Apostolic favoritism poses dangers to discipleship
“When Satan goes to sleep he checks under his bed for Jeffrey R. Holland,” says Mormon Problem’s popular Facebook status.
Most of the posts by Mormon Problems—an unofficial fan site developed to humorously celebrate the esoteric in Mormon culture—get somewhere around sub-1000 likes; this one is at almost 5,000 likes and climbing. For those who didn’t immediately recognize the allusion, this post is a Mormon adaptation of an old Chuck Norris joke. In the Chuck Norris version, the Boogieman checks under his bed for the infamous martial artist.
Jeffrey R. Holland has become the darling apostle of Generation Y. “I don’t always give the best talks at conference,” says the text of one viral meme featuring a picture of Elder Holland. “Oh, wait! Yes, I do!” says the punch line. Other apostles enjoy similar celebrity status, particularly Elder Deiter F. Uchtdorf.
But the question has yet to be asked, does this apostolic favoritism have any consequences? If so, what are they?
One potential consequence of preferential devotion to one apostle is that our preference could deafen us to the important messages of other apostles.
If we sustain all 15 men as prophets, seers and revelators, we can assume the same quality of inspiration, revelation and substance in their addresses. But if we listen only to those we consider to be the most riveting, then we are likely doing ourselves a disservice. Snoozing through the majority of the Brethren’s addresses only to awaken for our favorites is like repetitively reading the book of Alma for its wars while neglecting to read the quieter Book of Mosiah.
Like the Book of Alma, Elder Holland has some fight in him, making him so beloved among youth and young adults. But the same special charm that makes him so accessible also presents a unique challenge for the listening disciple: to not mistake rhetorical wrapping for actual substance.
Let me be clear—I am not saying that there is anything faulty, dishonest or manipulative about Elder Holland’s presentation style, or that he compensates with style for lack of substance. What I am saying is our generation’s consistent preference for Elder Holland’s addresses makes the quality and maturity of our generation’s Gospel understanding suspect as it implies a preference for stylistic delivery to substance. Ultimately, if we believed all 15 men were equally inspired in their addresses and favored substance over style, it seems unlikely we would come out cheering about the same speaker every time.
Sometimes, what we crave is a quotable Gospel. We desire aphoristic catchphrases easily posted to Twitter or made into memes. We also tend to appreciate the passionate as it offers a break to eight hours of gentler voices.I understand the function of the passion and the catchphrases– their memorability, portability and general ease to summon in moments of temptation—insofar as we do not mistake these things to be the whole of our religion, and insofar as we do not forget about the less quotable or less palatable or exciting Brethren and all the inspiration they have to offer.
The most obvious counter-argument says apostolic favoritism is okay because it is natural that different people connect with different apostolic personalities.But this perspective displaces the responsibility of spiritual learning from the listener to the speaker–an unfortunate inversion. As Robert K. Thomas says, “We fail to accept our responsibilities as listeners, however, if we expect the speaker to be the exclusive source of both substance and spirit. Worship is not passive. Those who are ‘anxiously engaged’ do more than receive—they generate.”
In other words, we must not be so passive as to listen only when the apostles “come to us,” or when we feel a connection with them, or when their personalities resonate with our own. We must be more active in trying to connect with all of the brethren for our own benefit. Think: we share very little with Jesus Christ culturally or historically, but we are commanded to seek a loving connection with him all the same.
Consider the testimony of Elder Holland himself gave about the inspiration of all speakers at General Conference:
“Perhaps you already know (but if you don’t you should) that with rare exception, no man or woman who speaks here is assigned a topic. Each is to fast and pray, study and seek, start and stop and start again until he or she is confident that for this conference, at this time, his or hers is the topic the Lord wishes that speaker to present regardless of personal wishes or private preferences. Every man and woman you have heard during the past 10 hours of general conference has tried to be true to that prompting. Each has wept, worried, and earnestly sought the Lord’s direction to guide his or her thoughts and expression. And just as Brigham Young saw an angel standing over this place, so do I see angels standing in it. My brethren and sisters among the general officers of the Church will be uneasy with that description, but that is how I see them—mortal messengers with angelic messages, men and women who have all the physical and financial and family difficulties you and I have but who with faith have consecrated their lives to the callings that have come to them and the duty to preach God’s word, not their own.”
Lastly, maybe not the least of our considerations should be for Elder Holland’s own feelings: how do you think he would feel about his own popularity?