An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2010

Us and Them

Us and Them

The notion that negative publicity is better than no publicity may work for celebrities, but it is not a slogan for religious organizations. Like many religions, the Mormon Church has received its share of negative attention—some of it deserved. Expecting to be ignored while adopting illegal marriage practices is a touch naïve. Staunchly insisting that racist practices are revelation from God while the rest of the country is moving toward civil rights also invites criticism. Then there’s rallying the troops to defeat the ERA in the ‘70s and to support Prop 8 in 2008.

An argument can be made that the church, albeit unwittingly, asked for negative attention on these issues. More subtle and not necessarily negative, is media attention to LDS doctrine. Larry King’s question to President Hinckley on the Mormon belief in eternal progression to godhood caused the usually forthright prophet to utter a disclaimer, “I don’t know much about that.” Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid brought public questions about Mormon beliefs such as: “Do Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?” Contemporary Mormons shy away from discussing doctrinal issues. Salvation is attained by obedience to the commandments and temple ordinances, not from understanding theology.

Big Love and the Warren Jeffs’ trial have revived an embarrassing interest in Mormon polygamy. BL has been condemned by church leaders, but I suspect the overall effect of the program on non-members has been to make Mormons seem more normal. Normal, that is, except for their extreme piety.  BL writers get the details of Mormon Utah life remarkably accurate—not an easy task for an outsider. The only major flaw I noticed the first season was portraying Mormons at a restaurant ordering milk instead of coffee with their meal. Real Mormons know the coffee substitute is Diet Coke, not milk.

BL’s third season stirred a lot of controversy by portraying the temple endowment. I suspect the endowment segment disappointed non-Mormons because it burst the speculation bubble about sexual orgies in the temple. The endowment depiction and its meaningfulness to Barb were quite touching to this Mormon. Likewise, the scene where Bill baptizes Barb for Margy’s dead mother. The Bishop’s Court on Barbara and its effect on her seemed far more damaging to the church image.

The real church PR problem with BL is that some of the fictional situations reflect actual events in the non-to-distant past, such as the attempt by the church to purchase the Salamander document and the behind-the-scenes political influence of the church in Utah.

Depicting Mormons realistically is not the same as ridiculing the sacred. In fact, the mirror held up to ourselves may turn out to be our best friend. Church growth and the success of its own PR have moved the LDS Church into the public arena. We can’t expect national media to focus only on the ideal image to which we aspire. How can we not admit that some of our beliefs and practices seem a little strange to outsiders?  Like the Catholic Church dealing with the sex-abuse scandal, the Mormon Church needs to own up to past mistakes. Being less secretive about temple ceremonies and church history documents may be the best PR strategy the church could employ.

Reading the Old Testament for Laughs

I take the view that messages from God are filtered through human minds and pens before being published as scripture. The Old Testament contains many stories that horrify modern readers: concubines (Jud. 19:1), slavery (Lev. 25:44-46), human sacrifice (Jud 11:29-39), stoning witches (Lev. 20:27), and wholesale slaughter of ethic groups (Deut. 7:1-2, 16). Mormons generally deal with these stories by seeing them as parts of the Bible not translated correctly.

Nearly all OT stories must be interpreted within the context of the time and society in which they originated. From a modern perspective, more than a few of the stories provide an element of humor. My favorite humorous piece is Isaiah 20:2-4. The Lord commands Isaiah, “Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins and put thy shoe from thy foot . . .  like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia; So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”

 Footnote 2a in the LDS KJV tells us that walking naked means “without an upper garment, like a slave or exile.”  It’s hard for me to visualize that to “loose the sackcloth from off thy loins” means taking off an upper garment—unless Isaiah had a most unusual anatomy.  The New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, New American Bible and New Jerusalem Bible all translate verse 2 as Isaiah being naked after removing his sackcloth from his loins. Fortunately, modern prophets have not been called upon to make points in such a graphic manner.

Reading the footnotes supplies some of the humor in the OT. The LDS Bible has a footnote pointing out that the “earrings” which the KJV says the servant of Abraham presented to Rebekah are “nose rings.” Pierced nostrils do not come to mind when most of us picture OT matriarchs.

I really like Deut. 14:22-26. The Israelites are commanded to set aside a tithe of their increase and consume it in the presence of God. If the distance is too great to transport their wine, corn, oil, and animals, they may be converted to money:  “And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever they soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou and thine household.”  Taking verse 26 literally would keep ward activities committees busy and might increase the number of full tithe payers in the church.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point. The OT is a fun study for those who read entire chapters including the footnotes. Newer translations that the KJV clarify obscure passages and a good study guide provides context for the time and place in which the message was given.

I’m Right, So Shut Up!

I attended a town hall meeting last week and manned a table collecting signatures for petitions for both ethics reform and fair redistricting in Utah. A small group of women opposed to both petitions showed up. One woman accosted people signing the petitions urging them not to sign anything they hadn’t read. Of course, nobody should sign documents they haven’t read, but few of the signers heeded  her. Those interested in signing were already informed on the issue. When the meeting began, the woman jumped to her feet to denounce the petitions. Now, I’m all for passion, but too much passion expressed inappropriately comes across as hysteria. The speaker finally convinced the woman to sit down and let the meeting move on to other topics. Then a woman approached my table and told me I had no right to be at the meeting with petitions. Her friend tried to write down names of people who had signed. I don’t know what organization these women represented, but they were a prime example of the current polarization of American discourse.

Now these ladies who feared circulating a petition with which they did not agree were more amusing than annoying at that meeting, I might feel differently if I had to encounter them as neighbors, ward members, or work colleagues. I generally don’t care for people who try to change my mind. Does anyone?

My brother badgers me about politics. He’s a right-wing conservative living in a very blue state. I consider myself relatively moderate, but can’t agree with Doogie’s claims about the environment, intelligent design, and other issues. He doesn’t seem to hear anything I say. He twists my words and accuses me of statements I haven’t made. I have finally realized that Doogie really isn’t talking to me. He’s finishing up arguments he’s had with liberal thinkers in his state. He’s saying to me what he wishes he’d said to them.

I no longer have the energy for the angst enjoyed by Doogie and the anti-petition ladies. Why argue about something today when tomorrow new information or experience may cause me to evaluate and change my opinion? But I do think it’s important to stand up for people or groups who are unfairly maligned. I couldn’t just let my visiting teacher partner and the sister we were visiting denounce gays and Lesbians as sinners who deliberately choose to break divine commandments. I think I handled that one tactfully, asking if they were aware that scientific research, which President Hinckley acknowledged, indicates that homosexual tendencies are inborn.

Listening to illogical emotion is tough. Aunt Loosy gets all her information from Rush Limbaugh and other talk-radio hosts. Do I let her spout the ridiculous libel she shares because of her age, or do I offer counter information? Most of the time, I make a joke and change the topic from politics—as I’ve learned to do with Doogie. Sometimes relationships are more important than proving I’m right.

Families Can Be Together for Awhile

Few parents react with joy to a child who renounces the family religion, but Mormon parents anguish for a child who leaves the faith. A truant Mormon not only gives up her own salvation, she leaves a hole in the eternal family circle.

Our oldest son expressed doubts of LDS doctrine and policies by his senior year of high school. Wort’s criticisms became stronger and more intellectual while taking philosophy classes his freshman year of college. Mormon parents are assured that if we raise our children in righteousness they will not go astray—or if they do, the sealing bonds will return them to the fold. Naturally, I blamed myself for Wort’s doubts. I should not have let him take summer jobs that required Sunday work.

 I argued for the benefits of church activity—especially a mission. Wort tried to please me. He attended church when not working, but the Elder’s Quorum failed to impress him with any spirituality. I prayed for him. Our bishop recommended I attend the temple once a month and submit Wort’s name to the prayer roll. I attended twice a month. After Wort’s freshman year, he moved out of state and began attending a university ward. He found congenial friends there, but could not make himself believe Mormon history or doctrine.

A General Conference speaker recommended that doubters keep the commandments in order to gain a testimony. I shared that wisdom with Wort, and he mailed me a long letter detailing all the guilt he’d heaped upon himself while growing up Mormon—starting at age 11 when he refused to touch his younger sister’s hand during our family’s sealing in the temple. After years of berating himself for every minor fault, he’d concluded he wasn’t Celestial Kingdom material. Discovering learned people who did not believe Mormon doctrine freed him from his burden of guilt.

The same year our youngest daughter, Aroo, refused to pay tithing even though she’d saved the 10%. At first I thought she was just being difficult, but our conversations in the ensuing months convinced me she had no faith, no testimony. Was it because of my insufficient mothering of this fourth child—the one I’d never had time for? Or were some people just born with less or no faith in God? Unlike her brother, Aroo didn’t hide her feelings and go along with church activity just to please me. Neither my prayers nor pleas helped. Plenty of legitimate, non-religious reasons exist for convincing teens to forego promiscuity and alcohol use, but I wasn’t smart enough to use them. “Because you love Heavenly Father” doesn’t work for a person who doubts the existence of God.

Well, I didn’t threaten or disown my children, but I did heap unnecessary, unhelpful guilt on them and on myself. I related better to Wort’s disbelief because it was based on discoveries of inconsistencies in doctrinal logic and altered facts of church history. Aroo’s lack of belief was as personal to her as my conviction was to me. Trying to convince someone their feelings are wrong while yours are right is foolishness married to arrogance.

Possibly the fact that I had harbored questions for years about church doctrines on polygamy, denial of the priesthood to blacks, and the subordinate role of women made me a tad compassionate to my unbelieving children. Eventually, my intellectual doubts outweighed my spiritual feelings. Church meetings became tedious. Time spent decorating for ward dinners and programs didn’t make the world a better place so far as I could tell. And tithing? Most of it went for missionary work, temples and Church Education. Were those programs doing enough good in the world to merit my continued support?

Now I was the one on the slippery slope and George was the innocent victim. He was shocked and hurt. I was rejecting him and our eternal life together. In other religions, a spouse who decides against continuing in the family’s faith is a disappointment, even an annoyance. In Mormon belief, that spouse disrupts the entire family’s hope for an eternal reward.

Our relationship with each other and our children trumped our relationship with our church. George and I compromised. Our nuclear family is now ecumenical, embracing true-blue Mormons, evangelicals, and agnostics. Love unites us.

A Good Mormon–Now and Then

I consider myself a good Mormon. My neighbors consider me inactive. Who is right depends, of course, on whose definition is used. A few years ago our stake presidency made a “Back to the Basics” list of gospel principles:

  • Personal and family prayer
  • Scripture study
  •  Family Home Evening
  • Attending church meetings
  • Temple attendance. 

Their example caused me to create my own list of gospel basics—based on principles emphasized while I was growing up in the church:

  • Love
  • Service
  • Generosity
  • Knowledge
  • Work

The difference in the two lists probably explains why I’m more impressed with my Mormon credentials than are my ward members. How do I measure up to the first list—the list that probably represents how contemporary Mormons evaluate church activity?

  • Personal and family prayer:  Not publicly visible.  When the home teachers make a formal visit and ask to leave us with a word of prayer, we always agree.
  • Scripture study:  I declined my visiting teachers’ invitation to join the Relief Society in reading the Book of Mormon in a month. I assured them that I have a daily study routine and showed them my collection of Bible translations. They were not impressed with my substitution.
  • Family Home Evening:  Again, not publicly visible unless my neighbors notice me driving off alone to a meditation group on Monday evenings.
  • Attending church meetings:  Now this one is visible. I refuse to spend Sundays listening to lessons and talks I’ve already heard 400 times. I do attend Fast and Testimony meeting each month to say hello to neighbors and ward members because they are good people and I like them.
  • Temple attendance:  I attended the temple regularly for 15 years or more because it gave me a spiritual lift. When the temple ceremonies ceased to lift my spirits, I opted to spend my time on other spiritual pursuits.

Well, I definitely come up short on my stake presidency’s list, but what really counts is whether or not I live up to my own standards.

  • Love:  Loving my friends and family is easy, of course. I try to see people who tick me off as children of our Heavenly Father, but that’s not easy. Is it possible some of them may only be very distant cousins?
  • Service:  I spent most of my life doing for others, can’t I rest on my laurels? My conscience does nag me to try to improve the community by carrying petitions for ethics reform in the state government and volunteering at an ESL Center. I try to leave a small carbon footprint although in cold weather I drive to pick up a carton of milk when I really could walk. But—I achieve 100% visiting teaching every month.
  • Generosity:  A couple of times a year I turn in a tithing envelope with my “user fee,” a small amount to help with the utilities and food for the meetings and social events I attend. I do donate above and beyond Mormon requirements to charities and organizations which relieve suffering, promote education and economic independence for people both at home and abroad. I don’t quite live up to the advice of C.S. Lewis, “The only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”
  • Knowledge:  Always my favorite gospel principle. No problem taking classes and burying my nose in a book.
  • Work:  Hey, I’m retired. Does gardening and doing my own cooking and cleaning count?

Get Ready, Get Set, Get Old

 “What is a good thing about getting older?” my daughter asked several years ago while doing research for a sociology class.

“Nothing!” I retorted. My life stunk in my 50s and I wasn’t even to the prune juice and Depends stage. I looked terrible—weight piled on as I snacked through Costco-sized bags of corn chips and secret stashes of Twinkies— seeking energy to sustain me while teaching 200 junior high kids all day, taking master’s classes at night, fulfilling church callings, dealing with our last two kids who refused to grow up, and spending time with an aging father. I felt terrible. No energy, no time to exercise, in bed too late, up too early, never a moment to myself. My dad’s physical decline was my future.

Fifteen years later, I love life. What made the difference? A monthly pension and Social Security freed me from the grind of laboring 50 hours a week to instill a love of learning into the cement-block heads of 9th graders. Also, our two youngest grew up and became responsible citizens in the interval.

My Mormon work ethic kept me teaching part time for a few years after retirement—first with a charter school, then teaching freshmen comp at a state university. But part time work in a congenial atmosphere is more pleasure than pressure. After decades of racing like a hamster on a wheel, I now had free time. Time to stretch my body into better shape with yoga. Time to stretch my spirit into better shape with meditation. Time to stretch my mind with reading and writing.

George’s near brush with death jolted us both into recognizing how fragile mortality is. Cleaning up the kitchen together after supper is a pleasure compared with the thought of being alone for meals—or not being here at all. So nice to close my finger in a book and walk into the next room to share a meaningful passage with George. Even the click of the TV as he settles in to watch NCIS on Tuesday evenings strikes a comforting note. A note I muffle with a shut door as the volume soars.

I used to pity my dad sitting alone. Now I’ve learned that one of the blessings of the body slowing down is the time it gives the mind for reflection—at least until cognitive impairment kicks in. Knowing that most of my life is past has reset my priorities. Surprisingly, my earlier plans for this time of life—a mission, temple work, genealogy—now hold no interest. But my interest in writing, which I’d shelved for four decades of teaching and mothering, has resurfaced as I’ve found new friends with similar interests.

Retired people set their clocks at a slower pace than working people. We no longer dash around trying to fit 30 hours into each 24. We don’t have to impress anyone. We’ve earned the freedom to associate with those of common interests.   Age has definite drawbacks—leaky bladders, stuffed bowels, but the leisurely pace compensates—at least while we have reasonable health and income. Dementia ahead? Not to worry. That’s payback to the youngest two kids who stressed out our earlier years.

Ecclesiastes and the Role of Suffering

Ecclesiastes and the Role of Suffering  1/15/10

Catastrophes like the recent earthquake in Haiti raise the question: Why does God allow such suffering to occur? The Pat Robertson answer of divine retribution for wickedness or even a pact with the devil doesn’t work for thinking people. Disasters generally hit poor people hardest and available evidence fails to confirm the superior virtue of the rich.

I find the OT book of Ecclesiastes the most helpful scripture in dealing with this question. Ecclesiastes speaks to anyone who looks at the world realistically and fails to find God’s hand always in evidence. Interestingly enough, in Christian Bibles Ecclesiastes is placed right after the Book of Proverbs. The placement is curious because Ecclesiastes functions as a rebuttal to much of Proverbs. While Proverbs describes the world as it should be with just rewards for the righteous and retribution for the wicked, Ecclesiastes describes the world as it really is.

 The King James Version (KJV) of Ecclesiastes begins with the phrase “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (1:2) The New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translates the Hebrew word “hevel” as “futility” rather  than vanity. Even with an eternal perspective, realizing how temporary our earthly existence is and how little impact we leave on the world sometimes strikes our souls with the dread that “all is futility.”

 I love the concept that a kind Heavenly Father watches over us all, hears and answers our prayers, and gives us what is good for us provided we have the requisite faith (Moro 7:26). Unfortunately, the longer I live, the more evidence I see that it is the author of Ecclesiastes rather than Moroni who accurately describes the world and God’s dealings with it.

Can anyone watch the daily news and not relate to the stark honesty of Eccl. 4:1 which speculates that not being born might be a happier situation than witnessing, “…all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their comforter there was power: but they had no comforter.” (KJV)

Life’s unfairness is noted in Eccl.9:11: “I have further observed under the sun that/The race is not won by the swift,/Nor the battle by the valiant/ Nor is bread won by the wise/ Nor wealth by the intelligent/ Nor favor by the learned/ For the time of mischance (death) comes to all.” (NJPS)

On a positive note, Ecclesiastes recommends acting with faith although we can’t know what the future holds.  “Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed (11:6 NJPS).  The author tells us to exercise charity, not because we can expect a reward in heaven, but because it is right and because we may need charity in the future. “Send your bread forth upon the waters; for after many days you will find it. . . . for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth.” (11:1-2 NJPS)

The message of Ecclesiastes is common sense rather than pie in the sky. Life is not fair. Bad things do happen to good people, and the wicked are not punished immediately for their acts. Expecting to ward off pain and suffering by an accumulation of good works is as rational as a gambler’s belief that the odds are building up in his favor with each unlucky roll of the dice. We can’t know for certain that an eternal reward awaits us. But we can enjoy the good things of this life, express gratitude for them, help others, and deal with unjust misfortunes to the best of our ability.

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