Subtexts of General Conference Stories, October 2013 Edition

I think it’s fascinating to look at the stories that General Conference speakers choose to tell. The subtexts, or the messages they convey without stating them explicitly, are particularly interesting. A couple of years ago, I blogged about a couple of stories Conference speakers told where the subtexts provoked particularly strong reactions in me. In this most recent Conference, two more stories stood out to me again in the strong reactions I had to their subtexts.

The first was told by President Monson in his talk “True Shepherds,” which he gave in the priesthood session:

A home teaching visit is also more likely to be successful if an appointment is made in advance. To illustrate this point, let me share with you an experience I had some years ago. At that time the Missionary Executive Committee was comprised of Spencer W. Kimball, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. One evening Brother and Sister Hinckley hosted a dinner in their home for the committee members and our wives. We had just finished a lovely meal when there was a knock at the door. President Hinckley opened the door and found one of his home teachers standing there. The home teacher said, “I know I didn’t make an appointment to come, and I don’t have with me my companion, but I felt I should come tonight. I didn’t know you would be entertaining company.”

President Hinckley graciously invited the home teacher to come in and sit down and to instruct three Apostles [pause for laughter] and our wives concerning our duty as members. With a bit of trepidation, the home teacher did his best. President Hinckley thanked him for coming, after which he made a hurried exit.

I get his explicit point here: It’s better to make an appointment first if you’re going to home teach. This definitely makes sense, although I think it’s worth noting that there are a lot of faith-promoting stories out there (many in Church publications) that tell of home or visiting teachers being inspired to visit without an appointment. But that’s just an aside. Let’s talk about the subtext.

What I find most interesting in this story is where President Monson paused for laughter (and people did indeed laugh). He wasn’t saying that it was laughable that a home teacher would come without an appointment, or that he would come alone (issues raised earlier in the story), he was saying that it was laughable that a home teacher would instruct three apostles. The subtext is loud and clear here: no mere home teacher is going to have anything useful to say to an apostle.

Certainly I can see where President Monson would think this. After all, apostles are supposed to be special witnesses of Christ and to be prophets, seers, and revelators and all, and the rest of us aren’t. But it seems impolitic for him to emphasize that point so baldly. It also seems to me to be revealing of how President Monson likely views attempts from the grass roots to affect Church policy. He is an apostle, and ordinary members are not, and we therefore really don’t have anything useful to say to him or to other Church leaders.

I’m not a fan of this view. I think Church leaders are far from infallible, and I wish there were more formal routes to giving feedback to GAs. (I blogged about this once years ago.) I also find it frustrating that President Monson doesn’t acknowledge the catch-22 that home teachers of the GAs face based on this story. These men are called, based on policies made by GAs, to home teach GAs, but  then at least some of the GAs (or President Monson at least) appear to view their efforts with disdain.

In the very same session, President Uchtdorf told a story that I really like, largely because its subtext runs counter to the subtext of President Monson’s story. President Uchtdorf’s story comes from his talk titled “You Can Do It Now!“:

Not long ago I was skiing with my 12-year-old grandson. We were enjoying our time together when I hit an icy spot and ended up making a glorious crash landing on a steep slope.

I tried every trick to stand up, but I couldn’t—I had fallen, and I couldn’t get up. [pause for laughter]

I felt fine physically, but my ego was a bit bruised. So I made sure that my helmet and goggles were in place, since I much preferred that other skiers not recognize me. [pause for laughter] I could imagine myself sitting there helplessly as they skied by elegantly, shouting a cheery, “Hello, Brother Uchtdorf!” [pause for laughter]

I began to wonder what it would take to rescue me. That was when my grandson came to my side. I told him what had happened, but he didn’t seem very interested in my explanations of why I couldn’t get up. He looked me in the eyes, reached out, took my hand, and in a firm tone said, “Opa, you can do it now!”

Instantly, I stood.

Like with the previous story, I think it’s telling where he paused and got laughs. Unlike President Monson’s story, where he got laughs at the expense of the home teacher, in President Uchtdorf’s, he pauses–repeatedly–so people can laugh at him for falling down while skiing. The subtext here seems to me to be that he’s putting himself on the same level as the rest of us. He even uses a less formal name for himself (“Brother Uchtdorf,” rather than “Elder” or “President”) when imagining what people might call him as they skied past him, reinforcing the point made by his pauses for laughter that he is just an ordinary person. Again, this is in contrast to President Monson’s story, where he was emphasizing the difference between apostles like him and ordinary old members like us.

As you can probably guess, I like the subtext of President Uchtdorf’s story a lot more than the subtext of President Monson’s. I suspect that President Uchtdorf might be more open to hearing the ideas of ordinary members than President Monson would be.

That’s enough from me. I am interested to hear of any stories told in Conference that stood out to you.


  1. I was there and I didn’t react to President Monson’s story like you did. I thought he was pausing to emphasize the Home Teacher’s discomfort, not an apostle’s annoyance, a discomfort that anyone hearing that talk could well relate to, thus the laughter.

    I think that is more believable than your interpretation for one reason, President Monson did not say he sat down to instruct “three Apostles”, he said he sat down to instruct “three apostles and their wives”. Including their wives I think makes it less about the imperious apostles and more about the Home Teacher.

  2. Good point, KLC. I think I read it the way I did because he paused to wait for laughter after the word “apostles,” but I think your interpretation is at least as plausible as mine (if not more so).

  3. I heard it the way KLC did, with even a little praise that the home teacher, while intimidated, still managed to deliver his message. After all, his home teacher was visiting one apostle every month anyway, which presumably Pres. Monson didn’t consider a waste of that apostle’s time.

  4. I also thought he was alluding to the home teacher’s discomfort, not the fact that he had the audacity to try to teach something to those men.

    As an aside, can you imagine him sitting there fumbling with his Ensign: “…and in last year’s conference, you, Elder Monson, said such-and-such. Now in our lives, I think we should apply it like this.” Hope you don’t misunderstand his meaning!

  5. Yeah, I don’t think I agree that the strongest subtext of President Monson’s story was how untouchable the Apostles are. Like other commenters, I think it highlighted more the discomfort evident with a hometeacher unexpectedly presenting to his higher-ups. Mostly, though, I think it was just a funny story — and the bit about remembering to make an appointment was just pretext for telling a funny story.

    That being said, I loved your take on President Uchtdorf’s talk — wonderful!

  6. I’ve heard he story several times over the years. I have never been comfortable with it. It’s just not something I would say over the pulpit.

  7. I heard it like you Ziff, and probably because of the context, where normal members are not able to communicate with the 12 and get a reply, but we regularly hear stories from them of letters they receive. When you read their history there seems to be an elite group whose families know each other. How do outsiders get in? How much better do they have to be?

    As a non American I am much more comfortable with Uchtdorf’s style. With Uchtdorf the Gospel is pure, with the US bred Apostles, and particularly the older ones, the Gospel is often diluted with their culture, to varying degrees. In the case of Elder Oaks talk completely culture and no Gospel.

  8. I’ll be a voice of dissent. While I don’t want to read too much into it since it may just be a matter of interpretation, I think, Ziff, that you are touching on something that may be more subtle than some here are giving you credit for. I think there is something about the relationships between levels of power in a hierarchy, particularly a (practically-speaking) highly rigid hierarchy like the one Pres Monson sits on top of, that makes discussions of the interactions between underlings and … overlings (? 🙂 ) problematic. It’s like at best Pres Monson is being a bit tonedeaf and not thinking about his privilege or the implications of his statements. Yes, of course we should give him the benefit of the doubt – but still, why did he bring this story up at all? Why highlight the awkwardness that someone who is on the bottom of the totem pole will feel when faced with an impromptu HT lesson to multiple members of the Q12? That awkwardness is about hierarchy and power, and does little to keep focus on the idea that we are all vital parts of the body of Christ.

  9. I feel similar discomfort when people tell stories about interactions between Mormons and non-Mormons. Sometimes the subtext of these stories is that Mormons understand things better than non-Mormons do. The most recent example of this that I can think of is in Seri Dew’s “What do LDS women get?” speech in which she discusses her interactions with a reporter. She definitely pauses for laughter after explaining some of the reporter’s questions and responses and there is a subtext of “we all know better than this poor reporter.” That being said, I don’t think the way these stories are told are overtly malicious. Instead, as galdralag points out, I think they reveal subtle biases that the speaker holds. I wonder if the reporter was in the room when Sis. Dew gave this talk, would he feel uncomfortable, or would he be laughing along with everyone else? Or would Sis. Dew tell the story differently if he were in the room?

  10. I agree with the OP, because of President Monson’s story from the 2010 General Relief Society meeting:

    “Forty-seven years ago this general conference, I was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. At the time, I had been serving on one of the general priesthood committees of the Church, and so before my name was presented, I sat with my fellow members of that priesthood committee, as was expected of me. My wife, however, had no idea where to go and no one with whom she could sit and, in fact, was unable to find a seat anywhere in the Tabernacle. A dear friend of ours, who was a member of one of the general auxiliary boards and who was sitting in the area designated for the board members, asked Sister Monson to sit with her. This woman knew nothing of my call—which would be announced shortly—but she spotted Sister Monson, recognized her consternation, and graciously offered her a seat. My dear wife was relieved and grateful for this kind gesture. Sitting down, however, she heard loud whispering behind her as one of the board members expressed her annoyance to those around her that one of her fellow board members would have the audacity to invite an “outsider” to sit in this area reserved only for them. There was no excuse for her unkind behavior, regardless of who might have been invited to sit there. However, I can only imagine how that woman felt when she learned that the “intruder” was the wife of the newest Apostle.”

    When I heard this story, I did not think badly of President Monson or of his message. But I realized that he is definitely a product of his culture.

    Coincidentally, it was Pres. Uchdorf who helped me to view President Monson as a good, flawed man who is trying to help God’s great work (Priesthood session, 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.”

    I think that these quotes show how easy it is to think we are something more than we are. As the book of Mosiah says, “all we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” God bless our leaders, whose flaws are on public display. At least I get to be imperfect in relative obscurity.

  11. “no mere home teacher is going to have anything useful to say to an apostle.”

    I’m not sure this is the only way to read it. Another reading is that Monson is acknowledging (without passing judgement) the natural feeling that most of us would indeed have teaching Apostles. Joseph Smith’s “home teacher” certainly felt somewhat cowed in his visits “instructing The Prophet.”

  12. I think and hope that pres. Monson was referring to the man feeling intimidated. But it would have been cool if he had said something about how the HT needn’t have felt intimidated and that all of us can learn from each other.

  13. I’m really glad you wrote this post. I don’t think you’re wrong about this sort of power differential existing in the church, at many different levels of the hierarchy. I’m perfectly willing to give everyone at all levels the benefit of assuming it’s not intentional or malicious, but that doesn’t mean the dynamic isn’t there. What’s perhaps equally telling–and perhaps equally troublesome–is that the audience knew exactly when to laugh: to the extent that the attitude you point out exists in the leadership, it clearly also exists among the rank-and-file. As a church body, we could all probably do better at the ideal described in Alma 1:26, where the priest didn’t esteem himself above his hearers, etc. That’s sometimes a challenge to do from the “hearer” perspective (it is for me, anyway!)–to be willing to learn from someone you truly feel is a peer and not somehow superior to you spiritually or intellectually. It requires humility from both sides, I think.

  14. Seeing as how Presidents Monson, Kimball and Hinckley are the men who author the Home Teaching Message, I don’t see what the big deal is.

    A home teacher’s job is to read the message these men write, so it IS funny to think about someone sitting down to try to read it back to them.

    These men work full-time to come up with the source material for home teachers. It’s their job.

    It’s like the Saturday Night Live sketch where the motivational speak tells Michael Jordan that he’s good enough to play basketball.

  15. Ziff, great, thought-provoking post! Galdralag’s and Beatrice’s comments made me think that perhaps the lesson for me is to try to think through my privilege when I am speaking or writing, especially in front of a group. Is there something I am saying that might make someone who is not white, not male, not straight, not married, not in a leadership position, etc., feel uncomfortable, excluded, or less than?

    I know it is impossible to recognize all of our biases, nor do I think we should overthink things and be paralyzed by PC fears, and yet it seems that it would be healthy to go through a “privilege-examination” thought process each time I am to speak in front of a group.

    Thanks for helping get the gears turning in my brain.

  16. I appreciate your thoughts here, Ziff. Galdarag’s comment resonated with me. I didn’t hear or read Pres. Monson’s talk, but I can imagine his intent may have been to humor the home teacher in his discomfort. However, I don’t really see the point of sharing the story at all. Isn’t making an appointment before showing up for home teaching just common courtesy?

    Slightly off-topic, but I do not see home teaching or visiting teaching as “teaching” anyway. At least not in the sense that the home teacher is there as an instructor. I see it as bringing a message as a jumping-off point for a discussion where (ideally) all are edified by all. In that scenario it doesn’t matter who comes to “deliver” the message. I see home and visiting teaching as flat in structure. Maybe Pres. Monson sees it differently. Oh well.

  17. It doesn’t always pay to make an appt. My husband was home teacher to a less active family who hated to be tied down by an appt. If they just showed up they had a great visit, but if they made an appt, they were never there. I was the VTer, and had a terrible time convincing my companion we’d be better not making an appt. The only time we saw the sister was the one time we didn’t have an appt, and my companion spent a good portion of the visit apologising we hadn’t made one ( seemed to be too alien a concept for her ). I was discomfited by the way the story was told, but for me the message was know your family, not the make an appt as was presented.

    I loved Pres Uchtdorf’s story, and the self-deprecating manner in which he told it.

  18. I agree with KLC. President Monson has told many stories of his youth where he encountered general authorities and was intimidated. Seems to be the same type of thing here.


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