Being In Impostasy. What is, The Church?

Im pos ta sy: n. The state of being an imposter, which thing somehow also manages to look like it is in apostasy.

Here is a graphic which fairly simplifies cultural processes that give rise to an imagined thing like a religion.

What is “the Church”?  I hear the term tossed around as if one was referring to the sun, or the moon; as if everyone knows what it refers to, and it’s right there before your eyes.  But the church is a word which does something; that is, it has “pragmatic” meaning.  What it does in part is position speakers inside some “referential domain,” all the things picked out by the term at some moment; or lumps them outside that domain; what it does is allow said speakers to project their own desires into the referential domain, picking out those things they like or don’t like.  Thus, to use the word “the Church” is to create a thing in one’s own image, rather than refer to something independent of one’s act of speaking.  (I’ve addressed this problem before in posts on Mormon Studies).

But we don’t remake it entirely.  That our making by speaking is held up in tangible things like buildings, malls, logos, and old men is merely the result of our having stepped into a stream of history where others have been making by speaking for hundreds of years.  That stream resists our remaking.  As they in the past made the referential domain flow, and made the persons who speak of it in such and such a way, including or excluding from themselves something called “the Church,” they also allowed for legal powers, capital, cultural figures, and so on to lock tangible things into place; and to lock speakers into relationships vis-a-vis these tangible things.  That is, the making by speaking is also accomplished by the utterances of judges, citizens, CEOs, presidents, peasants, and so on; they can introduce buildings, territory, political schemes, corporations, malls, logos, and so on as the tangible things that substantiate and sponsor “the Church”.  No single man runs “the Church,” guides it, or whatnot.  Speakers can say “the Church” and add or detract from this making by speaking process.

My own work attempts to undo the entire stream of history, disbursing its current; or at least to allow persons to step outside that stream, and to see what is passing, all the flotsam and why it was dumped, and with what effects on those downstream.

Historical-Cultural Process

The history of this locking into place, of both people and things capable of bearing up as the referential domain of “the Church” can be read in many books.  Only a few of these books actually provide one the means for seeing what is, in fact, being written about; most histories simply take for granted the existence of “the Church” and build accordingly around it.  In such a way these histories participate in the making by speaking; and more insidiously, they project back into history some fictional thing, grounding its reality into the new genre called “history” borne by tangible objects like books.

“The Church” was a legal entity in 1830, or something close to it.  Just a ragtag bunch of believers in the Book of Mormon, without even a name.  Maybe fifty in all, these early figures would all but be driven from “the Church” by 1840, by the very converts they brought in: mostly Rigdonites.

In the early days after the BoM was published, folks like Sidney Rigdon (a reluctant convert at best) built their own movement upon that book by using the word “the church”.  That word was like a great sea monster, sprawling in its reach and suction, swallowing surrounding ships and making a gyre that lived long after, drawing even more into the Book of Mormon.  The church divided believers in the BoM, as much as it allowed non-BoM things to crowd into the movement.  Whatever could be reasonably admitted into the referential world of “the Church” also became Mormonism.  So, the Cambellite doctrines (and liturgy) of Faith, Repentance, Baptism for the Remission of Sins, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost became the central pillars of Mormonism, and of the Book of Mormon itself.  Gentiles claimed they were Israel, and the New Testament Church too.

The Church became the thing ostensibly “restored,” for it had once fallen into apostasy (so the story went).  What did they mean by apostasy?  The never really said, except that they knew it when they saw it: Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists…anyone but the Rigdonites qua Cambellites qua anti-Protestant Protestants.  The Church was a word that allowed all of this to be built upon the Book of Mormon, to shape interpretations of that text, and to remake how one reads it.  The Church as a social entity slowly formed over the early years into the image of other churches: books, conversion rites, liturgy, laws, excommunications, elders, apostles, and all the hierarchy and supersition that many came to despise about the thing called “the Church” (when I reluctantly use the term).  Into “the Church” the early converts to “the church” (rather than merely united by belief in the BoM) also brought “the Bible,” a word for a jumbled bunch of texts somehow, for reasons I cannot discern, said to be The Word of God.  This book–more importantly, a certain interpretation of it–became part of the Church.  Rituals aping those found in the BoM became part of the liturgy of the Church.  Soon Mormonites themselves stood for the Church, when spoken of by their enemies.

The Church as a word allowed all sorts of nonsense to be built upon the Book of Mormon, and upon readers of it.   It was a word that built outward from the Book of Mormon, and organized believers in certain claims made about that text into a community much like those surrounding it; with just as strident belief in the Great and Abominable Church’s Book (and in their own interpretation of it).  But the Church was no more a real thing then, than it is now; it is merely a word that refers to whatever people who say it would like to lump together into a metaphysical whole, including themselves.  And most of what they lump in was simply dumped on them.

By 1890 there was the real possibility that the church declared dead by the Supreme Court would also die a social death.  What would’ve happened?  I suspect the Mormons in the West would’ve still congregated, there would’ve been stakes and wards; and there would’ve been a president/prophet.  But there wouldn’t have been a centralization of capital; and thereafter, of all things capital makes possible; that is, if the Church hadn’t been reconstituted as a Corporation Sole in 1916 and 1923.  At that point, the  course was set for corporate headquarters, Correlation and the Mall and everything I find more than objectionable, and now grouped under “the Church”.

What The Church Means To Me

The Church at various times has referred to many things: the doctrines; the community; the money machine; the corporate headquarters; the building.  When people say “the church” now they  mean something different from what they meant when they said “the Church” in 1829, 1844, 1877, or 1890.  Now, what if you discovered that your word “the cat” actually meant dog a hundred years ago; and elephant two hundred years before that?  Wouldn’t you take a bit more care when using the word, and when reading it in texts from those centuries?

What is “the Church”?  A thing got up in the image of other things called “churches”; and now a thing got up in the image of other things called “corporations”.  Who knows what it’ll mean next century.  But the structure will remain the same: that is, the way it works, how it brings together various things, including humans.  That will not change.  The word refers to a complex, never entirely identifiable, tangle of relationships, products, signage, intellectual property, metaphysical notions, feelings of community; that is to say, it has no real meaning, except as it does something.

What does it do now?  It positions humans vis-a-vis this imagined complex; when said by folks deceived into believing they “belong” to it, or are “members” of it, it can mean all the happy things lumped into the historical stream that flowed from the publication of the Book of Mormon, and locked into relationships by the law, by capital, by cultural traditions, by habit.  Rather than rigidity, however, immense flexibility results for those managing the various locking powers: the law, money, land, IP.  Church leaders thus can redesign “the  Church” whenever convenient, inconvenient, or just by happenstance.  But there is much they cannot simply redesign, and here we find the cultural side of the term offering up its registration of existence.

Racism and sexism and philanthropy and generosity and wickedness are all part of “the Church,” at a cultural level.  One can be pleased with the Church, or despise it; and the next day flip sides.  Why?  Because the term can include all these things, good and bad.  And I don’t mean at the “folk level”; I mean at headquarters, in the “official” doctrines, as much as in the folklore, oddities, branches, and eccentricities that come up, and are not registered with the legal and money powers that in part give life to the thing some people call “the Church”.  Always the word remains flexible, yet structured, but not determined, by the law and by capital.  It wasn’t always so, but it is now.

Whatever has been added to or taken from the referential domain picked out by “the Church” will simply be integrated into the speaker’s own personal definition.  But not everyone comes along for every redefining; for yours, or for mine, or for CNN’s, or the “prophet’s” or “the Church’s” redefinition of itself. When said by those who imagine they have removed themselves from it (that is, from the imagining of it), the word can mean something rather different from what it means when said by “members”.  Now, polygamy, racism, sexism, deception, psychic pain, and hypocrisy can be included in the term.   One has stepped into a cultural stream differing from that swimming by those who see only the good things as flowing from the Church.  Cultural traditions can be called up; rejected “official” doctrines or practices mentioned; utterances by “leaders” reconsidered; sacred books criticized; malls, and so on, defined from a perspective that positions the definer.

There is no standard for correct reference of the term: the “usage guides” provided to news organizations and so on simply allow the confusion to continue, the contention to grow hotter.  When CNN speaks of “the Church” in reference to some Public Relations statement, some practice by Mormons, or some other doctrine, folkway, or legal entity, they don’t use the term in the way that Mormons use it; Mormons in or out of “the Church”.  Bloggers may arise, and argue over what was said, how representative it was of their notions of the Church; are we really racists?  Is that just a fringe thing in the Church?  Nonsense questions which never come to answers, because they are asked of a thing that shifts its being every time it is spoken into being.

When these two stereotypes (the one “in” and the other “out” of the Church) come together (say, at family dinner) to talk about “the Church,” the word conceals divisions or it causes divisions, the catalysts of which the word itself conceals.  That is, these two disputing parties don’t stop and address what they mean by “the Church,” because what each person means is more or less unintelligible to the other.  Why?  This concealing effect, and catalyst for contention is in part the result of The Church being a thing “believed in,” and not merely referred to; the “believing in” thus shapes the referential domain of the word, and so the positioning of humans vis-a-vis an imagined thing continues without investigation.  Even if you don’t “believe” in “the Church,” by imaging yourself “outside” it you do “believe” it exists.

Precisely because it positions people, the word and its imagined referent take on a reality neither really possesses inherently; because now it refers to one’s beliefs about a thing referred to by “the Church.”  The speakers are thus included in the referential domain of the thing they say, a sort of magical entanglement much like the great chain held by Satan, author of confusion.    Clear?  That’s why “the Church” is in Impostasy, and not even capable of apostasy: it can only look like something, and now it looks like a thing in apostasy.  But to say it is, or is not in Apostasy, is to use a term that itself shaped the very beginnings of “the Church”.  To say “apostasy” in reference to “the Church” is to deceive oneself into believing it has a life outside our divine power of speaking.  But once we step aside and let the stream flow by, we can see “the Church” for what it is: an image of what not to do.  Now we know what we should never do, make, create, or imagine up, if ever given a shot at handling the living Church of the Lamb.


  1. Andrew Ainsworth says:

    So, in one sentence, the “Church” is merely a word that has no clear definition?

    1. day2mon says:

      It can only be given a ‘pragmatic’ definition: a statement of what it does, and why.

      1. FP says:

        “The Church” – words that call up the image of something, which image is shaped by law, money, traditions, habits, policy, culture, and personal experience. Those controlling the law or the money have power to “redesign” certain aspects of that image, though the aspects shaped by culture are not so easily controlled, and include all the warm-and-fuzzy things liked, or ugly aspects disliked, or whatever, picked out for inclusion at that moment a person invokes the words “the church,” by which act they also place themselves relative to that circling of the wagons.

        Therefore, the words “the church” can only be defined pragmatically–by what they do–since the “it” referred to by the words seems to change literally at every breathing of them. And what do they “do?” They serve to include, to exclude, to group, to divide, chop up, classify, stack, measure, commoditize, garner support for, create appearances of, encircle about, to top-down-ize, and to distract…all things “great and abominable.” I hope I summarize correctly here.

        I can see the usefulness in pitching out this phrase as presently used, which I include with all other magical phrases that can conjure up falsehoods in one’s mind by simply speaking or seeing them. What do I stand to gain, and what do I stand to lose? Liberation? Exclusion (though imagined), perhaps? What’s wrong with simply stating that I believe the BoM to be what is says? Why the need for anything else, except as folks decide otherwise, for themselves? I didn’t require some 19 year old in a corporate suite to validate (or ratify, or co-opt, even) my act of having aligned myself with a certain group of believers the day I chose to shed my unbelief in something, but they sure seemed to think I did.

  2. rockwaterman1 says:

    Thank you, Daymon. An essay like this has long been needed.

    In my own writings at Pure Mormonism, I try to avoid using the term “the Church” when referencing my religion, because the term has no real meaning anymore. I find that in the minds of most members, “the Church” is interchangeable with “the Authorities.” Perhaps if the institutional Church was called what it more closely resembles, “The Magisterium,” more people might stop and think about the unsavory implications of that idea.

  3. Peter McCombs says:

    Daymon, what is this “living Church of the Lamb” that you mention at the end of your article?

    1. day2mon says:

      I don’t know; I mean I’m not referring to any church I know of, just a hope that there must be something like what we’d like to imagine. I didn’t want to say “church of the firstborn,” because that seems to have a lot of baggage now; but there is a Book of the Lamb mentioned in Nephi, and a church that descends, which must be real, even if I’m not in it yet.

      1. Peter McCombs says:

        “What we’d like to imagine” might be difficult to nail down. Who are “we” anyway? Like many of my current neighbors do today, I once imagined a Church of the Lamb that was hip and business-savvy with plenty of MBAs as evidence of the Lord’s hand in it.

        These days I’m inclined to think that prophets are more easily raised up from among the murderers and money diggers (I don’t know… does an MBA count as a money digger?). Anyway, when the Deseret News announced the latest executive-level suit inducted into the quorum of the Seventy, I wrote in inquiring about how many poor farm boys are to be found in the inspired leadership demographic. That query was rejected for being “off topic or disruptive,” so I had to do the research myself. It turns out that you will find _none_ of “the least of these” among the Lord’s anointed. This bothers me now; it didn’t a decade ago. What makes the difference?

        Will orthodoxy, that tool of jealousy, descend upon us with the Church of The Lamb (if it hasn’t already)? Who will become the outsiders in those days?

        I begin to think that all worthwhile religion is neighborhood religion. If there is to be a Church of the Lamb, there had best be a thousand different ones or none at all.

      2. day2mon says:

        I can’t imagine a church of the Lamb being centralized, franchised, hierarchical; those are clearly gentiles ways, and it should not be among the true church, where as you say the least of these is the greatest. If I don’t interact with them, I can’t see that I’m in the same church; we may believe similar things, but that isn’t a church: neighborhood works for me. I increasingly think a garden club preferable to a church; maybe the church of the lamb is a gardener’s union?

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