An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for August, 2010

Fighting Evil with Evil

George and I watched the movie Doubt on DVD this week and a line from the Meryl Streep character remains with me. Sister Aloysius (Streep), a nun who runs a parochial school with an iron fist, opposes the compassionate new priest who befriends the children. Although she has no evidence, she has a feeling the priest has made sexual advances to some of the boys and enlists a young novitiate to help her spy on the priest. When the young nun objects to her methods, Sister Aloysius tells her, “Sometimes we have to step away from God in order to fight evil.” The film never answers the question of the priest’s innocence, but it shows Sister Aloysius brutally unconcerned about harming others as she pursues her self-imposed duty to find the priest guilty. The young teacher adopts her mentor’s methods—stepping away from God to discipline her students—and ruins her relationship with her own students.

 I’m certainly not suggesting that allegations of child abuse should not be investigated, but I question using unscrupulous means to obtain righteous ends. In recent years some worthy goals have been sabotaged by overzealous advocates using dishonest means to promote their cause. The gun control group lost credibility when they enhanced statistics about gun-related deaths. Much of the American public lost confidence in all global warming evidence when a small group of English scientists attempted to suppress non-supportive evidence.

Hugh Nibley made a statement that the purpose of the many detailed war scenes in the Book of Mormon is to show us how awful war is. He also claimed that both sides in a war are serving Satan. I have thought about his words many times in the past several years as our country has launched two wars—bombing an already devastated country into further rubble and attacking a country which had not attacked us. Then our government justified using torture to obtain information from suspected combatants. The photos from Abu Ghraib and other prisons where American soldiers tortured prisoners prove we have stepped away from God.

Ignoring right values in an effort to preserve them defeats our purpose–no matter how noble our intention.

American Decadence

We’re boarding our dog at a dog park this week while we take a short trip. Although she’s an outside dog and our daughter, Aroo, would come over and feed her every day, we can no longer leave Pita. She has become terrified of fireworks and thunder. If we’re not home to let her in the house when she hears a boom, she goes nuts and will do anything to get through our four-foot picket fence. George strung chicken wire alongside the plastic pickets so she couldn’t push them aside and get through. The next day, a peal of thunder caused Pita to tear the wire out with her teeth and escape. George replaced the chicken wire with sturdier 4 inch square wire. That night a neighbor kid lit a string of firecrackers and Pita used the wire for a ladder to climb up and over the top of the pickets. George put plastic lattice work up, and she chewed through that during the next storm. No, this dog cannot be left alone.

We’ve tried boarding her in a traditional kennel with a 3 by 7 cage and dozens of unhappy dogs barking all the time and find Pita gets so nervous that she chews patches of fur off her legs. For this trip, we checked out a new dog park. And this place is posh. The playground features plastic slides, blocks, tunnels, and a wading pool. The lounge sports leather furniture, mounds of cushions and pillows, and a large-screen TV playing doggy films. I only wish we were staying in a motel as nice as Pita’s.

I told our son, Techie, about the luxury Pita will enjoy and he said, “You know, I think Osama bin Laden had a point.”

Church Attendance for an LDS President

Rumor has it that President Obama does not attend church regularly, his reason being that his presence is too disruptive. What a great excuse for getting out of going to church. I will certainly use that one in the unlikely event that I become president.

A blogger has speculated about Mitt Romney’s dilemma of trying to attend his LDS ward in the also unlikely event that he becomes president. Since Mitt is a devout Mormon, he does not have the option of staying home and reading the newspaper in his pajamas on Sundays. But his home ward would certainly have to make accommodations. And so would the government. I imagine all his Secret Service bodyguards would have to be LDS. No non-Mormon would sit through three hours of our meetings every Sunday for any amount of pay. Would the Secret Service would also have to prepare the sacrament bread and water and pass it to the First Family? Or would it be safe enough if they provided the bread and water and supervised the teachers’ and priests’ preparations?

Would metal detectors be installed at the entry to the President’s ward building? And what about Home Teaching? I suppose the Pres would be excused from serving as a HT, but how would the HTs assigned to his family ever schedule their visits? Maybe on Air Force One?

Does the White House have adequate space for the Romney’s food storage? And would they have to employ temple recommend holders to do the family laundry?

These are quite fascinating questions, but before I sign up to work for the Romney campaign (I just know one is coming), I need an answer to this question: Would a Romney presidency impact the church positively or negatively?

The Kingdom Within

A speaker at this year’s Sunstone Symposium opined that the natural man cannot be perfected by keeping commandments. He offered as evidence the fact that Mormons attend church for three hours every Sunday where we are exhorted to keep the commandments, but we don’t see a general increase in righteousness and perfection among the members. I’ve blamed our general lack of improvement on the fact that repetition isn’t the best teacher, but I think this good brother hit on something more profound.

Tackling a list of commandments is external and often leads to external measurements of improvement such as numbers of meetings attended, amounts of money donated, substances not ingested. Changing the natural man or woman—the one the Book of Mormon tells us is an enemy to God—requires going within—getting acquainted with the ego that runs our show—the deceptions it practices and the illusions it maintains. This requires personal time for prayer, meditation, contemplation—quiet time—time not often found in our group religious practice.

A person who understands herself is far less likely to harm others either physically or emotionally and can function with far fewer rules than a person whose behavior is extrinsically motivated. My dad insisted that anyone who didn’t believe in God would be a total degenerate with no fear of hell or hope of heaven to keep him in line.  But my circle of friends and acquaintances includes many non-believers who not only refrain from crime, but show compassion in individual and community service to others.

And we all know, via the news if not personally, regular church attendees who bilk their neighbors, abuse family members, and cause enough misery to justify  a lightning bolt frying them to an unhallowed crisp. When I taught at Utah State Prison, I found a high degree of religious belief in the inmates—but they weren’t able to translate their belief in God into living a crime-free life.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Maybe we need to spend more time seeking for the kingdom within.


I asked my Relief Society visiting teachers not to present the lesson while they visited this week. I explained that I had read it and not found it relevant. The “senior companion” proceeded to give the lesson regardless. I do admire her dedication. And I did find one point of the August lesson with which I agree. I think we should all live worthy of worshipping and being in God’s presence—however we define God.

Of course, my definition of worthiness differs from the standard Mormon temple recommend interview.  While I believe that God cares that we are honest in our dealings with our fellow human beings and have good relationships with family members, I’m not so sure He cares much about some of the other items on the checklist. In fact, since we’re all so different—and so good at rationalizing—I’m pretty sure the same list doesn’t work for everyone on a meaningful level.

What works for me is to examine my own mind through meditation. To check out my real, sometimes hidden, reasons for my beliefs and actions. To see if my ego is on a rampage. I really like the Big Mind philosophy taught by Genpo Roshi at the Salt Lake Zen Center. I have also found practicing with Michael Mugaku Zimmerman Sensei rewarding.

I don’t maintain a personal checklist of things I should and should not be doing because that technique—like New Year’s Resolutions—has never worked for me. But when something bothers me, I find peace through meditation. Although I’m not particularly good at meditating, sometimes I’m able to address an emotion such as fear or anger—acknowledge and accept it—then find a way to deal with it constructively.

 My method does not provide me with a card proving my worthiness. And it doesn’t convince my visiting teacher that I don’t need her instruction. But that may be my ego talking.

Saved by Grace–Not Such a Bad Idea

Mormons’ favorite scripture about salvation contains a caveat to the traditional Christian doctrine that we are saved by grace. For Mormons, “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do (2Ne 25:23). Since nobody does all they can do, this phrase places Mormons in a precarious position—salvation-wise. While it is relatively easy to believe that deceased loved ones inherit the celestial kingdom, doubt exists about oneself. Have I researched all the genealogy, done all the temple work, read all the scriptures, served in all the callings I could have? Possibly my elderly family members are more neurotic than others, but I haven’t noticed that their faith has contributed to peace of mind at the end.

Of course, Mormons don’t have to wait for the approach of death to begin scourging themselves for unworthiness. Yesterday my visiting teacher, a young single mom who divorced her husband because his mental illness made him abusive to her and their small children, testified of the benefits of temple attendance. With tears in her eyes, she wished she and her husband had attended the temple together. She thought it could have made their marriage better.

Now I’ve never heard anyone suggest that temple worship can cure mental illness and abusive relationships, but this young woman was convinced she hadn’t done all she could do. In her mind, attending the temple with her husband might have qualified her for the miracle that could have saved her marriage.

Wouldn’t it be healthier for her to believe that the grace to cope with the trials of mortal life comes to good people of faith from a benevolent heaven rather than to beat herself up for not keeping every commandment perfectly enough to merit God’s favor?

Believing that grace is a gift to those who believe and demonstrate their faith by living lives of loving kindness might calm frazzled Mormon nerves better than a dose of Zoloft .

Why Don’t They Like Us?

A speaker at a FAIR (Forum for Apologetic Information and Research) conference last week created a stir by revealing a survey showing that Mormons are unfavorably viewed by non-Mormons. And I mean really unfavorably—5 to 1. Apparently this news shocks Mormons who seldom associate with non-members. But, if it’s any consolation, Jews and Catholics didn’t fare very well in this survey, either. The unfavorable ratio for Jews was 7 to 2 and for Catholics 2 to 1. Had Muslims been added to the survey, I suspect Mormons would not have been at the bottom.

What this survey does prove is the simple truth that human beings dislike other humans with differing beliefs.  I’ve been engaged in a few discussions with persons who ignore my (of course) well-reasoned comments and try to put words in my mouth—“then you think . . .”  Not respecting my opinions enrages me, so I find myself responding with snide rather than wise, analytical remarks. Unless I’m itching for a fight, I tend to limit conversations with many people to the weather and food.

Disliking or even fearing those who think differently leads Americans to segregating ourselves into red and blue neighborhoods and to restricting friendships within our own church or other group. If you live and work in Utah, you’ve probably experienced situations at work where the church group stops talking abruptly when a non-member appears. No doubt, this occurs in other majority/minority situations.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis creates an afterlife where everyone goes to heaven. The catch is that only those willing to give up their sins can stay. Most wannabe angels forego heaven for a hell where nobody hassles them to give up their favorite sins. But there’s another catch. These non-heavenly beings continually fight with each other. And each time they engage in conflict, they are moved farther away from others. Seriously aggressive beings end up isolated in outer space.

Of course, Lewis’s book is listed as fiction. But I don’t know. Based on my limited experience, outer space may be the best place for those of us who can’t appreciate differences of belief.

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