CES Reply: AMA Follow-up, Part 1

So a couple of days ago, over on the /latterdaysaints subreddit, I participated in my first “AMA,” in which Redditors were invited to “Ask Me Anything,” most of which focused on my reply to the CES Letter hosted here at Canonizer. I thought it was a productive discussion that covered a great deal of ground. If you’re interested in reading what was asked and answered, you can read the whole AMA here.

Some, apparently, were not pleased, as the mods in the subreddit filtered out queries that they deemed rude or inappropriate or in violation of the subreddit’s established rules. Among the displeased was Bill Reel, who took to a different subreddit to ask me a lengthy question that covered no new ground beyond the over 15 hours of recorded conversations we have already had on his podcast. He has asked me, both publicly and privately, to respond to this “new” question, as well as to agree to an eighth podcast with him in which I set the agenda and put him on the defensive, instead of vice versa.

I am not going to respond to either request. And I think I owe Bill and anyone else following our exchange a legitimate reason why.

As background, please indulge me as I take you back to the late 1980s, a time when a young Jim Bennett was a Latter-day Saint missionary convinced he could convert all of Scotland to the Restored Gospel by the sheer power of his debating skills. I fancied myself some kind of genius Bible scholar, when all I had done was memorize a handful of cliched prooftexts that I thought could prove that my interpretation of scripture was the correct one. You shouldn’t be startled to learn that my use of said prooftexts never failed to fail to make converts on either side.

Missionaries refer to such events as “Bible bashes.” They’re heated, vicious affairs, and everyone involved usually ends up walking away angry. Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants warn against such nonsense. Section 19, verse 31 reads as follows:

And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost isn’t argumentative or contentious. He’s not interested in legalistic wrangling over tenets. He speaks with a still small voice, not with a bullhorn and a subpoena.

That’s not to say that the principles we believe in are irrelevant, or that they don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s that heated debates over tenets don’t shed any light on anything.

Although I ought to share one Bible bash I had back on the streets of Dundee, Scotland, that was particularly memorable.

Some evangelical Christians were holding a street meeting, and my missionary companion and I were the only ones paying any attention to it. Pretty soon, they were standing in a circle around me, firing off nasty questions, with me firing back. (My companion had the good sense to keep his head down and wait until the whole thing blew over.)

In the middle of the fracas, a woman in a pirate’s outfit came storming through the middle of it, asking if we knew where we could find buried treasure. Annoyed at the interruption, I pointed at a nearby building and said, “It’s over there!”

“That’s a bank!” she said, scoffing, as she hit me over the head with a plastic baseball bat.

Turns out she was a TV host of a popular British children’s program, and I was on national UK television the next day. So the moral of the story is, if you want to be a British TV star, you should argue about Bible verses in the public square.

(I’m sorry, what was my point again?)

Anyway, decades after my UK children’s TV debut, a mutual friend posted on Facebook that it would be fun to see me go “toe to toe” with Bill Reel. I immediately responded that I was willing to talk to anybody, but, as a result of my past experiences, I had no desire to go “toe-to-toe” in a tenet-based theological fistfight. I was only interested in thoughtful discussion, not debate.

Those were the terms that Bill Reel agreed to when we began recording these podcasts, and that was what I naively believed was happening during the course of our discussions. Yet after the first six were published, Bill took a victory lap all over the Internet to brag about how much “ground” he had forced me to “give up,” characterizing the exchange as exactly the kind of debate I was hoping to avoid. (I have discussed that at length both here at Canonizer and in a guest blog post at FairMormon.)

People have noted that our seventh exchange was considerably more combative than our first six, which is true. In the first six, I showed no hesitation in showing respect for Bill’s point of view, even when it was different than mine. In the seventh, I knew that every time I expressed even the slightest bit of empathy for a perspective other than my own, that empathy would be weaponized against me as an online comment about how Jim Bennett lost another point in his grand debate with Bill Reel. So whereas in the first six, I was trying to be as approachable as possible in order to create a genuine and productive dialogue, in the seventh, I definitely had my guard up.

That, I think, is the saddest outcome of our lengthy discussion. I had hoped to model a scenario where people in and out of the Church could talk in an environment where we could address our differences candidly with kindness and respect. Bill’s gloating has made it all but impossible for anyone in the future to have that kind of conversation publicly. Going forward, it’s all Bible bashing from here on out.

So now the request is that I dive into a different, more hostile subreddit with Bill and rehash arguments Bill and I have already had. Thanks but no thanks. I have no interest in prolonging an extended Bible bash unless it leads to a UK television contract.

There are a few other things I want to address about the AMA, which I will do in subsequent posts. Stay tuned! (That’s TV lingo.) In the meantime, you can participate in the conversation by joining one of the Canonizer threads below – or creating one of your own!