This most recent conference struck me in an interesting way. I found myself listening closely for some small sign that the speakers read and engage topics outside of the scriptures and other GA talks. While I didn’t hear every talk this weekend, I found little evidence that they consumed many books or are aware of scholarly or educated discourses on the topics they discussed. Instead, they seem mostly to traffic in anecdotes and offer homespun wisdom. I do not intend to suggest an implicit hierarchy between homespun wisdom and scholarly discourses. I happen to like both.
By contrast, I listen to the weekly sermon on the local NPR affiliate regularly. The preacher speaks about 3 times a month for 20 minutes. (The other weeks the associate pastor speaks, or a guest). I am always blown away. Each sermon is a masterful peice that is deeply immersed in theology, literature, current events, and poetry. These are central not only in terms of content, but in form. Granted, the chapel is based in a University, but this is not the only or even primary audience. Books, literature, and big ideas literally fill the sermon, and he does it over and over again. He is a voracious learner. He also runs a church and has a family, sending his last son to college this year.
I do not mean to suggest that GA talks are completely devoid of references to books. C. S. Lewis makes frequent appearences, though less and less after Elder Maxwell. Les Miserables shows up. Elder Holland shows definite signs of reading. President Hinkley cited having read a book demonstrating that many of the biblical authors did not write the books attributed to them (to the delight of all 10 LDS Bible scholars!). Clearly some read and incorporate what they have learned and thought deeply about into their speeches. But these few examples stand out for their rarity, as exceptions to the rule.
So why is it that LDS discourse is marked by lack of reference to books? There are a few possible reasons.
1. As a rule, they just don’t read outside of the scriptures and other GA talks because:
a. They are too busy.
b. They are not scholars of the humanities and as such have not read as part of their lives before becoming GAs. They were not trained in these matters and between family, professions, and church service they just haven’t taken broad reading as a habit.
c. There is a general skepticism about the value of the wisdom of the “world” on spiritual or theological matters in GA culture.
d. They already know all the answers.
2. They do happen to read broadly but don’t show it overtly because:
a. They speak often to an international audience and the scholarly or literary references would be out of place.
b. They often speak to a general church membership who is not well educated who either wouldn’t appreciate the references or may find church leaders to be elitist or classist in some regards.
c. They try to avoid referencing authors for fear of appearing to condone them in toto, even if they are just referencing one idea.
d. Their words are deeply influenced by what they read, but they don’t cite it.
These suggestions are just provisional, so I am interested in what you all think is the best explanation for the GA discourse that ignores or occludes scholarly conversations and generally avoid the appearance of being engaged with scholarly or high fictional literature, even that produced by Mormon, let alone those outside. If these, or any other reasons are accurate, what do you think of them? How is it that LDS GA discourse has not taken reference to books as important?
48 Replies to “What, if anything, do GAs read?”
Coincidentally I just finished a related post that strongly implies some of what you have listed under #2. As to not cause our readers to have a heart attack by way of seeing FPR actually publish three threads in one day (after going weeks without even one), I scheduled it to publish on Tuesday morning. (I actually completed it even before seeing this thread.)
yeah, i started reading your post while you were writing it as I was getting ready to edit mine (typos galore when you write a post from your cell phone). I am excited about your post. i am not sure that it as a rule proves my #2, but it is certainly an interesting example. i’ll comment more on it when it is published. I think you could probably do it now, or tomorrow if you really wanted to wait. Tuesday is too far away. It would add to the conversation!
My picks are 1b and 2c.
jondh, btw, congrats on your recent acceptance into grad school! I’m excited for you!
TT, I’m serious in saying it would not have happened without you and smallaxe. Thank you for your advice and the “Tips for Applying” series. You can have the satisfaction of knowing it made a big difference to at least one person.
Except for some, such as Elder Holland, I would tend to assume that the reasons is the complex of reasons under your number 1. I would certainly be happy to have the greater prominence of number 2 demonstrated, though.
I bet they read more than the average person of the same education and professional background (so…1b). Remember it’s a lay priesthood, the members of which aren’t chosen for their scholarship.
I must say that the GA taste in poetry absolutely makes me cringe. If I don’t hear another rhymed verse in conference again it will be too soon.
Your suggestion 2A is probably the most wrong–the other thing that always makes me cringe in general conference is how many of the speakers don’t seem to bother to internationalize their stories/examples/idioms at all.
I do think there is some 2B and 2D going on–I find that usually when I try to work “worldly” literature into church talks and lessons it ends up totally screwing up the gospel message. The volume of canonical or near-canonical material to work from is so broad that I’ve come to a place where I don’t really see much justification for looking elsewhere when putting together this sort of address. I used to hate all the repetition until I started to realize how many people (myself included at times) haven’t really gotten some of the most basic gospel messages.
I cannot remember who was speaking. But at some point in the SAturday morning (or afternoon) session someone mentioned an anecdote from one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (can’t remember if it was from the Tipping Point or Blink). It was the story about the discovery of a black swan inferring that even though most swans are white we can’t ultimately rule out that others may exist. This is an awful rough-shod of what actually was said in Gladwell’s case and the GA who spoke, but nevertheless, the reference showed one of the first references from an author outside the LDS canon of non-primary sources and home-spun anecdotes. Incidentally, Gladwell writes for the New Yorker. Can someone help me out with this?
I’m thinking you’ll find GAs in many of those areas. However, my thinking is that they are trying to teach the members to learn spiritual concepts from 1. the Scriptures, and 2. the living prophets and apostles.
That greatly limits your reading. I note that many of them quote one another, showing they do spend considerable time studying the words in General Conference, and in GA-written books.
The pastor on NPR does not have spiritually authoritative authors to quote outside the Bible. His goal is different than that of our GAs, and so we’ll see a different outcome.
But I hardly think they remain ignorant of things in the world today. A stake patriarch once told me he gave up television, because it was so very distractive to the Spirit he needed to give blessings. Perhaps they tend to be so reticent about where they spend their time learning?
This isn’t a comment on the specific pastor you like listening to…
In attending services with friends and family of various other Christian stripes, the overwhelming feeling I have gotten is that these pastors’ sermons are ultimately more about themselves than anything else (not to mention the horrible television types). Similar to my own talks and lessons when I look outside the scriptures and other church materials. For me I think the impulse to teach from other “extracurricular” materials has a lot to do with my own desire to show off (so I read this into others who do the same…) or an ultimately prideful belief that I’ve found something better than the dusty old scriptures. Just me.
I have it on good authority that Pres. Hinckley made a habit of keeping up the Latin he learned in school by reading Bellum Gallicum.
Any thoughts on whether GA reading tends more towards fiction or non-fiction? Due to the amount of social science reading I have to do related to my scholarship, I never ever read non-fiction by choice. The GA’s I’ve known seem like popular non-fiction or motivational business writing types.
Owen, have you ever listened to ANY of Pres Thomas S. Monson’s talks?
What do the GAs read? Memoranda, audit reports, missionary reports, tax filings, policy papers, statistical analysis, PR reports, etc. And lots of it.
By the way, I am eternally grateful that I am not, nor ever will be a GA. That kind of stuff would kill me. I am quite happy being a Mormon pleb and puzzling my way through ancient Greek in my spare time.
I propose a new rule for the bloggernacle. Whenever anyone says they have something on good authority (sans actual reference) can we all just assume they are speaking out of a non-oral sphincter muscle which in polite company need not be mentioned? If this is already a rule, then carry on and disregard my ignorance on the matter.
Orators and speakers utilize material which they presume has traction with their audience. If they think that the audience has an appetite for GA talks, folksy wisdom, Mormon kitsch art, and histrionic things, then speakers are going to make use of such material. Of course GA usage in turn sacralizes this material and consequently gives it further traction with the audience, whether or not the audience really has an appetite for it. Very likely the dynamic among material, speaker, and audience is far more complex than what I just said, but perhaps this schema has some validity.
Also, the fact that in local wards and branches this same material is generally reworked and repeated adds to the cycle and at least presents the appearance that such material is in fact what the audience wants and what it values. And I sometimes think that even when audience members want to engage something different, they convince themselves that such an appetite is wrongheaded. One result of such distillation is the problem TT raises in his post: we have almost no idea what and how GAs read, and we are left to conclude as David Clark does (that they read audits, stats, reports), or strain for instances of intertextuality as klangfarben does, or just speculate and hope.
Good post, TT.
Oh, and reading the Gallic War to keep up one’s Latin is like paying the minimum amount due on one’s credit card bills.
I have had three members of the Seventy in my home. One of them spent a half hour looking at my bookshelves, asking questions and taking notes. None of the books he asked about were about “religion”–and my hunch is that it would have been difficult to extract from any of them a theme or even a soundbite for a conference address.
The other two didn’t seem to notice the walls lined with bookshelves. In both those cases, I can think of good explanations for their apparent lack of interest.
I suspect that the General Authorities read about as much as average 21st century men. Some likely read a lot, and some probably read hardly anything (other that the scriptures, that is).
I get the sense that given the variety in the backgrounds of those called as GAs, there is an accompanying wide variety of reading habits. I’m guessing (wildly) that Oaks’ (Utah supreme court) bookshelf differs considerably from Ballard’s (salesman).
I imagine that GA reading interests coalesce around a common group of texts that are frequently referenced in General Conference talks and Ensign articles- a kind of approved reading list or canon. If we were to construct a “non-Mormon” Mormon canon of the materials that are typically cited in a General Conference, what sort of literature would it contain? The literature must be 1) not scripture and 2) not written by, for, or about, Mormons.
First on the list is obviously the complete works of C.S. Lewis. Second I would add the books of mid-20th century musicals (though this may only last through Pres. Monson’s tenure as Prophet). Throw in some non-controversial British and American poets of the 18th-20th century and that about rounds it out.
I suspect that GA reading interests are also determined by their collective lack of a strong background in the humanities. As is regularly deplored, businessman and lawyer seem to be the two professions most represented among the general authorities. Neither requires one to be particularly well-read, outside of a group of core texts that are primarily technical rather than humanistic. I propose that the next Apostle be a professor of comparative literature–then we’ll see some very interesting citations.
I don’t know who mentioned it, but here’s the reference you were talking about:
I for one would be happy if we never again heard the little excerpt from An Essay on Man, or at least laid off of it for a few years. It is usually taken completely out of context, and reduces Alexander Pope’s nuanced argument to that of an anti-pornagraphy crusader avant la lettre.
As deplorable as we attorneys may be (or, at least, as our overrepresentation at the highest levels of Church governance may be), in my experience, at least half of my classmates and coworkers studied humanities or fine arts in our undergrads; a number of us are frustrated artists of some sort or another. That is, attorney is not equal to no-humanities-undergrad. (Seriously, if we had a non-humanities background, chances are we’d have the skills to be in another profession.)
I suspect that the reasons GAs don’t quote more history and literature runs the spectrum, but I think Mark B. is probably right on, too, that a whole lot of non-religious reading we do doesn’t have a sound-byteable correlation to the Gospel, or at least one that doesn’t stretch meaning horrifically.
(I’m reading a history of milk right now. And, although fascinating, there’s been nothing in the history of domesticated milk-producing animals that I’ve come across so far that I could reasonably use to illustrate any gospel principal. Which absolutely doesn’t mean that the subject isn’t interesting or important, just you’d never know from my Church talks that I was reading it, unless I was just name-dropping to impress you.)
I think you are “looking beyond the mark.”
Sweet! Someone dropped an LBM!! On TT!!! Conversation OVER!!!!
“And, although fascinating, there’s been nothing in the history of domesticated milk-producing animals that I’ve come across so far that I could reasonably use to illustrate any gospel principal.”
Surprising, given the amount of farming stories and metaphors that used to get play. Now we hear them more rarely and usually at second hand.
And if pickle production is worthy of mention, surely milk production could be worked in somehow.
My problem is, I’ve never been a farmer or rancher. Plus, I just started the book, and so far it has essentially talked about milk-producing animals that became domesticated and the difficulties/abilities humans have in digesting lactose.
Still, I’m not saying nobody could pull a gospel principle out of the book; I’m just saying it’s something foreign to me, and my personal ability to pull a gospel principle out of it would be strained at best, and I’d only put in the effort if I wanted my ward to know I was reading it, but didn’t want to just drop it in casual conversation (instead, for whatever reason, opting to broadcast that from the pulpit).
Is #21 implying that his/her book is the “true” mark? Maybe the GAs should take a read.
Sam B, I am also an attorney, so there was no offense intended by that statement. I was merely pointing out that it is a subject of concern for some (including myself) that the Q12 and FP are increasingly oriented towards two professions (law and business), and elite colleges and universities (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.). I also understand that most lawyers have a humanities background, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the granting of an undergraduate degree in the humanities implies no deep interest in or engagement with those studies.
No offense taken; I was mostly joking. That said, a number (though not all) of attorneys I know are deeply interested in classical music, or literature, or jazz, or film, or something else in the broader world of humanities and fine arts. My guess (with absolutely zero empirical evidence) is that attorneys are as tuned into the humanities as any other profession.
That said, between work and two daughters under the age of four, I don’t read for pleasure nearly as much as I did back in my undergrad (and even law school) days; I only hope it gets better when the girls get older.
Elder Richard G. Scott (a former nuclear engineer for the Navy) spoke in our stake conference 15 years ago. He mentioned that he had a laptop computer that he took with him on trips that was stuffed to the gills for studying the scriptures. The scriptures were on that laptop for sure and I inferred that he had as many reference books as he could manage on there as well. Of course laptop hard drives were a lot smaller then, but he spoke with quite a bit of enthusiasm.
I have noticed the official priesthood/RS “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church” manuals listed in the references for many talks. We should probably go and do likewise, but I was thrilled as a teenager to see JRR Tolkien quoted in the Ensign. Each time I hear someone reference CS Lewis in Conference, I am reminded that I haven’t read all of his books yet.
I personally think there should be more engineers among the GAs, but I suppose that our talks are either too boring or too technical ;-).
TT I would appreciate it if you would stop looking beyond the mark and start looking at this monster.
I think we can rule out 2a: They speak often to an international audience and the scholarly or literary references would be out of place, as references that do not necessarily relate to an international audience usually do get air time in GC (I’m thinking of stories that have to do with growing up in a particular place and time–farming stories for instance).
Here are a couple of thoughts that may help to refocus the discussion. How much time do most people devote to reading/studying anything a day? Besides the newspaper, I know most of my (non-academic) friends spend half an hour a day tops. That half an hour gets split between the scriptures and the latest fad (Twilight for most, or whatever the local book club is reading). If they’re adventurous they might read a book that relates to their job (something from the business/management section of the book store for most).
How much more time do GA’s have? And how should their time be divided?
A more interesting question would perhaps be, what should be on a GA’s reading list? And, what kind of material should appear in GC?
A further bone to pick is how we should follow the example of GA’s. Knowing that whatever non-LDS figure they choose to quote quickly becomes canonized, it would help for some at least to make it clear that their reading actually goes beyond Lewis, et al. and we, therefore, should do likewise. Otherwise it gives too many people the excuse not to read more broadly. (If you look at my post on Holland’s dissertation you’ll see that he quotes Tillich. I guess he’s in the canon now, yeah! Or more appropriately, he has been in the canon for over 25 years, and we should have made more use of him earlier.)
Perhaps this is going to be a little controversial, but I think the correct answer is precisely zero. It’s not because I don’t like them, but I wouldn’t know what example to follow. I think Julie Smith got into a kick of reading biographies of apostles/prophets and she said something that stuck with me. She said that once someone got into the quorum of the twelve a curtain came down in the biography and the biographies had much less to say about the apostle/prophet in certain respects.
In a real sense none of us know the apostles or the prophets because for better or worse, on purpose or by accident, what they do is shrouded in almost absolute secrecy. How can I follow the example of something held in secret?
When people “follow the example of the prophet or apostle” I think people are doing no such thing. They are projecting their biases and opinions of what a good person does onto said apostle or prophet, assume that’s the example they are giving, and dutifully follow it. By the way, this is what most people do when they “read the scriptures” as well.
So I spend my 1-2 hours a day trying to learn ancient Greek and reading up on Biblical Studies because I love it. I believe in the power of the humanities, classics, and good texts in general to make one a better person. If the GAs don’t make the time to do something similar it’s their loss. If they do make the time, good for them.
Something that doesn’t put me to sleep in under 10 minutes. Even if they just picked up the speaking pace a little and moved every once in a while it would be a vast improvement.
Dickens was mentioned this past weekend, I’m not sure by who but he was referenced. I also recall Anna Quindlen, a columnist for Newsweek, being mentioned last conference, and was struck because 1) She doesn’t have a religious focus and 2) Ms. Quindlen is a women, and apart from Elder Worthlin’s mother who gave the excellent advice to, “Come what may, and Love It” we don’t hear much from them, quoted, or otherwise.
I think that General Authorities have likely read more “secular” works prior to their call as a GA, but since then, begin to migrate into more religious works, as they likely feel more pressure to understand more past and present talks, seminars, etc.. Just as a recently called Gospel Essentials teacher would study Preach My Gospel or a recently called Relief Society President might look into the history of the Relief Society, I would guess, and hope, that GA’s would expound upon their learning by study and faith, and that part of that would include keeping up with trends.
As they mention to be aware of pornography in media and print, I wonder if they haven’t heard of the Twilight series; and regarding the claim about international recognition, the London bus ads were mentioned, and the response to that would lead me to conclude that they all must have some general awareness to and of popular and prevalent print media, as well as the more classical writers.
Thus, I surmise that the GAs and Apostles would pick up their reading level where pertinent to their calling, but not necessarily – necessarily being key – elsewhere. As to why or why not, I cannot say.
Last fall when we had our All-Africa satellite conference, it surprised me when one of the speakers (I think it was Elder Holland, but not positive) actually held up a big fat book that he said he had just finished reading on Africa. I was going to jot down the title, but I neglected to do that (but a friend of mine said he had read it and it was heavy reading, but very interesting). It was current non-fiction about the issues and problems facing the continent. It surprised me that an apostle would recommend a current secular book in a church meeting, but I thought it was great that he was reading it. I believe Elder Holland is also a scholar on Mark Twain.
Evidence for my prior comment — here’s a link to a talk Elder Holland gave on Mark Twain at BYU:
But I guess there’s no doubt that he is an apostle that reads — or has read — extensively, as he is a scholar of humanities.
In one of Elder Holland’s BYU talks (perhaps before he was a GA) on speeches.BYU.org, he says he reads three newspapers everyday before breakfast.
Elder Nelson has quoted from the Coptic Discourse on the Abbaton, and some super-advanced phsyics book. I recall both of those because one of my mission comps was a Harvard physics guy, and the references leapt out at him.
I think the correct answer is precisely zero
If the basis for not taking GAs as exemplars is the lack of information we have about them, I imagine that in your opinion no one should be taken as an example given the sparsity of information we would have about them (with perhaps close family members serving as the exception). Following this line of thought, how does moral reasoning take place? Not that such a question implies that exemplars are essential to the process; but I’d be interested to know such a theory without at least partial recourse to paradigmatic figures (as embodiments of certain virtues or norms, for instance).
Let me suggest that taking someone as a moral exemplar could mean several (perhaps interrelated) things:
1. As an “aspiration”. Taking someone as an aspiration would mean seeking to do the things that they have done–aspiring to attain or reach after him/her. GAs wear dark suits and are lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. All Mormon males should do likewise.
2. As an “inspiration”. Taking someone as an inspiration would mean taking them as a resource or point of departure for personalization. Elder So-and-so’s talk on temples inspires me to rethink my relationship with the temple; resulting in me not attending more, but enjoying a Saturday lunch on the grass with my family.
3. As a rule of thumb. Exemplars as rules of thumb act as aids in identifying the salient features of a moral situation. President So-and-so was confused and looked to the standard works for assistance in resolving the confusion; perhaps I should do likewise.
4. As the embodiment of certain virtues. Exemplars may embody certain virtues that we strive to posses, and have degree of flexibility or adaptability. Jesus embodies charity. I strive to embody charity. Given that my circumstances are radically different however, I am going to behave very differently.
Now, I think some of these are already in play in LDS culture (either consciously or unconsciously), for good or for bad. And I imagine that we would agree that which ever is being employed should be done with some degree of self-reflection (potentially eliminating some of these options altogether in some cases). However, I do believe that it does make sense to speak of “following examples” in moral thinking; and such may be an inevitable part of the process.
I think we may be saying the same thing in different ways. In the list you gave I see aspects of projecting biases onto the GAs and then following the projection. Your list is more detailed, but I think there is a central core we would agree on. I agree that examples can be a powerful way of learning moral reasoning, indeed it’s how all of us learn moral reasoning. We follow examples of those close to us when we are kids, we don’t read Kant. I just think people should realize the limitations of information they have when following examples of persons they really know very little about.
I think we may be saying the same thing in different ways.
Is this a qualification or repudiation of #31?
Is this a qualification or repudiation of #31?
OK, maybe we’re not saying the same thing in different ways.
I don’t see your #1 as an example of moral reasoning or moral following, at least the specific examples you gave, they are pretty superficial. Ironically, this is probably the most conspicuous and consistent attempt made by the average church member to follow the example of the GAs.
I see your #2 as saying essentially the same thing as my saying, “They are projecting their biases and opinions of what a good person does onto said apostle or prophet, assume that’s the example they are giving, and dutifully follow it.” This is what I was thinking of when I said that we were saying the same thing in different ways.
I would like to see more of #3 and #4. However, I don’t think there is sufficient information for the average church member to know what example they should follow. How does Elder Oaks deal with frustration? What does Elder Ballard do when facing a moral conundrum? How does Elder Bednar deal with doubt? How does Elder Andersen deal with wayward children?
No one knows the answers to these questions and the average church member will probably think that they don’t get frustrated, never doubt, have perfect children, and have attained such moral clarity that they never face a moral conundrum. They simply are not forthcoming in general conference addresses, preferring to provide generic and/or simple counsel, for whatever reason. It’s because of the lack of information that most church members impute pseudo-perfection to them. That imputed “perfection” is always in the eye of the beholder, so church members follow the example they think the GAs are setting. Maybe the church members are right, but there is no way to know.
With all due respect, TT, the title of your post is more than a little insulting to its subjects, and the way you limit ‘reading’ to include only literary and academic writing to the exclusion of scripture, church literature, and pragmatic texts is myopically elitist, obstructs historical comparison (because most reading since the dawn of literacy has been of scripture, church literature, and pragmatic texts), and is out of touch with the academic study of reading. Your suggestion 1b, that they don’t read because they aren’t academically trained humanities scholars, is both laughable and the worst kind of Ivory Tower affectation. And I say that as a trained humanities scholar who generally likes elitism and Ivory Tower affectation!
I think you have a methodological problem with your post. You’ve correctly observed that the discourse of GA conference talks does not include many literary references or much engagement with current intellectual debates. That tells you pretty much nothing about what GAs read, though. If you really want to know what books they read, you can glean their talks and published writings and biographies for hints, but you know what they say about the absence of evidence.
I think the question you bring up later in your post, about why literary references are relatively uncommon in GA talks, is more interesting. Part of it, no doubt, is how they think of their audience and their audience’s expectations. I like to think that I read my share of books, but I don’t litter my sacrament meeting talks with literary references or discussion of scholarly debates, because that would be a waste of everyone’s time for worship. Part of the answer is also likely found in how the GAs think of themselves (that is, as primarily engaged in pastoral discourse with their flock, rather than in debate with NPR pastors, scholars, or other public figures about current issues or scholarly controversies).
Another interesting question would be how GAs read, but to approach that you’d almost have to include scriptural reading.
OK, maybe we’re not saying the same thing in different ways.
If 1 and 2 lead to “projecting” and 3 and 4 can’t be done because of the limited amount of information we have available, where does this leave us as far as exemplars in moral reasoning are concerned? I’m wondering what else you propose.
Perhaps separating the discussion out into the areas of “moral reasoning as should be done” and “moral reasoning as currently done” within Mormonism would be helpful. My sense is that part of your frustration lie not in the theory of exemplars, but the improper ways in which you see exemplars followed.
In other words, instead of tossing them out altogether (I see no other option in your view), we should instead inquire after proper ways of utilizing them. How much do we have to know about an individual to responsibly take him or her as an example? In the case of 3, for instance, following the example of Joseph Smith in looking to sacred texts for answers to my confusion, could in fact be an effective form of moral reasoning. How many features are salient? And how many salient features must I know in order to effectively take him as my example? There may be factors I am unaware of (What was JS’s hermeneutic? What translation of the Bible did he use? Did he think the result would have been the same if he went to a text other than the Bible? Would he agree with me looking to the BoM instead? Or the Koran?), and some of them may in fact be significant, but I don’t think the information readily available is insufficient in determining a course of action.
I have found that when the GAs are not behind the teleprompter (stake conferences, firesides, etc…) you REALLY get to see their personality and what they are like. You can sense their passions when they aren’t standing behind that huge pulpit.
But, most of us don’t get to see that too often. We get the bi-annual homogenous (did I just work in a milk reference?) conference addition. And, I know they say they don’t give out topics for the meeting, but there sure seems to be a proscribed formula for it all.
I got, and typically get, the opposite impression from conference. Prss. Hickley and Pres. Monson (and many other GAs) did and do quote newspaper articles and non-Mormon books (Profiles in Courage is one I remember a lot), most of which I hadn’t heard of before they noted them,
One thing that I think is really great though, is that they repeat stories, quotations and themes common in the church. Perhaps this is due to their limited reading (I doubt it), but at any rate it helps us treasure up the favorite lines and stories from our teaching, and it helps new members get the jist of the references they hear in church. Many academics like me would be really bad at this, because we have a horror of being redundant and derviative (as much as we still are), and we’re often thoroughly unimpressed by someone who gives a well-known quote. One of the great testaments to conference is how little pedantry and self-aggrandizement there is. These talks aren’t written to stand out for their scholarly or poetic brilliance.
Hayes: “And, I know they say they don’t give out topics for the meeting, but there sure seems to be a proscribed formula for it all.”
Indeed–it’s all very suspicous! We should look into this “prescribed formula” and find out who’s giving these GAs directions…. Whoever he is, he has A LOT of influence in the church.
You seem to be insisting that I should have asked another question than the one that I did. However, I happen to not be interested in the question that you think I should have asked, but rather the question that I did ask. Nevertheless, as you outline the question that I should have asked, you seem to presume an answer to the question that I did ask, your answer being that GA’s do not consume “elite” literary or scholarly books. If you think that, I’d like to know your reasons for coming to that conclusion.
the title of your post is more than a little insulting to its subjects
I’m sorry, but I fail to see how a question, especially one to which I do not claim to know the answer, can possibly be insulting.
you limit ‘reading’ to include only literary and academic writing to the exclusion of scripture, church literature, and pragmatic texts is myopically elitist, obstructs historical comparison (because most reading since the dawn of literacy has been of scripture, church literature, and pragmatic texts), and is out of touch with the academic study of reading.
I do not assert that reading is only the kind of reading that I define. Rather, take if for granted that they are capable of reading. I am interested in whether or not they read literature or scholarly materials. That seems like a perfectly fair question.
On a side note, I take exception with your characterization of the history of reading, at least as it relates to Greco-Roman antiquity and ancient Christianity. If you could read, you had most likely read Homer and Plato, not to mention the huge market of popular romances and novels. Rather, it is modern forms of reading that make it more likely that one is less-well read in the repositories of culture.
Your suggestion 1b, that they don’t read because they aren’t academically trained humanities scholars, is both laughable and the worst kind of Ivory Tower affectation.
Why exactly is this so far fetched? I put it forth as a possibility, not an argument. If you have evidence to the contrary about what and why they do or don’t read, I’d love to hear it.
I think you have a methodological problem with your post. You’ve correctly observed that the discourse of GA conference talks does not include many literary references or much engagement with current intellectual debates. That tells you pretty much nothing about what GAs read,
The methodological problem, as you seem to say, lies in my expectation that when those who are charged with teaching the church the profound, saving, eternal doctrines that are relevant for our specific day, that are held up as superior to the wisdom of the world, might be a place where they would display their knowledge and engage critically the topics that they are teaching, and the teachings that they are preaching against. Given that such an expectation is precisely the ideal of good sermons by professional clergy in other traditions, I am confused as to why you have come to believe that GA talks should eschew these values as a natural fact. For my part, I am asking the question about why this is the norm in our culture, and culture of expectations.
If you really want to know what books they read, you can glean their talks and published writings and biographies for hints, but you know what they say about the absence of evidence.
I am not sure what you mean by this sentence. Are you saying that to find out what they read one must study what they have written or said, or, are you saying that even after studying what they have written and said it is impossible to decipher what they read. If the latter, why do you think that is the case? That is the question that I am trying to get at.
I think the question you bring up later in your post, about why literary references are relatively uncommon in GA talks, is more interesting. Part of it, no doubt, is how they think of their audience and their audience’s expectations. I like to think that I read my share of books, but I don’t litter my sacrament meeting talks with literary references or discussion of scholarly debates, because that would be a waste of everyone’s time for worship.
This is an interesting suggestion that goes beyond what I offered in my #2. If I understand you correctly, literary references and scholarly discussions are “litter” that “waste time” because they are not about “worship.” In what way to you understand the difference between learning and worshipping? Why do you see them as oppositional, rather than complimentary? Where do you draw the line between references outside of the canon and those inside? That is, why is C. S. Lewis an acceptable reference, but not Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or any number of more profound thinkers? Why should scholarly engagement with the scriptures be deemed irrelevant if these are the central texts used in worship?
Part of the answer is also likely found in how the GAs think of themselves (that is, as primarily engaged in pastoral discourse with their flock, rather than in debate with NPR pastors, scholars, or other public figures about current issues or scholarly controversies).
Again, I am not sure that I get the assumption about why explicit engagement with literature, culture, and scholarship does not constitute pastoral discourse, unless those who do read literature, study culture, and participate in scholarship are not a part of the flock.
You don’t see a problem with your title? Try this exercise: go ask your spouse/colleague/adviser the following question: “What, if anything, do you read?” Take careful notes about the response.
About the history of reading, Greco-Roman antiquity is a bit of an exceptional period, yes? And even then, the kind of philosophical and literary reading you’re interested in is still the province of a small governing class. It’s one thing to learn to sound out Homer on the way to learning to read, and quite another to spend most of one’s time engaged in it. All American apostles undoubtedly read some Shakespeare in high school, and yet that’s not what you’re looking for, correct? So I don’t see that you can claim that modern reading is diminished, unless you define ‘modern’ as anything after the fourth century, and even then I would argue that professional and pragmatic reading predominated even in antiquity, especially outside a small literary elite.
OK, so you want to ask if GAs read literary or scholarly works. That’s a fair enough question. The problem with your methodology is that you’re only looking for evidence in their conference talks, and their failure to mention what books they’re reading is not evidence that they don’t read the kinds of works you’re interested in. You end up with no evidence to say anything at all about their reading habits. This has nothing to do with what I believe general conference talks should be like, and only to do with the well-known principle that the absence of evidence is not evidence for absence. That I don’t cite Roland Barthes in a sacrament meeting talk–or anywhere else–doesn’t tell you whether or not I’ve ever read Roland Barthes, or if I spend hours wondering just what bliss looks like from the shores of pleasure.
You then turn to the question of general conference discourse, and I agree that this is an interesting question. (Some of your suggestions are plausible, but it’s probably not a good idea to toss off a suggestion that implies only humanities scholars have any life experience with reading literary or scholarly texts. That could be taken as a bit condescending to, what, 99.99% of the adult population? It’s purely anecdotal evidence, I admit, but nearly everyone I know who reads books does not have a Ph.D. in the humanities.)
You note a very interesting contrast between the conference talks and the sermons of professional clergy. That contrast is probably welcomed by the GAs who achieve it, I’d guess.
Personally, I like sacrament meeting talks that display wit and reason and careful preparation. I like to include those things in my talks. But I also have to recognize an obligation to reach and uplift as many people as possible, so there has to be a balance between references that only a few people might get, and a clear message for people who aren’t excited by object lessons based on paleography. How much time do you have to invest to explain a reference to Augustine? If you can do it in one minute out of twenty, why not? But if you needed all twenty minutes to explicate one passage from Augustine, that would not be a useful investment of time for most people, in my opinion. Does that clarify my thinking for you?
Are people who read literature, study culture, and participate in scholarship only amenable to pastoral care that consists of explicit engagement with literature, culture, and scholarship? I suspect not. I like engagement with L/C/S. I’d like to see more of it, even in general conference talks! But there are times when it can come off as snooty or self-absorbed, don’t you think?
Since I happen to know my spouse/colleague/adviser personally and can personally attest to the fact that they read, you’re right that such a question might be offensive. The GA’s, however, I do not know personally in large part. Since you admit that it is impossible to deduce what they are reading from their public speeches (“You end up with no evidence to say anything at all about their reading habits”), it would seem imprudent to assert that they do read these sorts of materials despite the lack of evidence.
I freely admit that the fact that there is no evidence that they do not read literary or scholarly sources (except that their public speeches do not reflect this kind of engagement), which is why I suggest a variety of options that might explain this in my #2. You seem to think that 2b is the best explanation. It certainly is possible, but I’d like to know why you find this to be more persuasive than the other options in #1 or #2.
I would add a note that one doesn’t need to explicitly cite sources or name drop in order to engage critically with the big issues, problems, and theological ramifications of what one is saying. While I agree that not citing these kinds sources is not necessarily evidence that they don’t read these materials, I emphasize that it is certainly not a good sign that they do either. You don’t have to cite Barthes to read a text/scripture intertextually, or to talk in terms of readerly expectations instead of writerly ones. Such a speech might be appreciated by those who know nothing of Barthes, and those who do will pick up on the unstated reference. Given that the overall impression of many of the commenters in this thread is that GAs are not critically engaged with literature and scholarship, I think that we have to take seriously that this impression may reflect a reality, at least for some.
(It occurred to me that there is one another possible reason why GAs might avoid engaging scholarship, but I am not sure how convincing it is. As you know, scholarship is about disagreement. It may be that GAs refuse to engage in an intellectual tradition of any kind so as to not alienate scholars who may disagree with them. I am not convinced that this is necessarily a good explanation because GAs still speak from an intellectual tradition even if it is unstated, and they aren’t shy about condemning certain intellectual traditions. Consider, for instance, Pres. Hinkley’s comparison of the Church to the British empire on which the “the sun never sets”).
I am with Jacob J on this one. I am pretty sure there is a wide spectrum amongst them as to what they read. Further, some of them show strong indicators of being well read.
I am reminded of a talk given by Elder Douglas L. Callister of the Seventy at Brigham Young University. In it he discussed what it means to be a refined and cultured Latter-day Saint. Through much of his comments he discussed music, art, literature, and their relevance to understanding divinity. A few brief excerpts, and some commentary of my own:
He discussed being “touched by refined and beautiful things” such as “musical masterpieces”, indeed any heavenly “language, literature, music, and art”.
Any heavenly home should have “a magnificent library.”
President Hinckley’s home library was filled with “about 1,000 volumes of the rich literature of the world.”
Quoting David Starr Jordan, former Stanford president, he says, “It is vulgar to like poor music, to read weak books, to feed on sensational newspapers…”
The following assertion by Callister lends great credence the poster’s interrogatory: “If we know the books located at the bedside, we know much about the man.”
I realize that, as has been discussed previously, we cannot truly emulate those who we do not truly know, but this argument only goes towards settling the following less relevant question: “are they telling me to do as they say or do as they do?” It seems safe enough to give the tie to the runner and assume that General Authorities happen to do as they say.
The poster’s original question was “why is it that LDS discourse is marked by lack of reference to books?” Assuming that we could take Callister’s comments at face value then it cannot be due to option #1, since his statements seem to reflect a great appreciation for literature, as well as art, music, and general refinement among church leaders. Option #2 offers some interesting possibilities, but I would submit a third.
Based solely on anecdotal evidence, it has been my observation that general authorities tend to restrict their source material to other general authorities of higher rank than themselves. Generally, it seems that the higher ranking an authority is the more likely he is to explore extracurricular sources. Past presidents are a staple for Apostles. Current presidents are almost mandatory for the Seventy. In personal communication (again, anecdotally) with one General Authority this concept was more or less put forward by him as it pertains to addresses in Conference.
Although based on hearsay, this is more or less along the lines of what was suggested in comment #9, with the added notion of upward/backward-looking sourcing of material. This to me seems to answer the implicit question previously phrased: “the answer is also likely found in how the GAs think of themselves.” That is, without a doubt, as representatives of the President of the Church, who represents the Lord. NPR pastors do not typically find themselves under either burden.