Those who “criticize” the church fall into a variety of camps. There are outsiders who criticize because the church’s teachings or practices conflict with their view of “truth” or “righteousness.” There are former or disaffected members who seek to explain their decision to leave. There are even faithful critical insiders who belong to or use their connections to church leadership and administration to silently work behind the scenes to improve things and are likely the force behind any change in church policy or practice. However, I don’t want to discuss any of these critics. Rather, I am interested in discussing the cultural critic, the insider who has no direct ability to affect change other than by making their voice heard. Unlike the first two kinds of critics, these critics share more with the third kind because their motivations for their criticisms comes from a deep love of the church.
The cultural critic is forced to go outside of traditional avenues to affect change because they do not have any access to them. These critics make their voices heard often through independent publications, including Sunstone, Dialogue, and Exponent II. But even these venues were limited to a certain kind of insider. Today, the blogs offer the most common locus for cultural criticism.
The point that I want to make is to distinguish between different kinds of criticism of the church and to explore the value of the cultural critic. This individual is one who loves the church and the gospel, wants to share it with others, and to live in the church fully, but nevertheless finds something which unncessarily, in their view, impedes one or more of these goals. For instance, the oft-repeated teaching that righteousness leads to prosperity might be criticized by such an individual for a variety of reasons. Some women find it hard to share the gospel with others given the church culture and contemporary social norms. Others might find that involvement with same-sex marriage opponents alienates members and investigators with opposing or ambivalent views and stigmatizes gay Latter-day Saints.
While it is certainly possible to hold contrasting opinions on these controversial topics, the faithful cultural critic raises these or other issues as areas of further reflection and conversation because they want to see the church be a better place, a place where the ideals of Zion can be realized, and a place that will bring more into God’s fold and keep others from feeling that they don’t belong. They desire to widen the stakes of Zion, to extend the length of the iron rod, and to persuade with love-unfeigned.
Unfortunately, the discourse of criticism and obedience in the church fails to distinguish between different kinds, and the faithful cultural critic is quickly cast in the role of the unfaithful critic. There is little ground left, if any, for the faithful critic when all criticism can be discursively cast as definitionally unfaithful. The burden, however, lies on the cultural critic to produce this very ground from which they may speak.