Often what I remember best about General Conference (other than controversial bit that are later argued in the Bloggernacle, of course) is the stories speakers tell. This probably isn’t surprising. A vivid story is likely more memorable for most people than an abstract discussion of Church doctrine or practice. But what might be unusual is that I’m frequently more struck by the subtext of a story than by its text. (By subtext, I just mean what is implied by the story’s content, or what is conveyed without being explicitly said.)
Sometimes the subtext of a story leads me to like the story. Other times it leads me to dislike it. Here are a couple of examples:
Elder Bednar told a story I particularly disliked in October 2008:
During our service at Brigham Young University–Idaho, Sister Bednar and I frequently hosted General Authorities in our home. Our family learned an important lesson about meaningful prayer as we knelt to pray one evening with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Earlier in the day Sister Bednar and I had been informed about the unexpected death of a dear friend, and our immediate desire was to pray for the surviving spouse and children. As I invited my wife to offer the prayer, the member of the Twelve, unaware of the tragedy, graciously suggested that in the prayer Sister Bednar express only appreciation for blessings received and ask for nothing. His counsel was similar to Alma’s instruction to the members of the ancient Church “to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all things” (Mosiah 26:39). Given the unexpected tragedy, requesting blessings for our friends initially seemed to us more urgent than expressing thanks.
Sister Bednar responded in faith to the direction she received. She thanked Heavenly Father for meaningful and memorable experiences with this dear friend. She communicated sincere gratitude for the Holy Ghost as the Comforter and for the gifts of the Spirit that enable us to face adversity and to serve others. Most importantly, she expressed appreciation for the plan of salvation, for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, for His Resurrection, and for the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel which make it possible for families to be together forever.
Our family learned from that experience a great lesson about the power of thankfulness in meaningful prayer. Because of and through that prayer, our family was blessed with inspiration about a number of issues that were pressing upon our minds and stirring in our hearts. We learned that our gratefulness for the plan of happiness and for the Savior’s mission of salvation provided needed reassurance and strengthened our confidence that all would be well with our dear friends. We also received insights concerning the things about which we should pray and appropriately ask in faith.
To me, the subtext of this story shouts so loudly that I have a hard time even hearing the text. Elder Bednar’s explicit point was that often it’s better to give thanks in prayers than to ask for things. I have no quarrel with him there. But his implicit point really rubs me the wrong way. By telling this particular story involving a visiting GA, he appears to be saying that GAs are infallible. Even when they’re wrong, or have incomplete information, they’re right. We’ll always be better off following them, even in apparently trivial little requests.
Note that I’m not arguing here that Elder Bednar intentionally set out to make this implicit point. He may have or he may not have. I would guess that he probably didn’t. But his intention is really beside the point. What’s important is that his subtext comes out of a worldview that appears to see GAs as infallible, regardless of whether this particular idea consciously passed through his mind when he selected this particular story to tell.
By contrast, President Uchtdorf told a story I particularly liked in October 2010:
When I was called as a General Authority, I was blessed to be tutored by many of the senior Brethren in the Church. One day I had the opportunity to drive President James E. Faust to a stake conference. During the hours we spent in the car, President Faust took the time to teach me some important principles about my assignment. He explained also how gracious the members of the Church are, especially to General Authorities. He said, “They will treat you very kindly. They will say nice things about you.” He laughed a little and then said, “Dieter, be thankful for this. But don’t you ever inhale it.”
Here, President Uchdorf’s explicit point is that we need to resist become prideful particularly when others tell us how wonderful we are. His subtext, though, like Elder Bednar’s, has something to say about GAs. By choosing a story particularly about GAs, he implicitly points out that pride is a danger even for GAs. I love in particular that he reports President Faust calling him by his first name. He could have easily left this part out. But by including it, he paints GAs as being more like the rest of us, a regular old people with first names who might have to worry about pride. The subtexts of these two stories are at odds. Elder Bednar’s story paints GAs as effectively infallible. President Uchtdorf’s story paints them as being quite human.
I realize that pinning down subtexts is more difficult than pinning down texts. Certainly, given that there are often multiple interpretations of texts, it’s likely common there are even more different interpretations of a story’s subtext. So I won’t be surprised if you don’t agree completely with my interpretations of the subtexts of these particular stories (or any other texts).
What I’d really be interested to hear, though, is which General Conference stories have been most memorable to you, either in a good way or a bad way, either for their text or their subtext.