An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for August, 2011

Scriptural Inerrancy

Mormons annoy evangelicals by refusing to agree to the inerrancy of the Bible, believing that book  is correct only so far as it is translated correctly. Most mainstream Christians agree with modern scholars that since we do not have original sources of any biblical text and variations exist among available sources, no translation can be presumed to record exactly what was in the original.

Although siding with scholars on problems of biblical inerrancy, Mormons tend to favor the notion of the inerrancy of modern revelation. Yet Joseph Smith, at least as recorded in HC4:61, never claimed the Book of Mormon was perfect. His words were “it is the most correct of any book.” Certainly the title page acknowledges the possibility of errors, “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men. . . .” Church leaders have authorized several changes in the Book of Mormon within my lifetime—dropping some of the repetitions of, “And it came to pass” in 1st and 2nd Nephi and softening the language describing Lamanites as filthy and loathsome people. The D&C has also had revisions—the entire Lectures of Faith being removed from the text in 1921.

A recent blog about the writings of Joseph Smith describes George A. Smith, Church Historian in the 1850s, gathering (correlating?) Joseph Smith’s speeches from notes recorded in journals and letters written at the time. George A. apparently felt authorized to add material he remembered or thought the prophet said (or should have said) to the written sources. Since source materials were recorded informally by untrained people, and Joseph did not generally speak from a written text, we cannot be sure of the accuracy of our written versions of the speeches he made. And this is within relatively recent times where the speaker and most of the hearers were literate and attempts to record speeches were made at the time they were given.

How much more problematic are the speeches of Jesus. Probably none of his disciples was literate—literacy at that time was limited to a small fraction of the population. Acts tells us the disciples were “unlearned and ignorant men” (4:13). Because ancient writers often signed their works with the names of more prominent people—a clever marketing strategy— contemporary scholars do not believe Matthew and John were written by the actual apostles. Most believe the earliest parts of the New Testament are the seven epistles considered to have actually been written by Paul. These letters are generally dated about 50 CE. Mark, the earliest of the gospels, is dated about 70 CE, and John, the latest, about 90 CE.

The lack of eyewitnesses recording events at the time makes it unlikely that any of Jesus’s speeches were recorded verbatim. At best, our Bible contains what people writing many years later remembered or had heard from others. Basing one’s faith on a text with such shaky claims to accuracy seems risky to me—kind of like building a house on a sand foundation.

That said, I’m not implying that scriptures, modern or ancient, have no value for contemporary readers. I do believe, however, that readers are best served by reading scriptures with an understanding of the time and culture in which they were written. And I suspect the parts of the scriptures most likely to have been remembered and recorded accurately are the stories, parables, and poetry because these forms of literature not only stick in our memories, they speak to our hearts.


Student Loan Bondage

Our daughter Aroo finds her job as a financial aids officer at a community college frustrating. Students visit her office seeking money for college—first step toward getting a good job and living the American Dream. Unfortunately, many of her applicants miss the steps that come between filling out the loan forms and getting that good job. Aroo has actually had students whose grades made them ineligible for further loans tell her they didn’t understand that E grades were failures. “In high school they give you Fs if you fail,” one student said.

When I was teaching Freshmen Comp at SUU in Cedar City, Utah a few years ago, I assigned an essay about student loan defaults to my students. The essay suggested testing applicants and evaluating their chances of academic success before granting loans. My students were appalled at the idea. “We can’t afford to help our kids,” a non-traditional student said. “If they didn’t pass the test, they’d never be able to go to college and get a good job.” I refrained from asking this mom how her kids would graduate and get good jobs if they couldn’t pass a test evaluating their likelihood of graduating.

Aroo tells me it’s not uncommon for community college students whose tuition is about $1300/semester to rack up $18,000 in debt before getting an associate degree. Helping them fill out the living expense section of their forms, Aroo lists tuition, books, food, housing, and transportation. “But you didn’t include my phone bill,” students often complain. “No, a phone is a luxury, not a necessity. You don’t want to borrow money for luxuries,” she tells them. She lists the price of a bus pass for transportation, and the students object. “I’d have to transfer if I took the bus.”

Unfortunately, Aroo has no authority to limit loans to necessities, and most students borrow to the hilt—even when she warns them that these loans are exempt from bankruptcy. Borrowers are bound to student-loan debts—with or without graduation and a good job—until the debt with interest is repaid or they die–whichever comes first.

Recently, our server at a local restaurant identified herself as one of my former 9th grade students. Now in her 20s, Shelly told me she has graduated from Utah State with a major in photography. She invited me to a show of her work and mentioned that she also waits tables at another restaurant. Now, I have nothing against majoring in photography, interior decorating or clothes designing—if a person doesn’t have to borrow money. But Shelly is working two jobs to pay off loans for a degree in photography unlikely to result in a paying career.

At this point rules for guaranteed student loans are heavily tilted to benefit banks making those loans.  Rules against loans for majors in subjects for which the chance of gainful employment is slim would help. Limiting loans to accredited state institutions would also keep young people from signing up for private cosmetology or massage therapy schools that charge over $20,000 a year tuition. Most courses offered by for-profit schools are available at community colleges and state and county technical schools for a fraction of the cost.

Sure, 18-year-olds should be wise enough not to take on debt that will enslave them for the rest of their lives. But laws and rules to protect the unwary from being preyed on by the unscrupulous benefit everyone. People forever stuck in minimum wage jobs to pay off loans that were too easy to get hurt us all. Hopeless poverty has huge social costs.

Book Group Banter

This week our Utah neighborhood book group met to discuss Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 book, Kon-Tiki. George and two other husbands showed up at what is usually an all-female group. The male/female divide over the book was intriguing. The men loved the book—finding heroism in 20th century men setting off on a balsa raft to prove their theory that the Polynesian islands had been settled by South American rather than Asian travelers.

Two women besides me loved the adventure. The rest found the voyage risky and pointless. They castigated men who would leave their wives for months at a time to seek adventure. One of the guys pointed out that Heyerdahl had been married three times—apparently his wives shared the opinion of my neighbors.

Molly, the devout Mormon who picked the book, had trouble controlling the discussion. Either too young or too sheltered to have heard of the limited geography theory of Book of Mormon locale, she brought a 1961 book with quotes from long dead prophets about Pacific Islanders being the children of Lehi.

The Kon-Tiki  voyage was widely cited by Mormons in the ‘50s and ‘60s as evidence proving the story of Hagoth–the Nephite adventurer who led an excursion to settle islands in the Pacific in 55 B.C. Apparently Mormons in 2011who have endured the DNA crisis are less likely to look for physical evidence to confirm their religious beliefs. Jeff, a member of our bishopric, said he always wondered how Hagoth made it back to tell the Nephites about the success of his trip since ocean currents wouldn’t facilitate a return trip.

Our book discussions are more free-wheeling since we changed from being the Relief Society book group. The book selected for next month (which I probably won’t read) is Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist Wife. That choice sparked a discussion of polygamous groups and their teachings of officially-shelved doctrines such as the Adam/God theory.

The Primary presidency, apparently angling for a release after three years of service, insisted they’ve been teaching that in Primary. I think they’ll have to do better than joke if they really want a change of callings this year. They could include some Adam/God references in the upcoming Primary program this fall and never again have to worry about fulfilling leadership or teaching positions in our ward.


Revisiting Richard Halliburton’s Travel Book: The Royal Road to Romance

My 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Taylor, introduced us to the Dewey Decimal System and assigned us to read books from each category. I was amazed to find nonfiction books existed in libraries. An avid reader, my previous book selection skills consisted of choosing series books.  

For the travel books requirement, Mrs. T. told us about Richard Halliburton. I read The Royal Road to Romance, tore through the rest of his books, grieved that his last adventure proved fatal, and vowed to follow my hero’s footsteps and hitchhike my way around the world—after graduating from college. If Richard Halliburton could write and sell articles about his travels to pay his way, so could I.

Of course, I didn’t hitchhike around the world after college. But I’ve kept the interest in foreign lands and peoples which Halliburton stirred. I tried to locate his books for my own kids, but the books were long out of print. Recently, I found a used Royal Road to Romance at ABE Books and ordered it for my 11-year-old grandson. Naturally, I had to reread it. Now I realize what a weird 13-year-old I was.

I’m amazed that I related to the first part—the European travels. I’m sure I didn’t know anything about the historic battlegrounds Halliburton visited. I couldn’t have known who Charlemagne was nor understood any of the poetic references to the Matterhorn. Traveling without money and hoodwinking train conductors and ship officers sounded romantic to me at age 13. Now the arrogance and dishonesty bothers me. As an adult, I also note between-the-lines evidence of the author’s homosexuality.

Halliburton was a product of his time—an educated, upper-middle class white man who didn’t bother to conceal his disdain for people of other races and culture. He had no problem whipping his rickshaw coolie in order to win a race with friends. An Indian conductor who catches Halliburton with no ticket is pushed from the train with no recorded pang of conscience—hopefully the train was moving slowly.

 Once I recovered from my disillusionment with the author of this pivotal book of my adolescence, I enjoyed rereading it. As an adult, I appreciate Halliburton’s gift for description as he chronicles adventures including a surreptitious moonlit visit night spent atop the pyramid of Cheops and a clandestine overnight stay within the locked gates of a ghostly Taj Mahal. He undertook a hazardous sampan journey in a violent storm to reach Angkor, location of the massive, intricately carved ruins which, in his view, surpass the majesties of Greece and Rome.

Halliburton’s sense of humor works well when directed against himself—skinny dipping in the Nile and being carried far downstream from where he left his clothes—firing an elephant gun at a panther, missing, and being knocked from the tree by the recoil. Fortunately, the panther was more frightened than hungry.

The world Halliburton describes no longer exists, of course. His book was published in 1925. Kashmir is no longer the peaceful Shangri-La of his visit. Bali is no longer a remote island undiscovered by tourists where funerals of prominent persons are celebrated by a battle between the Friends of Heaven and the Friends of Earth. I suppose hiking through the jungle on the Malay Peninsula during the rainy season could still bring a person face to face with a cobra.

My grandson is probably not weird enough to enjoy this book, but I think his mother will. She inherited my itch for adventure—taking a hiatus after her freshmen year of college to teach English in Taiwan and travel in Southeast Asia. Now a busy mother of four, her world travels have to be vicarious. I’ll have to order the rest of his books for her—and me.

Called to Serve

George and I served as ward missionaries in Cedar City about five years ago. We were assigned to visit an apartment complex with a transient population each week to check if new arrivals were members and to invite non-members to church. We were not expected to teach—our bishop was no fool.

We called ourselves the ward locaters. It was probably the only ward calling we would have accepted at that time and we enjoyed it. We met nice people, told themwhere to find their own churches, and provided other community information. One day we met a couple of unmarried 18-year-olds. They froze when we asked if they were Church members–probably wondering if their parents had tracked them down. We tactfully left without suggesting having their Church records sent.

The only down side to this calling was attending ward missionary meetings where everyone was pressured to find somebody— anybody—for the fulltime missionaries to teach. The idea that nonmember neighbors might be perfectly happy without being Mormons was beyond the ken of devout committee members.

One family was continually mentioned—an inactive single dad with a teenage son. The unbaptized  boy was about 14, a good student, involved with sports and school activities. He had friends outside the Church. But every month, our committee lamented the fact that this boy was not a Boy Scout attending Mormon services and preparing for a mission. How could we help this father see the need his happy, well-adjusted son had to be part of our group?

We finally asked for a release from our calling because we couldn’t handle the committee meetings. The members were nice people, but their focus on finding investigators to teach seemed self-serving—a way to magnify their ward standing rather than to benefit others.

Get Married–Or Else!

At a gathering of friends this week—two active Mormons, two unaffiliated, and Social-Mormon/pagan George and me—the discussion turned to the recent concern of Church leaders for unmarried young Mormon men. No one questioned the concern of Church leaders for this social trend. No organization wants to be in the position of the Shakers, a religion that disavowed marriage and reproduction and has dwindled to three elderly members. But the question was raised—why are young men not inclined to marry?

Our discussion turned to families we know who have single and even married kids and grandkids still living in the parents’ home because they can’t afford to get out on their own. Lawra mentioned that a clerk position recently posted for Davis County drew over 200 applicants, some of them with law degrees—for a $10 an hour job.

“What is the Church doing about the problem?” Non-affiliated Nan asked. Tough question. Besides upbraiding the young men in General Conference and reorganizing singles wards, we couldn’t think of much.

Upon reflection, it occurs to me that Church leaders would be in a better position to lead if they researched the reasons for young men’s apparent reluctance to take on the challenges of marriage and family life. If a major cause is the lack of opportunities for young people to get jobs paying enough for them to pay off student loans and feed and shelter a family—then public spankings and organizing more Meet-and-Mingle opportunities won’t help much.

Church leaders need to find and focus on the root cause of this problem. If limited economic opportunities for young people are the real threat to marriage and family values, opposition to same-sex marriage may be distracting the Church from the larger picture.


Repentance or Acceptance?

My sister, Edy, developed a brain tumor four years ago. The cancer spread to her bones and liver. She told me recently that she is almost glad for her disease because it has moved her to a spiritual and emotional dimension that usually comes much later in life, if at all.

Edy began questioning the faith of her childhood on her LDS mission 30 years ago. She met wonderful people of other faiths with strong testimonies and spiritual experiences—not something her Utah upbringing had prepared her for. Ten years later, Edy knew Mormonism wasn’t working for her, but had no replacement. Her disease has pushed her into exploring Eastern meditation and religious philosophy.

Edy told me of the peace she feels, even with her uncertain health. She has quit striving for perfection—an impossible goal for human beings. As she has learned to accept herself, she finds herself less critical of others. She has noticed that people react to her differently—often confiding in her.

Edy is my half sister and we haven’t had close contact until recently, so she and I were unaware that we were on the same spiritual journey at the same time. I agreed with her that the idea of acceptance of oneself—warts and all, and other flawed people induces peace. It’s not that we don’t try to improve—but we learn not to be attached to the outcome of our efforts.

Talking to Edy, I wondered—is there a teaching equivalent to acceptance in Christianity? I thought of repentance. Certainly, repentance encourages us to forgive ourselves and others—but repentance implies that our faults are bad—even wicked. Although Jesus told us to forgive others until 70 times seven, he also told the woman taken in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” The second message is the one I’ve heard most often in Mormon discourse. Repentance brings forgiveness—but only if we never repeat the trespass.

Now, I’m all for people who commit crimes being locked up if they can’t be trusted to “sin no more,” but most of us are guilty of lesser infractions such as: Temper, impatience, lust, selfishness, greed, and overindulgence. The notion that we will forever avoid these transgressions defies reason.

Much better to see our faults as unskillful behaviors that prevent us from getting what we want from life. Beating ourselves up for being human just drives our flaws into hiding where they fester and erupt in more destructive ways.

Loving my grumpy self while encouraging more skillful interaction with others works better for me than pretending I’m always Ms Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy.

In a Caregiver’s Shoes

I just finished reading a book I would not have chosen on my own. The author, Terrell Harris Dougan, gifted members of our writing workshop with her 2009 book, That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister Even though I know the author is a witty woman and even though I consider myself a reasonably compassionate person, I didn’t look forward to reading about caring for the mentally challenged.

I finally started the book last week because I will see Terrell at a gathering soon. I read it straight through—caught up in the story of the Harris family trying to raise their handicapped daughter, Irene, as normally as possible at a time when mental handicaps were a family disgrace–and no public programs existed in Utah to help children with special needs. Terrell’s father finally wrote a letter to the editor of the SL Tribune asking parents of other disabled children to call him if they would like to band together to form a day care center. The Harris’s phone rang off the hook with calls from parents grateful to know they were not alone and seeking help for their disabled children.

As an adult Terrell became an activist for people with special needs. She navigated the murky waters of Utah politics in the 1960s and ‘70s to achieve funding for group homes for adult disabled persons—against the opposition of a Utah County state legislator who fought diminution of funding and power from the American Fork Training School.

Terrell’s organizational skills earned her a spot on the original Sundance Film Festival Board—and her story of the first meeting with Robert Redford is worth the price of the book.

Terrell interlaces her own life, growing up in an upper-middle class family in the ‘50s, as she tells Irene’s story. The whole family takes a trip to Europe—including the grandmother who criticizes Europeans for babbling in a language she can’t understand and who can hardly wait to get home to some good food.

Like most young women of this era, Terrell drops out of college to marry. Busy with her own children, her sister, and community activism for the handicapped, Terrell resents Betty Friedan’s disparagement of housewives satisfied to stay home and make jam instead of embarking on careers. When Betty Friedan retires and discovers the pleasure of making raspberry jam, Terrell gloats.

I’m surprised that this book hasn’t become a best seller—especially in Utah. I think the cover may be the problem. It features a colorized pink and blue1950’s photo of Irene—giving the book a dated, sentimentalized look—which is totally deceptive.

Writing after the events, Terrell sees humor in ducking a packaged chicken her tantrum-throwing, middle-aged sister hurls at her in a crowded supermarket. She describes a scene where she tries to show Irene what her tantrums look like. In Irene’s apartment, which she shares with a paid companion, Terrell smacks furniture and walls with a rolled up newspaper and screams back at her raging sister—until she realizes Irene is enjoying the show. As she leaves, the landlord informs Terrell that the other tenants can handle Irene’s temper tantrums, but not hers. A staff worker at a group home where Irene is residing calls Terrell co-dependent, and Terrell responds with anger—until she recognizes some truth in the remark.

 Although not a believing Mormon herself, Terrell appreciates the love and support of the LDS ward in which her sister lives and of the Special Needs Mutual program Irene attends.

I’m sending a copy to a friend with a disabled daughter whose tantrums and destruction get her expelled from group homes. Kay will value learning how other people handle caring for handicapped family members. And let’s face it—all of us have some mental, emotional, or physical handicaps which we–and others–must deal with.

Faith without Miracles

George experienced a retinal artery occlusion last weekend which resulted in the loss of vision in his right eye. We sought treatment immediately and were grateful to be near a hospital with an ophthalmologist on call. George received good care, but we were told up front that the prognosis for restoring vision in this situation is not high.

“Do you want a priesthood blessing?” I asked. “No. I might get healed and then I’d have to start going to church.” George keeps his weird sense of humor no matter what happens.

 Later, he told me the real reason he didn’t request a blessing.  “I know what the brothers would say. They can’t realistically bless me that my sight will be restored. They could ask for a blessing of peace and for the Lord’s will to be done, but I am at peace. These things happen as you age. I can deal with it.”

George made me think how miracle-oriented Mormon culture is. We repeat miracles stories from the Bible—the poor widow whose barrel of meal and cruse of oil never runs out after she uses her last bit of meal and oil to make a cake for Elijah the Prophet. Our lesson manuals are filled with Church history miracles such as the seagulls eating the crickets. Individual testimonies elevate likely coincidences—such as emptying one’s bank account to write a tithing check, then receiving a check for an unexpected tax refund in the mail the next day—to miracles.

Miracle stories are told to build faith—and to encourage members to more diligence. As the saying goes, “Faith precedes the miracle.”  In Mormonism, faith is demonstrated by works.

Of course, unexplainable events do occur—but rarely. Human beings have tried for thousands of years to earn blessings from the unseen world through all kinds of sacrifice—human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. About 25 centuries ago, Eastern religions stepped away from that and developed the philosophy of accepting what we cannot change.

 George has faith—not that his sight will return, but that he can adjust to the loss. He has learned that the key to living peacefully in a world of limited miracles is found in these words from Zen master Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, “Thanks for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”


Toe Hold

Mormonism offers many benefits to members—upbeat theology, firm moral guidance, and strong sense of community among others. It’s a firm foundation for a moral life. But the time comes, for some members, when Church doctrine doesn’t answer every question or meet every need—or when Church policy doesn’t square with one’s individual conscience. At that time it’s best to move on—to scale other cliffs.

Most lifelong members don’t make that move quickly or easily. I kept attending when I no longer believed testimonies of God locating lost car keys or providing miraculous healings so devout members could fulfill Church assignments. How could a loving Father be so helpful to members of one group while allowing innocent children outside that group to starve or be mutilated by the bombs and flames of war? Why didn’t the Church speak out against war and poverty as threats to the family? I kept attending, but my questions went unanswered.

When I learned items of Church History which contradicted the official story I’d been taught—facts like the papyrus source of the Book of Abraham not supporting Joseph Smith’s translation and Joseph Smith’s three different accounts of the First Vision—I felt I’d been had. But I kept attending.

Most of my family and friends were firm believers. And I had nowhere else to go. My resentment grew. I’d spent years trying to live up to the precepts of the one true church—letting my kids go without things they needed in order to pay a full tithing—sacrificing hours of time each week to fulfill callings—and for what?

With missionary zeal, I studied Sunday School and Relief Society lessons beforehand and attended class prepared to expose historical and doctrinal fallacies. This strategy did little for my emotional and spiritual well-being—or my ward status.  Eventually the still, small voice whispered: “These people are here because they enjoy what is being taught. It meets their spiritual needs even if it doesn’t meet yours. Leave them in peace.”

I started reading Buddhist philosophy and found a meditation group with which to study. Filling the void left by my loss of Mormon beliefs helped me let go the need to convert ward members to my way of thinking. I even developed a degree of tolerance for the neighbor who putters in his yard with the volume of his radio loud enough so neither he nor I miss a word of Rush Limbaugh’s wisdom.

I keep a toe in the Mormon Circle—spending time with ward members at socials and service projects. Home teachers who press for explanation of my meeting nonattendance are told I prefer to spend Sundays in other places. George is tolerant of my unorthodox spiritual practices because he was never able to conform 100% to Mormon rules and regulations. We support our active Mormon daughter and son-in-law in their efforts to bring their children up in the faith. I never mentioned my loss of faith to my elderly father. He had enough problems at that stage of his life.

I’ve moved beyond my earlier Mormon beliefs, but I value the opportunities the Church gave me to develop skills and talents and to experience love and service. Every member must make her own decision, but I’m leaving my toe in.

Tag Cloud