Imagine the gospel as a gemstone, diamond, adamant, engraved with a notecard worth of the most indispensable knowledge—our relationship with God and what we should do to return to Him. The Two Great Commandments, the Ten Commandments, the Nativity and the Resurrection, the Sermon on the Mount, the Abrahamic Covenant, the First Vision. Now consider the rest of human knowledge. Wander a university library with everything from molecular biology to public policy, Thucydides to thermodynamics. How much value is distributed through the library relative to what is contained on that one adamant notecard?
Opinions on that will differ. But as Latter-day Saints know well, our meetings are largely focused on the familiar notecard rather than the vast, intriguing library. I confess to sometimes feeling bored in church meetings in the past. And I have asked myself: why are our meetings so focused on the notecard, even and especially General Conference?
Latter-day Saints meet in a “general conference” of the Church of Jesus Christ twice a year, in a tradition that stretches back almost 200 years, and are promised that “inasmuch as they are faithful, and exercise faith in me, I will pour out my Spirit upon them in the day that they assemble themselves together.” And throughout the decades, talks and instruction at General Conference have hit the same notes relentlessly. Many talks discuss the same concepts, cite the same scriptures, and (at least for me) can sometimes be easy to tune out.
Yet it would be shallow to conclude that the solemn repetition is due to a lack of originality or capacity; Church leaders are interesting men and women who obviously have the resources and capabilities to produce the kind of content they want to. They could produce flashy TED Talk-style presentations, or something on the model of an academic conference, or a whole weekend of high-production-value concerts. But they don’t. And church leaders are deliberately choosing the content and tone of General Conference to achieve their goals. So why are some of us still tempted to get bored? Public policy debates, so often centered on what others will be made to do, can over-absorb “virtuous” energy that would be better directed to individual repentance.
Public policy debates, so often centered on what others will be made to do, can over-absorb “virtuous” energy that would be better directed to individual repentance.
But there’s also good doctrinal justification for reiterating the basics regardless of audience. Nephi wrote that “my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn.” Hyrum Smith was told by the Lord in 1829, “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation.” In 1844, Hyrum Smith himself advised to “Give out the simple principles … Preach the first principles of the Gospel—preach them over again.”
So as a member of this generation, by divine injunction, I need to be immersed in what Nephi calls the “plain and precious” basics of the gospel—exactly what Conference does. (Not to mention the hymns, Come, Follow Me, the sacrament prayers, temple ceremonies …) It’s looking like the adamant notecard, the core of the gospel, is overwhelmingly more important than everything else combined. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Church is counseled to seek learning in a variety of fields, but when it comes to the actual preaching, the Preach My Gospel lessons pretty well cover it. God is our loving Heavenly Father. Christ is our Savior. Have faith, repent, be baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end. Keep the commandments. Prophets have always taught of Christ and revealed the gospel, and Joseph Smith restored it in our day.
Apostle Neal A. Maxwell’s book That My Family Should Partake gave me a deeper appreciation of the adamant notecard and its overwhelming importance. Discussing the City of Enoch and other Zion societies, he observes:
Rather than having any special techniques (perhaps there were such, but the scriptures are quite silent on this point), it appears to be the case that the individuals involved simply needed to accept and apply the fundamental truths of the gospel and keep the commandments. Then the celestial symptoms began to appear. There apparently is something about accepting wholeheartedly the basic doctrines of the kingdom that permits us to put other things in their proper place.
One does not read, for instance, of people in any scriptural history becoming fascinated with peace per se and pursuing it successfully apart from everything else. Rather, one reads of people who accept and apply certain gospel truths, and then—not first—comes peace.
There is a truth here that one approaches tremblingly. It is this: that the ordering of the inner man (so he can have happiness in this world and exaltation in the world to come) does not require the acquisition of sophisticated skills and techniques. Rather, the inner change that makes the outer Zion possible depends, first and finally, on our ability to accept and to apply the simple, basic principles of the gospel. When there is righteousness at the core of our soul, then the rippling outward produces situations in which there is no poverty, nor contention, nor lying, nor lasciviousness; there is happiness.
So evidently, General Conference can feel boring at times because we, the bulk of the audience, still need reinforcement at the most basic levels. If the membership of the Church is a track team, we’re arguably still at a comically basic stage where the coach is just trying to get his runners to go around the track. (The Covenant Track? Someone should say something like that a few dozen times in Conference!) Perfecting running technique does no good at all if the runners are wandering off in all directions, and that seems to be the dominant problem.
This is a pretty extreme demonstration of the Pareto Principle—but rather than 80% of the results coming from 20% of the knowledge, it appears that 99.99% of results come from principles the missionaries can teach in a few hours. Not only can all truth be circumscribed within one great whole, but that whole can be expressed very succinctly indeed.
And yet we still struggle. I’m reminded of studying math. Math always seems easier when the instructor does it on the board—the logic sounds self-evident, the words ring familiar, and the sentences parse as intelligible English. And then you sit down to work on a homework assignment and realize how much of the lecture went in one ear and out the other, how weak your grasp on the concepts is, and how badly you need practice if you’re going to pass the test. (Or, if you don’t take the homework seriously, you might think you truly understood—right up until the final exam gives its verdict!)
The exam is coming; we must do our homework and practice the basics. The frequent advice to bring questions to General Conference works in part because it helps bring the simple concepts into contact with the reality of our lives. We should listen in order to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
We also need to avoid getting distracted: devoting excessive thought, attention, and effort to second-order, beyond-the-mark concerns. Public policy debates, so often centered on what others will be made to do, can over-absorb “virtuous” energy that would be better directed to individual repentance. Good citizens must engage with such topics on some level but shouldn’t mistake them for fundamentals. Part of the value of being acquainted with good books, languages, people, history, countries, and laws is negative: we can learn to see the gospel’s value by contrast. There are also plenty of Church-adjacent shiny, distracting objects to play with—doctrinal or historical questions that are orthogonal to repentance and proper conduct. We can follow prophetic leadership in what we attend to.
Perhaps I have convinced you that General Conference is right to focus on the simple adamant notecard topics. Given that, why is there so much of it? And for that matter, if the gospel is so simple, why do we have thousands of pages of scripture?
Some might conclude the amount of scripture we have is tied to historical details of transmission and canonization, while the length of General Conference is determined by how much meeting can reasonably fit within one weekend. However, I think a better starting assumption is that we have exactly the amount of scripture and General Conference we need. And I suspect all the “extra” material beyond the notecard exists primarily to provide context and reinforcement.
Our culture readily corrodes meaning. A fixed text can be reinterpreted, terms redefined, and meaning tortured, to yield something diametrically opposed to the author’s intent. Scripture is always subject to such pressures. Individual words that seem clear in one generation can be complicated in the next (e.g. “woman”).
Doctrinal words are particularly at risk. They often become “suitcase words”: they can contain a lot of information, but not everyone agrees on what’s in there when it comes time to unpack. In contemporary usage, faith often means something like “stuff dead science-haters believed for no good reason.” Repeatedly illuminating and reimagining the concept of faith helps get that out of the suitcase and replace it with definitions, usages, and stories that bring the word to life: the seed, the evidence of things hoped for, the attitude that led pioneers across the plains, etc.
Simply providing a new dictionary definition of faith is not enough—cultural degradation is recursive and can torture the words in the new definition too. Continuous corrosion demands a continuous response. The basic concepts need to be restated, over and over again, in various combinations and permutations of meaning, wording, and circumstance, just to make it clear that they have not changed. Deuteronomy was literally the repetition of the law, Alma had to clarify for Corianton, and Paul had to straighten out the Corinthians. This kind of clarification and repetition happens through the millennia, in different dispensations of the gospel; every six months, at General Conference; and hopefully on a weekly and daily basis in individual wards and homes.
So assume all of this is true. What does it mean for my behavior?
For a start, listening to conferences and Church talks, in general, should optimally involve a lot of self-reflection. Rather than “What new information about repentance will this talk give?” (probably not much!) my main mental loop can focus on “How can I repent?” That will often be more fruitful ground. The uplifting content is directed at my behavior and my soul, not my intellect and my philosophical opinions. It is spiritual nourishment—sometimes an acquired taste—not brain candy.
I think this also has implications for my information diet. However intriguing novelty might feel, if we appreciate beforehand how fundamentally disconnected it is from our real problems, then seeking it becomes less attractive. And reading about technique (parenting, self-help) could ideally be done with frequent reference to fundamentals and limited as a percentage of intake. Likewise, more focused study should go towards cultivating proper attitudes in preference to collecting facts or trawling for theories—all of which confirm why tone and quality are so critical and why repetition need not have diminishing returns. (Drop the nonfiction book of the week and re-read Narnia instead.) As readers, we might also think more about how books illustrate key concepts rather than only hoping to discover wholly new concepts. Anyone who can pass a baptismal interview already knows all the key concepts—the struggle is living them!
Going back to the university library where we began, truth is spread throughout the stacks. But the number of key concepts is small, and ultimate value is still overwhelmingly concentrated in the adamant notecard. Set expectations accordingly, and the Church’s teaching makes a lot more sense. Apply the few key truths, and everything else will fall into place. In Elder Maxwell’s words, “the inner change that makes the outer Zion possible depends, first and finally, on our ability to accept and to apply the simple, basic principles of the gospel.”