Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bishop and Historian

Picture this:

You are the Bishop of a well-educated Avenues ward in Salt Lake City; you are also an amateur Church historian who is preparing an article for a widely-read historical journal. Your article deals with an important leader of the early Church and, while researching, you stumble on a letter which recounts a particularly unsavory episode in this man's life. Intrigued, you research the incident further and find no previous author has brought it to light. Still, so far as you can tell, the depiction you found is accurate. This incident will add a significant facet to your portrayal of the man--it will help you round out the picture you paint. Still, because it is quite troubling, you wonder if you ought to mention it in your article.

You discuss the matter with your wife. She says, "Honey, you have to examine this letter in your article. To do otherwise would be dishonest. This one letter is not going to shake anyone's faith; in fact, such documents strengthen my faith because they remind me our leaders do great things despite their foibles. If you don't publish it, you will effectively be lying. You know what you need to do."

Still troubled, you take the issue to your best friend. "Well, Bishop," he explains, "I respect your wife--but I disagree with her. In fact, I think you're obligated not to examine this letter in your article. As a Bishop, your primary responsibility is for the welfare of your flock. The faith of the members is paramount, not historical accuracy. Besides, what obligates you to discuss the letter? You can still write a fair and balanced article without it. You never know, if you examine something so negative, it may impact one of your members--you know many of them read the journal. Why risk that harm when you have no way of knowing how ignorant you really are concerning the letter's antecedents and context?"

You must submit the article, one way or another, next Monday--whose advice do you follow? Why?


Anonymous preethi said...

Your wife's. Because she's your wife.

I think it depends in part why you are writing the article. If it is primarily as a historian, and IF you believe the incident provides an important perspective into this man, you write about it. End of story.

If you are writing primarily to help others better understand this man as a Church leader and to contribute to their faith, your decision is a bit more tricky. It is up to you to evaluate how the incident might affect others. If you believe it really does have the potential to harm faith, then it might be appropriate to leave it out. It might be easy to dismiss this by saying something to the effect of "If their faith in the gospel can be shaken by the weaknesses of the leadership, their faith wasn't that strong in the first place." True, but the scriptures also remind us that some are in need of meat, and some simply of milk. Perhaps some might not be quite ready to hear this, though if their faith were stronger it would be more appropriate.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that you can use this incident to really strengthen those who are struggling. Yes, it is more of a risk in that a select few might be turned off, but by recounting the incident, some who truly distressed might be comforted, strengthened, and perhaps even brought back into the fold. In the end, you know the letter, the context, your readers, and, most importantly, yourself and your writing ability best. If this incident causes you to even pause in your faith, it is likely this will show in your writing. If, on the other hand, it truly strengthens your faith, it is likely it will do the same for your readers.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Eric Nielson said...

I would say that until you have made sure the letter is legit you shoud keep it out. It all depends on how accurate you feel the letter is. If you aren't sure yet, there will be other opportunities to publish it later.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous J. Stapley said...

Publish it. If it is truely a scholarly journal and not a publication intended to be strictly "faith-promoting" (like the Ensign), then the best option is to include the most and best information possible.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

The Old Testament seems to provide a pretty good precedent for publishing the unsavory information along with the good information.

7:05 AM  
Blogger annegb said...

I'm with Eric, I'd make sure it was totally legitimate first. If it were about your best friend, or your wife, you'd make sure it was true and consider the implications. I don't think it's too much of the church to ask for caution and absolute accuracy.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I think my take is different. If I were an amateur historian, (rather than a professional historian who makes his living studying history) If I received a call to serve as a bishop I would probably discontinue publishing things for the time I was serving as Bishop.

11:40 PM  

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