345: Dr. Tom Mould–Still the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition

May 3, 2012
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In this episode, Scott H. interviews Dr. Tom Mould about his recent book: “Still the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition“. Dr. Mould is an associate professor of anthropology and folklore at Elon University and director of Elon’s Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies. A non-Mormon, Dr. Mould nonetheless became very familiar with the Mormon experience in his field work. He immersed himself in a Mormon community, attending church meetings, family home evenings, and even father/son campouts. His perspectives on how Mormons experience, share, and interpret personal revelation is fascinating for anyone interested in Mormon studies or folklore studies in general.

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15 Responses to 345: Dr. Tom Mould–Still the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition

  1. Joe
    May 3, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    I enjoyed listening to the post.

    I found it particularly interesting the discussion about telling stories and bearing testimonies in the passive voice and how this allows the story teller and the listener to fill in the blanks together. That group reassurance is very powerful, and something that I somewhat miss since I have taken a few steps away from testimony bearing in recent years. I might suggest that the mormon stories podcast fills this particular hole in our lives that some of us hadn’t put a name to.

    Great job.

    • johndehlin
      May 3, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks, Joe!

    • Scott Holley
      May 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm

      I agree Joe, I found that fascinating as well! One of the other reasons that we use the passive voice is that it helps us manage the central tension of proving the Holy Spirit while not coming across as prideful. Saying “the thought came to me”, rather than “I heard the voice of the Holy Ghost tell me” conveys a similar message while allowing the speaker to maintain a posture of humility. Our narrative tradition allows us to convey a lot of hidden meaning when we share!

  2. Anon
    May 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    John,
    I appreciate your efforts at informing people of all the diversity with in and with out of the institution of the church. This interesting interview open up my thoughts about my experiences with this “personal revelation” issue. Let me share with you some of those thoughts. 

    As a back ground I began having revelations at an early age, the first one I could articulate at the age of twelve. These experiences run the gamut of hearing “the still small voice” to having direct interaction with the Divine. Generally I’ve kept 99% of these to just my immediate family and ultra close friends; purposely leaving out church members; especially during institutional settings. 

    I realized at that young age, that the kinds of spiritual experiences I was having were not what is “normal”. Because of the socialization process, I was “taught” to value what is “normal”, I tended to push these experiences into my mental background. When I attended BYU I took the Self Deception course taught by C. Terry Warner; where I learned to articulate this socialization process, all the while denying that this process had influenced me. I “discovered” that my entire life had been a “lie”; in that I was not doing “good” for itself, rather I was doing “good” for the approval of others. When this “world view” crashed, I was only left with those spiritual experiences; which by the way, came center stage in my “new world view”; and even increased. 

    My refusal to share these experiences with church members, is partly based on this understanding that a paradigm shift must occur; which shift is viewed by church members as “despair” (defined as the “tool of the devil”). I’m neither able or willing to step in and assist any one in rebuilding their shattered “world view”.  I see this “despair” as essential to the “broken heart and contrite spirit” requirement prior to the intervention of the Divine, often referred to as “the atonement”. This “dis-ease” of the socialization process (the fallen state of mortals) is cured only by the Divine, directly. 

    I have also suffered persecution in numerous forms (from mocking, accusations of apostasy,  up to and including temple recommend denial) from church authorities, when I have just “hinted” (shared no details) that I’ve had “significant” spiritual experiences. I have been warned by the still small voice, to be silent in the church institutional context. This “silence” has been misinterpreted as prideful arrogance and rebellion against authority. I’ve been grilled in an inquisitional setting at the ward and stake level and accused of receiving revelation from the “other side”, on six occasions during the past twenty years. I’m certain that had I not maintained silence during this time, I would have been subject to church discipline. 

    I will admit that prior to the still small voice commanding my silence, I had “stepped on the toes of some powerful people, especially regarding my political perspective (libertarian, i.e. no government, because of the coercion involved) and accusing those who favor government as “morally deficient”; which was “harsh” on my part. 

    Because of my personal revelations, several family members were prevented from suffering physical harm or death; various employment opportunities were realized; financial disaster was avoided; my sins, and guilt were removed; my mate was chosen; visions of the future were received, conversing with deceased loved ones were enjoyed; and I could go on, but I’ll cease. All these “blessings” were Divine gifts to me and I treasure them above the institutional church’s promises. So, for me the Church’s  historical, doctrinal, and social “issues” presented here are interesting, but are minor to my life. I don’t have to defend any other person’s works or words, either living or dead. I know for my self.

    I wish you well in your journey.

    • Scott Holley
      May 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      One of the powerful aspects of Dr. Mould’s approach explicitly assumes the truth and rationality of personal revelation experience. “Some past studies have explained away the supernatural according to cultural, social and psychological factors… Hufford’s remedy is to reverse the tables, assuming truth and rationality grounded in experience, rather than psychosis and irrationality.” p139. Thank you for sharing your experiences here!

  3. Dean Scott
    May 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I enjoyed this podcast.  I appreciate Dr. Mould’s combination of empathy while performing objective research.  Thanks for sharing.

    • Scott Holley
      May 7, 2012 at 4:21 pm

      Agree, Dean. There is a lot that we can learn about how to approach people where they are with respect and empathy.

  4. CanuckAussie
    May 6, 2012 at 7:53 am

      I would have liked to hear some discussion about the value or reliability of personal revelation. The human mind can easily create strong emotions, voices and even full hallucinations. In the church, when members feel the slightest warm fuzzy, they are told “that’s the spirit” Yet it is no different than what  they might feel listening to a nice piece of movie, or even an emotionally manipulative movie. If “personal revelation” comes from without, then one must question the source of it. It seems to me that if personal revelation if from a spirit, then that spirit is clearly a prankster, like Loki of Nordic mythology.  After all, he tells one person Mormonism is true, another that Islam is true, another that Pentacostal religion is the only way. In fact, he tells people of every religion that theirs is the true one. Furthermore, he tells LDS members to become polygamists. He tells middle aged FLDS men to have ritual sex with a 12 year old girl. He tells people to marry a partner that they are totally imcompatible with.  Clearly, personal revelation is not to be trusted any more than any idea that pops into our heads.  So utlimately, what is the value of it?

    • Scott Holley
      May 7, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      Hi Canuck – I made this observation, above, but one of the things that I loved about Tom’s approach was his balance of cultural source theory and experiential source theory… ie we are products of both our lived experiences and our lived experiences within our social norms for communicating experiences with the divine. Psychology can make very important contributions to our experiences of the divine, (see recent podcast with Dr. Nagel or my podcast on Mormon Matters). But anthropology also has much to teach us about how our community norms shape our narratives and hence our understanding of our lived experiences. Finally, although I am a skeptic when it comes to the role of divinity in personal revelation, I am not swayed by your logical argument that all experience with the divine is necessarily mythical because some experiences obviously are. Again – I’m not claiming that any particular revelation is not mythical, I’m just arguing that your assertion that Loki/FLDS invalidates all revelation is unconvincing. Why not assume that the vikings, pentecostals, and FLDS had an inkling of encounter with the divine that they embellished and enhanced beyond recognition? Your argument seems to rely on its conclusion for its own evidence – “revelation is ridiculous so evidence of ridiculous revelation obviously means that revelation is ridiculous.”

      • CanuckAussie
        May 17, 2012 at 5:06 am

        You make some good points. I can see value in seeking revelation, as long as that revelation is backed by logic and evidence. For example, in choosing a mate, using it as confirmation of a decision, rather than to make a decision. I do believe in the divine, so I can see that there could be revelation with the divine. But not in the LDS manner, where that revelation goes counter overwhelming evidence. I think revelation must always take second place to evidence and logic.

  5. Arthur
    May 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    This was pretty interesting. Personal LDS narratives are very interesting to me as an outsider as well. Framing one’s life narrative with the rich lore (non-pejorative) of the LDS faith is just plain interesting, and quite foreign and yet familiar to my Catholic experience. The Catholic Church has many unique Saint narratives, that often blend the mundane and the miraculous, but I hardly ever hear any member of the Church talk about the supernatural involving itself in their lives.

    • Scott Holley
      May 7, 2012 at 4:38 pm

      Thanks Arthur! I think that as Mormons we take for granted just how much of our narrative tradition is, as you put it, both “foreign and yet familiar” to outsiders. There is so much to be gained from having a safe community where people can mutually affirm their experiences with the divine. Which reminds me. I’d love to have a series on Mormon Stories at some point where a Mormon Stories interviewer pairs up with a member of another faith tradition, each attend each others services, and then “return and report” on what each found similar, striking, different, perplexing, etc.

      • Arthur
        May 10, 2012 at 1:51 am

        That sounds rather interesting. :)

  6. Jared
    May 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Wow, what a fantastic, illuminating, and thought provoking discussion. Thank you so much for your time, expertise, and preparation Scott and Dr. Mould. And as someone finishing up my doctorate at UNC, it was great to go “back to Carolina in my mind” :).

    Tom’s empathetic professionalism really shined during this interview. I know it is a professional ideal, but hearing his sympathetic outside perspective was refreshing.

    Early in the podcast when you were talking about prophecy it made me wonder how familiar Tom is with patriarchal blessings. I think they would make for a fascinating study, both from the perspective of the givers and receivers. I think that they are one of the most direct sources Mormons look to for predictions about their future both personal and global (it is very common for Mormons to try to gauge the timing of the Second Coming using patriarchal blessings for example).

    I really enjoyed the modeling of the anthropological focus on “lived religion”. So needed and valuable.

    Good discussion of ambivalent place of praising performance. When people would tell me “that was a great testimony”, I never quite knew how to respond.

    I still bear my testimony, and wonder if people notice that I never bring up the standard components.

    Which leads me to my next point. I think one of the areas of greatest tension is between personal and institutional revelation. Yes, members “make up Mormonism”, but from the inside, or at least the inside fringes, there seems to be an extraordinary pressure to conform performance to the standard expressions. I find the implications of Elder Dallin Oak’s “Two Channels of Revelation” to be deeply disturbing and problematic. He basically says that the purpose of personal revelation is to confirm institutional revelation and that if we feel something that does not conform, it comes from the devil: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/two-lines-of-communication?lang=eng

    Yes, people live their own form of the religion, but the LDS Church is particularly powerful in the way it condones, condemns, and constrains relationship with the divine.

    I have heard stories of bishops and Stake Presidents getting up after someone’s testimony and calling it “false doctrine” etc. Sometimes it does not stop at eye rolling or discomfort.

    I don’t know if you bring this up in the book, but there are for example extremely clear criteria on what a testimony should include, which is why bingo is so possible to play:

    “A testimony is a simple expression of what we feel. The member who has fasted both for the blessing of the poor and for the companionship of the Spirit will be feeling gratitude for the love of God and the certainty of eternal truth.”

    http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1996/10/witnesses-for-god?lang=eng

    People have even capitalized on this; I was slightly horrified when my daughter’s grandmother bought her a “testimony glove” book for her baptism: http://deseretbook.com/Testimony-Glove-Kristen-M-Oaks/i/5044695

    I also enjoyed the discussion of how our cultural conditioning constrains and shapes our spiritual experiences. I too think we receive spiritual experiences only as we believe they are possible I also hope we can open ourselves to the way others experience the divine. Too often the LDS Church proselytes not only Mormonism, but American Mormonism. It is unfortunate. I too would mourn the loss of the dramatic spiritual experiences. I want to foster those; I love the magic of Mormonism.

    Regarding the discourse of doubting and rejecting the spirtiual promptings, though I agree with the conclusions expressed in the podcast, I think it is also a natural result of the collision of worldviews (secular and rational vs. spiritual and imminent divine participation).

    Fascinating point about LDS culture emphasizing the pervasive spiritual and physical harm as a counterpoint to the narratives of being rescued from harm (because of the unique resources of Mormonism of course). I agree this has a negative fragility where people do not feel safe, and an overabundance of anxiety. If Mormonism is a high priced solution, there needs to be a hell of a problem.

    Tom, one of my favorite points (regarding the evil world) is the temple teaches that this world is the Telestial Kingdom. I wish Mormons would emphasize more than this world is a place of glory, not only of adversity and testing.

    I was deeply moved by the end of the podcast. As a non-literal believer (I would call myself an agnostic religious humanist) who loves Mormonism, I am acutely sensitive to the harm Mormonism does, while also wanting my children to have the toolset to hear from the divine in whatever way works for them. I want them to expect to hear God tell them to buy a dress if that is what needs to happen.

    Of course, I want my children to gain the best of my tradition while rejecting the harmful elements, all the while appreciating the good in the traditions of others, so we will see how it goes. :)

  7. Jan Taylor Riley
    June 8, 2012 at 1:22 am

    Uh…no “he” doesn’t. Here is formula for discerning when you are actually being guided by the one and only true God, through one of His means/ways of guiding you (aka a voice, inspiration, dreams, vision, et al) and when you are being deceived by his enemy, the author of all lies: if you are being obedient to the commandments of God. Check out 1 John 2: 3-5. If you are not living your life in compliance with the commandments, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the gospel as it is found in the Bible, and keeping and obeying the covenants you have made, then you are not qualified (nor would God burden you) with any more light or inspiration than you presently have. And if you think you are being guided, it is by some other voice, unless you are being given a particular gift of guidance. As it pertains to “revelation” about truth, you are not receiving any enlightenment whatsoever from God if your life is not obedient to His commandments. He loves you too much to give you more light than you are willing to obey.

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