An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for October, 2009

Thumbs Down on My Relief Society Book Group

The first counselor of my ward RS presidency is an avid reader and demonstrates a missionary zeal in trying to convert the uninitiated. I show up at her Book Group occasionally to offer support, but seldom read the choice of the month. The criteria for their book selections are: short, no sex, no violence, and no non-LDS ideas. Deseret Book is the preferred source.  It’s the taking-a-dose-of-medicine method—choose a book that is good for you and force yourself to take a certain number of pages a day until finished.

I’m not sure if it is actually possible to transform reluctant readers, but I’m pretty sure the offerings at Des Book won’t do it. Not that I have anything against DB. Occasionally they or a subsidiary offer a splendid title like Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations by James Kimball and Kent Miles. But most of their offerings reflect the sameness of my suburban Utah neighborhood.

I don’t read to meet someone just like me, only devout enough to get her prayers answered in 250 pages. I read to expand my horizons, to meet someone I think is not like me until I realize with a start that given the same set of circumstances I might behave in the same way. In fiction and memoir, I want to meet real or imaginary people in places I’ll probably never visit.  I relish living vicariously in other worlds—Frank McCourt’s wretched Irish childhood in Angela’s Ashes, Rae Vang’s nightmarish adolescence during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution (Spider Eaters), Fatima Mernissi’s Muslim childhood (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood), and the Jewish neighborhoods of Chaim Potok’s novels. Nonfiction works for me too. I race through Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Tipping Point, Blink, The Outliers) lapping up each insight he reveals about how contemporary society works.

When I do read about Mormons, I want to meet complex people—the kind who might even exist in my ward beneath the surface of conformity—fictional women like Aspen Marooney, the respectable matron in Levi Peterson’s novel of the same name, who lives a lie born of a youthful transgression. And living women like Catherine Stokes, an African-American convert, who managed a demanding career in nursing while raising a daughter alone, and Cecile Pelous, a French, single woman who has founded an orphanage in Nepal (both in Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations).

Via the ward grapevine, I know the Twilight series is a popular clandestine read in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a discrepancy between what LDS women think is appropriate reading material and what they actually enjoy reading. Sexual tension piques the interest of most women and many great novels have used that theme. Maybe I can interest my RS sisters in a Jane Austen though I fear Mr. Darcy, even when portrayed by a younger, thinner Colin Firth, emits less sex appeal than a reformed vampire ogling a juicy neck.

Periodically, I try our ward book group. Someday I’ll find the book that will cause the good sisters of our ward to play sick on Sunday morning so they can stay home alone and finish the next chapter. The Bloggernacle   gives me hope. Maybe their example will convince my ward that true believers can venture beyond LDS authors and publishers and still maintain their testimonies.

Separate But Not Equal

When a friend’s ward duns him for the Boy Scout drive, he tells them he will contribute to the Scouts as soon as the Church has an equivalent program for his daughter.  He’ll probably save a lot of money waiting for that to happen. An LDS woman recently expressed a wish for LDS girls to have the kind of “coming of age” event a mission is for LDS boys. But she missed the point. Gender inequality in Church programs starts well before missionary age. At age 8 boys go into Cub Scouts with varied educational activities. Dens take field trips to learn about nature, visit museums and places of business such as newspaper offices. The boys complete merit badges which teach them about nature and history as well as useful survival and everyday skills. Girls have Primary activities such as “Bride’s Day” where they dress up as brides and plan their weddings.

My daughter wishes the Church supported the Girl Scout program. Our granddaughter will soon be 7 and would benefit from Brownie Scouts. Of course, some LDS families do enroll their daughters in Girl Scouts, but Lolly feels she has no time to add a non-Church activity to all their Church obligations. For me the obvious answer is to skip Primary activities if Girl Scouts is more beneficial. But I would not have done that 30 years ago and Lolly will not do that now. The reward for trying to bridge two cultures is rejection by both.

From the time they enter Primary, Mormon boys are groomed to hold the priesthood, to serve a mission, to preside in the Church. Mormon girls are groomed to land a husband and produce a family. Now, which role model looks more appealing to a kid, the bishopric presiding from the stand or their pregnant wives wrestling noisy children alone throughout Sacrament Meeting?

The strangest thing about the lack of gender equity in Church programs is the puzzlement Church leaders express over the loss of activity of women in the 18-30 age group. I’ve heard speculation that it may be as high as 50%.  If young LDS women are dropping from Church activity, why doesn’t someone look at the cause? I suspect that many young LDS women cannot limit themselves to the narrow roles allotted them in Mormon culture.

Now I’m not opposed to marriage and motherhood—it’s just that these are goals over which women don’t have total control. A woman who doesn’t attain marriage and motherhood has not failed. Even without the blessing of children, women can lead rich, full lives. And the child-bearing and rearing years are a relatively brief period of a modern woman’s life.

 I don’t understand why Church leaders have the idea that if girls aren’t bombarded with messages about motherhood all the time they’re growing up, they will reject the opportunity as adults. I have loved and raised five children wholeheartedly although that was never my childhood vocational goal. Likewise, my daughter who is raising four lovely children now. Most women have a nurturing instinct and take to the role quite naturally when they are ready for it. Women without the nurturing instinct will not develop it from hearing sermons.

Can we give girls the same kinds of Church opportunities boys have without extending the priesthood to worthy female members? Maybe not. But we should at least offer our girls a broader goal in life than a wedding dress followed by a maternity dress.

Last Days

A recent blog about 2012, the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar, reminded me of the speculation about the Second Coming I’ve heard during my lifetime of LDS Church membership. A Sunday School teacher once showed our unruly class a newspaper photo of a cloud pattern that resembled Jesus’ face. “Now I don’t want to frighten you,” Sister Durrant said as she suggested the cloud formation could be a sign of the Savior’s imminent arrival. Like heck she didn’t want to scare us. Her pay-off? A frozen classroom of pre-adolescents terrified to make an irreverent move or sound that Jesus in the clouds might see or hear.

When I learned that 80-year-old Brother Hansen’s patriarchal blessing promised he would live to see the Savior come, I prayed for his good health and long life.  A spectacular sunset once prompted my grandmother to imagine it as the perfect setting for the Savior to appear from Heaven. I visualized Jesus descending through the pink and gold clouds and panicked. At twelve I was less ready for the Rapture than Grandma. How could I repent in preparation for the Great and Terrible Day when I hadn’t sample any sins?

By the time I graduated from BYU, I was pretty well convinced the Second Coming was imminent. The Cold War sizzled. Would George and I have time to start a family? I wanted to live in the West where I felt more protected from atomic attacks, but knew we’d eventually have to make the trek to Missouri—assuming we were righteous enough not to be destroyed in the apocalyptic events leading up to the Savior’s appearance.

During the late ‘60s Seattle’s tranquility was broken by race riots, proving the fulfillment of prophecy. A high councilor addressing our ward advised not only food storage, but also a camper truck with a winch to pull it over boulders and trees. Roads would not be safe for our families and bags of wheat and soy beans. I bought glasses knowing my contact lens might not be convenient on an extended campout. Since George and I didn’t own a truck and winch, I figured we’d be walking back to MO.

We actually moved to rural Utah in 1979 in order to be self-sufficient on a half-acre lot—well, as self-sufficient as possible—and it was closer to Missouri. Our little town of Glenwood filled with other LDS families moving back to Utah to hunker down for the final inning. We raised animals, gardened, canned, and chopped firewood. The economy tanked in the early ‘80s, but nothing worse happened and subsistence living got pretty boring. One by one, we millenarians migrated back to cities for jobs that would pay for our kids’ college and missions.

While the LDS Church has never officially opined on the date of the Return, Relief Society, Priesthood and Sunday School lessons as well as General Conference addresses frequently focus on preparing for the last days and the return of the Savior. Members jumped on board in 1999 and boosted the economy by buying up food, batteries, generators and other devices to make the End more comfortable. Storage items purchased for the 2000 date of the Second Coming are nine years old now.  Will the Mayan Calendar story drive a new wave of preparedness frenzy?

At this point, current events cause me more fear than prophecy. The spread of nuclear weapons to countries with unstable governments is a serious threat to human survival. My new concern? What if we blow up the world and Jesus doesn’t come?

Elder Holland’s Conference Address

Sunday afternoon we made it through Elder Holland’s address before the grandkids staged an insurrection. I can’t say I was sorry to be distracted. Years ago I enjoyed General Conference and I still tend to agree with most of the messages. I especially liked Bishop Burton’s address on virtues. It’s just that hearing the same messages in the same words from the same people (mostly) year in and year out fails to inspire me at this point.

I was pleased to see Elder Holland announced as the first speaker Sunday afternoon. His literary and historical allusions and his spirituality have always appealed to me. Obviously, I was disappointed to see the thoughtful, reasoning apostle transform into a televangelist— badmouthing critics of the historicity of the BoM. Elder Holland is an educated man—his Ph.D. from Harvard is in American Studies. He must be aware that similarities between the BoM and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews  are far  too extensive to be dismissed as “pathetic” attempts by enemies seeking to discredit the BoM. 

I was initially surprised at the nearly overwhelming approval of Elder’s Holland’s remarks I’ve found on the Bloggernacle.,      In retrospect, I understand. General Conference is for faithful LDS. Non-LDS and skeptics do not spend a weekend listening to exhortations from Church leaders. Faithful members tune in to have their faith reaffirmed—and apparently the louder the better. Elder Holland’s purpose was neither to convert nonmembers nor to aid doubting members. He was rallying the troops in much the way Glenn Beck and other right-wing political hacks fire up the Republican base.

 I hope Elder Holland’s example will not be followed by other General Authorities. Shrill, anti-intellectual rhetoric is divisive. It’s a hallmark of some Christian denominations. Let us hope it does not become a trademark of Latter-day Saints. Legitimate questions about the historicity of the BoM exist and thinking members need thoughtful, rational answers to their questions.

A Voice from the Dust

A link  to a March 1990 address by Boyd K. Packer to the Regional Representatives expressed a poignant frustration with the office of General Authority: “I have felt . . . that we were losing the ability to correct the course of the Church.” While not a GA, I do feel this kind of frustration with Church policies and programs myself.

Elder Packer’s talk explained a change in local financing as well as a retrenchment from centralized direction over ward and stake programs.  The “budget allowance program” replacing ward building and budget offerings with monies from the general tithing fund was a blessing for families of small means. Implemented ten years earlier when we were struggling to raise five kids on a single income, it would have been a real blessing to our family. Paying 10% of our gross income for tithing, then adding on1% for ward budget, another 1% for building fund, plus fast offerings hurt. We did without some necessities in order to meet these church obligations. Yes, I know the Lord blesses us when we sacrifice to pay tithes and offerings, but He apparently reserved our blessings for the next life.

Almost twenty years later, I would evaluate the attempt to rein in the “over-regimentation of the Church” caused by “too many programmed instructions” as less than a success. One result of simplifying programs was the recycling of lesson manuals. The result, of course, was mindless repetition and probably an attendance drop in the second and third hour of the block. Gospel Doctrine standard works study was also put on a four-year cycle. No longer did the Old and New Testaments each merit a two-year in-depth study. Studying the background history of the scriptures was no longer deemed necessary for understanding. Bible study was replaced by doctrinal lessons with supporting scriptures from the book of the year.

“Milk before meat” was the theme. Two decades of skim milk have left me feeling spiritually starved  when I attend Church classes, but maybe I’ve missed the point. Perhaps repeating standard lessons over and over does promote more family time—one of the goals of the streamlining program. Once the lessons are memorized, perhaps members are expected to skip irrelevant portions of the block.

For a program that was supposed to “teach correct principles and let them govern themselves,” a heck of a lot of regulations still emanate from headquarters. Teachers in auxiliary classes are now instructed not to supplement lesson manuals with any materials except the scriptures, Church magazines and personal experience. Auxiliary teachers have no leeway to use materials that meet the needs of their students. The Course 4 teacher in my ward found the Primary manual, designed for children ages 4 through 7, incomprehensible for the 4-year-olds in her class and substituted a Course 3 manual which had stories and activities her class enjoyed. The Primary president informed her that she must use the designated manual.

I can’t help wondering how many of the General Authorities were totally on board for this streamlining program introduced during Howard W. Hunter’s brief tenure as Church president. The idea of decentralizing control and lessening financial and time obligations on families flies in the face of Church involvement in Prop 8 last year. How does the pressure placed on members to donate time and money in support of a political proposition meet the 1990 goal, “let them govern themselves.”

Reading Elder Packer’s 1990 address is like hearing a voice crying from the dust. Most of the benefits he foresaw have not happened. And I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of “local leaders [who] have been effectively conditioned to hold back until programmed as to what to do . . . .” The General Authorities do have a tough job, but the buck stops at 50 North Temple.

I’ll Be Watching Conference Sunday Morning

Our daughter called to see if our three youngest grandchildren could stay with us Sunday afternoon. She, her husband, and their 9-year-old have tickets to the afternoon session of General Conference. I agreed, knowing I could change my tickets for the matinee of The Caretaker. I never turn down a chance to spend time with our grandkids, ages 2, 4 and 6. Then Lolly said they would all need to spend Sunday morning with us in order to be close enough to Salt Lake to make the afternoon session by 12:30—the recommended time for seating. That means I’ll have to watch conference Sunday morning—I do worry about losing grandparenting rights if my devout daughter learns how casual my church commitment is.

For years I devoted two weekends a year to General Conference. I have photos of myself and George dozing on the sofa to prove it. We did rest our eyes occasionally, but basically the messages uplifted me. I read the synopses in the Church News, then reread the addresses in the  Ensign. I highlighted thought-provoking phrases and copied them in my quote book.

Gradually, I found fewer phrases to highlight—fewer original passages that provoked deeper thinking about this world and the next. A sense of déjà vu descended upon me when I clicked on the TV at conference time. I noticed the same topics recycling year after year even when new general authorities took their turn at the pulpit: Follow the Prophet, Keep the Commandments, Be Morally Clean, Families Are Important, Prepare for Catastrophe, Share the Gospel, Magnify Your Callings, Try Harder. Has it always been like this and it just took thirty years of adult membership for me to memorize the messages? I’m not sure. Listening to conference gives the impression that nothing much has changed in the world in the last 20 years except for Satan becoming hyperactive.  Now that may be evidence of the timelessness of the gospel. And it’s sort of a positive. Once you have the messages memorized, you’re free to pursue other interests on conference weekends.

A recent Mormon Matters posting asked readers what they expected to hear in October conference. Nostalgia is probably burnishing my memory, but I expect nothing as good as the messages I enjoyed decades ago. The eager anticipation when Boyd K. Packer’s name was announced as the next speaker. Homey stories about his children touched me as he taught gospel truths—before age and duty gifted him with perpetual gloom and grumpiness. Sterling W. Sill’s literary allusions and Marion G. Hank’s genial humor carried their messages to my heart. I know Paul Dunn embellished his stories—I suspect he’s not the only one—but he was optimistic as well as entertaining. The last time I was truly entertained by a conference address was a few years ago while in Cedar City. Equipment at the local radio station malfunctioned during an address on morality and the tape or whatever they use stuck— repeating the word “sex” over and over and over. No, I expect to be neither entertained nor enlightened by conference speakers this year, but I will enjoy the grandkids.

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