An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for June, 2011

I Know What to Do: Tell me How to Do It

The price for having our 11-year-old grandson, Brigham, spend the week with us was taking him to the full three-hour block on Sunday.
George saw me putting on a skirt and said, “Really, only one of us needs to go with Brigham.” So, I found myself in Gospel Doctrine class after seeing Brigham
to Primary. The text for GD was John 16-17—the Intercessory Prayer. Lydia, a down-the-line Mormon, taught straight from the manual with quotes from past
prophets typed and handed out for class members to read at the appointed time. I received no new insights on the passages we read.

As her conclusion, Lydia read John 17:21-22 which emphasizes the Father and Son as one (the LDS interpretation being “one in purpose.”)
Lydia told us she couldn’t even imagine the Father and Son having any kind of disagreement. Fair enough. Then she said the 12 apostles were likewise unified.
(Apparently, Lydia hasn’t read much of Acts yet). Then she expanded this unity to the Restored Church (no, she hasn’t read much Church History, either.) When
Lydia said the Council of Twelve always agrees unanimously, I resisted the urge to raise my hand and ask why we need twelve. If decisions are always
unanimous, a Council of One should be adequate.

Lydia concluded her lesson with an admonition for Church unity and gave a warning example of a man who nearly lost his testimony after
criticizing the way the youth program in his ward functioned. She then admonished us to attain the degree of unity of the Father and Son in our
families.

Unity is a great goal—although setting up Deity as our model is somewhat ambitious. I would love to be one in purpose with George—so long as
it is my purpose. The problem is: Marriage is tough. Spouses who don’t agree cannot look forward to growing up and leaving home the way children anticipate escaping parental limitations.
Spouses are linked long term—financially, emotionally, and in Mormon circles, even spiritually, since a spouse who ceases to believe can drag the other
spouse and the children away from the church and eternal life.

Compromise feels like capitulation when core values are involved. And trying to be like Jesus isn’t much help when each spouse has a
different vision of what Jesus wants and expects. Solving marital conflicts of interest requires self-understanding, control of ego, empathy for the partner’s
point of view, and a host of other complex skills.

Lydia’s lesson, like most Church lessons, failed for me because although she told us what  to do—i.e. achieve unity—her lesson gave us
no guidance on how to accomplish a super-human task.

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Porn Use: Cause or Symptom?

A group in which I participated recently turned the conversation  to sex. Jenny, a 33-year-old Mormon woman, confided that she had caught her
husband accessing porn on the computer late one evening. She asked him why since she was in their bedroom and willing. His reply was, “I didn’t want to bother
you.” Am I out-of-touch, or is there something wrong with a 33-year-old man who prefers virtual sex on a computer screen to real sex with his wife?

I’m no sex therapist, but I doubt his behavior is a sign of a healthy  marriage—and their marriage is not healthy. Married at age seventeen because of
her pregnancy, resentments for what they have lost lie barely hidden beneath  the surface of their active Mormon lives.

Jenny’s story made me wonder if porn usage by Mormons is a  symptom rather than a cause of unhappy marriages. I’m pretty sure the potential
for unsatisfactory sex lives in Mormon marriages is high. Mormons tend to marry young—21-year-old returned missionaries are urged by family and church leaders
to marry and settle down. Marriage opportunities for Mormon women appear to significantly  decrease after age 22.

Marrying young, usually without much previous sexual  experience and usually with no pre-marriage counseling about sex, is a logical
reason for a young couple’s sex life being less than the stuff of which dreams  are made. Pair that with sex (unless it relates to fertility) being a taboo
topic in Mormon circles, and with chastity talks, especially for Young Women,  nearly equating sexual feelings with sin. I suspect that that more than a few
married Mormons are in a situation where the husband might find himself enjoying  sexual fantasies alone in front of his computer screen more than trying to
entice a reluctant wife.

Being neither a sociologist nor a marriage counselor, I’m only  speculating about reasons for porn usage by married people. But, since porn
addiction is a frequent topic of general conference addresses as well as  addresses on stake and ward levels, I suggest it is time to do a study about
Mormon porn use. Is it a bigger problem with Mormons than with people of other  or of no faiths? Is it the cause of unhappy marriages or do unhappy marriages
turn men who have neither the time nor money for affairs to their computers?

Instead of repeating “Don’t do it” over and over, it would  be more helpful for church leaders to learn why the problem exists and work on
a remedy for the cause.

Eat, Praise, Live

Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, David Mas Masumoto’s 1995 book, is more
poetic and less political than Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Unlike Salatin, Masumoto did
not make the best seller list with his book, and he has not been featured in a popular documentary.  Still, his book is a joy to read.

Like Salatin, Masumoto extends his personal values to the way he makes his living. He recalls a time when a cousin and he senselessly
killed an owl on the family farm with BB guns. Now he builds perches and homes for owls whose habitat of old barns and thickets of willows and cottonwoods has
been displaced by modern farming—knowing owls are the best means of keeping mice, rabbits and gophers in check.

Becoming an organic farmer requires learning to see less invasive weeds as part of nature. Masumoto adopts a euphemism, referring to weeds
as “natural grasses.” He finds serendipitous advantage in letting “sow thistle” grow. Aphids prefer it to his peaches and grapes and leave his crops alone.

One group of pests attacking organic farmers are salesmen for chemical companies pushing pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Masumoto succumbed
to one pitch and tried a growth-enhancing spray on one section of peach trees which burned the leaves. The salesman answered Masumoto’s complaint with a
visit and told him the leaf damage was due to a new fungus.  He left a free sample of a new product for the fungus and a promise to check back. “I never saw him again,” Masumoto records.

In an age when many people feel their Sunday morality and ethics cannot extend to their business practices, Masumato’s respect for his
neighbors restores faith in humankind. When planting a new orchard, he leaves a wide space between his orchard and his neighbor’s land so the neighbor can
maneuver his tractors and trailers easily. A friend tells him he could plant 16 more trees in the area he has left vacant, but Masumato answers, “Good
neighbors are worth more than an extra sixteen trees.”

Although a neighbor’s farm practice impacts those around him as sprayed chemicals drift across boundary lines, Masumoto is not a missionary
for his style of farming. He realizes his Hmong neighbors have invested all their resources of money and labor into their farm, attempting to earn the
American dream for themselves and their children. They farm with chemical enhancement to maximize profits quickly. Masumoto avoids judgment because, “Those who take
risks are those who can afford to.”

Wisdom, exemplified by reverence for nature, wildlife, the land, and people, typify this book. Masumoto tells us a farmer learns that lack
of control over weather and prices does not equate with personal failure.

Of course, he doesn’t rely on his 80 acre farm for full support. He is a writer as well as a farmer and his wife, a Ph. D, works in
town to provide steady income and health insurance for the family. Dealing with reality is part of Masumoto’s wisdom.

Fathers’ Day Maneuvers

George was properly honored on Saturday when our nearby offspring
gathered to feast on his grilled bison burgers. Techie called Friday to let his
dad know he was taking his family out of cell phone and computer range for a
week and to wish him a Happy Fathers’ Day. Our other out-of-state kids called
on Sunday.

Wort, who spent Sunday afternoon at his in-laws called to
say their dinner table talk included sharing lessons learned from their fathers.
(Have I mentioned that his father-in-law is a pastor? Who else would think of
programming uplifting dinner conversation at a family gathering?) Wort reached
back to early adolescence to share a time when a neighbor hired him to dig out
the thistles in his pasture. Like most kids, Wort went after the small ones.
George directed him to the tall ones going to seed and said, “Take care of the
big stuff first and the small stuff later.” Wort said he’s used this advice to
set priorities ever since. A gratifying tribute. The phone calls should have
ceased at that point.

When Lolly called, she told her dad how much she appreciated
the religious values he taught her. Then she dropped her bomb. The deal for
allowing her 11-year-old to spend a week with us and attend a summer school program
at the University includes promising to take him to church on Sunday—the whole
three-hour block. I feel kind of like we’re being asked to inflict child abuse
on this beloved grandchild—not to mention ourselves. At least now I know who to
blame for Lolly’s zeal.

 

Freedom or Failure?

Nobody wants to hear her mother or father say, “I failed as
a parent.” There’s just no way to interpret that statement as a compliment to
oneself. Of course, if a person’s offspring are languishing in jail or making
fools of themselves by emailing photos of their nether regions, a parent may
have justification for feeling somewhat less than adequate.

In Mormon culture, however, an admission of guilt for bad
parenting is not because a son or daughter has done anything wrong, but because
of what a grown child has not done—not served a mission, not married in the temple, not stayed active in the church. For
active Mormons, no other success compensates for failure to attend church and participate
in LDS ordinances.

My dad always compared
his parenting unfavorably with that of his brother who boasted of temple-married
offspring and grandkids who served missions. My brothers and I had equivalent
jobs and were probably more involved in community affairs and charitable
organizations than our cousins, but that didn’t count in Dad’s book. He was
mollified when George and I were sealed in the temple and two of our kids served
missions—but he continued to mourn for my brothers—even sending missionaries to
visit my non-Mormon sister-in-law.

George and I are proud of our kids. Those with children are
loving, responsible parents. Wort and Cookie gave a young woman a place to stay
for six months while she found a job and got on her feet. Lolly and Doc work to
improve the school system in their district. Jaycee founded and runs a
successful business. Aroo and Biker make generous contributions to worthy
causes. Techie and Techie II scrimped for two years to work themselves out of
debt. Despite our flawed parenting, none of our kids has hit the news
negatively. We consider their religious beliefs and practices their own
business.

I’ve been surprised at how many active Mormon families in my
age group have one or more children who have left the fold. Probably more of my
peers than I know about deal with this situation.  This is not the kind of information shared in
Christmas newsletters.

Occasionally, one of our children reports meeting a kid from
our home ward at a party, drink in hand, who admits to disappointing her
parents. My travels with women friends this summer provided opportunities for
deep sharing. Judy ruefully confessed that her three children have left the
church and are agnostic if not atheist. Nora blamed her divorce for five of her
six children leaving the church.

Recently, General Authorities have expressed concern for the
high number of young Mormons dropping from Church activity. An unexpected benefit from this public announcement may be that Mormon parents will
now realize an adult son or daughter’s lack of Church commitment is not unique.
It need not be viewed with the shame of admitting to bilking one’s neighbors in
a Ponzi scheme. Freed from unwarranted self-blame, I hope Mormon parents can strengthen
family bonds by appreciating grown children’s good qualities—and their agency.

You Didn’t Protect Me

Ria, a young woman in my writing workshop, struggled to
write a memoir of her childhood, but overt hostility to her father kept taking
over the piece. As we workshopped the piece with Ria, the horrific story of
sexual abuse by a relative when she was a toddler emerged. Ria directed anger
to parents who refused to believe evidence—who put family peace before the
well-being of their daughter. They did not protect her.

My brother Dooby was treated unfairly by our stepmother who,
for unknown reasons, took a dislike to 14-year-old Dooby and made his life a
living hell until he left to live with our grandmother during his senior year
of high school. For years Dooby resented the fact that our dad did not protect
him from the emotional abuse he endured at home.

Actually, our dad was unaware of the abuse. He worked long
hours and Saturdays and wasn’t home much. Dad was of the generation of rigid
gender roles: men earned the living and women cared for the children.  In Dad’s mind and experience, mothers love
their children—it never occurred to him that a woman might feel differently
toward a stepchild than to her own. In Dad’s book, teenagers were obnoxious and
probably caused all conflicts with authority figures.

Dad cared about Dooby and all of us—but he suffered from a
failure of imagination. He failed to understand the complexity of parenting a
blended family. He trusted that nice, church-going people don’t have serious
family problems. He could not conceive of a woman in a mother-role treating a
child cruelly.

Dooby, probably because he became a parent himself, forgave
our dad. I hope Ria can do the same. No parent can protect a child against
every evil in the world. We do the best we can as parents, and—knowing our own
short comings—we cut our parents some slack.

Culture or Creed?

“Are you a cultural Mormon—one who doesn’t believe the
doctrine but values the social aspects of the Mormon Church?” a friend asked
Ken recently. “No, I’m the complete opposite—I love the doctrine and hate the
culture,” Ken replied—then admitted he finds attending meetings difficult
because of culture often being emphasized in place of theology.

Ken’s statement reminds me of Ron and Milly, Catholic
friends, who love the sacraments and mysteries of their religion, but disagree
with the handling of the sex abuse scandal as well as the insistence on
celibacy for priests. Audrey, a divorced and remarried Catholic friend,
maintains belief in the basic teachings of her church, but no longer attends because
“Cafeteria Catholics” are criticized and she no longer feels part of her church
community.

The percentage of Cultural Mormons—those doubters who
appreciate the programs for children and youth, the sense of community, the
opportunities to serve others—remains a mystery. They are generally
silent—knowing that open criticism of the belief system would jeopardize their
full participation in the community they value.

Doctrinal Mormons may eventually leave on their own accord
or be exxed when crucial (for them) points of doctrine are eliminated or
neglected. Once outside the main church, these ex-Mormons often form groups of
their own.

I don’t know how churches retain either group of
dissatisfied members. Loosening up on cultural conformity such as dress
standards, eliminating  gender inequality,
and opening to divergent political views would satisfy many Cultural Mormons.
Of course, as the Community of Christ found when they extended priesthood to
women, some of the devout will walk away from a major change in church policy.

More emphasis on the core teachings of Joseph Smith and less
emphasis on opinions of more recent prophets (“only one pair of earrings for
women, none for men”) might help—if leaders and members could agree on the core
teachings. Polygamy might be a match in the gas tank for this kind of reform.

Retaining members is a key problem for both Mormon and
Catholic hierarchies. Leading a church into 21st century relevance is
a job for young, connected thinkers—as evidenced by the rapid growth of mega
churches led by innovative young people. Unfortunately, both the Mormon and
Catholic churches are run by men close to the end of life. Heaven could help,
but apparently remains silent about changing either culture or creed.

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