Mormonism isn’t like a string of Christmas lights

RNS photo courtesy Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye

(RNS) My childhood memories of decorating the family Christmas tree include a growing appreciation of the fine line between delight and disillusion.

Each year, we took the strands of colored lights out of their boxes, wound them around the tree, and held our breath as we plugged them in. Would the lights spring to life, or would a single broken light condemn the whole string to sullen darkness?

Some people feel the same way about faith.

A recent article on titled “But I’m a good Mormon wife” gives a poignant account of the unraveling of a Mormon woman’s faith as she confronted various details of her church’s history for the first time. “If Joseph Smith was a fraud—then what did that make the Church?” she asks. A chorus of comments following the article congratulated her for reasoning her way out of religion.

I don’t criticize her decision to leave Mormonism, but I have to disagree with the article’s implicit conclusion that leaving Mormonism—or indeed any religious tradition—is the only logical choice for a rational, educated person.

The logic behind this loss of faith — Joseph Smith was a fraud, therefore the religion that he founded is bogus, and one’s entire experience as a Mormon is bogus — is actually just the reverse of how many Mormons approach their faith. If the Book of Mormon is true, the thinking goes, then everything Joseph Smith did or said was divinely inspired. And if Joseph Smith was divinely inspired in everything, then everything about the church is just how God wants it.

I am an active Mormon and I love my church. At the same time, I can empathize with the disillusionment felt by those who investigate Mormon history for the first time after having been exposed only to sanitized versions of church history.

If a person looks at faith like a string of Christmas lights, they demand that “light” leap from one point to another along a single string of connections. If one junction along the string is flawed, then the whole string is dysfunctional. Or, if the whole string is functional, then every single junction must be perfect.

Here's the problem with the Christmas-light view of religion: it's too easily manufactured and too easily broken. As a young girl in Sunday School, just hearing tear-jerking stories about hardy Mormon pioneer women pushing handcarts across the Great Plains filled me with religious certitude. Surely, I thought, the pioneers would not have suffered for something that wasn't true.

The other side of the the Christmas-light perspective also makes it easy to discredit an entire faith tradition. All you have to do is knock out a single light, and kaplooey—the whole tradition is dysfunctional, bogus, and unworthy of the loyalty of intelligent people.

Human flaws are painfully apparent throughout the history of every major religious tradition — including Mormonism — but that doesn’t negate the experience, motives, or morals of all Catholics, Anglicans, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims — or Mormons.

I have encountered both the humanness and the divinity of religious traditions in my own life. I have studied Mormon history and I am just as certain that early leaders such as Joseph Smith were imperfect individuals who on occasion made serious and damaging missteps as I am certain that Joseph Smith was indeed inspired in founding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its rich doctrines and bold avenues of sacred experience.

In instances too numerous to describe, I have experienced what Mormons refer to as the influence of the Holy Spirit—sometimes in the form of a profound, transformative empathy, sometimes in the deep impression that Christ’s grace mattered and was real to me. Sometimes it was as simple as the desire to do better and to be good. I value these experiences, and the religious tradition within which I interpret them, with both my heart and mind.

So if the Christmas lights approach to faith doesn't work, we need something else. Something like sourdough bread.

I bake our family’s bread with a sourdough starter that—according to tradition, at least—came across the plains with the Mormon pioneers. Artisan sourdough bread with a golden crust that crackles and a creamy interior with large, irregular holes and complex flavors doesn’t just happen. Enzymes must work to break apart tasteless starch molecules in the raw flour so that the wild yeasts can feed on simple sugars and create bubbles of carbon dioxide that stretch strands of gluten. Strains of bacteria compete for dominance in creating an acidic environment.

From start to finish, it's all a process of fermentation—what we would normally call “food going bad.” It begins with the starter, an unruly colony of wild yeasts and bacteria swimming together in starchy soup. There is nothing lovely or pure about sourdough starter. Its exuberance makes it sour on the verge of stinky, fermented bordering on decayed. Yet, when introduced into a properly balanced supply of flour, water and salt, the starter is a catalyst for building a complex, living community that results in heavenly bread.

Religious traditions, like sourdough, are complex, living things. They are both organization and organism, created and sustained from many different processes and actors, shaped by time and their environment. They even can be naturally subject to corruption.

And yet they are also susceptible — through this same process of leavening — to producing goodness. Appreciating this goodness, and engaging productively with the complex processes that create it, is a project of intellect, not ignorance.

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She currently lives in Hong Kong, where she is writing a book on the history of the True Jesus Church and Protestant Christianity in China.

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She currently lives in Hong Kong, where she is writing a book on the history of the True Jesus Church and Protestant Christianity in China.

(Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She currently lives in Hong Kong, where she is writing a book on the history of the True Jesus Church and Protestant Christianity in China.)

About the author

Melissa Inouye


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  • Thank you for a very good article. Enriches my testimony, and increases my faith.

  • Nice metaphors. I, too, found the salon article narrow and a bit immature, but to each her own. Thanks for a great thought piece.

  • Great post. I too think the Xmas light analogy may feel too simple. And, the yeasty bread comparison seems to allow for more “variety” with the organic messiness of the baked loafs’ origins. But this analogy begs a serious question: What if the recipe that’s been passed down is flawed? Indeed, the final product is bread-like and palatable for many… But in the case of (insert any favorite religion here), it may not only be unpalatable but can lead to terrible sickness (having components that are hazardous to some).
    My point is: the goodness of people is manifest everywhere, in spite of flawed men who claim to represent (what they claim) the best or most correct recipe.
    …there is, objectively speaking, no religion (read: recipe) that is free from serious flaws. As such, why not be and do good in the world and cut out the unpalatable ingredients altogether?

  • So many things wrong with this article. In Mormonism you are taught it’s all or nothing. The writer, though mormon, does not understand this. Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith, was a sexual deviant who destroyed the lives of many children and women to satisfy and gratify himself. And there is so much more. I hope that people will search out the truth about this cult and steer clear of it.

  • @Randall — Just because Mormons are taught that it’s all or nothing does not make it so. I am also an active member of the Church and share the complexity of faith that enriches my life as the author. Religion does not come from simplistic teachings, even a religion as authority-focused as Mormonism.

  • I liked the analogy. Was amusing that it brought out some trolls, such as Randall, and thoughts, like Paul, about the spiritual equivalent to gluten intolerance. I’ve always thought that the biblical Paul’s analogy of parts of the body applied to various churches as well as to various people.

    Too often I read canned exit narratives. They have the same shallow rote steps, just like the Salon article. Might as well have a simplified entry narrative in Salon. It would have as much meaning.

    The OP, on the other hand, offered something useful.

    Thank you.

  • @Randall – I am a fifth generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has blessed the lives of myself and many ancestors and my children. For you to call my religion, that I feel guides me to Christ in everything I do, is hurtful to me personally. If anyone wants to know what is really taught in the “Mormon Church” they can read about it on There are no hidden agendas or motives, just genuine people being guided by the Holy Spirit as we strive to help ourselves and those around us find Christ.

  • While I happen to agree with the author, for the most part, this view is expressly NOT the one taught by church leaders. Consider President Hinckley in the October 2002 general conference: “Our whole strength rests on the validity of [Joseph Smith’s] vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.” While many people’s actual experience (mine included) may be more like the yeasty bread dough, the church actively promotes the Christmas lights version and we shouldn’t be surprised when someone raised on this type of rhetoric falls apart when one leg of the stool gets kicked out.

  • I really like the metaphor of sour dough. But I bridle at the notion that it is possible to reject the founder and keep all the other stuff. I don’t think that is what the OP does. To me it says the same thing Joseph Smith himself said and that is that he was not perfect. That a prophet is only a prophet when acting as one.

    The thing that bothers me the most is the axiomatic assertion that something fraudulent was going on during the restoration and the founding of the church. A lot of Christmas lights on a string can go out and still there will be power running through the cord as long as it is plugged into a power source and the fuse in the plug is good. The individual lights do not power the whole string. A person who owns such a set of lights and buys another when one light goes out because they think the problem is in the bulb will waste money and energy because they did not bother to look further to find out what is really going on. It is even possible the problem is in a fuse and not the lights at all. Religion like Christmas light strings are more complex than appearances might lead us to believe.

  • Hmmm, you know I’ve never really tried to make sourdough bread before, or pancake’s like the ones my mom would occasionally make. Always seemed like more effort then I ever wanted to put into making bread. For the longest time I was the same way with banana bread and zucchini bread but if you have a good recipe to fallow then i like them both, same thing with my mom sourdough pancakes. As far as Christmas tree lights my dad showed me a handy little devise that makes looking for the light that doesn’t work a hole lot easier to find…. I’m thinking next Christmas that’s a sure buy for us because I always end up with a string of lights wear half the string of lights don’t work or maybe it’s every other few that don’t but either way it’s a daunting task to try and find the one light that’s knocking out the rest. As far as the angles to various christen faith particular that of LDS this is the first article I’ve read going into either of them…. though I thought the sour dough analogy was a unique angle to look at it by.

  • Joseph Smith may have had a few so called flaws. But like moles on the face are not damaging to the whole face appearance. (Cindy Crawford comes to mind) and we don’t look at the person as if he were all moles and therefore not nice looking. So as with Joseph, bearer of “mole” ,or two in his make up oesn’t disqualify him as a true Prophet of God.. In fact next to Jesus Christ Joseph has done more for the salvation of the human family than any other man despite his few flaws.

  • Joseph Smith Jr., I’ve done a lot of research on the rumors and feel that there is no possible way to know for sure except by putting faith in the information you choose to accept. Personally I feel that many disrespectful and self confident but also self absorbed authors of evil intent will be unveiled in the future of human existence. I also believe being a prophet does not infer perfection in understanding, in application, or in example- look at Jonah, God still tried to teach him forgiveness and compassion at the end of his history and he still didn’t get it. Joseph was not as evil as the rumors make him out to be and simply put no one knows for sure, but if you read journals of those closest to him then the rumors look like rumors as I personally suspect they are. The rumors are fruits of perverse minds who what others see, but call it something else. There are things done by the Prophet that appeared suspicious unless you knew him and refused a mind of perversion. Often all of us do things that if our thoughts were not revealed then we appear to be doing something different. I accept that Joseph Smith Jr., the prophet, was flawed, but he was not perverse. And Rumors may attempt to unscrew a single light, but we can choose to turn it and inspect it to find that it is actually good. Every human being must live by faith, religious or not. In the end what you put your faith in will matter. I hope you not only read about Joseph Smith Jr., but read about the author of what you are reading. I found over 90% of the accusations proven in other official documents to be false and heavy with assumptions as to the mind and heart of a man they never really met and revealed more of their own mind than of Joseph’s. I choose to place my faith, which is necessary as a human creature, in the existence of God.

  • While I find this article to be a nice way to apply Elder Holland’s recent council in General Conference (“Don’t dwell on old issues or grievances—not toward yourself nor your neighbor nor even, I might add, toward this true and living Church.”) I have a hard time accepting it because of the Sunday School lessons, Book of Mormon lessons, Joseph Smith lessons, and Conference talks that rely on the “either/or” philosophy. One of these talks was that of Gordon B. Hinckley: “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.”

    While I don’t like the “either/or” philosophy because it, in itself, is a fallacy, I think it is important to note that disregarding early Church history that might point to Joseph Smith being a fraud is not something that can be discarded. Hinckley himself said that if Smith was a fraud, then the Church is not true.

  • Some events in the church’s history might be viewed as a broken light bulb in a strand, and perhaps shouldn’t be, but I think that whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet is more like the strand of lights having been plugged in in the first place.

  • I think it’s important to note that Pres. Hinckley’s comment was about a single, critical, Restoration-framing event- not the entire life of the Prophet.

  • Ms Inouye, thank you for a wonderful article. I greatly appreciate how it encourages us to fortify our faith against doubt, which is so gleefully encouraged by many. Sure, Joseph Smith made mistakes, as do all men. But I urge your readers not to buy in to all the malicious accusations cast about wildly. He was not a fraud. He did see our Savior and our Father in the Sacred Grove. He did restore magnificent truths that had been lost. He also was the conduit for additional revelations from our Father in this final dispensation. Dont let folks worry you. Hold on to the Rod!

  • @Amanda, I agree with Nate. The quote from Pres. Hinckley was specifically referring to the First Vision. I think it is fair to say that if the First Vision did not occur then the entire Church is a fraud. That’s not really going out on a limb. Equally important would be the divine guidance and inspiration used to translate the Book of Mormon. If this did not occur then it would also be a fraud. However, what may appear to be blemishes or imperfections in Joseph Smith the man (without actually stepping inside his shoes we would never know for sure) are not on par in importance with the First Vision or the Book of Mormon. Prophets throughout the Bible, and the Book of Mormon for that matter, had significant flaws. Peter denied Christ three times, Jonah had serious obedience and faith issues, Noah had some strange behavior (go look it up), and I could name some others. That doesn’t necessarily negate all their work and fruits of their labor. Repentance, humility, and forgiveness are principles God wants us to truly internalize. That’s why prophets are not perfect IMO. As I examine my own self, I see tremendous flaws, and yet, I know I’ve received inspiration to help myself and my family.

  • Excellent article. I’ve felt this for a long time, but thought you did a great job of using symbols to convey the idea well.

  • I enjoyed this article, as well. I thought it was insightful and sensitive.

    But I also have to agree with some of the earlier posts regarding the traditional way in which the LDS Church actually creates and inculcates the “string of Christmas lights” mentality.

    Not only do we have Pres. Hinckley’s either/or statement about the First Vision (mentioned above), but we also have Joseph Smith saying that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of the religion, to which President Benson clarified “just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”

    I might add, the idea of making the First Vision the ultimate “either/or” question in the church as the focus of faith and testimony is a relatively recent shift away from using the Book of Mormon as the ultimate litmus test.

    When I was young, all Native Americans were considered Lamanites. As DNA studies, archaeological studies, linguistic studies, etc, developed and became more precise, the lack of evidence supporting the Book of Mormon narratives became more difficult to explain away. Rather, we saw the rise of a new theory: the limited geographic model, which suggests evidence of the Nephites/Lamanites has not been discovered because they were only a small part of the indigenous population throughout the America. The church scholars have, of course, responded to all these issues.

    My point is not to take one side or the other with these issues; rather, I want to make the observation that the church leaders appear to be moving away from the Book of Mormon as the central test of faith (which is more and more difficult to support with modern audiences) toward the First Vision, which requires nothing more than pure faith and a spiritual witness to confirm the veracity of the church.

    But in the end, we still have the either/or mentality coming from Salt Lake City. Too bad the sourdough bread example isn’t adopted, giving more people an opportunity to confirm their faith in more diverse, inclusive ways.

  • This made a lot of sense for me. A few difficult experiences doesn’t mean my whole faith falls apart. Thanks for explaining this so clearly.


  • I agree with everything you said except one thing. Not EVERYTHING Joseph Smith said is inspired by God. He was an imperfect human like the rest of us. Yes, he was a true prophet, but like Moses or Jonah of old, he had plenty of human flaws.

    Anyway, thank you so much for this perspective!

  • The problem is not that there is just one junction or light that is out in the Mormon string of lights. The problem is that many junctions and many lights are out. The originator of most of the Mormon lights is Joseph Smith. If you take a serious look at Mormon lights such as the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Abraham, temple ceremony, church history and so forth then you find serious problems. With greater knowledge and understanding what was once (like a child) seen as a miraculous light is now seen as an understandable phenomena of an organization putting forth its religious propaganda.

    Lest any are left with the thought that there are no real problems with the aforementioned Mormon lights I will list a single problem with each. The serious seeker of truth should take the time to investigate each more fully and see the problems for themselves.
    Book of Mormon – DNA evidence and who are the Lamanites in America?
    Doctrine and Covenants – Did God really change the Book of Commandments revelations to become what is currently in the Doctrine and Covenants?
    Book of Abraham – Why doesn’t the papyrus translate into what is written in the Book of Abraham? (search Kinderhook Plates for another fraud translation issue)
    Temple Ceremony – Why has it changed so much and why did the original have exact elements of Masonic ceremonies of Joseph’s day?
    Church History – Why does the church change and alter history documents such as changing when Joseph asked to get tobacco for a sick into getting medicine for the sick?

    These are just a few of the many junctions or lights that I have found are out on the Mormon string.. The problem is not being able to overcome one light or junction it is that there are many fundamental lights or junctions that are out. When I looked into the details of the recipe I saw that it had been changed and altered so much that it raises serious doubts as to whether the original recipe was from God. If the original has changed so much why would one believe the current recipe is really from God?

  • This was a very nice article, and it reminds me of how the Savior talked about leaven: “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees”, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven”

    This “either/or” mentality is not taught by the Church in that “either Joseph Smith was a perfect man and the Church is true, or Joseph Smith was a fraud and the Church is too.” The “either/or” mentality that our leaders teach is exactly what President Hinckley said, “Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud. If it did, then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.”

    Which Nate (and a few others) clarified: “I think it’s important to note that Pres. Hinckley’s comment was about a single, critical, Restoration-framing event- not the entire life of the Prophet.”

    It is true that if God the Father and Jesus Christ never came to the earth and restored Christ’s Church, then this isn’t it.

    President Hinckley (nor any other prophet or leader) has said Joseph Smith’s infallibility was somehow related to the truthfulness of the Church. In fact, I have personally heard many leaders and prophets admit that they are merely men, whose capacities have been enlarged by the Spirit – men who make mistakes, just like the rest of us.

    Have you ever read of a prophet, modern or otherwise, who was perfect? Maybe Enoch. He was pretty close, I imagine, since he got translated. But even Moses, one of the greatest prophets ever, was chastised by God.

    Perfect people do not a perfect Church make. GOD/Jesus Christ make a true Church.

  • As usual, there is a missing link in the analysis here…it is the Biblical perspective. The Bible does make it clear what a false prophet really is. If this “prophet” says anything in the name of the Lord God and it comes not to pass, then you shall not fear him. Joseph Smith prophesied many things in the name of the Lord God and they came not to pass. End of story, a false prophet. The book itself is, or course, true. It is plagiarized almost wholesale from an early nineteenth century writer named Solomon Spaulding. Oh, and riddle me this Batman, if what I just said is untrue, why is Spalding’s handwriting a match for the so-called “unknown” scribe in the original handwritten manuscript for the Book of Mormon. This is a dangerous and fraudulent cult which attempts to control the lives of its members and which poisons those who touch it to the true gospel of simple grace which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Flee from the wrath of God!!

  • Wonderful insights. The Christmas lights example is a fun analogy. I’ve certainly known a bunch of Mormons who when a little light goes out, seem to be disappointed and pull the whole string down. Others have somehow succeeded in leaving the lights on the edge of their roofs shining throughout the year. And they never burn out! In my case, I have to keep going to the store and buying replacement bulbs. Over the years, I and many Mormons I know have times of brilliant light and truth, and other periods of difficulty and a bit of the darkness of disbelief. However, if we just stay plugged in to the Source of power, we are able to enjoy the beauty of the gospel again, and it illuminates and beautifies our lives more than ever.