LDS anthropologist Daymon Smith has done some fascinating research on the history of correlation in the CoJCoL-dS and has written an entertaining and informative book about working at the Church Office Building (which I reviewed here). He’s also been kind enough to do an interview for us here at MSP.
chanson: In your interviews and writings you indicate that you have a testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. You seem drawn to the spiritual vitality of the early church, especially due to the fact that revelation was a community affair — something not just confined to the top leaders or some anonymous corporate committee. To me, it seems like the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) would be a perfect fit for you. Have you thought about joining them, and, if so, what’s the verdict?
Daymon: I have considered joining the Community of Christ, but I am admittedly torn between relishing my boredom while staring across the landscape of corporate committees that is the church I currently attend, and actually joining a religious community for the sake of having a community. In other words, I do like the communal aspects that I see in the early Mormon Church, and which I am told somewhat characterizes the C of C (and to be fair, also much of the LDS experience as well), but I also, honestly, like coasting, not having to do anything but talk to congregants once in a while, which the LDS Church rather conveniently allows. But seriously, I am hesitant to join any church, in part because I fear blunting with a satisfied sense of community a fading hunger to approach the divine. Since Durkheim, anyway, it has been all too easy to mistake social relations for heavenly ones, and I am in my heart a social scientist as much as a believer in the unseen.
chanson: Has the CoJCoL-dS called you in for any church disciplinary actions as a result of your work? If so, what happened? If not, are you worried that you might get excommunicated over this?
Daymon: No, but perhaps my “persona” or digital being has been disciplined. I don’t worry about excommunication, honestly, because I don’t really see what the practical (and “spiritual”) effect would be. Certain numbers that represent my “membership” would be moved to another database in the Church Office Building, but since I am not in fact a member of any church (after reading the book this answer should make more sense), I can’t really see how I could be outside that church. We are all excommunicates, in a literal sense. I do enjoy speaking in the local chapel on the occasional Sunday, however, and being prevented from public speaking in certain properties would be counted as a real loss (honestly).
chanson: In your “Mormon Stories” podcast interview you emphasized that you aren’t claiming the church is in a state of apostasy. Yet, in your book, you said
We have abandoned the straight and narrow for the stupid, the vain, the pompous steaming pile of shit. […] If guesses are never put to the test, I suppose, if one need not bother checking with reality every now and then, there can be no way to reckon how far off course a speculation or guess misses the mark, or how deeply a religion has fallen
and many other equally damning things. So, in what sense is the church not in apostasy? Do you think that the CoJCoL-dS is the true church and is being run according to God’s commands?
Daymon: This is a question I’ve been asked by others as well. If we approach the problem of “apostasy” from a quasi-empirical perspective, and ask, “How could one know a church/a people is in apostasy?” then I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer, though, perhaps, that there is no “theory of apostasy” might well be a sign of apostasy.
Half-joking aside, I don’t think there is a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in short, and so there isn’t anything which could be “in apostasy.” There is an image of a church, a trademark, a sort of play at being a church, but that isn’t in my vague definition a sign of apostasy. Only a sign that something went missing, and rather than find it, we built a stage and carpentered some scenery and convinced each other that the image is the thing. The approach I take attempts to open a discussion which is too easily dismissed in summary with the claims “apostasy” or “never in apostasy,” claims which are typically grounded in personal experiences for the person who says as much. I thought it wrong to dismiss the personal experiences of Mormons, feelings that confirm “apostasy” or “not apostasy,” and so worked out another way to speak about “the Church.”
On the second part, is the LDS Church the “true church” and “run according to God’s commands,” I’d have to refer to the my first answer, which is, there is no LDS Church which one might say is “true” and “run according to God’s commands.” But seriously, I assume the question really is, “Is the Corporation the True Corporation and run…?” I would have to say, I don’t think so. Why? Because I would expect more of something as freighted with heavenly deliverables, as it were, more knowledge, more culture and art, more innovation, more practical solutions, more…I don’t know, more “Good”? That was, I recall, what Joseph Smith once said was the true meaning of “Mormon”.
chanson: You also stated in the MS interview that you teach Elders’ quorum out of the correlated manual. Why? Do you think it’s edifying for the people you’re teaching?
Daymon: I believe I said I teach with the manual in front of me (at least I hope that’s what I said). I view the obligation to work within the constraints of the questions and scriptural citations given in any particular lesson as part of the the “letter” of the law (which Max Weber wrote about long ago); a real challenge which I take seriously, but also which cannot edify without the “spirit” of the law — which is not, in my experience, often inscribed in those little books. So I teach with the manual before me, but I’ve also recited Bob Dylan’s The Ballad of Hattie Carrol (in reference to Justice and Mercy), or the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkle (about prophets), or a Robert Frost poem, and, of course, regularly summon specters from the Joseph Smith Closet of Wonders.
Is that edifying? I hope so. I don’t really know from one week to the next what the point of standing up there before the class might be, ‘edification’ being far too lofty for my ambitions, but I’m foolish enough to figure that while there’s very little I can really accomplish in a thirty minute “lesson,” I can always hope my ramblings might strike an elder as maybe worth thinking about, if only briefly.
chanson: I had kind of assumed that you might be attending the services branded CoJCoL-dS for your wife’s sake. (There’s a lot of that going on on our side of the tracks.) If it’s not too personal a question, does she play into this at all? Is she the person the book is secretly dedicated to? (If so, what does she think of it?) Even if you’re not worried about excommunication affecting your eternal salvation, would there be a problem with your family if you were called in for church discipline?
Daymon: About my attendance, I show up mainly because I feel some obligation to try to teach others what I know/believe. And honestly, I do like many of the Mormons at my ward, even those utterly opposed to the theology and politics I espouse, and I enjoy interacting with them. And every Sunday I’m presented with a puzzle as an anthropologist, something like “why would anyone say that?” or “why take that reading from the bible?” In short, I have enough independent reasons to keep going, so that if one fails another comes forward.
My wife, Amber, I suppose, would encourage me to attend if I decided to go inactive, but she’s also willing to be excommunicated for the sake of the truth. I am fortunate to be with her.
Do I worry about the eternal prospects of our relationship? Of course, just as much as I worry about my own soul, but I don’t believe that if I am excommunicated my family would be unsealed. I don’t think those ‘sealing powers’ are in use anymore (except perhaps as a sort of ‘play acting’), and even if they were, a stake president doesn’t have the authority to unseal what is done by the Holy Ghost. As far as I can tell, I ain’t saved or exalted yet anyway, so I can’t really lose what I don’t have, and which can’t be given by a guy in a suit who happens to reside near my home.
chanson: I didn’t mean to imply that you might believe that excommunication would affect eternal sealings or anything like that. The thing is that we have tons of NOMs in our community (who practice Mormonism without believing in the CoJCoL-dS) who attend for their families’ sake. That is, the beloved TBM spouse would be very upset (and possibly threaten divorce) if less-believing spouse stopped practicing. I was just curious as to whether there was any element of that in your situation. I gather that you don’t have that problem, and that you and your wife are on the same page. You and your family are very fortunate.
When you say that “she’s also willing to be excommunicated for the sake of the truth”, do you mean that she supports your research and agrees with what you’re doing (whether or not she agrees with all of the conclusions in the book)?
Daymon: Yeah, she supports my work completely.
chanson: By the way, I’m not trying to put you on the spot here — I just want to get an interesting conversation going that will get our readers interested in your book and dissertation. We like to encourage a civil discussion among a variety of viewpoints (including faithful), but keep in mind that our regular writers and commenters are mostly “secular Mormons” (i.e. atheists and agnostics). Full disclosure: I’m also an atheist.
Daymon: I know that wasn’t a question, but I’m generally more comfortable among atheists, to be honest, and probably align more closely with atheists than with religious folk. I figure if religion was started thousands of years ago so that one priest could challenge another priest in a game of storytelling and dialectic, then so long as the dialectic and civility is there, and conducted in a liberal spirit, I’m happy to dispense with the sacrificial fires and the robes and so forth. That said, I also would have no problem believing in a god who was also, more often than not, an atheist.
chanson: Have you read Roots of Modern Mormonism by Mark P. Leone? What do you think of it?
Daymon: I read Leone’s book in grad school, and thought it was pretty poorly done. He was a functionalist when that was the thing (late 60s), then became a post-structuralist pseudo-Foucauldian (as a cover for structuralism), and last I heard he was ranting about “exposing liars as liars” in a talk about modern Mormonism. In my part of anthropology he’s generally regarded as a ‘theory pimp’, one who trots out the seeming latest theory to plug up the gaps in his research. I honestly don’t recall much about the book, except that there was great emphasis on irrigation ditches, and the claim that Mormons have a ‘do it yourself theology’, which seems like rather lazy ethnography, and provided no sense of how that apparently looseness fit with the rest of Mormonism, including Correlation and the rush to conservativism.
That is to say, a study of culture can’t end with “individual opinions vary” without also subverting the very foundation of the discipline (culture, which is supposed to provide those views). Anyway, sorry I can’t offer a better critique of the book. Maybe if I read it again I’d find something I missed the first time.
chanson: Your book is subtitled “a book about a book”: What was the original book like, and how is the second one different?
Daymon: About the subtitle: the “first” book which my book is “about” was written by Daemon, a computer person(a). That book went missing. So my book is “about” that book, in the same way that Jesus is supposed to have said he was “about” his Father’s business (no pun intended on ‘business’) when he went missing. Really? Well, no, not really. I just wanted a ‘meta’ book, for various reasons (some having to do with the absence of the original “Book of Mormon”), and thought the title sufficiently playful (or confusing) to indicate I don’t take the author all that seriously.
I really did want to give readers every chance to dismiss the book, and then to burden myself with rewarding those that stuck with the story. In retrospect, the subtitle perhaps makes the book seem like it’s about (some other) Book of Mammon, a missing book of which this text is but an incomplete representation. Maybe in due time that complete record will spring forth from the concrete of the Church Office Building, and cry for justice.
chanson: Thanks, Daymon, for taking the time to answer these questions for us!