The complaint I hear most often about testimony meeting is that people don’t actually bear testimony — that instead they do things like tell stories, engage in “thankamonies,” and so forth. While I am not entirely unsympathetic to such complaints, I find myself curious as to how those who are raising these concerns would imagine the ideal testimony meeting. In other words, what exactly does it mean to stick strictly to testimony-bearing?
I ask this because my impression is that often the assumption lurking here is that “pure” testimony-bearing means making use of propositional statements to articulate one’s beliefs. In this model, a testimony necessarily includes statements like “I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet,” “I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God,” or “I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” People might tell stories about how they arrived at this knowledge, but such stories are usually framed as secondary — the essence of a testimony, as understood in this framework, consists of these kinds of doctrinal assertions.
While I certainly think there can be real power in bearing testimony in this way, I am uneasy with this model being held up as the standard of what a testimony should look like. For one thing, I am not persuaded that propositional statements are always the most powerful or effective way of conveying truth. The scriptures, I note, though they certainly contain doctrinal statements, do not simply read like a catechism or a treatise on systematic theology. In particular, they spend a lot of time telling stories. And I do not believe that these stories can be reduced to propositional statements which contain their essence, or that abstract doctrinal assertions convey truth in a more direct or “pure” fashion. In fact, if anything, I tend to see propositional statements as secondary– important, but nonetheless always limited, attempts to articulate the truths so richly expressed in the narratives.
Because of this, I am not convinced that testimony-bearing and storytelling are necessarily different things. And I would hate to see the relating of narratives quashed in some kind of quest for purer testimonies. I personally struggle to express my beliefs in the form of propositional statements; when I do make those kinds of assertions, I always end up second-guessing myself and wondering if I really do believe x or y. When people ask me what I believe, I notice that instead of trying to come up with doctrinal formulations, I frequently find myself relating a narrative about how I have seen God involved in my life. I may be unable to make a statement of definitive knowledge that the LDS church is true, but I can tell you the story of why I am a member.
I’m well aware that storytelling in testimony meeting can be long-winded and rambling, and at times seem to have little to do with the gospel. On the other hand, propositional statements are not without their own hazards, as they run the risk of sounding canned and formulaic. But I think both styles of testimony-bearing nonetheless have real value. I don’t even object to so-called “thankamonies” though they may at times sound a bit like Oscar acceptance speeches, I think often they are simply attempts to convey how a person has encountered God’s grace through the love of other human beings. I think we would lose some of the richness of our belief if we were to limit testimonies to one form.
Also, on a somewhat less lofty note, I have to admit that I fear that a meeting in which person after person got up to express their beliefs exclusively in the form of propositional doctrinal statements would quickly become deadly dull. I find that usually it’s the stories that give testimonies a personal flavor and make them come alive. And I’d hesitate to excessively discourage even the wild tales, as truth to tell, the possibility of someone relating a bizarre story is often part of what keeps me paying attention. So bring on the stories. I want to hear them.