I really don’t know. I wasn’t a consistent listener to his podcast and didn’t carefully follow his online ruminations. My understanding of his journey is flawed at best. When he was still a Mormon bishop he came onto Mormon Stories and provided a fairly standard orthodox defense of the Mormon church if I remember it correctly. Shortly after John Dehlin’s excommunication, he started his own podcast, Mormon Discussion, to try to fill the void Dehlin left of someone offering a faithful perspective while digging into the tough issues.
I remember early on listening to his podcasts and thinking that I found a kindred spirit, someone whose relationship to Mormonism is similar to mine. His testimony shared on an early podcast episode, for example, echo some of the same elements of my own. I didn’t listen to his podcast regularly though. Perhaps I should have, looking at his archives, he’s had some interesting ones – great guests, interesting topics.
That is why it’s so sad to hear that he’s about to be excommunicated. I listened to him describe the events that led up to it on a podcast interview on Radio Free Mormon. Scanning his recent posts, it’s easy to see that he’s gotten a lot more negative.
What to make of this? First of all, Adam Miller teaches that “if your religion falls apart in your hands, don’t without further ado assume that this is because your religion doesn’t work.” Rather, the “disintegration may itself be the clearest manifestation yet of the fact that your religion is working.” In the same article he continues to say that “Mormonism cannot bear the weight of itself. If you ask Mormonism to be about Mormonism, the weight of that inward turning and the redoubling of that self-regard will stifle it.”
In some sense I think this is what is happening here. Bill Reel’s extra-careful scrutiny into Mormonism caused the religion to fall apart in his hands as he realized that Mormonism is incapable of bearing the weight of itself.
I’ve been thinking a bit lately on what seems to be the collapse of our political systems. Newt Gingrich deserves a lot of the blame. Gingrich took what was a shared responsible between two political parties at tension with each other to still govern the country and turned it into a winner take all, us versus them zero-sum game. The problem is the legislative branch does not work this way and because of that Gingrich has had very little legislative success. He was able to get elected by vilifying the democratic party. But the beast he created eventually turned against him.
The GOP’s impeachment crusade backfired with voters, Republicans lost seats in the House—and Gingrich was driven out of his job by the same bloodthirsty brigade he’d helped elect. “I’m willing to lead,” he sniffed on his way out the door, “but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”
The great irony of Gingrich’s rise and reign is that, in the end, he did fundamentally transform America—just not in the ways he’d hoped. He thought he was enshrining a new era of conservative government. In fact, he was enshrining an attitude—angry, combative, tribal—that would infect politics for decades to come.
This is the crucial problem with becoming a crusading critic of an organization. They are all unjust to various degrees. Everyone lies. Everyone is corrupt. We all have shadow work to do. If you want to find problems in a church, political party, politician, prophet or other leader, you will. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” If we don’t do this carefully, out of love, full of compassion, we’re at risk of being consume by it ourselves because realistically, we largely no better than those we criticize.
There is a balance here. We need our critics. Our institutions need to be held accountable. I understand and honor the impulse. In the liturgist podcast, Michael Grunger talks about how Christianity needs protest. Religion needs some people to walk away from it. For Christianity to survive and thrive, those faithfully within need to listen to those who faithfully leave. Those of us who remain in the church need to be fearless in our thinking. We need the type of “resistance that refuses to allow the enemy to be the enemy, that refuses to allow the enemy to be positioned as what must be excluded or opposed.”
Something is happening in our society right now and it isn’t good. We’re sorting ourselves, online and geographically. Right now a terrible candidate can squirm his way into the presidency behind an enthusiastic base using the quirks of the electoral college map to propel him into the office despite deep objections from the other side. This isn’t good and it’s a sign that we’re no longer getting outside of our echo chambers. Worse, that more of our institutions are becoming our personal echo chambers.
This isn’t good.
Religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. To the degree that church becomes an echo chamber it fundamentally stops performing this vital role. Mormonism needs all types of adherents – the orthodox, the conservative, the liberal, those struggling with belief, those firmly rooted in belief. We need big-tent Mormonism. The only fundamental requirement to belonging should be, as it says in D&C 4, a desire to serve God.
So, what happened to Bill Reel? I have no idea really. In the interview I heard he was obsessed with truth, honesty, integrity. He had a list of questions and he wanted answers to them. He kept pushing them. He called Elder Holland a liar and devoted an entire podcast explaining why. I’m not sure what to make of this approach. Perhaps this sort of accountability is good. I don’t certainly don’t have good answers to his questions. I don’t expect the institutional church to spend time answering these questions. Maybe someday it will, I don’t honestly how it can right now.
I’m sad he couldn’t make it work and it seems he’s about to be firmly rooted in the ex-Mormon community. Again, I think that Mormons need its critics. I hope that criticism comes from a desire to strengthen and make better rather than a need to “burn it down”. There are far too many people in the world trying to burn things down. The world is already burning. We need to put out fires not start new ones.