An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for September, 2009

Proselytizing Perils

The current Sugar Beet “news story” reveals a new Church policy to send missionaries to “way cooler locales” rather than to developing countries. Places like Monte Carlo where missionaries can seek out wealthy investigators who have the potential to become huge tithing contributors.

Fifteen years ago our daughter actually had the opportunity to serve in the France Marseilles Mission—a way cooler missionary field than Guatemala or Boise, Idaho. Unfortunately, Jaycee didn’t convert or even meet any millionaires. Even along the Riviera, it’s mostly the young and the poor who take time to listen to Mormon missionaries. P-days were a lot of fun for the missionaries though—bicycling along the Mediterranean once a week compensated for six days of rejection.

A curious thing about Jaycee’s mission was the number of devoutly religious people who nodded as she and her companion explained about praying to receive a confirmation of the truths they were teaching. Then these contacts bore enthusiastic testimony of the spiritual witness they had already received in answer to fervent prayer—affirmation that the church they had previously joined was true.

Nothing at the MTC had prepared Jaycee to refute heartfelt testimonies that a non-LDS church was God’s plan for a sincerely religious person. These people had studied, thought, prayed and received a witness. Was she supposed to tell them their feelings of peace and happiness came from a source other than God?

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I Wanna Be a Bully

Gideon Burton’s recent blog describes the persecution his elementary school-age son has received because of the extreme right-wing reaction to the President’s speech to school children. And, of course, bullying is not limited to children. Bullying occurs whenever a person with power intimidates persons with less power.  Two weeks ago a minority of right-wing parents intimidated timid school officials into disallowing their students to listen to the President of the United States address them.

I find bullying despicable, especially since I recognize in myself a (mostly) latent desire to be a bully. When neighbors and relatives tell me that President Obama’s birth certificate is not authentic or that invading Iraq was a positive because “now girls can go to school there,” I want to grab them by the ears, shake them until their teeth rattle, and make them promise not to turn on talk radio again for the rest of their lives. I want to demonstrate the stupidity of the propaganda they’ve inhaled and make them squirm like a puppy about to get its nose rubbed in a puddle.

I think my problem stems from reading too many Batman and Robin comic books as a child. I fantasized about carrying a rope, mask, blue jeans and a blue shirt and cape undetected to school.  When an older child picked on a younger at recess, I would swoop from the roof of Franklin Elementary School on my rope kicking the teeth from the jaws of the bully (at age ten I didn’t worry about how I would get on the roof or what my rope would be tied to). When my awed classmates asked, “Who are you?” I would answer, “The Jesse James Rider,” then swing back to the rooftop on my trusty rope, change back into civilian clothes, and return to class by the time the bell rang.

Somehow I haven’t outgrown the desire to defend the underdog. Last week one of my visiting teachers made a solo visit when her partner was delayed. Margaret hesitantly admitted having grown up in a family of Democrats and favoring those policies. “But I can’t say anything about that at Church,” she said, “or everybody will jump all over me. And I have to listen to the most awful things about President Obama who is doing the best he can in a bad situation.”

I consoled Margaret and told her she was not alone, but deep in my heart, I know that’s not enough. I want to attend Church and challenge the nutcases who make comments like, “They are trying to take ‘in God we trust’ off our money.” I want to drip sarcasm, “Well, that will really make shopping a less spiritual experience.” I want to challenge those who agree with Elder Bruce Hafen’s assessment that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation to imagine trying to change their own sexual orientation. I want to defend ward members who are not wing nuts—to show them they are not alone.

But I don’t. I tell myself it’s because it’s not Christ-like to attend church for the purpose of showing up illogical thinking. For a while, I tried the adversarial approach. I carefully read the Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society manuals and came to class armed to refute misinformation—i.e. “Brother Instructor, when you said the creation of Israel was a sign of prophecy being fulfilled, you overlooked the fact that every Book of Mormon reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land says it will be after they have come to a knowledge of Christ. Clearly, that has not happened yet.”

Somehow my comments placed me in the bully rather than in the hero category. I was neither Batman nor Robin. I was the Joker. The narrow line between defending truth and righteousness and becoming a bully myself runs across a mighty slippery slope.

Glenn Beck and Cleon Skousen: The Dynamic Duo

       

Cleon Skousen was a controversial figure in the 1950s and ‘60s. A little out of step with the times, he missed the McCarthy Era when Americans watched “I Led Three Lives” on Friday nights and envisioned Communist spies masquerading as patriotic Americans while trying to overthrow our government. By the time Skousen came out with his first book, The Naked Communist, everybody but the John Birch Society had tired of looking for clandestine Communists trying to convince suburban Americans we’d be better off with a Moscow standard of living. Skousen continued writing books and founded the Freeman Institute, but only a fringe group of Mormons paid attention to his politics. His reputation resurged in LDS circles during the ‘70s when he authored imaginative books on the Old Testament. Now, conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck has resurrected Skousen’s book, The 5,000 Year Leap, after thirty years of obscurity.

My first notice of Skousen was in 1960. He came to my college campus in Cedar City, Utah promoting  The Naked Communist. He identified himself as a former FBI agent and electrified our student body with tales of top government officials who were either Communists or Communist dupes. He said his book kept disappearing from the shelves of public libraries. Obviously, a Communist conspiracy existed to prevent the American public from learning about the Communists in our midst. Our only chance to read The Naked Communist was to purchase  one of the autographed copies Skousen had thoughtfully brought along.

By the 1970s Skousen turned his talents to religion and produced The First Two Thousand Years, basically a commentary on Genesis. The Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward used it almost exclusively as a lesson manual for our class. Skousen claimed the Old Testament convincingly demonstrated that the pure Mormon gospel was practiced by the ancient Jews.  I read his  biblical references but usually couldn’t see the connection to his claims. I mentioned my difficulty to our Stake President’s wife. Sister Kay said she’d heard two General Authorities discussing Skousen’s books. One said, “When I read anything by Cleon Skousen, I put ‘CS’ by it.” The other said, “When I read anything by Cleon Skousen, I put ‘BS’ by it.”

Pretty odd to see Skousen’s book on the bestseller list after all these years. Using Skousen’s scholarship, Glenn Beck has progressed from using the “socialism” buzzword. Now America is under siege by full-blown Communists—spearheaded by the Rockefeller family who commissioned murals for the Rockefeller Center seventy or eighty years ago deliberately designed to turn any Americans viewing them into Marxist robots.

Are many of Beck’s fans aware of his and Skousen’s religion? I don’t watch Glenn Beck enough to know if he mentions his religious affiliation—close-ups of grown men weeping make me want to slap someone.  But more importantly, will Beck’s creative “proofs” of a secret plot by President Obama to turn America into a communist state help Mitt Romney’s eternal quest for the Republican nomination for president?

Cleon Skousen never had enough of a national following to be a serious embarrassment to the LDS Church. Not so with Glenn Beck. I feel like I need to apologize for being related to the village idiot. Kind of like—“I know our last name’s the same, but we’re not all like that.”

Poets As Well As Prophets

Tom Roger’s recent article in Dialogue ,”‘A Climate Far and Fair’: Ecumenism and Abiding Faith,” scores a bull’s eye for 21st century Latter-day Saints. He cautions Mormons that “In our earnest striving to be ‘not of the world’ (John 17:16), we risk insulating ourselves from much that is ‘virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy’ and thereby disqualify ourselves as participants in the grand human conversation.”

Rogers is of my generation, the David O. McKay era when General Authorities quoted Shakespeare, Emerson and many other non-LDS poets and philosophers.  A time when we remembered Joseph Smith’s teaching that “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism’ is to receive truth let it come from whence it may” [italics added]. A time when Latter-day Saints felt free to look beyond Mormon culture for truth and light.

Rogers recommended, half-seriously, that the four-year cycle of Gospel Doctrine texts be expanded to five years and include Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “as a cautionary manual in courtship and marriage.” Now I haven’t revisited this novel recently, but thirty years after reading it, Anna lives in my mind. While reading about her infatuation with Vronsky, I wanted to shout “Stay away from him, you imbecile! Can’t you see where this is leading?” Of course, Anna couldn’t see. “Harmless” encounters morphed into an illicit affair destroying her marriage and ultimately her life.

Reading and discussing a novel with realistic characters in believable situations would likely impact Latter-Day Saints’ moral decisions far more than reading Alma’s warning to his son Corianton about the harlot Isabel. Neither Corianton nor Isabel is well-developed enough for most of us to relate to emotionally—and rash actions originate in the emotions.

But why limit our church exposure to great works of literature to a fifth year cycle? I remember when the Relief Society course of study included a monthly literature lesson.  One year sisters studied the full text of Hamlet. Later, a multi-volume anthology of great literature, Out of the Best Books was published for use as a Relief Society manual. Why do we now restrict our lesson material to LDS scriptures, quotes from General Authorities, and Ensign articles?

Vicarious experience beats firsthand experience when it comes to learning about any kind of evil—selfishness, dishonesty, substance abuse, using people. Gifted writers with inspired insights into human nature help us explore the minds and actions of persons wrestling with conflict between themselves and others or within themselves. Dead, white, male authors whose characters still live within their pages include Dickens, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. Contemporary American authors with much to teach us include Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Yes, Morrison and other contemporary authors include sex in their stories—but so did the Old Testament authors. Sex is part of life and pretending it doesn’t exist outside of holy matrimony doesn’t help us deal with real situations that may arise in our lives or the lives of family and friends.

A wise person once stated that humans need poets as well as prophets. Prophets exhort us to keep God’s commandments. Poets, playwrights and novelists touch our hearts with the understanding of what it means to be human and make it possible to keep the most important of the commandments—to love others as ourselves. Let’s spend some of our daily study with poets as well as prophets.

The Bishop Says . . . .

A recent blog referred to a concerned bishop whose ward members talked more about Twilight and Harry Potter than about Jesus and gospel principles between Sunday meetings. Comments on this blog made me think of recent messages my own bishop has delivered to our ward family. Among other things, we’ve been warned against the dangers of online porn and of living beyond our means. Since they miss my own shortcomings, I really don’t object to these messages. It’s a relief to sit smugly while others squirm about a) accessing the Internet for vicarious moral transgressions, or b) shopping addictions (for less erotic persons).

I don’t even mind when the bishop talks about food storage although three Clorox bottles of water in my storeroom will definitely not provide sustenance for George and me in the event of a global meltdown. With any luck, natural death may deliver us before “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

 But in the highly unlikely event that the bishop should ask my advice for admonishing our ward, what topic would I choose? Definitely not one of my favorite sins. Forget about forbidding R-rated movies and trashy television shows like Desperate Housewives. Give me a positive message. I want to hear the bishop counsel his flock to do things I enjoy.

How about suggesting family read-aloud time? Granted, I no longer have children at home to read to, but my grown children still talk about enjoying the adventures of hobbits, Pippi Longstocking, Swiss Family Robinson, even Odysseus. And they all grew up to be, not only avid readers, but adults with a lively interest in the world and empathy with people outside their own ethnic-religious circle. I suspect Huckleberry Finn and Jim had as great an impact on their moral development as Helaman’s stripling warriors

And let’s not limit it to families. I’d like to see our bishop admonish us adults to spend time getting acquainted with people outside our Mormon circle through wider reading. For starters how about memoirs from other cultures? A few suggestions I’d make are: Angela’s Ashes (Catholic Ireland), Dreams of Trespass (Moroccan family life), The Spider Eaters (Maoist China), Bread Givers (Jewish immigrants), The Road to Mecca (a European Jew’s conversion to Islam), Dust Tracks on the Road, (African-American), The Woman Warrior (Chinese-American)  and Reading Lolita in Tehran (Iranian). These are stories of people we will never meet in sacrament meeting, but their acquaintance will enrich our lives.

If you know my bishop, pleases let him know I’m ready to help. I’ll even contribute a recommended, age-appropriate list if our bishop choses to promote family read-aloud time.

Buffet Mormon

A friend sent me a link to staylds.com which she recommends to “buffet Mormons” “who agree with the doctrine, but not always with the culture.” I found the site uplifting—especially their motto, “Meeting People Wherever They Are.”  But my friend has the wrong take on me. I like Mormon culture just fine—in fact, I’m all for more culture and less doctrine.

Think what an improvement it would be to replace the second hour of the Sunday block of meetings with social hour in the cultural hall. We wouldn’t have to serve coffee like the “gentile’ churches, but wouldn’t it be nice to anticipate soothing oneself with warm chocolate chip cookies while enduring a high councilman’s sacrament meeting talk? Primary teachers could save a fortune on Goldfish and Teddy Grahams if the kids entered the third block stuffed with donuts—oh wait—then teachers would have to deal with the sugar rush. Maybe we could hold Primary during sacrament meeting and go home and practice family values during the third block.

 Food is a great Mormon cultural heritage. We should celebrate it more often. I’d even volunteer to clean up the kitchen and put away the folding chairs afterwards if someone else would bring the brownies and lemon bars. Meeting attendance would probably soar, and we could complete our monthly home and visiting teaching assignments with no stress while munching goodies together.

Preparedness is another Mormon cultural positive. Expecting and preparing for Armageddon makes any lesser disaster such as a global atomic arms race appear trivial. Selling storage items also provides supplemental income for stay-at-home moms. The only downside is moving, but usually an announcement in the ward bulletin will help you unload 20-year-old cans of wheat and dried beans for not too much less than the original purchase price. My favorite thing to store is water. I feel really virtuous when I fill an empty Clorox bottle with water and write a date on it. I’m recycling plastic bottles and it costs nothing to line my basement walls with jugs of water which I hope I’ll never have to use since I’m not good at emptying out and refilling once a year; plus, I do suspect plastic molecules of leaching into the water. In an emergency I’d have to choose between dying of thirst immediately or dying of cancer later.

Seriously, I value membership in an organization larger than myself. It’s a way my small contribution of time and money can join with enough others to actually make a positive difference. I like being notified of people in need of help; that way I don’t have to go out looking for them myself or feel like I have to meet all the needs myself. Is that being personally irresponsible? Probably, but it is, to paraphrase a quote, meeting myself where I am.

Things I Wish I’d Never Heard in Church

In a recent blog on Mormon Matters, Adam F explores his need to start speaking up in church when he hears statements with which he disagrees. I can certainly relate. I’m never sure what to do when one of the high priests informs us in Gospel Doctrine class that, “They are trying to take ‘In God we trust’ off our money.” Is it better to quietly seethe or to ask him how that will make our shopping trips less spiritual?

Do I just let it go when a Relief Society sister presenting a lesson on clean language boasts that her eight-year-old daughter kicked her grandfather for emitting a cuss word? I always worry about offending the speaker, but I’m glad when a courageous soul raises a hand in opposition to a list of the ways we LDS differ from The World and says the non- Mormons she knows love their children, stay married, and help their neighbors.

Comments on Adam’s blog include readers who cringe at some of the things their kids report learning in church classes. Been there. Twenty years later, I still shudder at our daughters’ impersonation of the YW president’s lecture on dating behavior including French kissing. “She said it was sacred!” they gasped between gagging and giggling. George just shook his head and said, “I really wish she hadn’t said that.”

Fast and testimony meeting presents its own peculiar problems. In our previous ward, Sally Dunning’s post-op recovery always included sharing not only her fervent testimony, but also graphic details of catheter and other post-surgical problems of waste disposal. Surgery wasn’t the only testimony building event Sally experienced.  On one unforgetable occasion, she expressed gratitude for her recent divorce beginning with, “Delbert made me do things that made me feel unclean.”  Her comment precipitated a family discussion I would have preferred to avoid.

Then there was the time earnest young Marshall Stetson was called to the high council and gave his maiden speech in our ward. A very nervous Marshall explained how surprised he and his friends were at his calling. “Steve Crud told me, ‘I can’t believe they called you, Marsh. You’re such a turd.’” The color drained from Marshall’s face as he realized the word that had passed his lips. His wife’s head disappeared from view as she slunk down in the pew.

Wait a minute—I’m not sorry I heard that expression in church. It was the most memorable sacrament meeting ever. It proved that George and I were successful parents. Our five children sat staring at their knees with lips pressed tightly together throughout the meeting. Only when we arrived home and closed the door tightly behind us did they explode with raucous laughter. What remarkable self-control we’d taught them.

Come to think of it, all the inane things we hear in church from leadership and members keep our meetings from being as dull and predictable as General Conference. Three cheers for inanity!

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