Pearson is a relative newbie who wasn’t a General Authority when I was still a member. He is charismatic, animated, and funny.
While I liked his delivery style, the core of his message centered on thought reform. This message is, “Keep on believing no matter what.” Don’t let any trials, doubts, and questions steer you away from the Church. Keep your thoughts on the gospel and obey the commandments. This is a very literal form of mind control, as you are expected to continue thinking what the Church wants you to think.
No matter what.
Let’s take a closer look.
The title, “Stay by the Tree,” is a reference to Lehi’s dream about the Tree of Life, the narrow path leading to the tree, and the iron rod his children had to hold to in order to reach it safely. Other elements of this dream include a dangerous river, mists of darkness, and a “great and spacious building” which contained a multitude who mocked those those who held the rod, enticing them to leave the path.
Pearson begins with a deathbed story, which concludes, “[President Heber J. Grant's prayer] is a striking reminder that no one, at any age, is immune from Satan’s influence. Two of Satan’s most powerful tools are distraction and deception.”
This statement reframes the source of all doubt. Doubt can never come from any legitimate source. Any outside ideas that might confront your testimony (and cause cognitive dissonance) are deceptions from the devil! Those who take Elder Pearson seriously will, in the future, experience a knee-jerk thought-stopping reaction to anything that runs counter to their faith, reducing their ability to think critically.
Lest you think about not taking Pearson seriously, he describes the stakes: “Enduring to the end is a hallmark of true discipleship and is essential to eternal life.”
Eternal life is at stake. This employs a manipulation technique know as “dispensing of existence.” Do it, or experience spiritual death.
He lays down the thought-stopping techniques in rapid fire. He immediately doubles-down with a demand for purity:
“But when trials and challenges come our way, we are often told to simply ‘hang in there.’ Let me be clear: to ‘hang in there’ is not a principle of the gospel. Enduring to the end means constantly coming unto Christ and being perfected in Him… Casual obedience and lukewarm commitment weaken faith. Enduring to the end requires total commitment to the Savior and to our covenants.”
Your commitment must be total, which is why psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton calls ideological systems like these “totalism.” It’s not like a knitting circle, where you commit to knitting a few sweaters for charity. These covenants (to keep the commandments) apply to every aspect of life. And there are lots of explicit commandments.
But even the laundry list of written commandments aren’t enough. Pearson demands even more: “…ask Heavenly Father, ‘What more would You have me do?’”
This is an open-ended commandment, with no completion date, no box to check off. There is no end to the work required. You will never measure up, because there’s always something more God wants of you.
This kind of teaching leads to the toxic perfectionism that many members are suffering. This phenomenon has been documented by psychology researchers at Utah Valley University, but they blame LDS culture, not leadership, as if culture mutated that way all on its own. But when members are regularly told to not be lukewarm, to try harder, and to ask God for more work, they will easily slip into a mentality of “never good enough.” It’s a mentality that is difficult to overcome, even many years of even decades after leaving the Church.
Later in the talk, he repeats this concept yet again:
“There is no room for average or complacent disciples. Average is the enemy of excellence, and average commitment will prevent you from enduring to the end.”
And what is the reward for this endless work? “Eternal life with our loved ones is sweeter and more desirable than any other thing. To realize this gift, we must ‘come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.’”
The gift of the Forever Family is conditional upon being perfect. There is a threat here, scarcely veiled: If you don’t stay in the gospel, and don’t constantly strive for perfection, then you will lose your family.
Loved ones are held hostage to the gospel.
Pearson makes sure members know that there is but one legitimate path, only one right way to God, and only one good way to live:
“There is a path that leads to the tree of life, to Christ. It is strait and narrow, strict and exact. God’s commandments are strict but not restrictive. They protect us from spiritual and physical danger and prevent us from getting lost.”
This totalist admonition comes with a new embedded threat: Obey for your own safety.
Now that he has your attention, Elder Pearson offers a list of spiritual armor to shield members’ minds from the slings and arrows of doubt:
“When adversity comes, don’t let something you don’t fully understand unravel everything you do know. Be patient, cling to truth; understanding will come. Trials are like great mists of darkness that can blind our eyes and harden our hearts. Unless we are ‘continually holding fast’ to the word of God and living it, we will become spiritually blinded rather than spiritually minded. Search the Book of Mormon and the words of the living prophets every day, every day, every day! It’s the key to spiritual survival and avoiding deception. Without it, we are spiritually lost.”
This is an entire paragraph loaded with thought-terminating clichés. He even thought up a couple new ones. (Admittedly, “Spiritually minded not blinded” is pretty catchy.)
Members can now ward off cognitive dissonance by waiting, rather than continuing to question the pat answers handed down from on high. Eventually, under the many psychological pressures members are under, something will “click,” and testimony will be restored. (Or so Pearson hopes. It doesn’t always work.)
In the next step of ideological isolation, Elder Pearson warns members away from apostates, atheists, and critics like me:
“To heed is to give careful attention. Heeding those who do not believe in Christ will not help you find Him. Searching #spaciousbuilding for knowledge will not lead you to truth. It’s not posted there. Only the Savior has ‘the words of eternal life.’ Everything else is just words.”
Did I mention I like Pearson’s delivery? The shout out to Twitter culture was nice, and I think the congregation laughed.
But the content of his message is disturbing: Avoid any information that contradicts the Church.
I know that as a faithful member, it’s difficult to see why this line of thought is problematic. So here’s a thought experiment.
Imagine you’re looking to buy a car, and the car dealer insists, repeatedly, that you shouldn’t read the Consumer Report review of the vehicle. And under no circumstances, whatever you do, don’t research the VIN of this particular car.
When you ask why, he tells you that Consumer Reports is out to destroy his dealership and the car’s manufacture. He claims his competitors have hacked into CarFax to alter the history of this particular car. It’s a perfectly good car, so you should just trust him. Then he hands you a stack of documentation that he claims is the only truth about this car that you ought to be concerned about.
Sure enough, replete with bold red lettering, the documentation sings the praises of this car for 250 pages.
I wouldn’t be able to leave the dealership fast enough. Most Mormons would share my distrust.
The difference is that Church leaders have earned the unquestioning trust of their members. Sometimes a few members start to have misgivings and doubts. But those leaders have just enough trust equity left to instill an even greater mistrust in outsiders, those of us in the #spaciousbuilding.
Here’s how Pearson describes the proverbial Consumer Reports and CarFaxes:
“The large and spacious building symbolizes the ‘vain imaginations and the pride’ of the world — in other words, distraction and deception. It’s filled with well-dressed people who seem to have everything. But they mock the Savior and those who follow Him. They are ‘ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ They may be politically correct, but they are spiritually lost.”
He’s talking about me here (tho I’m not sure how well-dressed I am), warning faithful members against me, ascribing motives and tones to my work that aren’t really true.
How well does this work? Well, just over the weekend I had retweeted a few words about the “Any Opposed” people who shouted “Opposed!” in response to the sustaining of the leadership. I found myself arguing with a couple of people who claimed the protestors were “mocking” God and the Church, and that they only sought attention for themselves.
Where did they get that idea? Without even knowing these protestors, or their reasons, or knowing of their sincerity, other members instantly judged them and their motives. There was no room for genuine questions, like, “Why would anyone oppose the leadership? There must be some good reason. Maybe I’ll look into it.” If they did look into it, they’d find the AnyOpposed movement has articulated their rationale quite well. In multiple places. And here. And here. The members who did it were terrified. It was an act of bravery, not hilarity.
This is why I must defend myself against true-believing Mormons who make lots of assumptions about me. Yet I am sincere and my motives are pure.
This casual dismissal, reinforced by Pearson, creates an us-vs-them mentality, and leads to families who ostracize children, parents, brothers, sisters, and even spouses. It has nothing to do with spirituality. It is divisive and manipulative. It teaches the opposite of compassion and understanding for our fellow man. This is not a loving doctrine, and it is not a family value.
He iterates that members must be ever vigilant:
“If we stop doing those things that bring about deepening conversion, we regress spiritually. Apostasy is the reverse of conversion.”
Spiritual growth is tied exclusively to the Church. You can’t be spiritual if you’ve apostatized. Alternate paths of spirituality are discounted.
I hereby testify that spirituality can indeed be obtained outside the LDS Church. And even outside of Christianity. In fact, you don’t have to believe in any god to have a rich spiritual life.
Newsflash: Spirituality is a human trait. Experiencing the numinous is intrinsic to all of us. Reaching for the mystery, transcending the material, finding meaning, and experiencing the divine… these experiences are as familiar to most human beings as love is. Yes, even for atheists. Different faiths and ideologies use different terms to describe aspects of the same thing. God (if there is one) is not exclusive, and his truth (if it’s his) is ubiquitous and comes in many forms.
Once you’re outside a totalist system, it’s much easier to see how people from many different faiths and backgrounds can be just as spiritual as the most spiritual of LDS prophets.
I’m even willing to claim that thought-reform impedes spirituality.
Yet Elder Pearson continues to counsel total immersion in the gospel, so you have little time to think about anything else or to entertain doubts or questions:
“True disciples continue to awaken unto God each day in meaningful personal prayer, earnest scripture study, personal obedience, and selfless service.”
And you have no choice but to stay. After all, you committed:
“Once we enter into covenants with God, there is no going back. Giving in, giving up, and giving out are not options.” Most people are unwilling to go back on their commitments. Even when they turn out to be wrong. Reminding members of this reinforces this tie to the Church.
He concludes with another reminder of existential threat: we must hold to the rod, or die.
“‘And I said unto them…whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction. Wherefore, I…did exhort them…that they would give heed to the word of God and remember to keep his commandments always in all things.’ (1 Nephi 15:24–25.)”
And by “the Lord,” Elder Pearson means the Church leadership. Because if you get a different interpretation from scripture, or receive direct revelation, and it runs differently from what the leadership has included, you will be in danger of “apostasy.”
In this life, LDS leadership is your final judge, not God.
But in reality, your own inner sense of truth makes the best judge. If you can’t see the tree, stop walking towards it. If the fruit of the tree makes you sick, don’t eat it. If the tree offers no shade of comfort, don’t stay by it.
Though I say these words from the #spaciousbuilding, I am not mocking. I am not enticing you to sin. I’m asking you to trust yourself, to listen to your own powerful, intelligent spirit.
I’m inviting you to walk your own path, to find your own tree, and to eat whatever fruit is most healthy for you.
I’m inviting you to be yourself.