An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for February, 2012

Others Are Us

My cousin Garth told me this week that his youngest daughter-in-law is in the U.S. illegally. I knew Maria was from Mexico, but Garth’s news surprised me.

 “You know, I’ve had strong feelings about this kind of thing for a long time,” he said. “But, since knowing Maria, I’m changing my mind. She’s a good person—a good wife to my son, a good mother to my grandson.”

I understood Garth. For years I was convinced that gays and Lesbians were victims of child abuse—and that homosexuality was contagious. Then, my cousin Robert who had played dolls with me in childhood died of AIDS. And the wild tomboy daughter of long-time friends was excommunicated for a Lesbian relationship. People I actually knew did not match the stereotype I had accepted.

Meeting and loving members of a different group changes them from “others.” If only the human family could recognize that “others” are really “us.”

Revelation and Me

Last week, I received two books from Amazon, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard and Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity. When I went to place these books in the Buddhist section of my “to read” shelf, I discovered I already had copies. I obviously need to spend less time buying and more time reading.

Naturally, I got a late start on the Gospel Doctrine class reading assignment for last year, The New Testament. I delayed until December to open the book and am just now in Revelation.

I’m reading the New American Bible translation in the Catholic Study Bible which is much plainer than the King James Version. The explanatory notes provide scholarly analysis of the ancient texts as well as Catholic interpretations of doctrine. I like learning how people of other faiths understand our common Bible.

Sunday morning on the PBS “Religion and Ethics” program, Princeton scholar, Elaine Pagels, discussed her new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Pagels takes some of the mystery and much of the horror from the book by explaining its origin and role in early Christianity. The Catholic Study Bible and Elaine Pagels are good guides for a reader threading her way through the vivid, often violent imagery of John’s Revelation.

Vicarious Voyages

This winter I’ve enjoyed two exciting armchair cruises First, The Sea and the Jungle, a nearly forgotten book by H.M. Tomlinson, published in 1912. In 1909 Tomlinson, a British journalist, took a job as purser on a freighter carrying equipment to the navigable limits of the Amazon River and its tributary.

Tomlinson’s prose is haunting. He describes a wave during a storm as “a heaped mass of polished obsidian. . . . It rose directly and acutely from your feet to a summit that was awesome because the eye travelled to it over a long and broken up-slope; this hill had intervened suddenly to obscure 30 degrees of light; and the imagination shrank from contemplating water which overshadowed your foothold with such high dark bulk toppling in collapse.”

Traveling through the sweltering, claustrophobic greenness of the jungle which parted only enough to allow the river through, Tomlinson reflects on the advantages of armchair adventure to the real thing. He sounds pretty contemporary as he criticizes the wasteful bureaucracy of the British companies involved in trying to build a railroad through the jungle from Brazil to Bolivia.

Tomlinson was ready to return to England and family after his travels, but I was not. I picked up Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle  to experience an earlier voyage in a sailing ship. Darwin majored in divinity at Cambridge where he was also an avid student of natural history—religion and science were much less politicized in Victorian England than in modern America. Darwin’s well-heeled father sponsored his five year trip on the Beagle as a “scientific gentleman.”

Darwin’s prose does not match Tomlinson’s poetic grandeur, but he does create a memorable trip through wilderness which no longer exists. The Beagle was a surveying ship sent on a two-year mission to explore the coast of South America. This is not the book where Darwin put forth his theory of the evolution of species, but it does show Darwin collecting and analyzing specimens of living and fossilized animals. And, yes, I did skip these detailed explanations. The amount I want to know about species of plankton or tropical worms is limited.

What I did enjoy were the adventures Darwin had in traveling through the interior of a sparsely settled continent as the Beagle docked for weeks at a time in every port. Darwin’s least favorite country is Brazil where he is horrified at the treatment of slaves—even by relatively enlightened owners. Sounding like a clergyman, Darwin writes: “It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit.” He witnessed a party of soldiers corner an escaped slave who flung herself over a cliff rather than face capture and return to slavery. Darwin remarked that a Roman matron who chose death over slavery would have been honored. The African woman was condemned as obstinate.

In reading this book, I could never get my picture of the balding, middle-aged Darwin out of my mind. For this reason, I was always amazed at the young Darwin’s mountain-climbing exploits and horseback forays into uninhabited plains and mountains. His accounts of Argentine wars against native-Americans resemble those of the U.S. at the same time.

The most unusual, and also the saddest culture, Darwin encountered were the natives of Tierra del Fuego living a stone-age existence at the tip of South America. Three years earlier, the Beagle’s captain had taken three children from that tribe to England to Christianize and educate them. On this trip, he was returning them—now in their teens—to their native country with an English missionary to teach Christianity and agriculture to these people. The ship returned to check on the group a few weeks later and rescued the missionary from certain death. The three natives stayed, but had obviously reverted to their tribal customs in order to survive.

I was surprised, but not disappointed, that a relatively small part of this book described the visit to the Galapagos Islands. The ship spent a relatively short time there, and Darwin obviously made the most of his visit. In this book he doesn’t write about the theory that must have been taking shape in his head. The Voyage of the Beagle is all about the adventure.

Nothing in Common

At lunch yesterday, my friend Susa said, “I asked my sister why she has no non-LDS friends. Do you know what she said? ‘I have nothing in common with them.’”

Susa’s sister made the same statement about non-Mormons that I make about women in my ward, “I have nothing in common with them.” And it’s true. Most Mormon women who don’t work outside the home have nothing to talk about except the Church—and their families—which always ties back to the Church.

That’s not limited to my ward. Whenever I meet a Mormon I haven’t seen in several years, the questions is always asked, “What have they got you doing in the Church now?”

Even at some places of work in Utah, Mormons make the Church a main topic of conversation. When I taught elementary school in southeast Salt Lake County, the faculty room conversation was often about the latest Church news. If a non-LDS teacher walked in, the conversation abruptly halted—as if we were talking about her.

I’m not criticizing religious devotion, but should that be a person’s only topic of conversation? Mormons often say they should be, “in the world, but not of the world.” That slogan doesn’t fit those with interests too narrow to include those outside their circle.

Agency & Service

Last week my ESL volunteer assignment was changed to a group class, “Empowering Parents,” held at a Salt Lake City elementary school. My students are Spanish-speaking women who have little contact with English-speaking Americans. Those with babies and preschoolers bring their children, of course. Lupe’s 3-year-old son got bored during class, so I handed him a piece of paper and some colored pencils. He had no idea how to hold a pencil or what it was for until I showed him how to make marks on the paper.

American children are given paper, crayons, and pencils when they can barely toddle. Can you imagine the disadvantage for a child who has never held a pencil and never heard a book read aloud when he starts kindergarten? No one can define the limits for good that come from empowering mothers to speak English and read to their children—to give them the advantages other American children receive. But, a waiting list exists. The ESL Center in Salt Lake depends on volunteer teachers. They never have enough volunteers available to meet the needs of all the refugees and immigrants who ask for help in learning English.

Surveys show Utahns donate a record number of hours to volunteer work—mostly in Church-related service. The Church sponsors many worthwhile humanitarian and relief programs, but it doesn’t fill every need in the community. Most active Mormons I know are so loaded down with Church callings they couldn’t possibly add community service to their lives.  Wouldn’t it be great if Mormons felt free to choose service projects that matched their talents and interests instead of being assigned to something for which they have no aptitude and little interest? (Tying quilts for the humanitarian center fits this category for me.)

And what if Mormons felt they could turn down Church callings that interfered with their community service? “No, I can’t serve in the Family History library. I spend two afternoons a week mentoring a girl who was failing junior high until I started working with her.”

Agency to choose service where we are most needed and most effective should not be discounted.

You’ve Come a Short Way, Baby!

Young Mormon feminists, frustrated with the limited role of women in the Church today, should be grateful they missed the rhetoric of an earlier generation. I was married in the ‘60s when the evils of birth control were preached loudly from the pulpit and “working mothers” was uttered with the same tone used for the word “prostitute.”

No matter that I returned to teaching when my kids were all in school and we needed health insurance and another income to fill five hungry bellies and shoe ten growing feet. The message I received from Relief Society lessons and General Conference talks was that I had given in to “worldly” values and was jeopardizing my children’s—and probably my own—salvation.

We don’t hear such strong rhetoric about family size and working moms anymore. Today, many Mormon women earn graduate degrees and enjoy professional careers. The admonition that ALL mothers needed to be restricted to the world of home and church was always tinged with a touch of fantasy. Ensign photos of the ideal Mormon family never showed that family kneeling on threadbare carpet, their arms folded upon chairs with ripped upholstery. The ideal family never arrived at church in a rusted-out car that barely held their large brood.

But reality prevailed. Most large Mormon families need more than one income in order to feed the kids and ante up tithing. Like their gentile counterparts, a majority of Mormon women now work outside the home at least part time—and Church rhetoric reflects the facts on the ground.

Unfortunately, a softened stance on working women has not been matched by an increased voice for women in Church decision-making circles. Unlike getting a job, this is not an issue where women can take the lead themselves. Apparently, what many women and men are doing is dropping out from a Church that doesn’t meet their needs.

Mitt’s Mormon Model

Mitt Romney has been criticized as unauthentic by many pundits. Most recently, David Brooks called him, “other-directed.”

Mormons should not be surprised that one of our own is reluctant to express his own thoughts. We are trained in Church meetings to say what is acceptable to the group. We are “nice.” We have good manners. We tailor our remarks to fit the occasion. Mormons who spew venom at the referee of their kids’ soccer games would not dream of expressing disagreement with the Gospel Doctrine lesson. Of course, Mitt tells his audiences what they want to hear. He’s had six decades of practice at Church. He knows how to focus his gaze on the Sacrament Meeting speaker while his mind is elsewhere, then shake the speaker’s hand after the meeting and say, “Great talk!”

A bigger political problem for Mitt may be the fear that he will take his orders from Church headquarters. I think that’s an unlikely scenario. More threatening, in my view, are some of the teachings Mitt imbibed with his mother’s milk—American Exceptionalism being the most dangerous for a US president. The Book of Mormon is rife with passages about America being a land “choice above all others.” The D& C and the 10th Article of Faith promise that Zion will be built upon this continent and the righteous throughout the world will gather here.

Mitt’s book, No Apology: the Case for American Greatness presents the notion that with good leadership, the US can continue its dominance of the world economy and power for the foreseeable future. Mitt’s model fails to address the simple fact that a shift in world positions is being brought about, not so much by our slipping, but because other countries are catching up economically—and in China’s case—militarily.

Insisting on American world dominance in the 21st century could lay the ground for endless wars and military spending. Mitt’s threat to designate China as a “currency manipulator” and his promise to build up US military troops by 100,000 trouble me much more than his willingness to tell an audience what they want to hear.

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