An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2009

Mormon Snapshots

Year’s end brings reflection, so I’m adding my list of Mormon memories  to the Bloggernacle.

Snapshot 1:  I entered Mutual the summer after 6th grade. We moved through the auxiliaries as a group then, rather than by birthdays. Seventh and 8th graders were Beehives. Mia Maids were 9th and 10th graders. The beautiful people, girls at the junior and senior levels of high school, were Jr. Gleaners. The few who remained single following high school graduation were Gleaners. Being with the sophisticated older girls who attended junior high and wore lipstick and bras was a heady experience. But lipstick and bras do not guarantee maturity. Three Mia Maids decided to haze the Primary brats after Mutual one night and my friend Linda and I were chased home with the threat of being “pantsed.” They caught Linda.  I didn’t stick around to see if they’d make good on their threat. They didn’t. Scared the heck out of us, but the Mia Maids had noticed us.

Mutual was on Tuesday nights for every unmarried person in the ward over the age of 12. Opening exercises included singing time with Jr. Gleaners providing the harmony. When I made it to Mia Maid status, Judy, a Gleaner with a car, sometimes took a few of us dragging Center Street after class. Once she even took us to a drive in movie—letting us out to walk inside for a dime before she drove to the ticket booth. Bonding with my Mutual group developed my Mormon identity.

Snapshot 2:  Except for my freshman year of college, I lived at home for my first 22 years. Marrying and moving to the wilderness of Wyoming made me feel as isolated as showing up at our ward meetinghouse on stake conference Sunday. The only person I knew within 400 miles was my husband—and once you marry, you find you don’t know your spouse as well as you thought. When we attended church on Sunday, I entered familiar territory. Everything—the chapel, prayers, songs, sacrament service—nearly indistinguishable from my home ward. Much as I now complain about identical buildings and correlated curriculum, that sameness was a lifeline as I treaded unknown waters.

Snapshot 3:  The only miracles parents really desire involve our children. When Aroo was just over a year, she contracted a serious case of viral croup. Her pediatrician gave her an inhalation treatment which helped, but he cautioned us that the medication was only effective the first 2 or 3 times. He sent us home. She spent the day in a makeshift steam tent, but we had to rush her to the emergency room during the night. We brought her home again, but by nightfall she struggled for breath. At this point, we doubted the efficacy of another inhalation treatment. We called our home teacher who came and gave Aroo a blessing. Before his prayer concluded, her rasping breath eased. She slept peacefully through the night.

Snapshot 4:  Temple sealings are the epitome of Mormon worship. George and I had a civil marriage before being sealed to each other and our children in the Provo Temple. I suspect those who marry in the temple for the first time miss a lot. The temple ceremony is quietly beautiful, but first time brides and grooms are too caught up with the excitement of the wedding and anticipation for the reception and, of course, the wedding night to pay much attention. Making an eternal commitment to be together as a family after 16 years of marriage has a significance missing from couples who don’t yet know what they’re signing up for. Kneeling at the altar, the love we felt for each other, our children, and friends and family who attended was palpable—to everyone except 11-year-old Wort who resisted taking his sister’s hand at the altar.

My album of Mormon memories contains scores of memorable snapshots. Could I have received similar benefits had I grown up in a different religion? I believe so. Friends of other faiths have shared significant spiritual experiences with me—pastors who unexpectedly arrived at a moment of need, “messages” from loved ones who have passed on, healings in answer to prayer. The details and terminology of their church ordinances and customs differ, but the spirituality is the same. Possibly other kinds of organizations provide the same kind of sustenance to non-religious people. Non-believers  seldom share experiences of personal enlightenment, so I don’t really know. I do know that love, compassion and spiritual light are not limited to organized religion. Still, I believe churches are uniquely suited to offer spiritual and emotional support. Caring for others is what religion is all about.

Studying the Old Testament

Since the Old Testament is Gospel Doctrine course of study for 2010, I’m going to recommend my favorite version, The Jewish Study Bible  produced by the Jewish Publication Society using the Tanakh—a direct translation from the Hebrew Masoretic Text into modern English. The Tanakh is a much more authentic translation than the KJV which was translated into English from a Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint.  The Jewish Study Bible contains the best of Jewish scholarship including essays on Jewish interpretation of passages, historical and geographical background, and textual criticism. Maps and diagrams are provided as well as timelines linking world historical events to biblical texts. Footnote explanations of obscure or controversial passages provide necessary clarification.

The first difference a reader will notice about the JSB is the order of books. The Torah, the first five books is the same, but from then on readers who have memorized the order of their non-Jewish Bibles are in trouble. The Torah is followed by the Nevi’im or Prophets, a divided section containing the books from Joshua through Kings (the former prophets) in the first part and the latter prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) in the second half. The third section, the Kethuvim, was canonized last and has the most diversity—apparently every book thought worthy of inclusion which hadn’t already been canonized. The wisdom literature is included along with the historical books, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel and Chronicles. The Jewish Bible includes no apocryphal books.

The JSB gave me insights into the Jewish faith as well as a deeper understanding of the OT. One question I’ve entertained for years is: How could Jews read the Messianic passages in Isaiah and not be converted to Christianity? The historical context of those scriptures shows that more than one interpretation is possible. For example, Isaiah 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” refers to a sign which Isaiah promised King Ahaz in the 7th century BC. The Jewish interpretation of chapter 7 is that Isaiah is predicting the birth of a child in the near future who would be very young when the Kings of Syria and Israel abandoned their siege of Jerusalem.  Also errors in translation exist—the word translated as “virgin” in English is “almah” in Hebrew and refers only to a young woman of marriageable age regardless of the condition of her hymen.

New translations give intriguing insights into the culture of ancient times. The word “earrings” which the servant of Abraham presented to Rebekah in Gen. 24 is translated as “nose rings,” not only in the Tanakh but other modern translations. It is referenced in a footnote to vs. 47 in the LDS Bible. The image of Mother Rebekah sporting an engagement nose ring or two might endear her to 21st century young women.

Studying the Tanakh translation in depth brought all kinds of fascinating tidbits to my attention. Genesis 28:20-22, in both the KJV and Tanakh, documents Jacob’s interesting approach to tithing. After fleeing Esau’s wrath following the usurpation of the birthright, Jacob bargains with the Lord. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on/ So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God/ And . . . of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” Paying tithes after the blessings seems like more of a sure deal to me. I doubt it will be implemented in the church anytime soon.

For anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of the OT and insight into Jewish biblical thought, $30 for a copy of the JSB is a real bargain.

Favorite Mormon Books

Book lists, like Christmas sales, pop up everywhere this time of year. Inspired by a blogger who had read 24 Mormon titles this year, I decided to write about my favorite Mormon books. My favorite LDS book from 2009—because it’s the only one I read this year—is Mormon Women: Portraits & Conversations which I’ve written about previously. So, my annotated list of memorable Mormon books will come from previous years. Beginning with non-fiction, here are some favorites:

Terry Warner’s Bonds That Make Us Free, written for a non-LDS audience, offers a common sense approach to working out problems in relationships.  He provides insights to the offensive/defensive reactions which we humans often unconsciously fall into. Scenarios from the book worked well as role-playing scripts for my junior high students.  These mini-dramatizations helped them recognize and discuss the dynamics of a person assuming the role of victim in a conflict situation.

Harvard Professor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, won a Pulitzer for A Midwife’s Tale. Her book, based on the diary of an 18th century New England woman, illumines the lives of women and their economic contribution to their families and communities in the post-Revolutionary War period. Life was tough in earlier centuries. Learning about living conditions in early Maine puts the privation of Utah pioneer times, which we sometimes like to see as unique, into historical perspective.

 I don’t know how many copies of All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir I’ve purchased for gifts. I’ve received many thanks for sharing this collection of columns and correspondence from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and poet, Emma Lou Thayne. Their writings reveal the personalities and wisdom of two gifted LDS women who do not quite fit the “model Mormon woman” image. In case the Church Curriculum Correlation Committee is reading, it would make a great RS manual.

My son-in-law tipped me off to Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion, a very different book from Nibley’s heavily-footnoted volumes linking LDS theology with ancient religions. If I were on the Correlation Committee, I would choose this book for the Gospel Doctrine manual for next year. Nibley makes the case for a Zion community with no rich and no poor. Yes, he’s an idealist, but we need a little idealism to counter the materialism of modern culture. Currently, most Mormons marginalize Joseph Smith’s revelations on the Law of Consecration and Brigham Young’s implementation of the United Order. Nibley reminds us that our earthly existence is not for the purpose of accumulating material possessions.

Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion is not an easy read. But for those interested in how Mormonism differs from the theology of other Christian religions, McMurrin provides  a goldmine of information.

Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin hit my must-read list once I’d read Theological Foundations. More than a biography, this book reveals the LDS Church transition in the mid-20th century from a tradition of being more open to philosophical inquiry to the present dogmatic conservatism.

I’m never quite sure whether to place memoir with fiction or non-fiction, so I’ll bridge the gap with two favorites. Juanita Brooks’ Quicksand and Cactus has evocative descriptions of her childhood in Bunkerville, Nevada. As a young widow, Brooks struggles to obtain the education necessary to support herself and child.  She learns of the cover-up of the Mountain Meadows Massacre from a dying neighbor who participated. A devout LDS, Brooks spends years of painstaking research unearthing the facts of the massacre and was surprised and hurt at the negative reception her book received from Church authorities.

One of the books I’ve lent and never received back is Good-bye to Poplar Haven by Ed Geary. It’s out of print now and I don’t remember who has it—but I hope she is enjoying it. Poplar Haven is a collection of stories based on Geary’s childhood in Emery County, Utah. I used the story “The Girl Who Danced with Butch Cassidy” with my 9th grade English students as part of a unit on Utah authors. One year a parent complained that the story described Mormon boys persecuting an eccentric, elderly non-LDS woman in their town. My principal vindicated me. One can’t have a career in Utah public education and retain illusions that Mormon youth are always paragons of virtue.

I’ve already written about my favorite Mormon novels, The Backslider, Aspen Marooney, and the Giant Joshua. Haven’t tried Todd Robert Peterson’s Rift yet. It may show up on next year’s list of favorites.

Follow the Prophet, Unless . . . .

Last week a provocative blog post listed the following scenarios and asked what faithful Mormons would do if presented with the following situations:

You are on a jury.  The defendant is accused of heinous crimes.  The evidence clearly indicates that he is guilty.  The defendant is Mormon. The prophet comes to you and tells you to vote innocent.  Would you do it?

The Church comes to you and asks for all of your “excess” possessions to pay off the prophet’s personal debts.  Would you do it?

You hear two Mormon men talking about how they tortured two defenseless Muslims traveling though the Uintah National Forest.  Your Bishop tells you to tell no one about it.  The FBI comes to you and asks you if you have heard anything about the murders.  Do you remain quiet?

The prophet declares he has received holy revelation which states that all LDS women must marry at the age of 16.  You have a daughter who is 16.  Do you sign for her to get married?

The prophet tells you that anyone who harms the Mormons is guilty of a sin against God punishable by immediate death.  What do you do?

A new prophet is put in place.  He makes some bold and aggressive statements.  Certain people publicly disagree with him.  One by one, those people meet fatal accidents.  What do you do?

Those scenarios were a bit over the top for modern Mormons to relate to, but we do have other areas which test our faith. Back in the ‘60s, a Democratic friend threatened to leave the Church if Ezra Taft Benson ever became the prophet. She remains an active member. Fortunately, President Benson refrained from extreme political rhetoric once he assumed the mantle of the prophet which probably saved my friend’s membership.

It’s not necessarily bad when a prophet institutes a policy causing Latter-day Saints to do a 180 on their thinking. A lot of latter-day bigots had to change long-held beliefs about racial inferiority following the 1978 revelation on extending priesthood to all races. Even Utah legislator, Chris Buttars, made an about-face from his gay-hating rhetoric this year after the Church issued a statement supporting civil rights for gays and Lesbians.

But none of the above scenarios holds a candle to the test of faith that could rock the Church to its core. What if the prophet asked members to vote for a Democrat?

The Good Old Days

Watching A Christmas Story this week sent me on a nostalgia trip for my own childhood of the ‘40s and ‘50s—the blue collar neighborhood, vacant lots with junked cars, bullies beating kids up with no adult intervention. Those were the good old days. Life was simpler then. I wish my kids could have experienced the simple pleasures of walking to school on tree-shaded sidewalks—not having to breathe bus fumes or dodge scores of cars from mothers dropping their kids off. Instead of Seseme Street, I wish they’d had radio programs that required imagination for visual images.  I wish they’d had the freedom to roam the neighborhood cutting through backyards because everybody knew them and their parents. And if only they could have had the thrill of after-dark night crawler hunts for bait to sell passing fishermen.

Of course life was simpler back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I was a kid. No bills to pay, no responsibilities. But those days were not simple for my parents. They had to deal with my dad’s military service, with finding housing during the war, with starting a family business after the war. They worried about polio epidemics in the summer and croup and pneumonia in the winter. For them, the “good old days” were the 1920s when they were kids.

I reread some of my dad’s writings last night—he rhapsodized about herding cows each summer and of sledding in front of their house on Center Street each winter. He learned to swim in the Provo River—no lessons in those days—no swim suits or towels either. Grandma washed clothes with a wringer washing machine, but didn’t have the mounds of laundry modern moms process weekly.

Dad thought his kids missed a lot by being born too late. I don’t know about my brothers, but I never envied his childhood. I wouldn’t have exchanged my library card and radio for the thrill of watching cows eat grass. And freedom to play in the street wouldn’t have compensated for living in a neighborhood swarming with flies from the neighbors’ pig pens, chicken coops, and outhouses. My kids probably feel the same way about my tales of the past. I doubt they would have traded TV, more than one bathroom, malls and movie complexes for my bucolic childhood.

And was life really that safe and secure in the past? Every generation seems to believe the world is becoming increasingly evil and dangerous. Possibly people spend too much time reading the Book of Revelation and too little time reading secular history. The world has always been a dangerous place. The good old days exist mostly in memory. Years from now, people in their 20s and 30s may recall their childhood through the rosy filter of time and wish their children could have lived in the simple, secure world of the early 21st century.

Straddling Two Cultures–Rejected by Both

Non-Mormons tend to love or hate Mormons—kind of the way most people think of licorice—either the pungent flavor adds zest to life or it’s the most revolting substance on the face of the earth. Nothing in-between. The Romney presidential bid perplexed devout Mormons who learned for the first time that many Americans harbor negative opinions about the Church and its members. We’re such nice people and we try so hard to keep God’s commandments and to share our faith with others—how can they not like us? Must be lack of information.  A post from the Mormon bloggernacle encourages LDS college students to submit entries to a short film contest about students’ religious beliefs and practices. We need to get our message out.

 Although I’m not a college student and I have no wish to convert anyone to anything, I like the idea of evaluating my own religious beliefs and the way they affect my life.  I have no plans for making a film, but visualizing some scenes I might include in the saga of my religious practice intrigues me. My film would be unique. I’m not a believing Mormon, but neither am I an angry ex-Mormon.

I’d start my film about the challenges of trying to live in two different cultures with a scene showing me and non-LDS companions at a restaurant. “Do you mind if I have a glass of wine with dinner?” is a question often asked of me. I don’t drink—but not for religious reasons. It’s just that I’ve seen people past college age take up drinking and they generally make fools of themselves. Drinking, like skiing, is apparently a skill best learned at an early age. But people who enjoy an alcoholic drink appear ill at ease when indulging in the presence of a teetotaler. The flip scene is me ordering green tea at a meal with Mormon friends. That beverage clearly sets me on Satan’s side.

Other film scenes would show my social isolation. Until they get to know me, non-LDS acquaintances and colleagues see me as a stereotypical Mormon. The first year I taught in the English Dept. at SUU, I was not invited to a party the women faculty gave. A friend later told me I wasn’t included because they thought I would be uncomfortable with the Lesbian couples there. 

I would enjoy shooting a scene of me discussing politics with non-LDS friends where I feel free to use “damned” to describe politicians.  I’d probably be embarrassed to shoot a scene of me with Mormon friends or relatives who bring up politics. I struggle, not always successfully, to keep the “How can you be so stupid?” look from my face when people I truly like quote Glenn Beck’s wisdom.

I should include a scene of myself attending Sacrament Meeting to keep in touch with my neighbors. You’d see my brow furrow as I mentally debate taking the sacrament when sitting beside a devout member. Will partaking mark me as a cowardly hypocrite? I prefer thinking of myself as a paragon of virtue.  If I don’t partake, my neighbor’s spirituality may suffer as she spends the rest of the service pondering my possible transgressions.

 I guess a fence straddler can’t expect human acceptance when even God prefers hot or cold to lukewarm. If the author of Revelation got it right, I can look forward to being spewed from God’s mouth. (Rev. 3:16) Now that would be a fine climatic scene to my film.

Tag Cloud