General Conference Stories Where the Subtext Speaks to Me

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.


  1. Not to open up a whole different can of worms, but the first thing I thought about the first story was “I wonder if he would have made the same suggestion to Elder Bednar.”

  2. Ziff,
    Great post (don’t inhale!).

    The subtexts do bother me sometimes, although I don’t think I could have explained it like you did.

    But, I wonder if that’s why so many people I know like Elder Uchdorf better than Elder Bednar. It’s always seemed to me like Elder Bednar was drinking a little too much Kool-Aid.

  3. I read the subtext to Elder Bednar’s story a little differently. I thought that Sister Bednar bent the rule that the GA had made so far that she was practically asking for a blessing for that family. So that says to me that there is vast wiggle room in keeping the GA’s counsel.

  4. Great post, Ziff.

    The interesting thing about subtext is how different people will hear the same story and get different subtexts. In Elder Bednar’s story the subtext I got was that we should censor our prayers and not express our true thoughts, feelings, and desires to God. I’m sure he wasn’t intending that meaning, but it was the first thing that stood out to me.

  5. It’s not from a General Conference talk, but I have a particular dislike for the story shared by Elder Bednar in this speech given at BYU:

    Sister Bednar and I are acquainted with a returned missionary who had dated a special young woman for a period of time. This young man cared for the young woman very much, and he was desirous of making his relationship with her more serious. He was considering and hoping for engagement and marriage. Now this relationship was developing during the time that President Hinckley counseled the Relief Society sisters and young women of the Church to wear only one earring in each ear.

    The young man waited patiently over a period of time for the young woman to remove her extra earrings, but she did not take them out. This was a valuable piece of information for this young man, and he felt unsettled about her nonresponsiveness to a prophet’s pleading. For this and other reasons, he ultimately stopped dating the young woman, because he was looking for an eternal companion who had the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times. The young man was quick to observe that the young woman was not quick to observe.

    What kills me about the story is that he never mentions if the young man, you know, talked to the girl about this, or if he just sat around waiting for her to what he thought she should do and inexplicably dropped her when she didn’t.

    All in all, I think someone dodged a bullet when that relationship ended, and it wasn’t him.

  6. First things first, great post. It set me off thinking about what messages I don’t hear but nonetheless think have been expressed at conference. Thanks.

    I saw the subtext to Eldar Bednar’s address to be a gentle reminder that we are to follow the brethren. I didn’t see a representation about prophetic infallibility at all. Simply a reminder that we must sustain and follow prophetic counsel, even when it is difficult or we feel that the counsel has been given at the wrong time or in an inappropriate way.

    After all, there are many members, probably myself included, who would thank the brother for his counsel, explain that our friends relative had just died and got on with praying for blessings anyway.

    #5 – That’s the whole point. The young man couldn’t talk to the young woman about it. If he had she would have known it was important to him and if she liked him would have removed the additional earrings for him. That completely ruins the notion of following prophetic counsel.

    Both of these talks, and I expect many at the coming conference, emphasise through what is said and unsaid, the importance of following our church leaders. Leader are certainly not infallible, but we must follow them, even when we are inclined to think they are being human or are misinformed or lacking inspiration.

  7. Katya, I don’t know how I forgot that story. I completely agree with you. That story has always bothered me for the exact reason you state. It shows a terrible lack of communication.

  8. #5 and #7

    I don’t follow.

    Are you implying that he would never have mentioned or shown to the young woman concerned that he wants to follow the counsel of the brethren and wanted to spend his life with someone who felt the same way?

    Is it fair to read that much into the story?

    What would you have him say? What is he failing to communicate?

  9. Zarahemna,

    Both of these talks, and I expect many at the coming conference, emphasise through what is said and unsaid, the importance of following our church leaders. Leader are certainly not infallible, but we must follow them, even when we are inclined to think they are being human or are misinformed or lacking inspiration.

    This is a bit of a tangent, but if we’re supposed to follow them even if they’re wrong, this means we’re treating them as infallible for practical purposes, no matter how many times we mouth the words that they’re not infallible. I still hold onto the belief that doing good is better than obedience when the two conflict.

    Jacob and Keri, thanks for your takes on Elder Bednar’s story. Fascinating! It’s easy for me to believe in an abstract way that different people are going to read subtexts differently, but as this illustrates, the readings are even more diverse than I expect!

    Katya, I totally agree that the girl dodged a bullet there. If the guy was willing to break up over that, he probably would’ve divorced her eventually over something like drinking Diet Coke or playing with face cards. Better to know earlier that someone’s a Pharisee. Too bad Elder Bednar had to hold up that kind of behavior as exemplary.

    Jessawhy, totally agreed. I tend to like listening to President Uchtdorf a lot more than Elder Bednar. Bednar has his moments, like when he talked about scripture reading at his house not ever being perfect either. But Uchtdorf is almost always stellar. I think I’d rather listen to a conference of wall-to-wall Uchtdorf (with breaks for him to get a drink here and there) than our current format.

  10. As politely as possible, I completely disagree.

    We have a promise that if we follow our leaders we will be blessed. This is why we follow our leaders, it is the sense in which they cannot lead us astray.

    If they are or do lead us astray, we will still be blessed for following their counsel, while they will be held accountable.

    Obedience is a core principle. Unavoidably so.

    I’m curious as to how you determine when leaders are being ‘fallible’ and how you establish what is actually ‘good’ instead of what you have been asked to do. Genuinely.

    My first thought was of Abraham. Should he have refused and chosen instead to do the ‘good’ thing and dedicate his life to teaching Isaac about the Lord and His Gospel? You’ve got me pondering…

    As for the second Bednar story? Let’s not make this a boy/girl thing. There are plenty of men who struggle to get interest from the girls because they don’t take the gospel seriously.

    Why is wanting to marry and live with someone who also wants to follow the prophet suddenly a crime?

  11. I disagree that obedience can be core, Zarahemna. Given the fallibility of Church leaders, which you concede, I would rather do right than do what I’m told. If we’re serious about the idea that we have agency and that a major purpose of this life is to be tested–to make choices–why simply turn our agency over to Church leaders, or to a crowd that is nominally following them? (You clearly read Apame’s post.) What does that teach us?

    Also, as a practical issue, given commandments that contradict one another and change over time, obedience cannot logically be core.

    I don’t think it’s a crime for someone to want to marry someone else who shares their beliefs. I think Elder Bednar was focusing on the desires of the guy to marry someone who agreed with him. I think Katya and Keri and I are focusing on the desires of the girl to marry someone who agreed with her. It’s not a guy/girl thing. It’s that we sympathize more with someone who isn’t so anxious to be judgmental and nit-picky as the guy clearly was. Elder Bednar thought that was a virtue. I think it’s a vice.

  12. Really, though, Zarahemna, this is a discussion for another day. I appreciate that you read Elder Bednar’s story differently than I do. Let’s get back to talking about the subtext of Conference stories. We barely got started before we got off track.

  13. I like talks that have rich detail and concrete contexts. Otherwise we have problems like in the Bednar talk, where different people have different opinions about what the context was. Some people I know seem to be in tune with what the context is (maybe they only think they are), but I seem to want more clues. A certain percentage of personal experiences that are related don’t really convey much of anything, stripped of the hopefully richer context they took place in. My current pet peeve is when they talk about a person’s experience without naming the person, their age, their city, etc, It is like a medieval morality play for illiterate people. They should just replace the name of the person with the specific virtue that they exemplify.

  14. That’s the whole point. The young man couldn’t talk to the young woman about it. If he had she would have known it was important to him and if she liked him would have removed the additional earrings for him. That completely ruins the notion of following prophetic counsel

    Wow, so Elder Bednar’s subtext was that our sig. others should be able to read our minds about what’s important to us? No need for communication there, people. That’s even scarier.

  15. Great post Ziff, I think the subtext is usually what I struggle with/love and that makes it so much harder to explain it to someone else, especially if they took it completely differently.

  16. Am I unwelcome here?

    If you want me to list general conference stories that have made me feel uncomfortable and have prompted me to set aside some of the doctrines of the church then I must continue to disappoint you.

    To adhere, as best I may, to your request in #12, i.e. that I stick to discussing the subtext in general conference talks, I can only say the following.

    I think we are meant to listen carefully to all of the messages given at general conference sessions, both express and implicit, text and subtext.

    I think these messages, and subtexts, have been carefully prepared and considered and represent cutting edge statements of church doctrine and principle.

    I think it is a responsibility of church membership that we adhere to the instructions we are given, comply with the requests and respond to the invitations, whether implicit or explicit, text or subtext.

    I think we will benefit as individuals, as families, as church communities and in our communities if we follow the counsel we receive at general conference sessions in the text and in the subtext.

    I think the messages we don’t want to hear, or that make us uncomfortable, are the most important of all. The messages we find sweet and soothing are usually principles we find convenient or are already compliant with. Those we find repulsive or ‘don’t like’ are those that most warrant our attention and obedience as we lack the ability to apply those principles independently.

    I think we must respond as Peter did, “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” to both the text and subtext of the things we hear and later read and later still are taught in class.

    I felt the subtext of the OP was that these subtext messages are somehow unintended, or wrong, or misleading, or inappropriate.

    I disagree with this assertion.

    Last thing.

    The difference between the guy’s beliefs and the girl’s beliefs, in the story, is that the guy’s beliefs echo those of the church and the girl’s beliefs do not.

    They are not simply two different sets of beliefs or choices.

    You imply that the girl should have ended the relationship because the guy wanted her to believe what the church teaches. At least you say that she has ‘dodged a bullet’.

    You assert that wanting a potential spouse to believe and follow the teachings of the church of which you are a member is nit-picky and is a vice.

    I think it is unfair that you should make assertions like these and then encourage me to respond to them ‘another day’.

    I have tried to do as you asked, but I think it is a little unfair that you should tell me which parts of the OP I am allowed to discuss.

  17. Wow, so Elder Bednar’s subtext was that our sig. others should be able to read our minds about what’s important to us? No need for communication there, people. That’s even scarier.

    Not at all.

    It’s not about the earrings. The earrings are simply a signal, a sign, an indication that the young woman trusts her own judgement above that of the brethren of the church.

    That’s not a crime, it’s not even bad.

    But it does matter.

    If you strive to follow the brethren, and would like to spend your life with someone who will help, encourage, endorse and above all, assist you in this endeavour?

    Then it matters.

    Either you trust yourself more or you trust the brethren more.

    It is not a vice to want to associate for life and eternity with someone who feels the same way about that choice as you do.

    Turn it around for a moment.

    Say a person trusts themselves more than they trust the brethren.

    Is it wrong for them to not want to marry someone who trusts the brethren more than they trust themselves?

  18. Zarahemna, perhaps I was unclear about my reaction to the earring story, so I’ll lay it out:
    There’s nothing wrong with the young man in the story wanting to marry someone who shares his interpretive views on the gospel. I don’t think anyone here was saying that there was.
    The problem wasn’t that the earrings were important to the young man. That’s fine. The problem was that the earrings were important and he was unwilling to discuss the issue. There could be any number of reasons why the young woman was wearing the earrings. Perhaps she hadn’t heard the counsel. (Sometimes we won’t catch every word spoken in a particular talk. Oral communication is imprecise like that.) Perhaps she hadn’t gained a testimony of that particular principle. Perhaps she was rebellious as you seem to assume. The point is, without talking to her, he won’t know what’s going on. If he can’t talk about earrings, what other important things will he be unable/unwilling to discuss? Besides, if he really did care about her and the fate of her soul and he believed that she was jeopardizing her soul by wearing extra earrings, shouldn’t he have a duty to remonstrate with her?

  19. This debate is interesting, and I hope it’s OK if I jump in. I think one of the issues that Ziff is commenting on is that the overall message received can vary from person to person. Whereas it sounds like Zerahemna takes Katya’s example at face value (as a general story about being exactly obedient), others – including me – are concerned about the broader implications of looking at someone else so critically. That story sounds an awful lot like tithing mint and cumin and neglecting the weightier matters of the law. Since Jesus emphasized the importance of justice and mercy and faithfulness, it can become confusing and difficult to interpret when our leaders tell us to focus on minutiae in the behavior of others. Especially when we are thinking about relationships, most of us want to be treated with mercy and kindness and tolerance, and we would like to be able to communicate about problems and concerns with our friends/spouses/people who we date.

  20. I just realized that I brought up two issues and I think most other people only brought up one: others were talking about the problem of lack of communication between the pair, and I was adding my own concerns from the story about judging someone based on his/her appearance. I agree with Keri’s comment above.

  21. At the risk of taking this train even further off course, I’ll echo Galdralag and say that even at church I’m confused by the mixed messages on these issues.

    We have a RS lesson on how not to judge others, then the High Councilman gets up and pretty much recites the girl-with-earrings talk about how important it is to judge others.

    There’s other mixed messages- GA’s are human, but we must do everything they say, regardless of whether we have testimony of it .

    What’s most interesting to me, and this does come slightly back to the subtext issue, is that I think the GAs are (were?) divided on some basic issues of obedience to authority.

    I read an interesting post recently

    about a conference talk in 1988 that was fundamentally changed after it was given. Perhaps it’s conspiracy theory, but Elder Poelman originally discussed how the gospel and church are very different. The gospel is the divine plan for exaltation and the church is the delivery system.

    Apparently the talk didn’t go over well with the higher GAs, so it was completely changed for the Ensign and it was rerecorded and spliced into the VHS tapes of conference.
    (the blog post contains the text of both versions)

    Part of me wonders if GAs who think like Poelman have learned from his mistake and now use subtexts as a way to more subtly teach messages that may actually lead us to believe our leaders are human.

    It’s pretty much how Jesus taught, isn’t it? Through parables and subtexts?

  22. This is timely for me. Last Sunday part of our Primary class lesson was spent practicing finding the messages in last October’s conference talks.

    I’d submit that Juan Uceda’s talk also had a subtext of General Authorities are not perfect as I’d bet a nickel that the story he told about the abortive family scripture story was about himself. If that’s true, then there also might be a subtext about him not being totally comfortable about saying so in public about himself OR a subtext that he’s leaving out that detail out of respect for the sensibility of or at the request of his daughter , who might be embarrassed if people knew she was the one in the story as well. (subtext: respect for another’s sense of privacy or the principle of deciding not to air anothers’ past sins)

    Patrick Kearon’s story of wearing flip flops and getting stung by a scorpion after his parents told him to wear shoes is interesting. He’s hard on himself, attributing his disregard to what he knew to be right to his “laziness or rebelliousness” as a seven year old. I don’t know if he’s generally that way about all disobedience, but if it is, it’s a rather stern vision of the disobedience of a seven year old, as seven year olds, in my experience, are mostly just disobedient because they are clueless. Or maybe he’s just really hard on himself.

    There’s a subtext too, I think, in Pres. Monson’s story of Clayton Christensen’s decision not to play a championship game on Sunday which he used to illustrate the principle of keeping commandments in all circumstances. There’s a strong thread of the role of prayer and personal revelation in such decisions throughout the telling of that story (as opposed to just straight out obedience to what he’d been taught). I appreciated that subtext.

  23. My favorite story about the talk Ron Poelman gave was the comment that another GA made to him as he sat down after giving it.

    “That was a great talk, Ron. It will be misquoted all over the church.”

    Don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but I like it.

  24. Great stuff!


    My point is that the conversation is logically impossible, whether he wants to talk about it or not, he can’t.

    The moment he opens his mouth to talk about whether or not she wears a single pair of earrings, or how important it is to follow the advice of the brethren is the moment the conversation is no longer about whether or not she will follow the brethren!

    It is then about whether or not she will follow the brethren in the context that he would like her to.

    The two are quite different.

    A young woman wearing one earring in each ear because it is important to the guy who likes her is not the same as a young woman who wears one earring in each ear because she has listened to the encouragement of the brethren.

    Not to mention that bringing up a pair of earrings is really petty! Learning whether or not your potential spouse trusts the brethren is not petty at all.

    Does that make sense?

  25. Given Patrick Kearon’s energy, vigour and determination in his church service I wouldn’t be surprised if he is quite hard on himself. Plenty of people find enormous reserves of energy in pushing themselves to avoid perceived past errors.

    I’m pretty sure he converted as an adult and wasn’t a member when he was stung by the scorpion. That means he is being retrospectively hard on himself, quite a thing.

    I think he was nervous too, his delivery is normally so smooth, I remember being surprised when he gave his talk as it was the first time I’d seen him ruffled.

  26. I think there are two kinds of judging.

    The first is where we evaluate others and determine their worth to be less than our own. For any reason, this is bad and proscribed by the gospel.

    The second is evaluating the behaviour and spiritual condition of others. This is endorsed, Home and Visiting teaching, brothers keeper, interviews, PPIs and so on.

    One is good, the other bad.

    If the young man recognises that wearing multiple sets of earrings indicates that a person values their own opinion above that of the brethren this is an evaluation and is encouraged and endorsed. He should try to help if he is able.

    If the young man in any way feels better than the young woman, or thinks she is decreased in some way or sense by her decision then he is judging her in a bad way. This is proscribed and is a sin.

    I think the two are distinct.

  27. Not to mention that bringing up a pair of earrings is really petty! Learning whether or not your potential spouse trusts the brethren is not petty at all.

    Using earrings to determine said trust is also petty, which is the point the other posters were making. Ergo, he’s petty, and she’s better off.

    However, I would also point out that in the story that Elder Bednar mentioned “other things” that caused the boy to end the relationship. We don’t know what these were, so we shouldn’t judge the boy, either.

  28. However, I would also point out that in the story that Elder Bednar mentioned “other things” that caused the boy to end the relationship. We don’t know what these were, so we shouldn’t judge the boy, either.

    Good point. The real boy shouldn’t be pilloried based on a secondhand story. However, I think it’s telling which details Elder Bednar chose to emphasize in relating the story and his version basically reduces to “2 earrings = dumpworthy.”

  29. I think it is obvious that the earrings was one of several things indicating that they had different values. The guy decided that they were too different. They weren’t already engaged. They were dating. Who knows how “close” they were. Maybe not so close.
    I’m more of a prophet follower than my husband is. It can be hard and we aren’t even that different. The fact is no two people are going to agree on everything or even live the gospel in the same way. But this is a very, very important thing to think about when you choose to marry someone.
    To borrow from folk tradition, I want to be married to someone who would pick up and “move to Missouri” if the prophet asked us to. I want to be married to someone who accepts any calling. I want someone who is completely honest (even to random people on the phone).
    I want someone committed!
    I did “settle” on a few things, but when I was dating my husband I absolutely noticed when he didn’t “take out the extra earring” types of things. I would have been stupid not to. I made a good decision, though, because I realized that he wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t perfect either.
    I absolutely defend the guy in the story. He should have noticed this about the girl. Talking to her about it wouldn’t have changed anything. I’m sure eventually they did talk about it.
    This isn’t about judging her. It is about figuring out if this is the right life partner for you. You share so much in marriage….your money, your time, your children, your entire future. Of course you have to make judgement calls about whether it is practical or wise to share your life with a person.
    Sure, there are some people who are too nit-picky and don’t end up marrying. I do think sometimes people should “settle.” I’m glad I “settled.”
    But people should decide what they can handle “settling.” This was only one thing, but it was one thing that represented a bigger thing. And the story tells us that there were other things too.

  30. After telling the earring story Katya quotes, David A. Bednar himself enumerates several problematic subtexts found in the story. He then invites the listeners to overlook them. This strikes me as unique rhetoric. I don’t know why he didn’t instead reword his story, nor do I know what to make of the meta-subtexts. (The address overall I remember fondly; I thought it later said profound things about spiritual gifts.)

  31. I would imagine the young man had received prophetic counsel to go home teaching. I wonder if he then promptly and quietly obeyed the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times. And perhaps that the the young woman was quick to observe that the young man was not quick to observe.

  32. My most memorable story from recent conferences was told by L. Tom Perry in October 2009. The (perhaps fictional) story describes Norwegian shipbuilders turned pioneer colonizers constructing the roof of Manti temple. They at first don’t know how to proceed, but then they decide to design a ship and then turn it upside down. Before continuing on to discuss the missionary program, Elder Perry notes how the settlers were using skills from their past to build the kingdom of God. He leaves unstated how the shipbuilders moving to the desert must have assumed that the skills that had defined their careers were to be part of what they must sacrifice. As a shy person listening to another sermon on missionary work, I was comforted by a story where something that seemed useless to God’s work turn out to be very thing needed.

  33. In a talk, Elder Holland gave counsel to the man he was earlier in his life…a young parent out of gas (literally). He said encouraging, reassuring words that did NOT minimize the difficulties of being responsible for the safety of other people…of trying to make a living…of trying to raise a child.

    The subtext is that life is going to stink at times…sh*t happens…keep the faith with God and you will end up stronger, calmer, wiser…and then whether or not someone wears multiple earrings will likely be inconsequential to you…because you’ll be strugging with your own issues, trying to figure out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus…you will believe that much of what is said in Conference is meant to help you along that path…but you have to figure out how to incorporate it to fit your circumstances.

    I cannot resist adding this. I used to have 2 piercings per ear. When church members started demonizing the practice, I took all the earrings out because I just sort of lost interest in hooking stuff through my skin. But I really don’t care if someone else wants to wear a boomerang in his/her nostrils. I think it is rather silly for anyone to believe multiple holes reflects some kind of molded faith.

    Admittedly, I don’t have a strict interpretation of what “called of God” means…but I do beleive that if the GAs addressed all that was potentially “wrong” with us, we’d laugh that we ever worried about earrings.

    The aforementioned way of thinking is what allows me to flourish/enjoy being LDS. If I believed that being LDS meant subscribing to all the views expressed in some earlier comments, I’d leave…not in anger…but because those particular concerns (such as acting/looking like a “normal” church member) simply do not register on my radar of personal concerns.Still, I liked hearing thoughts about how the outward appearance signifies faith.

  34. I had a problem with Elder Oaks’ talk a couple of Conferences ago where basically the message was if you’re not righteous you don’t deserve God’s love. At least that’s the message I got!

    It’s not about the earrings. The earrings are simply a signal, a sign, an indication that the young woman trusts her own judgement above that of the brethren of the church.

    I know I trust my own judgement more than “the brethren.” It’s because I believe in personal revelation. And “the brethren” have said some pretty crazy things in their time that I have been blessed for not following or trusting in.

    I don’t believe they’ll never lead us astray. I don’t want to be a lemming falling off the cliff because I held so hard onto blind obedience.

  35. Zarahemna,

    Am I unwelcome here?

    Yes, yes you are. We’re not the zealous fundamentalists you seem to believe us to be (or believe you can prod us into being). ZD is a place where we’ll have many discussions that assume GA fallibility, and if you’re going to barge in and get aggressively hung up on this issue (or issues like it) on every post, you are most decidedly unwelcome here. Might I suggest Nothing Wavering instead?

  36. One of my absolute favorite subtexts was in the opening of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk his second GC as an apostle.

    Only six months ago you faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ sustained me as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This calling came as a great surprise to many, but especially to our grandchildren, who said, “But he is our Opa! He is just a regular person. He played with us, and he used to cut our hair!”

    After the October general conference, my wife and I talked to our children on the telephone, and one of our grandsons said, “Since we were so far away from you and could not be with you in Salt Lake City, at least you should have waved to us when you were giving your conference talk.” We have not yet been with our children and grandchildren until this general conference, and so I wave today, hoping to make a grandson happy. I also wave to all of you wonderful members, whose prayers and love are so important and appreciated by my wife and me.

    To me, this opening said, “While I’m here to speak to all the members of the church, and I love and appreciate all of you, my family is still the most important thing to me and I want to make sure they know it.” In my opinion people in the church are too often praised for making the church more important than anything, including family. This opening said the opposite, and I loved it. He’s been my favorite apostle ever since.

  37. #28 I think there’s a distinction, see #30.

    #30 – You’ve said what I was trying to say. Thank you.

    #33 A solid example.

    #36 I don’t think wearing more than one set of earrings is bad, wrong or even sinful. People certainly shouldn’t be demonised for it. That’s terrible.

    It simply shows where a person stands. It says nothing about the person in terms of their value, goodness, or even merit. But it does show you something about their opinion.

    #37 I’m stunned.

    I’ve not criticised anyone, I’ve not been rude or ridiculed any of the persons or opinions shared. I’ve simply presented my own POV in response to the OP and comments.

    In #9 you explained that you were the one taking the comments on a tangental course. i think it is a teeny bit unfair to question an assertion I have made and then ask me not to reply to your points as you did in #12.

    Deep breath. Nonetheless, and I mean that.

    I apologise for barging in and hurting your feelings. I blog myself and never intended to irritate, frustrate or anger anyone. I simply responded with comments drawn from my own POV to a thought provoking and well written post.

  38. I would mildly and meekly suggest that Ziff, whose posts I thoroughly enjoy, is not quite right in #37.

    Though Zarahemna and I do not see eye to eye, I think his posts have not been over-the-top, overtly dismissive or trollish and in my opinion he is welcome here as part of the conversation.

    Dialogue is richer if we are not all of the same opinion.

    And unity of spirit, which is VERY DIFFERENT from unity of understanding and ideals, and which is extremely important to God is impossible if we write each other off.

    Huh, just realize that that is one of the subtexts of Thomas Monson’s talk in last fall’s address to the Relief Society.

  39. MB, I hesitate to speak for Ziff, but in my view the problem is neither Zerahemna’s disagreement with Ziff and other commenters nor his tone in addressing them.

    The problem is rather that Zerahemna is hijacking Ziff’s post at some length with his views about the necessity of obedience to GAs. A defensible position, to be sure, but one that’s been defended–and attacked–ad nauseam on the Bloggernaccle. Ziff’s made it clear that’s not the conversation he wants to have here. It’s his post; let’s all please respect the parameters he sets.

  40. Thanks for your feedback, MB. Sorry to come across so heavy handed. I think Eve explained my concern better than I had. I was really hoping to hear about Conference stories people liked and didn’t like rather than have an extended argument about GA fallibility or infallibility.

  41. I agree about the undesirability of hijacking threads. I would assume that Zarahemna’s getting off topic (which started mostly with #8) was simply a well-intentioned response to something that he didn’t understand and wished to have clarified, rather than a conscious effort to change the topic of the conversation. And once he’d posed the questions we were all off and running.

    Hopefully we can get back on topic, since it is an interesting one.

    So here’s another one to throw out: Russell Nelson’s story of the young man in Louisiana who responded to a advertisement and was intrigued by the member profiles there. Nice story about how that medium can aid spreading information about the church. Interesting subtext: Elder Nelson says “the next Sunday, dressed in a white shirt and tie, he attended church”. The white shirt and tie is a notable positive element for Elder Nelson.

    Lack thereof should not be a negative element (see Pres. Monson’s RS address) but a prejudice for it being a positive one sneaks into Elder Nelson’s talk.

    Doesn’t bother me. It’s just interesting to note.

  42. I see subtext in all of the talks by the current 70s. They all seem so canned, each one stands at the podium and begins the teleprompter spiel without so much as a “Hi kids at home!” and after 5 minutes they sit down. I think back to growing up with Vaughn Featherstone, Marion Hanks, etc. and it seems we’ve come a long way in the wrong direction.

    So the subtext is that only the 12 and First Presidency have the permission to actually talk to us as friends, only they have the permission to get personal, everyone else must stick to the script and stay on message. I think Michael Quinn was correct when he said the changes in the 70 served to consolidate power at the top.

    I miss the personalities, I tire of the religious bureaucrats that most of our GAs have become.

  43. Interesting observation, KLC. A while back I blogged about non-GAs speaking in General Conference. One reason I thought they might not be as interesting as GAs is that they might feel much less free to express themselves in interesting ways, might feel more of a need to stay right on point. If I understand you right, you’re saying a similar difference can be seen between 70s and members of the Quorum of the 12 and FP.

  44. Elder Bednar’s story of holding family home evenings with recalcitrant children which he used to illustrate the message of maintaining consistency in his October 2009 talk has some interesting subtexts too. I think it gives some insight into his personal philosophy of how to master his own frustrations that arise when things don’t go particularly well with his children when he is trying to do what he has been asked to do.

    Elder Uceda’s (Oct. 2010) family scripture story has a similar dilemma with a different personal philosophy on how do deal with those frustrations being illustrated.

    Depending on what you’re struggling with you might find one or the other of the subtexts helpful.

  45. If I understand you right, you’re saying a similar difference can be seen between 70s and members of the Quorum of the 12 and FP.

    Ziff, yes I see a real difference. The power structure is clearly defined when you watch how they talk, how long they talk and what they talk about. The 70s are the junior associates while the 12 and FP are the senior partners. That is a huge change from 50 years ago. Then the 7 presidents of the 70 were on an equal footing with the 12 and they talked like it in GC.

  46. Thanks for the link, Jacob. Leave it to Kaimi to explain the point more clearly–and humorously–than I did. 🙂

  47. Will think about subtexts as I listen this weekend. In the meantime, I wanted to tell you this was a great title — the rhythm is beating in my head like two dozen Primary kids making culturally offensive motions in time to music.

  48. KLC,
    I think we need to take into consideration the fact that the increased numbers of members of the Quorums of the 70 make it so that individual members of the 70 rarely speak in conference. Of the eleven members of the 70 who spoke in the October 2010 conference, for eight of them (Duncan, Gong, Kearon, Lawrence, Malm, Arnold, Uceda and Mazzagardi) it was their first time. The first time speaking in general conference has got to be a sobering and slightly intimidating experience. I think that fact has a lot to do with with what you called their “stick to the script” delivery.

    Back in the days of Hanks and Featherstone, members of the quorum of the 70 were fewer and spoke many, many times at conference during their service. Their familiarity with the venue made it much easier for them to feel at ease and loosen up as well as to develop a history of interaction with their audience that would develop rapport.

    Just out of curiosity, I looked at the talks given by members of the 70 in the last conference for whom it was not their first address:

    Claudio Costa: Four times in the last 8 years. The first two talks contain no personal experiences. The third and fourth do.

    Jay Jensen: this good man has a long history of conference talks. Of all of the 70s who spoke, his address was the most personal and the most at ease.

    Mervyn Arnold: This was his second address. The first had no references to personal experience. The second did.

    So, I maintain that the phenomenon you notice is not due to a change in who “has permission to talk to us as friends” as you call it, but is rather due to how much less frequently the speakers have opportunities to become familiar with the venue and develop a history of interaction with their listeners.

  49. MB I agree with your numbers argument, the dilution of 70s by their increasing numbers is absolutely a factor in my observations. But that doesn’t diminish the impact those numbers have had. The impact is, I think, just what I wrote about previously. 70s, even the presidents of the 70, have a diminished presence as general authorities. They give shorter talks, they give more canned sounding talks, they aren’t able to create a connection with the members and so that connection has become increasingly thin.

  50. I’d add that the connection “becom[ing] increasingly thin” decreases our temptation to adulate. So, though we may mourn the thinning of the connection it is actually helpful for both us and them in that respect.

    “adulation is a disease I fight every day “–Gordon B. Hinckley

    Positive emotional response to a human authority figure is pleasant, but its presence or absence should not be the determining factor in our ability to receive and understand clearly what they are trying to say nor our willingness to put it into action if it seems right or true to us.

    The same is true about negative emotional response.

    Both of which applies to subtexts as well, I believe.

  51. One talk that particularly spoke to me was Elder Bednar Watching with All Perseverance. He spoke of an early warning system that can help parents be able to see and avoid danger in the lives of their children.

    He gave some simple and small things I can do as a father to be aware of potential problems in my children’s lives. I got the idea that I was to be on the watch tower for my children. I am to be involved in their lives, to look for natural and spontaneous opportunities to uplift and challenge their lives.

    It made me think that I was to be for my children what the Seers are for me. Except i was to personally minister. It is my idea of how any spiritual minister should do but as a parent it is of the highest and most personal work I have to do.

  52. And in keeping with the topic of this post (“By subtext, I just mean what is implied by the story’s content, or what is conveyed without being explicitly said”), what was the subtext, Rich? You have simply restated what Elder Bednar explicitly said.

    I think that’s the problem, Ziff, more than an assumption of zealous fundamentalism. Some of your readers are such rock-solid literalists that they don’t understand the concept of subtexts.

  53. So using that logic MB we should limit the 12 and the FP talking to us as well, to squash that adulation?

  54. KLC,

    No, he, he, I don’t think that quashing adulation is the goal. I do think however that adulation and sense of connection is something that we humans use too often in order to sustain our willingness to consider someone else’s counsel. (We do this in politics as well as religion.)

    I just was pointing out that “thinning the connection” when it is the logical consequence of growth (which this is) is not all bad. You seemed to be mourning it. I was pointing out that the connection, though pleasant, is not essential, nor is the loss of it necessarily horrible.

    It’s different. It’s less warm and fuzzy. But it’s not necessarily bad.

  55. You bet I’m mourning it. When President Uchtdorf approaches the podium my teenage sons perk up and start listening. They have established a connection with him because of the other talks he has given. That can’t be anything but good in my view, for my sons and for everyone else who comes to GC to be fed and not just to listen to talking heads recite platitudes, even if they are true and correct. The possibility that some kind skewed adulation might be eliminated is a pretty poor reason to celebrate or even accept the loss of personal connection we can have with our leaders.

  56. KLC

    I think you misunderstand me.

    Rather than continue, I suggest we let the subject rest so that this thread can get back on Ziff’s topic.

  57. Sorry to be so capricious, MB, but you’re welcome to continue. I think the original discussion has pretty much played out anyway.

  58. MB, I probably have misunderstood you. It’s a topic that inspires (bugs?) me since I live in a house where GC is nonstop and frankly, much of it puts me to sleep. I think I enjoyed GC more as a teenager than I do now and the reason is the personalities. They were vivid and engaging, even for a 17 year old boy. I knew who the Presiding Bishop was, I knew who the church Patriarch was, I knew who the 7 presidents of the 70 were. GC was like a family reunion then, now it seems more like a business meeting.

  59. I guess I didn’t state one. One sub-text would be that the responsibility for the spiritual nurture is primarily in the home.
    Maybe that is too close to the primary message to be a sub-text. I must be a rock-hard literalist. (sarcasm is not done well in comments)

    My first comment was evidently a thread jack. I understand if that is why it was moderated.

  60. My “favorite” (speaking ironically) was Elder Packer’s talk regarding homosexuality.

    Before anyone groans that I’m trying to resuscitate an irrevocably dead horse in cold storage, please cut me some slack since I’m new here.

    Subtext 1: If you are a good Latter-day Saint, you will support what a General Authority says from the pulpit, even when it is phrased in a remarkably silly way.

    Regarding the possibility that people are born with a tendency toward homosexual feelings that cannot be overcome, Elder Packer said, “Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”

    What counts as “stuff done to us to by God” and “stuff God didn’t do to us” is a mystery to me. Why would God unleash an earthquake on Japan? Wait, did he “do” that?

    Despite having the capability of saying something ridiculous, Elder Packer is an LDS celebrity. His talk and the ensuing publicity changed my church religious practice…for the better.

    I realized that a General Authority may say something ridiculous from the pulpit and have to deal with the consequences just like any other person. God allows even the best of us to experience potentially humiliating moments…for all kinds of reasons. Does that mean he’s “doing it to us”?


    That talk freed me from subscribing to the debilitating myth that GAs know how YOU specifically will walk with God. Elder Packer is certainly God’s chosen servant…but he has to bumble at times like the rest of us.

  61. Sometimes Brother Monson’s talks consisted of a perplexing stringing together of stories with no apparent explicit theme.

    One time I must have been on his wavelength, because the stories very clearly spoke to me of parental good cheer, forebearance, and kindness. The one I most remember was about a snake named Herman.

    One of the Monson kids had a snake named Herman. One day the snake got lost. The family searched the house without success. One day Brother Monson decided to take a bath. Just as the tub filled up, Brother Monson called, Mother! I found Herman!” The snake was in the tub with him swimming straight toward his face.

    I think that was an extraordinarily whimsical and candid story.

  62. Amid a lot of refreshing things and a few old school downers in Elder Cook’s talk on Saturday, the story about the young women’s leaders and the purse kind of horrified me. Concerns about whether carrying hand lotion and breath mints make a girl more virtuous (or just more middle class?) aside, what on earth are these people doing going through someone else’s purse and evaluating their character based on its content? Can’t they just find a safe place for it in lost and found?

    I think I’ve had nightmares where this happens — I leave my laptop bag lying around and someone rifles through all my ungraded quizzes, articles I’ve doodled all over instead of reading, receipts for snickers bars and diet coke, and whatever trashy novel is currently distracting me from work, and realizes I’m a failure at life.

    Seriously, the judgey relationship between YW leader and YW this story represents creeps me out. What if they’d found Motley Crue tickets and a spare nosering? Would their negative conclusions about her character feel fair?

  63. Re: #37

    It may be your blog, but that’s a bit harsh, Ziff.

    Zarahemna took the conversation in a direction different from the one imagined so you tell him he’s not welcome… there is some subtext there as well, namely, a subtext of authoritarian control, which, oddly, you don’t like in those who are in charge of the church but if its a blog you’re in charge of, then it’s different.

    I often don’t read on the more “faithful” blogs like nothingwavering because they often do not seem to welcome voices which break with the authority they want to have in the “discussion.” Maybe I’m missing something here, so please help me out if I am, but I just don’t understand how someone who wants to talk about the subtext of GC talks (which requires in itself a divergence of interpretations) would be so quick to silence voices who aren’t participating in the accepted manner. It seems that you only wanted to talk about subtext in a manner you prescribed, and so Zarahemna, by shifting the discussion of subtext away from that prescription, was ostracized.

    Anyway, sorry I don’t have any examples of subtext to discuss, but I have enjoyed the OP as well as the few comments about specific moments of subtext.

  64. Ziff, et al – Thank you for these posts and especially for the original topic.

    I am often distracted when watching GC by subtexts and the subcultures (both of the church and apparently the family or home town culture of various GC speakers). I won’t give specific examples lest I start anyone flaming to defend their favorite GA – in general, one can speculate on what family culture was like when the talks are over focused on obedience at any cost, or one a specific rule, or always on kindness and love, etc. (I am a psychotherapist so perhaps I look at this kind of thing more than other viewers).

    I also occasionally get distracted by speaking style which admittedly isn’t exactly subtext but has some tangential relationship. For example, from older GCs – I value the overt message given in many of Elder Scott’s talks (e.g. we love you, repent and return to God) but his slow speech cadence makes me too sleepy to listen so I prefer to read his talks. With that said, I can understand that his gentle voice would sooth and invite others to listen so it’s just me. In prior decades some of the [token] female speakers used what our family came to call the “breathy voice” that made our family all want to tell her to stop and use a more natural voice. I learned to avoid listening and read those talks as well. In contrast, I especially liked the overt message AND delivery style of Sister Allred last weekend. (For another female role model – do any of you miss Cheiko Okazaki’s talks or do you even remember her?!)

    Lastly, all of the white shirts and dark suits are triggering for me – when did the Western business suit become mandatory for males? A friend once told us that his leader recently requested that he wear “The Lord’s Uniform”(!) at church functions. When my husband was bishop 20 years ago he didn’t require young men to wear white shirts or ties, he was simply delighted to have them come to church. FYI – he is lifelong member and I converted as a teen but we both came of age in So Cal during the 1960s so have that cohort subcultural influence as well.

    I don’t intend to hijack the thread here – just commenting on the visual and audio subtexts and various subcultures. In short, I hope readers will share their subtext experiences and not pick up any threads I may have dangled here! Ziff, feel free to strike my business suit paragraph if it’s too derailing from your topic. I don’t want to invite flaming. Thanks again for this post.

  65. Since I was traveling abroad during this spring’s GC, I don’t have specific subtexts to speak to. However, comments 34 and 71 got me thinking about several general ones that seem to rattle around in my head every time conference rolls around, or is quoted in a lesson or talk.

    The general subtexts I get/got from Sister Okazaki, Pres Uchtdorf, President Hinckley and Elder Scott are “large tent messages.” We love you. Come unto Christ. We are all imperfect, but let’s help each other.

    The general subtexts I get from Sister Beck, Elder Bednar and President Packard are “small and exclusive tent.” We will love you conditionally. If you change to look, think and act like us. We are closer to god, and know better than you.

    So while the speakers in the latter category may have limited appeal to those who are already in the club, I think that the former are more generally universally appealing and effective. Say what you will about honey and vinegar, and carrots and sticks. I like honey and carrots … but not together in a jello salad.

  66. A friend once told us that his leader recently requested that he wear “The Lord’s Uniform”(!) at church functions.

    I double dare him to show up in a robe and sandals with a beard and long hair!

  67. Pepper, thanks for your contribution. I’m sorry that I’ve discouraged people from commenting with my mean response to Zarahemna. Really I’m fine with tangents generally.


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