The Big Picture

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 370th week, and we’re covering the priesthood session of the October 1999 General Conference.

If there is one thing that I have taken from the General Conference Odyssey so far, it is what a tremendous wealth of understanding is available for those who take the time to read General Conference talks. 

I can understand why this isn’t a more common practice, however. For most of my life, General Conference was really just an excuse to take a nap instead of going to church. I didn’t intend to take a nap, but I don’t think I made it through a single session of General Conference until my mission without falling asleep. I didn’t start really seriously engaging with the talks–other than the brief period of my mission–until my 30s. And even now, when I love to delve into them, I can totally get why someone else would sort of bounce off.

On a talk-for-talk basis, or even a paragraph-for-paragraph basis, the talks are often not impressive. Don’t get me wrong. Some of them are legendary feasts. But when I go through my highlighted portions looking to write these GCO posts, it’s hard to find really impressive passages even when I’m just picking from what I already highlighted. 

Our General Authorities are not really professional clergy, even though they do the job (and get paid) at that level. They don’t have degrees in theology. They don’t have experience giving sermons that have to stir up an audience in order to keep the contributions flowing. We don’t have a rousing tradition of speechifying (which is genuinely a shame). Many of them are remarkable with remarkable careers, but those careers are generally not in public speaking or anything related to it, and that shows in our General Conference sessions. 

But these same leaders have already taught us how to read the General Conference talks, and it’s not about deep reading of individual talks or penetrating analysis of singular passages. Quite the opposite. General Conference talks are more like a mosaic than anything else. The important messages are the messages that are repeated, and to see that repetition you have to step back, not forward, to get the big picture. That’s when things start to get enlightening.

I don’t know how far to push this, but I am genuinely coming to a place where I see the leadership of the Church as something that stems from quorums and from councils rather than from individuals, even groups of individuals. And so I read General Conference talks less for the output of this or that individual (although there are some who consistently give great talks, like Elder Maxwell) and more as a kind of collective output.

What are some of the things that I’ve learned from reading the General Conference talks this way? The major one is that the Restored Gospel has been taught with incredible consistency since the 1970s. The stereotype of an austere, graceless, checklist religion is unfair, at least when it comes to the General Conference talks (Mormon culture, and I use the word “Mormon” intentionally here, could be a different matter.) There was never a period when men were taught to be domineering and coercive. Instead, from the earliest talks, the emphasis has always been on gentleness and service and love. Did those messages always make it down to your ward? I’m sure in at least some cases they did not. It’s impossible for any hierarchical organization–and the Church is very hierarchical–to entirely avoid that species of man who cannot bear the thought of his inadequacy without compensating by some veneer of authority. But there’s no doubt that such men violated not only are scripture, but the explicit teachings of our leaders, and those teachings have never wavered.

Although the primary way of reading the General Conference talks is this mosaic-approach, I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of pretty basic teachings on fairly specific talks that often preempted controversies by many, many years. I’m thinking of President Hinckley’s talk, Why We Do Some of the Things We Do.

A decade before all the controversy around the City Creek Center, President Hinckley stood up in General Conference and said, “We have a real estate arm designed primarily to ensure the viability and the attractiveness of properties surrounding Temple Square.” That was the same rationale given for the City Creek Center, and it wasn’t new. It was implementing a public policy that had been stated explicitly over a decade earlier. President Hinckley also taught:

Are these [Church-owned] businesses operated for profit? Of course they are. They operate in a competitive world. They pay taxes. They are important citizens of this community. And they produce a profit, and from that profit comes the money which is used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation to help with charitable and worthwhile causes in this community and abroad and, more particularly, to assist in the great humanitarian efforts of the Church.

Or how about some of the ongoing controversies around BYU. It’s clear for pretty much anyone to see that the Church has a problem with professors who give, at best, lip service to proclaiming and defending the Church’s positions, when they don’t outright undermine them. Conservative Latter-day Saints are outraged (sometimes from misleading versions of the real problem) and demand that the Church take drastic measures to clean house. And when the Church moves too slowly for these internal critics, these Latter-day Saints sometimes veer into quasi-conspiratorial theories about how the leaders must be deceived and not understand what is happening on the ground. (This is always, in any institution where leaders are treated with general loyalty and respect, the step right before outright criticism.)

But what did President Hinckley teach about BYU?

we shall keep these [Church-owned universities] as flagships testifying to the great and earnest commitment of this Church to education, both ecclesiastical and secular, and while doing so prove to the world that excellent secular learning can be gained in an environment of religious faith. (Emphasis added)

The problem with just firing the entire English department (or whatever, I picked it at random) and then replacing it with really zealous seminary teachers is that while you could theoretically end up with a very spiritually edifying department, you would get there by taking the academic credibility of that department and lighting it on fire.

Maybe the day will come when the Church just gives up on this goal, but as long as it remains the stated policy of the Church to hold its universities to high academic standards in the eyes of the world, there will always be an extremely difficult tension to navigate between faithfulness and academic credibility. If the members understand the difficulty of the mission, they could perhaps invest in a little more patience and support while the General Authorities work to thread this particular needle.

I don’t love every General Conference talk. I have a particularly hard time with Priesthood sessions. You don’t have to love every single one either. But, if you want to know what the Church teaches, I strongly recommend that you invest the time to find out. Because it’s all here, in black and white and out in the open. There really are no mysteries when it comes to the fundamental teachings of the Church, but you’re going to have to invest the time to read enough of the talks that, like a portrait made up of individual portraits, you get a glimpse of the big picture.

Other posts for this week:

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