The Mormon prophet’s test kitchen

Why do mature adults practice obedience? Hint: It’s not because someone told them, again and again, to obey.

Some of my America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks. Photo by Jana Riess

(RNS) — I love to cook. I think it would be fun to spend a couple of hours every day in the kitchen, baking and cooking and trying new recipes. However, I have very little free time; I’m usually balancing multiple work commitments as well as family and church responsibilities. I can’t take hours on end to experiment in the kitchen.

That is why, about 10 years ago, I was thrilled when a friend introduced me to America’s Test Kitchen. I now have seven or eight ATK cookbooks — all dog-eared, and with Post-it notes sticking out of the edges. ATK allows me to get a recipe right the very first time because its cooks have already tested out every possible permutation of the ingredients, the preparation method and even the equipment used. I have confidence when I approach a new ATK recipe that the chefs there have already made the mistakes so I don’t have to.

I am obedient — astonishingly so, for people who know me! — when it comes to ATK’s recipes. I understand that if I deviate, I do so at my own risk, because ATK’s chefs have already done that and their results suffered for it.

I thought about this a fair amount over the weekend while I was cooking and listening to General Conference at the same time. Over and over, I was reminded to obey, obey, obey. (The church’s leaders are chosen by God! How do we know they are chosen by God? Because they have told us they are.) 

Because I didn’t grow up in the church, I did not hear those messages from infancy through loving parents I trusted. I’m sure that would have made an enormous difference in my socialization to the idea that my default mode needs to be to obey these men. (And they are all still men.) Many of my friends in the church who were indeed socialized in this manner have a hard time understanding my lack of trust.

But I am persuaded after 30 years of membership in this church that obedience does not happen by simply being reminded again and again that it is your job to obey. That the church relies so predictably on that strategy alone indicates just how strong the socialization has been for those in charge. 

The kind of trust that leads to adult obedience is built on multiple factors, some of which are very much present in the church, like consistency. The two I personally find most important are confession and expertise.

Let’s return to the America’s Test Kitchen example. Most ATK recipes have a bit of a formula: They tell you all the stuff ATK’s cooks bone-headedly did wrong the first 100 times, then explain the science behind why those attempts did not work successfully. I’m often intrigued by the litany of things they tried. And I’m grateful that they tell me exactly what those things were, because now I don’t have to struggle with them.

Public confession of mistakes requires a willingness to be human, which seems to be something church leaders aren’t willing to do. At least, not in forums like General Conference. There is a crippling perfectionism to leaders’ refusal to confess their shared humanity from the pulpit.

Yes, they will occasionally admit to the errors of their youth (usually mild ones) or recent quirky senior moments. But they don’t do the America’s Test Kitchen thing of saying, “Here’s an idiotic thing I tried last week. I thought it might help you, but it was a senseless experiment in the end. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes.” No, they would like us to believe God’s servants don’t make mistakes in the first place.  

If a willingness to admit blunders and be vulnerable is the first requirement for building trust where it does not yet already exist, expertise is the second.

Over time, I’ve come to trust the ATK chefs’ expertise. They always know better than I do. They’ve spent decades in the kitchen, full time, simply doing this: combing through recipes and new methodologies to create the very best version of a meal. I don’t have that kind of time, as I said. I don’t have their training. And frankly, as much as I love to cook, I don’t have their dedication to making that my full-time job. 

So, I trust them. I also obey what they tell me to do, even though they have never once asked me to. No one on the America’s Test Kitchen television series has ever gazed into the camera and warned me that if I fail to obey them, great chaos and peril will ensue. (Though on at least one occasion, that turned out to be true. Seriously, a fire truck came. It was quite a story.) I have never heard ATK warn me against watching other cooking shows or reading other cookbooks. ATK simply trusts that if it presents worthy and useful information, I will choose to obey because it makes my life so much better and easier. And that is right.

I wish the church manifested this kind of quiet confidence. Instead, we seem to be hearing more us-versus-them messaging, as the church pits itself against the world — and, increasingly, against former members. After General Conference, I received a couple of messages from readers who were upset by President Russell M. Nelson’s talk on Sunday. In particular, they identified this paragraph as problematic:

As you think celestial, you will view trials and opposition in a new light. When someone you love attacks truth, think celestial and don’t question your testimony. The apostle Paul prophesied that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils.” There is no end to the adversary’s deceptions. Please be prepared. Never take counsel from those who do not believe. Seek guidance from voices you can trust. From prophets, seers, and revelators and from the whisperings of the Holy Ghost who will show unto you the things what ye should do. (Emphasis added.)

President Russell M. Nelson, 99, speaks during a pre-recorded message shown during the Sunday afternoon session of October 2023 general conference on October 1. ©2023 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

President Russell M. Nelson, 99, speaks during a prerecorded message shown during the Sunday afternoon session of the October 2023 General Conference on Oct. 1. ©2023 by Intellectual Reserve Inc. All rights reserved.

I, too, found the message to “never take counsel from those who do not believe” a stumbling block, even though I felt uplifted by other portions of the talk. It’s vague enough that listeners could find all kinds of license for hurtful behavior by focusing on that one line. Shun a child who has left the church and wants to explain why? Refuse to learn about your neighbors’ Muslim faith because they are among “those who do not believe”? Stop consulting ATK recipes because you now fear that only a temple-endowed Latter-day Saint chef would be entitled to experience the Holy Spirit’s promptings about your proposed lasagna?

I think that when presented with a stark list like this, most church members would say no, that’s not what President Nelson meant at all. And certainly, some of the church’s own actions would belie this interpretation — for example, it has recently initiated a robust and really beautiful interfaith outreach program to better understand Islam. Clearly, the church teaches that we can and often do “take counsel” from people with differing beliefs.

But words like President Nelson’s also reveal a stubborn insularity and distrust that coexists with the more open, universalist strands of our theology. And ironically, the more church leaders stipulate that theirs are the only voices worth listening to, it makes them less persuasive, not more.

Related content:

The limits of Mormon obedience

Why we need Mormon dissenters

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