CES Letter Reply: A Jim Bennett Mormonism® Manifesto

Jeremy Runnells, author of the CES Letter to which I have written a too-snarky reply hosted on this site, has a section on his website titled “Debunkings,” and I have recently been added to the rogue’s gallery of apologists who have earned a direct Runnells rebuttal. It appears he’s going to update the Jim Bennett debunking on a weekly basis, and I heartily recommend that anyone with any interest therein should give it a read. 

I confess, however, that, at present, that is not a population that includes yours truly. 

When the debunking was called to my attention, I dutifully sprang into action and began the process of creating a “rebunking” to his debunking – a line-by-line response to his line-by-line response to my previous line-by-line response. After about an hour of this, I felt like I was reviewing the fine print on a legal document at a mortgage closing. It just became so reductive and minutiae-focused that I lost interest very quickly. I also decided that after 150,000 words in my original response, as well as more than 30 hours of podcast discussions on these subjects with Bill Reel and John Dehlin, that my positions are pretty well known and accessible at this point. So if Jeremy would like to have the last word in our written exchange, I am happy to give it to him. 

I would, however, like to use this post to provide a broad and (relatively) brief overview of my response to his rebuttal, as well as to do some housecleaning that I promised Jeremy in person that I would do and still, roughly three years after my promise, haven’t gotten around to actually doing. 

So let’s start with that. The 2018 version of my CES Letter Reply has a goofy graphic on the first page where Jeremy is Joseph Smith and I’m a hobo with a bindle at the end of a stick. My intent with this graphic was to poke fun at myself, but the humor didn’t translate well, and Jeremy politely asked me to remove it. I didn’t, largely because the original source files of my reply are built in Apple Pages, which gets really wonky when you export it to a PDF. I envisioned hours and hours of formatting work in making the change, so I kept putting off until tomorrow until three years of tomorrows had gone by. I have no excuse other than my own slothfulness. 

There is also an egregious error in terms of the accusation that Jeremy pulls in upwards of 10K a month to his CES Letter foundation. When I met with him for lunch, he said that the most he had ever brought in in a single month was 6K, which was unusually high for him, and that this usual income was 1-2K. I have not made that change, either. So as Jeremy’s debunking points out this gross misrepresentation, please recognize that he is correct to do so. 

A great deal of the rebuttal also highlights where I went too far in terms of snark or where my attempts at humor were more cruel than funny. There are far too many of those moments in my reply that deserve that criticism, and I am happy to acknowledge that Jeremy has a point there, too. 

As for the content of the debunking, the sense I get from my cursory review of the first batch of missives is that I’m primarily accused of perpetuating “Jim Bennett Mormonism®” that is “a new, foreign, contradictory and strange Mormonism” which is “not condoned or accepted by the Brethren and top leadership of the LDS Church.” 

This is where I would like to begin to push back. 

It’s not that Jeremy is wrong to say that my strange brew of Mormonism is, in many ways, unique to me. It’s that it’s wrong to say that such is not the case with every member of the Church, past or present. Faith is an intimate and personal thing, and every person’s faith reflects their own singular, one-on-one encounter with the Divine. Religion isn’t just words on a page – religion is lived experience, and nobody’s lived experience is identical to anyone else’s. Within the history of the Church, it is not difficult to find significant differences of how people practice their faith, even at the highest levels of the Church. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Given the reality of human agency, it’s really not possible for it to be any other way. 

It’s also odd to me that anyone should expect our theology to be a sort of static, fixed point, as it has never been and never will be any such thing. We are a church built on the idea of continuing revelation, which means that continuing change is a feature, not a bug. As I repeatedly emphasize in both the CES Letter reply and everything I’ve said since I wrote it, the Lord says never said this is the only true church. He said this is the only true and living church. The living part is just as important as the true part, if not more so. 

I recently came across a profound quote from Muhammad Ali, who said that “the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” Living things change and grow and adapt and look different over time. 20-year-old Jim Bennett and 53 year-old Jim Bennett are both still identifiably Jim Bennett and have many things in common, but they’re also very different in many ways, and not just in terms of grey hairs and expanding waistlines. Similarly, a time-traveling member of the Church from the 19th Century would find the 2021 Church to be a very different thing from the one they left behind. (At least both churches would be ones free of any affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America. Since just about every childhood trauma I ever had is somehow connected to the BSA, I was really happy to see scouting tossed on the dustbin of Latter-day Saint history.)

Jeremy deserves a great deal of praise here. To the extent that his CES Letter has punctured the fragile illusion of a “Chapel Correlated Mormonism” that is monolithic in belief and practice, he has done a good thing. It has never made sense to me that a church that teaches God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” is also a church that can never, ever change. 

As to whether my own heterodoxy is heretical enough to constitute “apostasy,” as Jeremy alleges, I hope he will not be disappointed to discover that, as far as I can tell, I am in no danger of being booted from the pews. If my personal faith practice is “not condoned or accepted by the Brethren and top leadership of the LDS Church,” then it is odd that I’ve had several encounters with high-ranking Church leaders who have expressed gratitude for my CES Letter reply. In addition, several mission presidents have made my reply required reading for all of their missionaries, many of whom email me regularly to let me know how helpful it has been to their own faith. If missions president are peddling apostasy on my behalf, their efforts have oddly been “condoned and accepted” so far by the leaders who call them.  As far as I know, nobody in the Church Office Building is telling them to put a stop to it. 

It turns out, then, that when Elder Uchtdorf said that “regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church,” he meant it. The sort of “Chapel Correlated Mormonism” that Jeremy rails against has been modified and reshaped by the practical worship of millions of members, no two ways of which are fully alike. 

This segues somewhat into Jeremy’s other larger criticism, which is that my views have “evolved” since I first wrote my CES Letter reply, and the kinder, gentler Jim Bennett Mormonism® of 2021 is now starkly at odds with the rigid apologetical fervor of the Jim Bennett Mormonism® of 2018. Should this evolution continue, Jeremy suggests, I am likely to evolve my way out of the Church entirely. 

Is that my destiny? Well, anything’s possible, I suppose, and I don’t deny that an evolution is taking place. I just don’t think my evolution is taking me in the direction Jeremy thinks it is. 

Muhammad Ali has me pegged – I see the world and the Church quite differently than I did as a young man. When I was 20, I was a young missionary in Scotland, pounding doors in the pouring rain trying to preach the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m now somewhat north of 50, and I’m still trying to preach the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. But the both Jim Bennett and the Restored Gospel I taught and teach have not stood still in those three decades of lived experience. 

Many, many of the things that young Elder Bennett in Scotland fretted about on a daily basis don’t matter a lick to me anymore. I was one of those missionaries who, if I woke up at 6:35 instead of 6:30, would spend the rest of the day racked with guilt. I viewed God as a harsh taskmaster and scorekeeper, and if I didn’t pile up enough points by the end of the day before my bedtime prayers, I punished myself with feelings of inadequacy and failure. 

I’m embarrassed by that now, especially since I’ve had 30+ years to deepen and broaden my personal relationship with the God I misunderstood three decades ago. I now recognize the hand of my Heavenly Parents and my savior Jesus Christ in everything that I do, and I see infinite compassion now where I saw only judgment before. And the reason I don’t think that’s going to lead me out of the Church is that recognition is largely due to my encounter with Christ in the Book of Mormon. 

The Book of Mormon is the anchor to my testimony. For me, it’s a divine access point, a tangible miracle that connects me to God. My appreciation and understanding of it grows with each passing year, and it helps me separate the signal from the noise. As long as the Book of Mormon is at the core of what the Church teaches, this is where I’ll be, too.

But there is a critical aspect to my personal theological evolution that owes a tremendous debt to Jeremy Runnells and the CES Letter, and I want to conclude my “rebunking” with an attempt to acknowledge and hopefully repay a small portion of that debt. 

My initial purpose in replying to Jeremy’s letter was not an attempt to offer the kind of definitive, airtight answers to his questions that he was looking to the Church to provide. I don’t think such answers have been given to any church or faith tradition. Mortality is never that tidy, and simple, pat answers to complex theological questions don’t seem to be part of the plan. We came to this earth to struggle, to build faith in the absence of perfect knowledge. We aren’t allowed to look at the teacher’s key to read all the answers while we’re taking the test. 

So my reply attempt was to model how I, personally, have confronted this issues with my eyes open and come away with a richer and deeper faith than I had before I knew about any of it. I don’t hope to create converts to Jim Bennett Mormonism® so much as I hope that you can use me as a catalyst to brew up your own tasty theological concoction. I want to give people an appreciation for how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place where the hand of the Lord can be found amid all the mistakes and shortcomings of its leaders and members. My reply was an attempt to say “this is how I did it; your mileage may vary.” At least, I hope it varies. Variety in the Church is what makes it beautiful, and we could use more of it. 

Something interesting and unexpected has happened, however, as I’ve continued this conversation in the 5+ years since I published the first version of my reply on April Fool’s Day. This is where my colossal debt to Jeremy comes into focus. 

Initially, the messages I received were almost entirely from people who found the reply helpful in addressing their faith crisis. Today, however, most of the messages I get come from people who have left the Church and have no intention of coming back. They are heartbreaking and lovely messages from people in pain. They write me and say that my conversations with John Dehlin have helped them better appreciate their family and friends who have chosen to stay, and that they felt, for the first time, that it was possible to have a conversation with believers where they could feel heard and respected. 

This floored and humbled me, and it made me aware of a massive problem that, prior to my CES Letter reply, I had largely ignored, if I was even aware of it at all. 

My goal in writing my reply was to help people hold on to their faith. Sometimes, I’ve been successful. Other times, not so much. So what happens when I’m not? How do we treat our friends, our family, our spouses who experience a faith crisis and come out of it with a very different perspective from the one they had before? If my wife were to tell me she is now an atheist, how would I respond? 

From what I can see, in far too many instances, believers tend to respond in the worst possible way – with unkindness, with rejection, with rage and anger and isolation. Children are essentially disowned. Marriages end in bitter divorce. A Church built on a foundation of eternal families needs to find a way to heal the sharp divisions in the families here and now that include believers and non-believers alike. Right now, we don’t even seem to be looking for ways to cross the chasm. Instead, both sides head off in opposite directions and surround themselves with people who agree with them. 

And really, why wouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t a non-believer look to find fellowship with like-minded people who aren’t telling them they’re evil demon hellspawn? And what kind of believer would be foolish enough to wade into the waters of exMormon Reddit? You know, other than me? (Yes, I’ve done that and rather enjoyed it, but, again, Jim Bennett Mormonism® is not for everyone.) 

As I’ve reached out and tried to find my way to connect to people like Jeremy and John Dehlin, I’ve discovered that not only do we not have the tools to bridge the widening divide, we aren’t even looking for them. Furthermore, there is a growing faction within the Church that wants a smaller, “purer” Church where “Chapel Correlated Mormonism” becomes the only lived reality, albeit combined with a rancid mixture of bigotry, misogyny, and violence. The nastiest messages I receive now do not come from people who have left the Church; they come from DezNat, a Twitter faction that doubles down on the very worst aspects of Latter-day Saint culture. If Jeremy Runnells, John Dehlin, and DezNat were all in a police lineup where I was being forced to choose which one is a likely agent of Satan, neither Jeremy nor John would be my first or second choice.

Jeremy Runnells, then, has introduced me to an entirely new conversation. It’s a conversation between those in the Church and those who have left it, or are on the way out. It’s a conversation that is even now quietly taking place in thousands of mixed-faith marriages struggling to survive. It’s the legions of tear-filled conversations between an early-return missionary and their furiously disappointed parents. It’s the terror preceding the conversation between a gay teenager planning to tell his bishop father that he isn’t going to go on a mission. And it’s the heartbreaking conversation that adult children have with their elderly parents when they tell them they simply aren’t going to Church anymore. 

There are good people in this Church, and there are times when conversations like these go well. But there are far, far, far too many times where they do not. 

These are the kinds of conversations that Jeremy has introduced me to, and they are the kinds of conversations that interest me now. So as Jeremy’s Jim Bennett Mormonism® debunking project revisits the various rabbit holes of View of the Hebrews and Egyptian funeral papyri et al, you are welcome to join him. For my part, I want to move forward in the conversation to which Jeremy has introduced me, and for which I owe him a great deal. I hope he will continue to be a part of it.