Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Checklist Generation: Conflating Culture with the Church

I was recently reading something by a former member of the Church who was relating their experience as a member. As they reported they came to the realization one day that all the commandments and rules in the Church were just one big checklist. This "stunning" realization lead them to question their faith, decide that it was a bunch of drivel and they promptly left the Church. They were now explaining how they have since "found Jesus" and were now engaged in an outreach to other members of the Church to "save them from their false idols". From their description it would seem that all Mormons are given a specific checklist they must follow and when they have checked everything off they believe that they can bound away merrily into eternal exaltation.

This characterization of LDS doctrine struck me as particularly odd considering we are taught that we must only rely "upon the merits of Christ, who [is] the author and the finisher of [our] faith." The commenter related how he felt so liberated after he freed himself from the "deception taught by the church" that we are save by our works, typified by the checklist of commandments. After reading his comments I came away wondering if we were ever members of the same church, and where in the world he got his ideas about LDS doctrine.

I do recognize that some people reduce the gospel to a set of things to get done; read your scriptures, say your prayers, do your home/visiting teaching, don't murder anybody. But more often than not we hear admonitions to not treat the gospel, or any of its parts, as a checklist. Which makes me wonder how this man managed to go most of his life without ever hearing those admonitions, let alone end up thinking that the Church actively teaches the checklist gospel.

To try and understand where these ideas come from I used Google Ngram Viewer to look at how the frequency of the word "checklist" changed over time. What I found was both a little surprising, but at the same time understandable.
As can be seen in the graph above, "checklist" was used very infrequently before about 1935. In that year there was a rather famous plane crash that could have been averted if the pilot had used a checklist. Since then the use of "checklists" has grown, especially in the 1960's and 70's. What surprised me was the drop is usage after 2000, though this may be due to it being replaced by the phrase "to do list" (interestingly enough the word "list", as a noun, has also seen a steep drop after 2000, also interesting is the fact that "checklist" displaced "check list" in the 1960's).

So it would seem that our obsession with checklist, to do lists and all sorts of lists is a recent cultural phenomena. In a more general sense the idea that we go through the motions without the corresponding faith and belief is nothing new. But to make the assertion that the Church has reduced salvation to a bland checklist of items, practices and commandments, is to mistake a current cultural phenomena for eternal doctrine. We should not blame the Church and discount its doctrine because of a cultural meme.

For those of us who are still faithful we can use this as learning opportunity to see how sometimes our current culture affects the way we see the doctrine of the Church. If we slip into the error of treating the commandments and ordinances of the gospel as items on a checklist we should realize that that is a result of our culture and we should work to remove that from our thinking.


Nick Nelson said...

Drat, I was sure I'd get bodily taken up into heaven after I did my home teaching for a year without missing a visit.

Quantumleap42 said...

Sorry Nick. I tried that before and not even the Elder's Quorum president noticed. I also don't think my companion noticed, maybe that was my problem.