the counsel to attend the temple supersedes the counsel to live providently and obey the laws of the land, an assertion I find both irresponsible and inauthentic.
By implicitly advocating extreme obedience, harmful stories fail to serve. Trigger the sirens.
THE STORIES OF JESUS
I HAVE COME to believe that some stories are inherently inauthentic: unbelievable, irresponsible, and hostile to spiritual growth and maturity. Verifiable facts have little or no bearing on authenticity. In my mind, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence are authentic—although fictitious—because they reflect life’s rich intricacy. The characters in these books blunder and suffer and learn. They are us.
Consider the scripture stories we love—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Joseph, Deborah, Job, Daniel, and Esther. Each protagonist confronts conflict, danger, and loss. The compilers of scripture under-stood the need for stories that reflect life’s complexity and ambiguity in the sufferings of deeply flawed and human characters. Have we lost this plain and precious truth?
Jesus himself told made-up stories that feature all the hypocrisy, greed, compassion, and grace of real life. We recognize the prodigal’s resentful brother, the unjust steward, and the Levite who passed by on the other side. The stories of Jesus are our stories, authentic in their depiction of human emotions and behaviors. His prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers, and women inspire us from within a familiar life framework. The stories of Jesus, like other authentic stories, are inclusive, realistic, and—sometimes painfully—beneficial.
However, some of the stories I hear at Church, even the ones that may be technically true, are not like the stories of Jesus. They exclude or undervalue great swaths of God’s children. These stories rely on unrealistic events and set impossible expectations. They discourage. Too many characters are lapdogs who either choose the right and get a treat from the master or else pull on their leashes until their necks get crooked. In a world of agency and ambiguity, is it any wonder these inauthentic stories fail to serve?
So why do we tell such stories? Perhaps we want to promote faith, mirror the story-telling habits of many of our leaders, or fulfill an assignment without having to think very hard. Or maybe we rely on these stories simply because we are too busy or lazy or lacking in confidence to ask more of our-selves or the audience—or God. Whatever the reason, I believe that the accretion of in-authentic stories, especially the ones we hear over the pulpit, becomes the sandy foundation of future faith crises.
While children and youth may be particularly prone to trusting inauthentic stories, their power extends to adults of all ages. The higher the rank of the speaker, the greater the potential damage as the story is broadcast, recorded, printed, and parsed for quotations and lessons. The exodus of many members after Internet revelations about Church history demonstrates our deep vulnerability to insufficient and incomplete stories. They are not benign, although they may start as well-intended elaborations or omissions. These small mutations multiply. The Church body’s defenses fail to trigger the sirens and disable replication. Un-checked, the mutations may spread until they cripple or kill the host.
Inauthentic stories do not merely fail to serve. They actively cause suffering by enabling brittle delusions and by dulling our instinct for truth. In a church facing critical member retention issues, the quality of our stories merits attention at every organizational level.
A MODEST AMOUNT of storytelling due diligence could go a long way toward improving the quality of our meetings.
- Consider Multiple Audiences: Assume at least one person is facing complicated health, marital, financial, sexuality, employment, addiction, parenting, or faith issues. What are the messages—overt and unintended—a given story carries for that person?
- Consider All God’s Children. Stories about found $20 bills, averted catastrophes, and medical miracles often imply that watching over the speaker’s interests, no matter how petty, is God’s highest priority. Let us hope that God’s attention to war, abuse, poverty, and oppression—or even another individual’s sorrow—is not pre-empted by prayers over misplaced keys.
- Consider Cause and Effect. This per-son was healed because of a priesthood blessing, but that person died because he was needed for urgent genealogy work on the other side. This student received a scholarship because she paid tithing, but a bank foreclosed on the house of that family because God handpicked this trial to test them. We strain credulity. Sometimes it is best to acknowledge mystery and awe and grace, and leave it at that.
- Consider Degrees of Separation. A third-hand telling guts even a powerful story of its raw emotion. It is just plain wrong, not to mention inauthentic, for one per-son’s pain or tragedy to be reduced to a dispassionate or mawkish homily. Tell your own stories.
- Consider Doctrinal Implications. Be-fore interpreting the ways of God through a story, ask yourself whether it could be “given to the parents of a child who died without rubbing salt in their wounds” or “offered to survivors of the Holocaust with-out making them want to slap your face.”5
Life does not have to make sense, but the stories we tell about life from the pulpit should. It would help if in our general church-wide meetings we heard authentic stories. It would help if in our official magazines, websites, and curriculum materials we read authentic stories. It would help if in our celebrations of our heritage and history, in our dedications, our missionary reports, our Sunday lessons and home teaching messages we heard authentic stories. It would help if, as a people, we could kick the habit of simplistic, unworthy, and inauthentic stories.
Aside from beautiful music, stories are often the only part of any church meeting that sticks. For this reason, I believe we need more stories in our talks, lessons, and testimonies, preferably first-person stories about the daily events that comprise our lives. Driving, buying groceries, doing a job, living with family members or roommates, and serving are a fount of authentic stories that never runs dry. Let us drink its living water and pass the dipper to our brothers and sisters.
Tell me the stories of Jesus.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TED, July 2009, https://www.ted. com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en (accessed 29 October 2015).
- M. Russell Ballard, “Put Your Trust in the Lord,” October 2013 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/put-your-trust-in-the-lord?lang=eng (accessed 29 October 2015).
- W. Christopher Waddell, “The Opportunity of a Lifetime,” October 2011 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/the-op-portunity-of-a-lifetime?lang=eng (accessed 29 October 2015).
- Thomas S. Monson, “The Holy Temple—A Beacon to the World,” April 2011 General Conference, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/04/the-holy-temple-a-beacon-to-the-world?lang=eng (accessed 29 October 2015).
- Harold S. Kushner, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (New York: Schocken Books, 2012), 163.