An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for May, 2011

Ecumenical Family

When our immediate family gathers, at least three religious viewpoints
are represented: Devout Mormon, devout Calvinist/Evangelical, and devout
agnostic. George and I raised our children in the Mormon faith, but in our
waning years—possibly as self-defense—we’ve mellowed into the notion that no
single religion has a monopoly on truth. If God really intended salvation to be
limited to the members of one particular denomination, he should have made it
more clear which one.

The dilemma comes with the grandchildren. I have no desire
to undermine the faith their parents teach them. We attend their churches when
visiting. We applaud the Evangelical grandchild’s lisping version of “Yes,
Jesus Loves Me,” as heartily as our Mormon grandchildren’s rendition of “Follow
the Prophet.”

We don’t serve alcohol in our home out of deference to the
Mormon segment of the family, but stock the garage with beer, wine, and spirits
to keep the others happy.

Still, I’m uncomfortable when questions about my own
religious practices occur. Recently our Mormon grandson asked if the tea I was
drinking was herbal. My negative response brought an answer of six-year-old
smugness: “We don’t drink real tea.” I assured little Jared that I’m glad he
chooses to obey his parents. I dread the time when we’re attending church with
one of the families and a grandchild asks why we don’t take the sacrament or

I do hope that when they are older, our grandchildren will
value the religious traditions they’ve been taught while recognizing that
people of other faiths or of no faith are also good people, worthy of respect.
And if they choose a different spiritual path—I hope their parents can handle
their decisions with reverence.

Bashing or Balance

Last night I asked a few members of our Relief Society book
group to read the first chapter of a novel I’m writing. It’s not the Deseret
Book “faith promoting” kind of Mormon novel, and I wanted to see if it
resonated with devout Mormons.

I handed out my manuscript and admitted I’d tried it on
several non-Mormon friends and found they have no interest in a Mormon book
that doesn’t bash the church. Lynn frowned and asked, “You don’t bash the
church, do you?”

I’m a nice person. Why would Lynn think I bashed the church?
The light clicked on later. I no longer attend church on a regular basis—and most
Mormons who cease regular activity do engage in some church-bashing. I must admit,
I’ve been given to a bit of snarky remarking on occasion, myself.

It occurs to me that the attitude of ridicule towards the
culture (which is a fair target) and the sacred (which is not), is pretty prevalent
among the disaffected. The fact that Mormon services no longer meet my needs
does not justify lack of respect for those who do find spiritual solace there.

So far, I struggle to find the balance between expressing my
own views and showing respect for those of others. Do I remain silent when
neighbors tell me they boycott the neighborhood grocery store because it now opens
on Sundays? Is it offensive to state my own preference for shopping on
less-crowded Sundays? My neighbors are willing to drive miles out of their way
to patronize a store which does not violate tenets of their faith. Surely, I
can reverence their honest commitment to beliefs I no longer share.

Solution for Bad Parenting

I don’t suppose many people can view The King’s Speech
without feeling distress at the bad
parenting attributed to King George V and Queen Mary. According to the film,
the young princes were brought to their parents for a “viewing” only once a day—and
the queen pinched her children to make them cry so she could return them to the
nanny. Royal offspring frequently prove that neither money nor nannies
substitutes for caring parents.

Parenting is a tough job. Nobody, not even royalty, should
feel obligated to produce children. Providing grandkids for our parents to
dandle on their knees is not part of the contract we signed at birth.

After careful consideration, I believe the best solution for
an overpopulated earth full of social problems is to put birth control meds in
the drinking water. Only people who pass a minimal competency test evaluating
both their sanity and their willingness to learn will be given the antidote.

Missing the Rapture

George and I received two phone calls Saturday to see if
we’d been raptured. We were flattered that anyone, especially relatives,
thought we’d be candidates.

Instead of being taken up to Heaven, I spent Saturday
morning at a League of Women Voters meeting. I learned that one elementary
school in Salt Lake City has 400 homeless students. The family shelter is
filled, and state budget deficits and spending cuts leave no funds for building
a second family shelter. Currently, excess families are housed in the regular
shelter at night—but must leave in the morning—like Will Smith and son in the
movie, Happyness.

The principal of this school has set up cots in a small room
for kids from the regular shelter who get sick at school. She can’t send these
sick kids home because they aren’t allowed inside the shelter during the day.
This year the legislature cut funding for summer school programs, so these
homeless kids will be on the streets all day all summer.

We Utahns should be grateful last Saturday was not the Day
of Judgment. I can’t believe God will hold us guiltless when we refuse to
increase taxes slightly in order to provide for defenseless children.

Is It Me?

George and I had lunch this week with old friends, Laff and Slandra Lott. We’ve enjoyed this couple for years and had a lot of laughs together—until Slandra retired and filled her leisure hours with Talk Radio.  At first I didn’t take Slandra seriously. When she told me she hoped Sarah Palin would get the Republican presidential nomination, I made a smart remark about Palin’s great intellectual prowess—then noticed the look on Slandra’s face and backpedaled. I value our years of friendship, but it’s getting hard not to offend—or be offended.

Between get-togethers, Slandra forwards dozens of right-wing e-mails—containing such informative tidbits as photos of a sign supposedly in Kenya announcing the site of Obama’s birth. She forwarded an e-mail with a cartoon figure of Obama showing him half white and half black with the caption, “I don’t like his white half, either,” and defended it as an effort to get people to think.

After agreeing to lunch with our friends, I bet George that Slandra would turn the conversation to the latest anti-Obama, anti-environmental, anti-immigration topic within 20 minutes. I also bet him that I would violate my vow not to respond in kind within 30 seconds. Saintly haloes do not fit the likes of me.

A quote attributed to Soren Kierkgaard sums up the situation: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

Moving On

“You’re really a nice person,” my visiting teacher for the past three years told me last month. “Of course I am,” I agreed. “No, I really mean it. You bring out toys and books for Jenny’s (her partner) kids while we visit. You do volunteer work. You’re a good person.”

I found Ella’s comment rather strange since making guests comfortable and volunteering in the community are not unusual things for anyone to do. It occurred to me later that Ella finds my degree of humanity puzzling because I no longer attend Mormon services. Devout Mormons know that people leave the church because they have been lured into the paths of sin. Good people occupy the chapel seats every Sunday.

The idea that people attend church because it meets their needs and stop attending when it does not fails to play into Mormon beliefs—and probably those of some other denominations.

My Mormon ward met my needs when, as newlyweds, George and I moved from Utah to Casper, Wyoming—a tremendous step for someone who had barely been outside Utah. Besides the comforting familiarity of the meetinghouse and rituals, the warm welcome by members in our small ward provided instant friends. One Sunday morning I was surprised to realize I was looking forward to attending church rather than going because I “should.”

For several years church met my social and spiritual needs as we moved to other states and started our family. Studying church doctrine expanded my knowledge; fulfilling callings expanded talents and abilities. My life centered on family and church.

When our older kids reached their teens, I returned to teaching. Church callings became challenging, even burdensome, with my family and work responsibilities, but I felt a need to give back some of what I had received from the institutional church. About 25 years ago, church lessons became simplified with the “milk before meat” philosophy and were limited to a few dozen topics recycled year after year. “So-called intellectuals” were condemned from the pulpit and in classes in our ward.  

I began leaving the three-hour block after two hours, then after one. George caught me sneaking home and joined me. I started using my church time for reading on my own, then began visiting other churches—looking for a place where I could achieve spiritual growth. Liberating ourselves from meeting attendance freed George and me from the frustration and hostility engendered when we forced ourselves to sit through what we found tedious and trite.

The current Church meets the needs of many members, but those who have outgrown the organization do not deserve censure from believing family and friends.  Moving on should not be painful. We keep the good from our previous faith and add to it from new sources. Even my devout visiting teacher recognizes that I’m a still nice person.

Balm of History

Reading history has a ring of familiarity. Much of Will and Ariel Durant’s Rousseau and Revolution which chronicles 18th century Europe sounds eerily like the evening news: England bogs down in an effort to squelch a nationalist uprising in her American colonies. British enemies, France and Spain, abet the colonies, not because they expect or want  the colonists to win, but because a prolonged war drains British resources while her rivals build up their own military and naval strength.

France’s internal problems include huge debt exacerbated by lavish spending by the royals, monetary aid to the American Revolution, and the refusal of the nobles and clergy to be taxed. France’s finance minister borrows heavily and prepares a favorable fiscal report for the public which excludes military spending and the national debt.

Catherine the Great attempts to emancipate Russian serfs and extend education to the masses, but is blocked by nobles and clergy who object to changes in a social order which benefits themselves. Even an absolute monarch must consider the effecst of opposition from an armed, wealthy nobility.

The modest reforms Catherine achieved failed to propel Russia into the modern world and left it ripe for Communist reformers a century later. France survived the Revolution of 1789 but endured a period of bloody anarchy, the dictatorship and wars of Napoleon, and other revolutions before finally becoming a stable republic many decades after the first revolution.

The madness of King George III caused serious problems for England—including the loss of their American colonies—but the country outlived the king and Britain built an empire upon which the sun never set for a century and a half.

Objective history provides the comfort of learning that modern people are no more given to vices than our ancestors of 200 to 300 years ago. What history can’t tell us is how to deal with scientific knowledge which has outpaced human social development and given us weapons of mass destruction without the moral and ethical restraints to avoid using them. Religion doesn’t have a great track record for that, either.

Home School Daze

A neighbor across the street boasted about home schooling her children, but it looked more like no-schooling to me. The boys spent most of every day shooting hoops. The girls carried a baby on their hips on the rare occasions they ventured outside. Not all home schooling is that bad. As a junior high English teacher, I encountered many home schooled kids whose parents enrolled them in public school in 9th grade for high school credits. Unfortunately, most of the home schooled kids I taught were years behind the other kids in their age group. But I did meet a couple of exceptions—kids with skills and knowledge way above grade level.

My current neighbor, whose back yard borders ours, does an excellent job of home schooling. In nice weather, we hear some of the lessons. For most subjects, this neighbor uses the state curriculum guide, but on one topic her kids receive advanced instruction.

The other day I answered the doorbell to find Rachel and Regina, her six and eight-year-old daughters, asking: “Can Pita play?”

Our dog, Pita, fills in for the girls when their human friends are unavailable. I took the kids to the backyard and supervised—to make sure 60-pound Pita didn’t knock my little friends down in a burst of doggy affection.

 Pita rolled on her back for a belly-rub, and Rachel asked, “Is Pita a girl dog?”


“Has she ever had puppies?”

“No, she’s been spayed.”

“What’s spayed?”

I earned ten points for handling that one carefully: “She’s been to the veterinarian and been fixed so she can’t have puppies.”

“Can she still have sex?”  A 20-point question.

My two-point answer: “I don’t know.”

“Has she ever had sex?”

Home schooling is what the parent makes it. Clearly my neighbor soars far above the state guide for teaching sex ed.

Choose Ye This Day . . . Cafeteria Mormonism

Spencer W. Kimball’s greatest legacy is his revelation extending priesthood to blacks. A lesser appreciated legacy (on my part) is his motto, “Lengthen Your Stride.” Although retired for several years now, I still drive myself to fill every minute. Even sleep fails to subdue this message of urgency, and I often awake with heart pounding, dreaming it’s the first day of school and I haven’t used my time diligently and am unprepared for the bell to ring in 15 minutes.

Had President Kimball’s motto come to me when I was still a lazy teen, it would have been revelation direct from heaven. Instead, the message arrived when I was a busy mother of five trying to serve in every church calling and service opportunity asked of me.  “Lengthen your stride” and subsequent Relief Society lessons on time management was like cracking a whip on a winded horse.

 Working oneself to exhaustion and feeling guilty for nor doing more is not spiritual—not even a little bit. I’m pretty sure women like myself were not the target of President Kimball’s remark. Now, I’m not criticizing the advice—I’m sure it was beneficial to many people. What I am criticizing is a culture that doesn’t encourage members to evaluate messages from leaders—to determine if that advice does apply to their own lives at this particular time.

With all due respects to “Obedience First” Mormons, Cafeteria Mormonism is the most logical approach to obeying Church leaders. In an organization with millions of members, leaders cannot possibly know the personal situations and needs of each member. General Conference remarks must address either a generic group of “average” Mormons or a targeted group which has been identified—at least in leaders’ minds—as having significant problems. This approach is not necessarily bad; in fact, it may be the only workable approach for such a large organization. The difficulty comes with the insistence that obedience to leaders take priority over individual contemplation of leaders’ words and making  thoughtful decisions about applying them to one’s own life.

At this time in my life, I need to hobble my stride—to spend more time in silent meditation, to refill my bucket. I suspect President Kimball, if he were here today, would agree with my choice.

Bookcases as Symbols

In the Comments section of a recent blogTh. and Boyd Petersen each made the point that our bookcases function as personal—or possibly family—symbols and reveal much about our values and positions on issues. An interesting take—especially since so few homes I visit even have bookcases on view in the living room.

My grandmother had a small bookcase with a glass door in her dining room. It held Relief Society magazines, a few storybooks left from my dad’s childhood, plus a score of  hardbound Deseret Book volumes by General Authorities–Christmas and Father’s Day gifts to Grandpa. Both my grandparents liked to read better than their slight library attested—but I can’t imagine either of the pair spending hard-earned cash on books for themselves. They read the Deseret News and week-old Life magazines contributed by Aunt Lovey and Uncle Louie. Their bookcase showed their love for thrift as much as for reading—gift books and the RS Magazine—a year’s subscription for $2.00 year. Grandma read to us from Uncle Wiggly, which served a useful as well as a sentimental value in her bookcase.

Most people who have a bookcase in their living room fill it with hardbound copies of impressive titles. Certainly, my best-looking books like a boxed set of Shakespeare’s plays and Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People—in bright jackets—gleam from my barrister bookcases in the living room. Symbols of my impeccable taste. But the bookcase in the small guest room next to my office—filled with dog-eared Norton’s Anthologies with torn or missing covers, paperback novels, arranged alphabetically by author, from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward to Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, and a row of religious philosophy from authors as diverse as Catholic Raymond E. Brown and new-age Ken Wilber—might reveal more about my personal taste.

Maybe even more revealing is the bookcase in my office where I keep the books I’ve bought and haven’t gotten around to reading yet—books like the used copy of Alexander Solzhenitstyn’s Cancer Ward next to a hardbound biography of Shakespeare by Schoenbaum who taught a summer school class I enjoyed at the University of Washington years ago. Some of the books in that case I may never read like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which is pretty dated by now. I did have good intentions when I bought it 15 years ago, however. The real problem with this bookcase is that I add books faster than I can read them.

Maybe most symbolic is the grandchildren’s shelf—the books I couldn’t bear to toss when our kids grew up and left home. And it’s pretty handy—how else could I enjoy a four-year-old bringing me a copy of Winnie the Pooh and plopping herself on my lap for a read?

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