The recent BCC post has shamed me into posting on a few of the articles from the new Winter 2006 issue of Dialogue. One of the reasons I subscribed, after all, was to get an additional source of good blogging material. Time to get my money's worth. The following article is posted online at the Dialogue site, so it's a good one to start with: Perserverence Amid Paradox: The Struggle of the LDS Church in Japan Today. The author, who is LDS and Japanese, is a university English prof in Japan. The article is a pointed reminder of what it is like to be a Mormon outside North America, in a country where Mormons are still considered an oddity rather than a fixture. But the issue from the article that I want to address is the troubling challenge that Internet information about Mormon history presents to LDS members in Japan and, by reasonable extension, in many other countries.
Google Me This
There are two problems. One is that the Internet makes a lot of information about LDS history freely available, accessible, and searchable by anyone with Internet access and a browser. This is history that, in the good 'ole days (pre-1995?), was squirreled away in university libraries or even (at BYU) locked away in some special archive. The second problem—the critical one, in my opinion—is that the information comes bundled by website, blog, or board, many of which present inaccurate information, portray rumor and innuendo as fact, or unfairly present LDS history, belief, and practice. Not all sites that disagree with LDS claims do so dishonestly, of course, but many do.
These two problems are distinct, if related. Here's how the article summarizes the Japanese experience:
[There was] a minor crisis that developed for Japanese Mormons because of the Internet. The Internet is an increasingly important source of information in Japan. The Japanese surfer will find that a majority of websites and bulletin boards on Mormonism are either critical or antagonistic toward the Church, giving historical information on Mormonism unfamiliar to most members.
The "giving historical information" part is describing the first problem I listed. The history itself, of course, is not a problem. Like the facts of the physical world, the historical record is what it is. But the correlated version of LDS history presented in manuals and CES publication sets Mormons up for a problem. Overseas Mormons are especially vulnerable on this point, I think. As the article notes, "Physical distance and language barriers have kept most Japanses Church members, including those who are academically inclined, from knowledge of scholarly research on Mormon history."
The solution is simply to make better history available. For example, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, written by two Latter-day Saint historians, published by Deseret Book in 1976, intended as a replacement volume for the venerable but outdated Essentials in Church History, but squelched by a few of the hardline conservative LDS leaders because ... well, because it wasn't Essentials in Church History. So the bottom line is that the historical information problem faced by many Church members is largely self-inflicted and can be solved in five years if the curriculum folks and those who supervise them just get their ducks in line. If Story of the Latter-day Saints had been welcomed rather than shunned, the whole anti-history bias that swept over the CES like a virus might have been avoided. We can't change the past, but it would be nice if someone were trying a little harder to change the present.
The "critical or antagonostic sites" problem noted in the quote from the article illustrates the second type of problem I noted above. Given the open nature of the Internet, there is almost nothing that can be done about the existence of such sites. Like junk email and comment spam, such sites are a permanent part of the Internet. If the CES actually started educating Latter-day Saints, much of the sting of these sites would be neutralized, but not all of it. And even if there's a curriculum upgrade, it won't work for everyone. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him read history.
Instead, the solution lies in counter-programming. What is needed is a multitude of websites and weblogs hosting honest discussion and presentation of Mormon history and doctrine and generating enough traffic to come up on the first page of Google searches. Sites don't have to be apologetic or official to get the job done, all they have to be is honest and responsible in their presentation and discussion of LDS issues.
Once again, the Church really shot itself in the foot a few years ago when it made every ward and stake shut down their nascent websites in favor of LDS.org and its numerous subdomains. I call this the "One True Website" model. The flaw is that you end up with One True Hit on a Google search page, along with nine antagonistic sites. If every ward had been allowed to set up and run its own website five years ago, a search for "LDS Church" or "Mormon missionary" or even "Mormon polygamy" might have brought up a cascade of LDS ward sites. With the sudden appearance of several pseudo-official weblogs by COB staffers (such as here, here, and here), I'm guessing they've finally realized that what they need is a thousand good LDS sites, not one great one.
Your Mission, Jim ...
The message in this analysis to all LDS bloggers should be clear: Your mission is to create searchable, linkable LDS content that comes up on Google searches using LDS search terms. Otherwise, the assortment of flakes, blockheads, and whiners who so diligently recycle their various comments and complaints through antagonistic boards, sites, and blogs will occupy all the shelf space on Google pages. Now don't expect a pat on the back for hosting an LDS blog or website—Correlation has successfully promoted the idea that "uncorrelated" is equivalent to "Satanic"—but know that you are accomplishing something worthwhile. At least that's how I have come to see it.
From a global perspective, Internet sites have a big advantage over print materials: Online pages are easily translatable (more or less) by modern browsers. No translation department needed. Even though Mormon Inquiry (or T&S or FAIR or FARMS) posts in English, it can be read in French or German or probably even Japanese. A good LDS site that generates enough links and traffic to come up on Google search pages might actually help people—real people with real concerns—cope with the flood of disinformation about the LDS Church they encounter on the Internet.
I have a couple of requests from commenters. First, if you are a non-English surfer or blogger, please share your experience in visiting or using Mormon sites and blogs posted in English. Does browser translation actually work for one who is trying to access English-language material? Second, if anyone has links to foreign-language sites equivalent to Bloggernacle sites, FARMS, or FAIR, please post them. I know of one in French: Idumea. Any others out there?