013-014: RationalFaiths.com’s Michael Barker on Faith Crisis and Inoculation

We have been humbled and astonished at the caliber of guests we’ve been able to have on our podcast thus far. People like Greg Prince, Margaret Young, John Sorenson, Phil Barlow, and so many others are the true progenitors of the modern Intellectual Mormonism community. I was surprised to find out early on that many of these living legends had rarely experienced a monumental faith crisis in their lives. Since one of the objectives of this podcast is to help individuals navigate through a faith crisis with testimonies intact, I thought it would be important for us to find some regular LDS folks who have faced that “dark night of the soul” but still remained faithful.

Thanks to our wonderful A Thoughtful Faith Facebook Group and a recommendation by his brother Paul, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to get to know Michael Barker and hear his amazing story. In this interview, Mike shares how a close look at polygamy and polyandry catalyzed his  doubts in the mission of Joseph Smith. He shares how a combination of unapologetic Mormon Scholarship and communion with God allowed him to find a way to maintain his faith as an active, believing Latter-Day Saint. Michael also discusses how his discovery of the concepts of Natural Theology led him to start the Rational Faiths Blog, and how a burning desire to inoculate the Saints fuels his current zeal for Mormonism.

Before this interview, I had known of Michael Barker and his brother Paul through their work at RationalFaiths.com, a blog dedicated to creating a “safe, fair, and balanced space to discuss the complexities, difficulties, and beauty of their Mormon tradition.” At Rational Faiths the Barker Brothers provide insights into the current LDS Sunday School Curriculum, book reviews, and various topics within Mormonism from seer stones to modesty. Be sure to check out their wonderful blog at RationalFaiths.com.

 

Links:

RationalFaiths.com
Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview by D. Michael Quinn
In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince
By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl Givens
The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens

Comments

comments

35 Comments

  1. Micah, and Michael…thanks so much for this podcast. My crisis of faith has been for a completely different reason, but still it helps me immensely to hear how others work through their issues. It is great to know that others have questions as well, because like Michael, I have felt alone with my questions. Thanks again!

    1. Leslie,

      First of all, I have no idea why my wife’s picture show’s up when I write.

      I am so glad you enjoyed the interview. I have a good friend in my ward that sent me a message several months ago stating that he could “easily leave the church and feel no guilt.”

      I had him come over and we spoke for about two hours. I offered no answers to his questions; I just listened. There is something powerful in being able to voice your concerns without the fear of judgement. When people say that people “fall away because of sin”, when it is actually for historical or social reasons, they are presenting a red-herring argument. By doing so they are refusing to engage the problem head-on. It is insincere and I think is done as a way to protect themselves.

      I hope you come by and visit our blog sometime. It is a safe place to wrestle with questions about our Mormon faith. We aren’t afraid to “poke at the beast” a bit.

      mike

      1. Josh

        No, problem. I enjoyed it. God still hasn’t answered me, but I’m holding out still. I live in Utah county and my bishop (next door neighbor) would never be as liberal as yours, but I believe early inoculation is the best answer for the rising generations. They will find out with how easy information is to obtain. People leaving right now feel like they are treated like little kids that can’t handle the truth. It’s the feeling of betrayal and being mislead that get people to leave, not the complexity of human fallibility.

        1. Josh,

          I was surprised when my bishop gave me the green light to approach some of these issues. I wish I could have gone into more detail about the resistance I got from some, but felt for reason of confidentiality, that it would have been inappropriate.

          The greatest advice I got from my bishop when I was going through an angry phase with some members was, “Be patient.” Sounds so simple and possibly dismissive, but it wasn’t.

          So you know, our blog is a safe place to work things out while still asking honest questions. You have my personal invitation to come visit us and leave a comment sometime.

          Mike

  2. Joe

    Did my download fail? I have about 1 hour :20 and it cut Michael off practically mid sentence. Where’s the rest of the story? It ended with Micheal talking about Givens and the other books that helped him.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Man, this is really really great. Mike, I really appreciate you sharing how you have taken your faith journey and uncorrelated learning and instead of just pulling away and distancing yourself from the church, you have applied it for positive change in the Kingdom at a ward level. I myself have been serving for the past two years as the ward mission leader in my ward, and you know, it’s been hard to go out and knock doors every week and at the same time be constantly reformulating what the gospel means to me. And I am one, perhaps from cowardice, who’s been afraid about stepping outside of the bounds of cultural orthodoxy and getting slapped on the hand for it. I admire you for what you’ve done. You’ve given me some great ideas. Thanks for it!

    1. Brother Taylor,

      I am so glad you enjoyed listening to me ramble for two hours. I can imagine that transitioning one’s faith while knocking doors isn’t easy. I’ll keep you in my heart, thoughts, and prayers.

  4. Joel

    Finally got a chance to listen Michel and your non-scholarly talk about your faith crisis. I have listened to almost all of the Mormon Stories podcasts along with Mormon Matters and I really appreciate “A Thoughtful Faith” and the approach from a believing perspective.
    My experience mirrors yours Michael. I have wrestled with many of the same issues with our church history and Christianity as a whole. What many people fail to realize is that most people in the church before finding out about this stuff who often times leave the church, have had spiritual experiences. The church gathers and raises people that are receptive to these spiritual experiences. It brings to my mind, “endure to the end admonition.” God does reveal to us his continued light, but it is on His timeframe and not ours. The test of faith can leave us with some very dark moments just as Christ experienced:

    Mark 15:34 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

    Sometimes the darkness must come so that we can more fully comprehend the light and complete our mission.

    I have read many of Bart Ehrman’s books. Absolutely love him! He changed my perspective on the scriptures totally and confirmed dramatically the 8th & 9th article of faith. Interestingly enough, I guess Mormons have been approaching him trying to recruit him. He’d make a great LDS.

    Thanks again! You have confirmed the path that I am taking in my calling as the Ward Mission Leader and teacher of the Gospel Essentials class. It’s great sharing many of these same insights that you have talked about with new and returning members of the church. Inoculate now because virtually all will come in contact with the difficult questions at some point. Even though we don’t have all the answers, we do have the truth from a thoughtful faith perspective that might bet them over the hump.

    Love you good Brother!

    Joel

  5. DP

    Michael… I really enjoyed your story and thoughts. I’m curious to know who the theologian is that you mentioned, I believe “agnostic”, who argues for an historical Jesus. I didn’t quite catch his name.

    I too work with the young men and was curious about your outline for modesty. Would you be willing to share that?

    1. Joel

      Hi DP,

      I am not Michael, but this might help.
      That scholar would be Bart Ehrman. He wrote, “Did Jesus Exist?” Really good book that lays out the case for a historical Jesus from a true skeptic. I have found most of Ehrman’s books to be very well written and not so technical that even a novice of church history like myself can understand.

      Cheers!

  6. Jason F

    Thank you to Michael & Micah for this interview, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated it!

    As I listened I wondered why this interview didn’t occur over on “Mormon Stories” as it seemed like a better fit for what that podcast tends to be involved with. However, as I listened to the second part I was convinced it absolutely belonged on “A Thoughtful Faith”. Not that you need my approval, and either way it is all in the Mormon Stories family. I was convinced it fit in this podcast series as Michael talked about the ways he has used his experiences and studies in how he interacts with others, and especially in how he teaches. Michael’s boldness and lack of guile in using what he has learned are very inspiring to me.

    I feel like I am somewhat behind yet on a similar path Michael describes that he has taken on his faith journey. Hearing about how he has used his experience in positive ways is encouraging for where I am on that journey. I would also like to validate how important it is to be able to talk out your thoughts with someone as you are walking down this path. I am very fortunate that my wife is willing to listen and engage with me when I need to vocalize my thoughts and concerns.

    I am so glad you shared the story about teaching your daughter about polygamy and her synthesis and analysis using her own experiences. That was very encouraging.

  7. Emily

    Can you share more specifics on your modesty lesson? That is one area that I really struggle with teaching in line with the manual and would love advice on a fresh approach. Thanks!

  8. Steve in Millcreek

    Hi Mike, In the podcast, I think you said that you have a unique way to teach the Modesty lesson to the young men in your ward; a better way to prepare and inoculate them to face real life experiences. Would you share your key concepts/ideas/outline with me? My ward, (suburban Salt Lake UT), has a dozen boys that can benefit. Is this blog the best forum to discuss this, or phone or email?

  9. Brendan

    Mike,

    I really liked the podcast. I had a very similar experience, but made the choice after 13 years of confusion and struggle to formally resign from the church. I completely understand and empathize with your experience of not having anyone to talk to who understood your struggles with these very tough, and real, issues. I find value in how you and other enlightened mormons continue to find fulfillment in the church. If I knew there were others out there, I may have been able to hang on and reconstruct. I have been attending my ward as an official “ex-Mormon” and that really has people confused. I fully support your your work to inoculate the younger generations. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  10. JT

    Let’s unpack this inoculation metaphor:

    Physical inoculation: To inject a blunted portion of pathogen into an uninfected body to protect it from the fully virulent pathogen by “tricking” the body into building automatic defenses to attack it spontaneously and automatically when later encountered.

    “Spiritual”inoculation: To inject a blunted portion of truth into a innocent mind to protect it from the full truth by “tricking” the mind into building psychological defenses to attack it automatically when later encountered.

    Is a pathogen a good metaphor for truth? Is succumbing to disease a good metaphor for leaving the Church? Perhaps it is for Mormonism.

    What about a different metaphor? What about the boiling frog metaphor?

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog#mw-mf-search

    In other words, we can view this strategy as spinning and parsing the truth in order progressively desensitize innocent minds to the point where they cannot think critically about these “problems” in broader contexts that are more illuminating and ably negotiate what for some would be the best and most honest solution to these problems – leaving the church.

    Think about this. ThIs there no less potential mischief in this inoculation strategy? How easy would it be to broaden the practice of half-truth mongering justified by the same unwarranted certainty despite all appearances to the contrary?

    Case and point – the spinning revelation revision in the Ensign last month:

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/01/great-and-marvelous-are-the-revelations-of-god?lang=eng

    1. Jason F

      JT,

      I’ve had thoughts about the inoculation metaphor similar to what you have explained here, and from my point of view you may very well be right.

      However, I also wonder if there is a different way to look at it. What if the pathogen for which inoculation is needed is small minded, limited, and Pharisaical thinking and portrayal of idealized history?

      Then it isn’t about presenting unpleasant historical or doctrinal issues in a controlled way to allow for a justification to be built up against future attacks, but instead to present such issues as exposure to the fact that church membership & leadership doesn’t usually like to acknowledge the less pristine aspects of the church. That there should be increased awareness that everything in life and the church cannot (perhaps, should not) be wrapped up in a neat and tidy explanation that allows you to continue your existence unburdened by complicated issues.

      I don’t consider this point of view for the benefit of defending the church structure & organization, quite the contrary actually. But I do think that this point of view is on of the main things keeping me involved with the church at this time. I recently was asked to give a talk in church in which I address this need for active engagement of difficult issues. I have been meaning to post the text to my blog, when I do I will post a link here.

      1. JT

        Thanks Jason,

        Inoculation, like any other “technology”, can be both used for both good or ill.

        The tough call is whether this is a matter teaching people to wisely allow for the “less pristine” or a means of putting lipstick on legitimate “deal-breaker”. Full disclosure honors agency. Perhaps this is a step in that direction, perhaps not.

        I’ll keep an eye out for your post.

    2. Micah Nickolaisen

      Hi JT,

      As with all metaphors and analogies, the concept of inoculation as it relates to Mormonism does indeed fail at some point. However I think it might be useful to consider two things: first, the purpose of the concept of inoculation; and second, the intended audience for the concept.

      Regardless of how good or valid the metaphor is, I think we can all agree that the current approach proscribed by Mormon culture of avoiding information, condemning outside sources, and burying our heads in the sand isn’t valuable Or healthy. I think anything we can do to encourage exploration of Mormon history and doctrine is a shared objective here.

      I think that to many people who are post-believers or have left the church the notion of inoculation can be very offensive, because it compares their current situation and their current perspective as a disease that needs to be avoided. I totally understand and empathize with that. However, given that the intended audience of the concept of inoculation are believing faithful Latter-Day Saints, I think the metaphor is useful and hopefully can serve a good purpose in opening up the discourse within Mormon culture. 

    3. JT,

      Any metaphor can be taken too far. Inoculation is a metaphor and that is it.

      Your use of this metaphor is not how I see it at all. No one is being tricked. With my teaching of my daughters, there are often no conclusions reached. I will often present historical facts and then have a healthy discussion at the dinner table and see whet conclusions my daughters will reach .

      1. JT

        Thanks Michael,

        I wouldn’t presume your personal disclosure of what you know about Church history to family members follows the metaphorical correspondence I noted.

        I also understand that a faithful perspective could take “blunted pathogen” to correspond to “distorted truth.”

        But one thing the metaphor does not seem to mean is full disclosure. My concern – and skepticism – is about how this metaphor applies to institutional Mormonism – as in the hands of the Correlation committee. The Church’s claim to ultimate truth transcends objective evidence to the contrary – no matter how heavily it weighs against it. Revelation trumps reason. This means that how the Church manages the facts of history will be purely strategic – it will be manipulated to serve its dogmatic presuppositions.

        If you are interested I gave this more thought earlier this evening and wrote a blog post.

        http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/inoculation-from-thetruth/

        Best wishes

        JT

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