An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Before teaching her next Relief Society presidency message, our RS counselor e-mailed the lesson topic to give sisters in the ward time to reflect upon it before class. A wonderful idea, I thought, until I read the chosen topic—“Home.” My enthusiasm dropped faster than the May 6 stock market plunge. I’ve already listened to at least 942 lessons on Home during my years of RS attendance. And I really wouldn’t mind a lesson on home that provided new insights—like the Buddhist notion of connection to the universe which means that home is every place. But I know that won’t happen.

Just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel criticized Jewish services, Mormon services also: “. . . are conducted with pomp and precision. . . . Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: life. One knows in advance what will ensue. There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden burst of devotion. Nothing is going to happen to the soul. Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays. He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives. Our motto is monotony.”

The official reason for keeping tight control of church curriculum is “to keep the doctrine pure.” But I wonder if the tradeoff—monotonous, uninspiring meetings—is really worth it. And I still hear plenty of weird beliefs from devout Mormons, so how pure is this approach keeping the doctrine?

What would I suggest for Sunday School and Relief Society curriculum?    

   Gospel Doctrine was exciting when the lessons were really on the scriptures—when we spent two years each on the Old and New Testaments, read the entire text, and learned about the culture for which these scriptures were written. Ignoring the cultural context and selecting only passages which support contemporary Mormon thought is not scripture study.

I enjoyed RS when the lessons were written by women for women. I don’t really need any more lessons on abstract topics: The Sacrament, The Sabbath Day, Fasting, Sacrifice. Lives of good people interest and motivate me—biographies that show imperfect human beings handling real challenges. Why can’t the RS manual be a biography of an exemplary woman? How about Carol Cornwall Madsen’s biography of Emmeline B. Wells? And why can’t we study the wisdom of non-LDS women? Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea contains wonderful spiritual insights that complement LDS philosophy. How about a memoir by a woman who has overcome great obstacles? Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings deals with some unpleasant situations. She suffered sexual abuse as a child and was so insecure about her feminine sexuality at age 17 that she paid a boy to have sex with her—resulting in a teen pregnancy. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings—but some LDS women are dealing with similar situations for themselves or their children. An honest discussion of contemporary problems which can help women deal with bad situations affecting themselves or others has more spiritual benefit than a fluff lesson about the joys of a perfect home.

Reducing church lessons to “milk before meat” that will not offend the “weakest of the weak” has resulted in lessons for the dumbest of the dumb. If the church wants to retain members, putting some meat on the menu would help.

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