The Virtues of Vagueness

After President Dalton’s much-discussed “you . . . will see no need to lobby for rights” talk, Galdralag wrote a post in which she asked, “Why don’t our leaders clarify their remarks more often?”

I think this is a great question. Church leaders frequently say things that sound vague to me, often intentionally vague. This puzzles me. I would think if they have messages from God to share, they would want to come right out and share them, and not beat around the bush so often. Certainly they’re not always unclear–I think I can venture to conclude, for example, that they don’t like porn–but a lot of the time they are.

In this post, I’ve come up with a list of possible reasons for their sometime vagueness. (Some of the better ones I’ve borrowed from Andrew S’s post on the Church’s statements on caffeine last year at W&T.) In the comments, please let me know which of these you find more or less plausible, and also other causes you think might be important. This is kind of a laundry list of seat-of-the-pants thinking, so I won’t be surprised if you disagree with some (or all) of my ideas.

Avoiding looking silly later

A lot of past Church leaders have said a lot of things that were absurd, or that turned out to be false, or that the Church has decided to ignore (or more than one of the above). I think Brigham Young is the poster prophet for this problem, but it certainly didn’t end with him. So I wonder if current Church leaders say fewer things in definitive terms so that they have to worry less about looking silly later. The virtue of vagueness is that they can still say they have all the answers, and not have to back down on being the one source of all truth, but they don’t have to commit to saying as many things definitively that they might later regret.

I could credit this to correlation, but I also wonder if it wasn’t President Hinckley’s doing. Given his background in PR, and the fact that he served in the First Presidency for about 30 years, I wonder if he was the one who taught this to other GAs, either implicitly or explicitly.

Maintaining plausible deniability

President Packer, in his infamous 2010 talk, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” did not once use the words “gay,” “homosexual,” or even the dreaded “same sex attraction.” What he did say was this:

We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes or counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. From the Book of Mormon we learn that “wickedness never was happiness.

Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Remember, God is our Heavenly Father.

He could have just said “People are not born gay. God doesn’t make us that way. Gay marriage is therefore wrong.” But the disadvantages of saying it this plainly are probably obvious. Reporters covering the conference would have trumpeted his statements in the headlines: “Mormon Leader Calls Homosexuality a Choice.” The way he did it–the vague way–he got a similar message across, but with the added advantage of not having to answer for it if there had been too much blowback. He could always have claimed that he was talking about something else, that he wasn’t talking about homosexuality at all, for example, and that he only intended to condemn people for having sex outside of marriage. (And I recall at the time I saw people on the Bloggernacle arguing these very points. I find this interpretation difficult to take seriously given the history of other talks President Packer has given, and the fact that gay marriage was a hot topic at the time.)

Nurturing the hedge about the law

I think Church leaders are sometimes vague because they like the idea of a hedge about the law, but of course if you come right out and define the hedge explicitly, then it becomes the new law, particularly in a church that believes in continuing revelation. Being vague about the hedge about the law is a way of maintaining it without formalizing it.

One example of this type of vague statement comes from the “Entertainment and Media” section of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet:

Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way.

That’s a pretty big (and vague!) hedge. Even setting aside questions about definitions of words like immoral, it appears to rule out pretty much all sports as entertainment, since they are violent in some way, and virtually all movies. (How many movies have no violence? Here’s the list of movies scoring a zero on violence/gore by the Kids-In-Mind raters. There are 50. Happy viewing!)

There’s an even better way to maintain the hedge about the law, though. Make it auto-growing:

If you find yourself asking whether a work is pornographic, the question itself suggests the material makes you uncomfortable. That should be enough to tell you to avoid it.

This comes from a sidebar to the article “The Road Back: Abandoning Pornography” in the 2005 Ensign. The article wasn’t written by a Church leader, but I think the quote just perfectly captures the use of vagueness in serving the hedge about the law that I think might motivate Church leaders in being similarly vague. “Is this movie porn? Well, since I asked, then it must be, so I should avoid it. But doesn’t this mean I should be asking the question about more movies? Then they must all be porn too!”

I think the “Do you affiliate with groups opposed to the Church?” (paraphrasing) question in the temple recommend interview falls into this category too. I’ve heard it said numerous times that this is a question asking about whether you’re a polygamist. I don’t doubt that that’s what the question started as, but I wonder if it hasn’t been left in the interview because it’s a great catch-all for building hedges about every law. Particularly if people have internalized the standard articulated in that Ensign article, they’ll worry about every single person they know and every organization they’ve had any contact with. If Church leaders wanted this to be a question about polygamy, they could make it a question about polygamy. It’s not like they haven’t revised the interview questions before. But I wonder if they don’t leave it vague because it’s a handy fertilizer for the hedge about the law.

Avoiding giving people bad ideas

Sometimes I think Church leaders are vague because they don’t want to explicitly name or describe things they’re condemning that people might not have even thought about. This problem is illustrated well by a comment made at fMh last year:

I was a chubby 12-year old with fly-away pony tails, a nose freckled by the sun and scabs on my knees when I rode my bike to my Bishop’s interview, a 40-something man that I barely knew. He asked me if I knew what masturbation was and I said I did not, so he explained it to me and that I should not do it. I promptly rode my banana seat bike home and gave it a try.

Thanks Bishop.

It isn’t surprising, in light of stories like this, that Church leaders don’t outline in explicit detail all the things they want us to avoid.

I think this may have been one of President Packer’s motivations for not explicitly mentioning homosexuality in the talk I referred to above. I also think it’s clear that it was President Dalton’s motivation for not mentioning the “Wear Pants to Church” and “Let Women Pray” movements explicitly. I suspect things like this might be thought of as particularly dangerous because they’re so seductive. It sounds so reasonable to let women pray in General Conference. If President Dalton explicitly condemned this, it would bring the fact that women currently aren’t praying in Conference to mind for many people who had never even thought about it. And that might make them needlessly begin to doubt that every move leaders make is inspired, and then the Church would become much more difficult to run because everyone would be questioning everything all the time.

Avoiding harshness for the sake of the innocent

This concern is articulated by Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It might be used as a rationale for being vague; it probably overlaps somewhat with the concern about giving people bad ideas. Here is what Jacob said:

[I]t grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God…

Of course, Jacob says he’s going to go ahead and speak plainly, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Church leaders sometimes reasoned the same way as Jacob and made the opposite decision. They might use vague terms to condemn sins they think are quite evil to avoid forcing innocent people among their listeners from hearing about the depravity of a few.

Keeping outsiders in the dark

There’s a long tradition in the Church of saying things vaguely to avoid letting outsiders know what we’re up to. Joseph Smith famously proclaimed that he wasn’t practicing polygamy (which he of course justified by thinking of his polygamy as something different from ordinary worldly polygamy). This runs all the way up to President Hinckley’s oft-discussed comment about God once being a man and people becoming Gods, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it.”

Since the Church has gotten so good at making the words of GAs and other general leaders available to everyone in the Church, particularly online, they’re in a position where everything they say is likely to be heard by many outsiders. I wonder if this fact doesn’t drive an overall trend toward greater vagueness.

Keeping options open for possible future change

The Proclamation on the Family says,

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

I know this topic has already been beaten to death, but this doesn’t seem like so much an example of vagueness as outright contradiction. It certainly seems to fit under the umbrella of lack of clarity, though. In any case, one possible value of the lack of clarity in the Proclamation is that if the Church moved in the future to give women more power in the organization, leaders could point back to the Proclamation as a precedent and focus on the “equal partners” part.

Incidentally, Lynnette has told me that one of her professors joked that the Catholic Church does something similar. They make a new statement that departs slightly from previous ones and then repeat it a couple of times, and then later jump into the change with both feet, referring to the new statements and saying “the Church has always taught” the new thing, while ignoring all previous statements to the contrary.

Also, Andrew S explained this issue nicely in his post that I mentioned above. See the heading “Ambiguity as a change strategy.”

Satisfying a diverse Church membership

Keeping different groups of people happy appears to be a clear motivation for the rise of chicken patriarchy in the rhetoric of the Church. We have new discussion on the importance of husbands listening to their wives and couples being equal partnerships, and this is aimed at satisfying the younger generations that find sexism odious. But at the same time, we haven’t really given up the traditional patriarchal rhetoric that says men are presiders and women are followers, and this is aimed at satisfying the fans of old-style patriarchy in the Church.

The Proclamation on the Family is again a good example. Another is the change in the temple language, where wives no longer covenant to “obey” their husbands, but rather to “hearken” to them. If the goal of the change were to make the language equal, then husbands could covenant to hearken to their wives too. I’m guessing it’s left in the middle as a compromise to try to keep everyone on board. The hope is that old-style patriarchs will hear “hearken” as “obey,” and egalitarians will hear it as being reciprocal even if it’s not explicitly stated that way.

Satisfying committees

Several commenters on my post on the authorship of the Proclamation on the Family pointed out that different members of the Quorum of 15 probably had different ideas about what the document should say, so this is likely how it ended up with unclear language. Even though GAs’ talks aren’t written by committees, they’re clearly subject to the same pressures. This can be seen in one of the changes that President Packer ended up making in his talk “Cleansing the Inner Vessel” that I mentioned above. In the original version, he said that the Proclamation on the Family “qualifies according to scriptural definition as a revelation.” In the final printed version, he took this line out. The only possible explanation that seems reasonable to me, given his high office, is that others in the Quorum of 15 pushed him to change it. This suggests that even GAs’ talks are effectively subject to committee oversight. And President Packer turned over a new leaf of vagueness by referring to the Proclamation the following year as an “inspired document.”

Tithing: Discriminating on price

Church leaders have declined to clarify whether tithing should be paid on gross (before tax) or net (after tax) income. In this particular case, I think there’s a very good reason they’re vague that’s quite specific to tithing.

Church leaders want to maintain the Church’s revenue, so they want to keep as many members paying tithing as possible. They know that some members pay on net and others pay on gross. The net payers are likely not to be able to pay on gross, either because they don’t have much money, or because they live in countries with high income tax rates. The gross payers obviously could pay on net, but if they did, the Church would lose all the extra revenue that is the difference between gross and net for those people. So if Church leaders decided to clarify tithing and say that it must be either on gross or on net, they would face the following dilemma: If they say tithing is on gross, they are likely to entirely lose revenue from many net payers who simply can’t pay that much. If they say tithing is on net, they will almost certainly lose the extra revenue from gross payers who would switch to paying on net. Maintaining revenue from both kinds of members depends on maintaining vagueness.

I highly doubt that this solution was planned, but what it appears Church leaders have stumbled on is a way to use price discrimination to keep tithing revenue high. Price discrimination happens when sellers charge different prices  to different people for the same product. Sellers benefit from price discrimination because it allows them to sell to customers who value the product less while also not giving up the revenue they would get from selling at a higher price to customers who value the product more. You can see price discrimination in airline tickets, for example, which are generally sold more cheaply to leisure travelers than business travelers, because business travelers are willing to pay more. (The price discrimination is accomplished mostly by pricing tickets more cheaply if they are bought farther in advance.) If airlines set high fixed prices, they would keep the business travelers and lose the leisure travelers. If they set low fixed prices, they would keep both types of travelers, but lose the extra revenue that business travelers would be willing to pay. This situation is analogous to the situation Church leaders face. Leisure travelers are like net payers; business travelers are like gross payers. Selling tickets for a high fixed price is like saying tithing must be paid on gross; selling tickets for a low fixed price is like saying tithing must be paid on net.

As I understand it, the Church is far from unique in finding a way to offer the same product (church membership) at different prices. Lots of churches ask congregants to pay to support the church without specifying a fixed amount they have to pay. In fact, by allowing people to pay whatever they want, many other churches are effectively using much finer-grained price discrimination than the LDS Church is. But what the LDS Church has that is unique is both price discrimination and a high expectation. We’re told we’re supposed to pay 10% of our income, which sets the expected contribution level high even while the denominator in the calculation is left vague, which allows price discrimination to happen. I suspect this combination of price discrimination and high expectation is one reason the Church has been able to do so well financially in the past few decades.

A final note: I know that in this last section, I probably sound completely cynical, describing the Church as a seller of religion and charging tithing to its members as buyers. I’ve just framed the relationship between the Church and its members that way to make the discussion of tithing more clear. I do understand that tithing collection doesn’t represent the whole relationship between the Church and its members, or even necessarily a large part of it.


  1. I would actually put tithing under the “hedge around the law” category as well. We tend to try not to have clear lines for “obedient/not obedient”. I think it’s mostly a good thing – your worthiness is between you and The Lord and you are encouraged to try and work out your own salvation with this kind of approach. But I don’t like to micromanage things, so this approach appeals to me. (For those interested, I pay on gross, but then I don’t pay tithing on my tax return. I haven’t really thought about superannuation. The less I have to think about “all my increase”, the better – even if I pay a little more tithing than strictly required)

    I find the “so we can use the same documents to teach a different principle in case of future contradictory revelation” the most flimsy justification for being vague – we believe in continuing revelation, and previous statements about missionaries being aged 19 or 21 aren’t now being brought up by people, confused and angry at the change. It shouldn’t be problematic to be clear. (I agree this may be a motivator, but I think it’s unjustified, and adds to the “quotes by church leaders are true at all times and in every situation” sentiment).

    And, as noted in the post, sometimes clarifications are made. Some phrases (for example, about not needing to fight for rights) don’t make it to the print edition, and occasionally scripture headings are updated. Clarity is not a lost cause!

  2. I’ve always thought of the vagueness as the space where you get to exercise your agency. In Old Testament times the law of Moses spelled out some pretty specific rules. Then Christ came and seemed to lay out rules that were more general, but subject to an interpretation of one’s own feelings. Pretty much just love God and love people and if you do you’re probably okay, concepts then reinforced with a lot of stories that can have a variety of interpretations, depending on the listener.

    This is why I like vagueness. As long as we focus on figuring out our own things (as opposed to copying what others are doing), then we actually get a pretty broad amount of space to work with in determining how to live our lives. The practical problem is when people get judgmental and think that their solutions should be everyone’s solutions.

  3. Ziff,

    Thanks for the terrific post. I love how you pulled all those reasons together. I’ve always wondered about the vagueness. I suppose it can give us more room for agency, but I’m more a fan of clarity, a la Strunk and White–can’t recall the exact quote, but something like: “Next to content, clarity is the closest thing to being virtue in writing” (or in this case, in leading the Church).

    I could see these as all being reasons for vagueness, but it doesn’t mean I have to like any of them. I love the Church, but it’s stuff like this that makes me sometimes feel that it is just like any other big organization.

  4. Great post, great post!

    I feel that if I ever write some sort of scholarly paper on Mormonism for publishing, it would be on this topic. I’m like…greater than 60% sure that I’ll try to do some serious research for it sometime. (Just not before April 15th!)

    I would like to hear more, if you have it, about that one joke about Catholicism from Lynnette’s professor friend…I would definitely like to see analogues from other religions.

    Anyway, I like most of these reasons for vagueness, and if I had to go through, it would probably be easier to cross out the ones I think don’t apply:

    1) Avoiding harshness for the sake of the innocent
    This might be coincidental, but I don’t think that’s what the church is intending

    2) welp, that appears to be the only one I really disagree with!

    In any case, I think that of the remaining ones, that even though some might be taken cynically, I think that these have the potential to be really positive developments.

    For example, the points relating to satisfying a diverse church membership and hedging about the law have positive and negative potential. (And I do agree with Olea that tithing is probably part of hedging as well…) I mean, the real issue is that we have all of these cultural assumptions about what various vague pronunciations mean, so we have what we think are solid definitions — but then we talk to different people and learn that they have completely different definitions that they are completely confident about. Is tithing on gross or net? Well, regardless of what people believe about it, unless they have had a conversation about it, they might not be aware that there is disagreement on this issue!

    I think that if we can challenge cultural assumptions (which the church is slowly and almost imperceptibly doing…the most “visible” of changes were the not-quite-clarifying clarifications on caffeine, the statements against the reasons for the race ban proffered by Professor Bott, and now, the intro to OD 2), then that frees up more people to think differently about what is really vague, open-ended questions.

    On one of my cynical days, I might agree with Mike C and think that vagueness is just another example of how the church seems like any other big organization…but slowly, more and more, I’m thinking more like Kip, where vagueness is perhaps a 21st century example of an inspired way to lead in a diverse society.

  5. Avoiding harshness for the sake of the innocent

    I think this one actually does come up, though maybe not always as a conscious intention, in talking about sexual stuff — except I think it’s the GAs themselves who are the fragile innocents here. That is, where there’s prudish, euphemistic language, I tend to believe it’s for the sake of the speaker/writer, more than because they’re actually imagining a tender audience of people who would wilt if they got a straight-up definition of “necking.”

    That’s my reading of, for example, the FamProc’s claim that “gender is eternal” — which is on the face of it self-contradicting nonsense, since gender by definition can’t be eternal. I’m pretty sure they meant “sex,” and I’m amazed that among whatever group of people reviewed this thing, no once managed to convince them (I can’t believe no one noticed it at all) that just saying “sex” here would be way more sensible. But some person (Packer? Nelson?) with delicate ears and a veto vote evidently felt that the loss of clarity was worth not having to use that filthy porno of a word, “sex.”

    Also, on the “satisfying committees” one, I suspect there’s a corollary to that — “I’m not authorized to make an official statement about This Thing, so we’ll just make this into a vague nod, but with raised eyebrows and a significant-looking scowl in This Thing’s general direction, so that it doesn’t look like I’m speaking for the Church leadership about this, but you can all still get my meaning.” That’s how I read the Dalton comment: As a woman (and one who’s not even a President of something), she doesn’t get to voice the Church’s reaction to All Enlisted’s agitation, so all she can do is make a disparaging gesture.

  6. Well articulated, Ziff. I’ve thought about writing something along these lines in the past, but I think you’ve done a much more complete job than I ever would have. Great work!

  7. I like vagueness because I think religious leaders are at their best when they teach principles and let people govern themselves, rather than providing specific rules which are frequently incompatible with differing cultures and life situations and often become more important than the principle they are intended to promote.

    For example, once a church president voiced an extremely specific opinion about earrings, which seemed quite likely based on his own cultural and generational background. It quickly morphed into a new commandment such that noncompliance allegedly makes a woman unfit for celestial marriage. But was this an effective tool for teaching a principle? What was that talk actually about? Vanity? Over-consumption? Conformity? Answer: respect for the human body (I had to look it up, because although this super-specific rule has been oft repeated such that we have all memorized it, the intended principle has not been.)

    So, I guess my line of reasoning is sort of a merge of the hedge and the diverse membership reasons from yours.

    I think avoiding looking silly later and keeping options open for future change are real advantages, but probably not intentionally applied, because if they realized that whatever their speech is about would soon become passe, they would probably choose a different topic. Another unintentional advantage, this time to the hearer, is that vague advice is more easily left unheeded (I don’t know what kind of lobbying Dalton was talking about, so I’ll just continue on my merry way) then a direct call to action (Take off those earrings!).

  8. April,

    I agree that I like the vagueness in the situations you describe. Sometimes I even appreciate the vagueness of the temple recommend interview and the temple covenants for the same reason, and not always just in a self-serving way, but in the way that we can use our judgment and the Spirit to do what we feel is right and yet still feel honest about our responses to the interviews and the covenants.

    What I don’t like is the vagueness related to issues such as the priesthood and temple ban for blacks, or the reasons why women do not have the priesthood, or some of the more complicated or less flattering events in Church history. It allows folk explanations or twisted doctrines to flourish that can hurt a lot of people.

    I suppose I just long for the Church to own up the aspects of its behavior that are clearly wrong, but I just don’t see that happening. I would be more drawn to the organization if it said, “Yes, we just got some things wrong.” I for one would not be troubled or would not feel my testimony shaken. Rather, I’d feel a lot of relief and empathy. But, it feels that the Church leaders have made the conscious or subconscious calculation that such admissions would shake a lot of people’s faith, so they are not going to make them. However, I believe that for such a calculation there is an hidden opportunity cost (i.e., people leave the Church because they are troubled by this seeming lack of accountability). It just makes me sad, that’s all. Perhaps I should look at these things with a more positive spin, but it’s one of those days, you know.

  9. April, great point that vagueness can work to our advantage if we want to ignore stuff that they don’t want to come right out and say. (I’m reminded of Seth R. I think it was, who made a really funny comment once about how he had a hard enough time with the written stuff, and he sure as heck wasn’t going to feel bad if he didn’t follow the *unwritten* order of things.

    Mike C, I think in your and April’s discussion, you bring out another dimension that I pretty much ignored. Leaders can be vague about commandments (making space for us to exercise agency, a good thing–Kip and others mentioned this too) or they can be vague about history (generally a worse thing–not owning up to realities of the past but still asking for complete trust). So it makes sense that if vagueness has different effects in those two circumstances, it might have different causes too.

    Melyngoch, I think that’s an excellent point I didn’t think of at all. It really does sound like some vagueness in anything related to sex might be to protect their own ears rather than ours.

    Andrew, thanks for coming by, and for not calling me on pretty much ripping off your post. 🙂 For you and Olea, I’m curious about the idea of tithing vagueness being a hedge about the law. What would you see as the law and what as the hedge? The law is paying on net and paying on gross is the hedge? I’ll have to think about this more.

    Orwell and Mike C, thanks!

  10. I absolutely think vagueness is an inspired way to lead a diverse society. Trying to come up with nit-picky exact rules on what is allow and what is not allowed is ridiculous. Why would kissing for 30 seconds be ok, but not 31. Why would a movie with one f word be ok, but not two. Why would a skirt exactly at the knee be ok but not half an inch shorter.
    General church leaders try not to get people stuck in these absolute lines that would make sense for one person, one family, one ward, one state, one country but not another. But the church members are always pushing for clarification. They want either to police others or to excuse themselves or justify themselves or feel righteous that they are living the law. Rather than looking to the Spirit to determine if they are living the law with their best effort in the appropriate way for their circumstances.
    GAs should encourage us to attend the temple, but really our difference circumstances make it impossible for everyone to go weekly or monthly or whatever. We should read the scriptures, but some might do it in the morning, or some in the evening, or some only once a week, some listen to them, some just at seminary, and some only with their families and not alone.

    Wise leaders realize that cultures change. My mother taught me about modesty not as an absolute about skirt length, but as something in historical context.
    So I think it is better to not get super detailed when you are telling 10 million people how to live the commandments.

    FInally, I have to point out that the tithing issue isn’t just net vs. gross. What about business owners or the self-employed. They don’t have the same net vs. gross that the paycheck goers do. So it would actually be impossible to write a tithing code that accurately addresses each individual’s tithing liability. Well, not impossible, but you would have something like our US tax code. Complicated. So I don’t think the main reason is to get as much money as possible. The main reason is each time they would try to clarify it would only bring up more questions….”But what about…….” or “What if……..” Coming out with net or gross decision would not settle it at all.

  11. re 11


    For you and Olea, I’m curious about the idea of tithing vagueness being a hedge about the law. What would you see as the law and what as the hedge? The law is paying on net and paying on gross is the hedge? I’ll have to think about this more.

    In each of your examples of laws and hedges, there is not a specific law and a specific hedge. Rather, there is a generic law, and then there is a hedge that is just as generic, but which is designed to play upon easily exploited feelings of the questioner.

    The law is the generic, “Are you a full-tithe payer”

    The hedge are the feelings of uncertainty over what is “full”, and the feelings of guilt over “robbing God…in tithes and offerings”.

    As such, “gross” or “net” really aren’t the issue. These are just convenient stopping points that we often consider (and as jks mentions, they don’t really work so well in effect). Rather, it’s the level at which an individual is comfortable. Some people are probably legitimately comfortable at net (in the same way that some folks are comfortable with understanding that groups opposed to the church => polygamists), but some people are probably more uncertain and more uncomfortable, so gross alleviates that.

  12. Although it seems that I had a really big misunderstood about what a “hedge about the law is”

    It seems to me that the hedges, actually counter to being rather generic instructions designed to play on one’s sense of uncertainty, are actually hyper-specific systems of rules to give one a sense of certainty about what exactly the law prohibits.

    I recently stumbled upon an example in our modern times — so there is no creative work allowed on the Sabbath. “Creative work” is extremely vague, but fortunately, there’s TONS of commentary spelling out exactly what is creative work — it includes preparing food, turning on or turning off machinery/electrical devices, etc.,

    With these very specific rules, the Shabbos-keeping Jew can figure out precisely what he must do to keep the law. For example, there are crosswalks that don’t require button presses (they automatically cycle through walk/stop functions), elevators that periodically go up each floor and automatically open doors, and even a Sabbath setting to ovens.

    So, interestingly, I don’t see any of the examples from the post (or tithing) as being hedges about the law. In fact, vagueness as a principle does not seem like it can be a principle of a hedge about the law.

  13. Interesting, Andrew. I am in the same boat you were. Perhaps this means I should just call the things I thought were hedges about the law “a haze about the law.” 🙂

  14. Major threadjack commencing (sorry, can’t help myself):

    Re: building hedges around the law and Jewish/Israelite tradition: One of the things that I’ve heard in many Sunday School lessons throughout my life is the idea that Israelite (and later Jewish) tradition created hedges around the law that were both unnecessary and extra-biblical, and that by doing so they lost a sense of what the laws were for in the first place (and that this is why when Jesus came he kept encouraging people to get back to the ten commandment basics). The examples of unnecessary hedges I’ve heard most often in Sunday School are 1) the proscription against carrying things on the Sabbath and; and 2) the proscription against lighting a fire on the Sabbath.

    Has anyone else heard Sunday School teachers use those two examples?

    I find them particularly ironic, because both examples are stated specifically as part of keeping the Sabbath in the scriptures:

    Exodus 35: 3 reads: Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.

    and Jeremiah 17: 21-22 reads Thus saith the LORD; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.

    Back to our regularly scheduled topic:

    Re: the conversation between Andrew S. and Ziff: I think that the vagueness is an invitation for people to build their own hedges around the law; the vagueness leads directly to people inventing multiple interpretations or extremely strict interpretations. So lack of clarification from the pulpit is almost a de facto endorsement of hedges, since it enables people to become more and more entrenched in the hedges they have built and to spread them as folk doctrines.

  15. I find the vagueness irritating and not helpfull. We had a broadcast to Australia from SLC conference recently. The Prophet was the final speaker and told stories about soldiers lost behind enemy lines etc. He never said what he was talking about or gave any help in how to do it. We thought he was talking about rescuing, and possibly in response to Dehlins survey of inactive memebers, but it was of no help.

    At the same time Uchtdorf (but in a different place) gave a talk on truth where he went into lots of detail. Much better!

    I have been reading Handbook 1 looking for opportunities for women, and find that there are definites (you must have melchizedec priesthood to participate in the blessing of a child), and vague(councilors in the bishopric may conduct sacrament meeting. It doesn’t say who else may, and doesn’t say they must hold any priesthood.

    So vague might be an opportunity to point out that the handbook does not exclude women from conducting sacrament meeting.

    The book also says the bishopric and stake presidency can invite anyone they want to their meetings. If the relief society presidency were invited permanently to these meetings and then rotated with the bishopric in conducting sacrament meetings, that would really change the atmosphere at church wouldn’t it?

    So vague could be usefull, but I don’t like it in talks. Say what you want to achieve and how you suggest it best be done. Agency comes into how we respond.


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