An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2012

What Stereotype Are You?

We are the kind of family that pushes books onto each other. When I stayed with Techie’s family to help me with the new baby, Techie handed me Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up and urged me to read his brilliant satire, Ambush at Fort Bragg,  during my leisure hours—midnight to 4 a.m.

Ambush is a fun spoof of television journalism. In this story, network personnel manipulate events to create an audience-grabbing documentary. The stock characters are all there: the intellectual Jew who never gets the girl, the aggressive female news anchor, red-neck soldiers, a stripper dreaming of stardom, the rich, decadent TV producer, and a selfless doctor.

“The beauty of this story is that none of these characters realizes they’re a stereotype,” Techie said. “Just like none of us realizes we’re a stereotype.”

He asked his wife a dangerous question, “What kind of stereotype are you?” Techie II thought for a minute. “I guess I’m a Texan.”

Yes! I thought. Being a Texan explains Techie II’s right-wing politics, religious conservatism, and appetite for over-sized beef steaks.

Fortunately, Techie did not ask me. I wasn’t ready to answer a question that might lift the mask of the person I want to be and expose the person I really am. Probably the mask doesn’t fool anyone. Certainly not Techie. “You’re talking like a teacher again,” he told me repeatedly during my stay.

I guess I am the stereotypical schoolteacher—the one who wants to share her knowledge with those around her and improve their lives. I think I’m also the stereotypical disaffected Mormon. After years of devoted church membership—attending meetings, serving in callings, promoting an eternal family—I realized the message I heard at church didn’t square with my real-life experiences.

I migrated from blaming my own inadequacies, to faulting the organized church, to finding peace in my own way. Sometimes my teacher stereotype urges me to share my new found wisdom and disabuse faithful members of their erroneous beliefs. Then a new voice—maybe not a stereotype—urges peace. Let everyone find her own way. Maybe by owning our stereotypes, we can use them constructively.

Scrupulosity

Lynnette at Zelophehads Daughters has a great post about scupulosity–being overly concerned with personal sin. Recommended reading for any of you who might be obsessing over faults to correct  with a list of New Year’s resolutions.

Most Inclusive Christmas Pageant Ever

Sunday, George and I attended morning service at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake. I nearly ran back to the parking lot when I read the program.  The children of the congregation would be performing a Christmas Pageant!

I’ve endured far too many Primary programs throughout my lifelong membership in the Mormon fold. Even when it’s no longer my own children picking their noses or punching friends on the stand, I find these programs painful. I feel for teachers trying to keep children who are naturally as active as fruit flies in mating season quiet through 20 minutes of opening exercises and the sacrament service preceding the Primary part of the program.

The children labor through hymns and Primary songs they’ve rehearsed for months—and are heartily sick of. Those with speaking parts take turns at the microphone to recite or read a formulaic talk written by a parent. Shy kids cry or freeze into mortifying silence. Little hams hog the spotlight—grasping the microphone like budding rock stars. I voice a hearty “Amen!” as the closing prayer signifies the torture is over for another year.”

I’m sure there are wards where Primary programs with perfectly disciplined children come off without a hitch, but I haven’t lived in any of those.

Last Sunday was cold and snowy, so George and I decided to endure the children’s pageant rather than trudge back out into the weather. This pageant was unusually inclusive. The miraculous births of Buddha and Confucius were dramatized as well as the more familiar nativity. Little elephants, unicorns, and dragons as well as the more customary shepherds and angels performed. Maybe performance was the key to this child-centered program—kids acting rather than sitting with folded arms waiting for a turn to sing or deliver a talk.

A beautiful four-month-old baby played Baby Jesus. Fortunately, real babies were not used to depict the other infants. The mothers of Buddha and Confucius snatched their miraculously-delivered doll babies as roughly as Imogene Herdman in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Having Jesus share the stage with two other religious founders might be inappropriate for traditional Christians, but I found it spiritual. The adult narrator closed with the message that the purpose of these stories is to share ancient wisdom—to deepen our understanding of and compassion for others. A great message for Christmas or any other day.

Christmas Message

After watching the PBS presentation of From Jesus to Christ , George said, “That show really does a number on religious belief.” Then he thought a minute and said, “No, what it does is give people a different way to think about Christianity.”

George is right. While modern scholarship has never supported the supernatural claims of Christianity—or any other religion—historical research does not destroy the basic message of Jesus. Scholarly analysis may actually help those who can’t wrap their heads around supernatural events but can still appreciate the life and teachings of an historic person.

From my perspective, the major benefits of religion are not the hope for an existence beyond this life. What I value is the way religion can teach us reverence for what we can’t explain. Religion can teach us that we are part of something greater than ourselves—that we are connected to each other, to the earth which nurtures us, and to all its inhabitants. This realization is the beginning of true humility.

Some Christians believe in the virgin birth and in a literal atonement and resurrection. Some do not. Most of us can appreciate the symbolism of love, peace, and hope which the Christmas story gives. For me the life of Jesus is more important than the birth. I value the compassion which he exemplified and taught. I marvel at the calmness with which he answered accusers threatened by his message of social justice—and the peace with which he faced his unjust death.

We are free to believe as much or as little of the Christmas story as we want. What we cannot do, and still honor Jesus, is to criticize those who don’t interpret his life and message exactly the same way we do.

Obama’s Religion

For an insightful blog on the religious implications of the President’s Newtown speech, check out this post on Doves and Serpents.

Checklist Religion

I asked our home teachers how “Wear Pants to Church Day” went in our ward. As I expected, the day was ignored in our traditional neighborhood. I didn’t participate because, although I support sisters who want to make a statement about gender inequality in the Mormon fold, I just can’t force myself to sit through tedious meetings in order to do so.

From what I’m reading on the Bloggernacle, few Mormon women accepted the challenge to wear pants to church yesterday. I find this a bit strange since I hear plenty of older women who hate pantyhose and drafty skirts wishing “The Church” would say it’s all right to wear pants to Sunday meetings. Since there are no official rules about wearing skirts or dresses to church, I doubt we will ever receive official permission for changing the custom. Sisters waiting for a message from 50 N. Temple will endure pantyhose and cold legs at church for the foreseeable future.

Mormons live by rules. Mormon doctrine, “we are saved after all we can do,” makes works and obedience rather than faith the key to salvation. For many Mormons, a checklist of do’s and don’ts is seen as the best chance for inheriting the Celestial Kingdom. They feel confidant of God’s approval when they check off items like:  Attend meetings, pay tithing, accept callings, abstain from coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco, avoid R-rated movies.

 The problem I have with the checklist approach to religion is that items that can be checked off are mostly superficial. What I consider signs of true spirituality—reverence for what is greater than ourselves, kindness, generosity, peace of mind—are difficult to measure and impossible to place upon a checklist. The issue isn’t about what we wear to church. The issue is about how we treat those who make choices different from our own.

Christmas Shopping Lite

“I spent an hour buying Christmas presents for my five nephews and had a great time,” Wort, our oldest son said. Finding five gifts for boys of different ages in an hour sounded unbelievable to me until I realized that Wort had done his shopping online—probably all at Amazon. He simply had to click on a page for boys of each age, make his selection, choose gift wrapping and free shipping—and he was done. Joys of the 21st century!

Buying toys for kids is pretty fun. Almost anything makes them happy. Adults are a different matter. Unless recipients are on the brink of financial disaster, giving adults a gift they really want is nigh impossible. For a person who hates shopping as much as I do, it’s a misery. I finally decided that if I can’t give gifts which delight my offspring, at least I should give them something I enjoy buying.

I hate shopping for anything except groceries (love to eat), books, and nursery plants. Groceries as Christmas gifts only work for starving college students. December is way too cold to plant tomatoes, so my only choice is books. Although I try, I don’t always succeed in choosing titles the kids are anxious to read, but at least I’m supporting a depressed industry.

Even better than buying books is gifting the person who has everything with a charitable donation in their name. This year Aroo and Biker are getting a goat from us which will go to a family in the developing world. Techie and Techie II are also giving us an animal through Heifer.

For several years my brother Dooby and I have donated to the Seattle Rescue Mission for our gift-giving. I might have chosen the Nature Conservancy for my gift, but Dooby is a rabid anti-environmentalist. “Let’s give some homeless bums a good meal,” were his words. I wouldn’t phrase it quite that way, but I do feel good about our choice—and it sure beats shopping!  

Christmas Warfare

For those of you who are tired of the annual War on Christmas rhetoric, check out a delightful post by Jana Riess, “Have Yourself a Very Pagan Christmas.” 

Why Don’t They Like Us?

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, closed his interview on PBS’s Religion and Ethics   by stating  that Christians have an obligation to convert non-Christians—specifically Muslims, Jews, and Mormons. He repeated the often-heard assertion that “Mormonism is at the very least another religion. It’s not the Christian faith.”

I suppose any group is free to define its terms and decide who does and who does not belong. Certainly, mainstream Mormons bristle when polygamous splinter groups are referred to as Mormon, although these groups accept Joseph Smith, the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants—at least through the 132nd section.

I do think Land is right that the church Joseph Smith founded was different enough from mainstream Christianity to be considered an entirely new religion. Joseph Smith introduced some radically new doctrines to American religion. His First Vision account of seeing the Father and Son as individual personages conflicted with the Christian notion of the trinity. Identifying Missouri as the location of the Garden of Eden and of Adam-Ondi-Ahman—the place where Adam shall return to bless his people—was certainly an innovation with no biblical source . Eternal progression, via plural marriage, enabling men to become as gods through obeying the principles and ordinances of the restored gospel was also extra-biblical. Even the emphasis on knowledge as a key to salvation was closer to ancient Gnosticism than to Christianity.

Current Church rhetoric avoids most of these non-mainstream topics. I haven’t heard a conference address or a Gospel Doctrine lesson about Adam and Eve residing in Missouri for many years. Likewise, polygamy has been officially repudiated—although temple sealings to more than one woman still occur if a previous wife has died. Eternal progression is no longer a standard part of Mormon rhetoric. And like most Christian faiths, Mormonism now emphasizes faith and obedience to gospel principles and ordinances rather than knowledge as key requirements for salvation.

Except for the concept of God as three individuals working as one rather than three aspects of one being, few Mormon doctrines now differ radically from those of mainstream Christianity. So, why do evangelicals refuse to regard Mormons as fellow Christians? Possibly, since the Church hasn’t officially renounced any prior teachings other than polygamy, some may believe LDS leaders plan to reinstate some of these previous teachings.

I suspect, however, that it is not Mormon doctrine that troubles evangelical leaders so much as Mormon proselytizing. Most Christian faiths restrict their missionary work to those outside the Christian fold. Mormons overstep that boundary and frequently draw members away from their previous Christian faith. Because Mormon and evangelical cultures have common elements, they are likely competing for the same group of people. It’s not easy to love a competitor.

Feeling the Spirit Differently

I left my ward Relief Society Christmas party last night thinking, “If Relief Society lessons were this spiritual, I would show up every week.” I always attend RS dinners and parties because I like my ward members, but I don’t always stay for the program. Sometimes the president feels we need a message and arranges essentially a lesson with sisters sharing their most “spiritual” Christmas memories or sisters presenting ways to keep the “true meaning of Christmas” in our holidays. Last night our entertainment was eating, talking, and impromptu acting out of Christmas songs. Lots of chatting and laughing. I left feeling full of love for my RS sisters.

Didactic lessons and lectures may be spiritual for some people, but not for me. I usually end up feeling less spiritual when somebody tells me how I should feel the spirit. I’ve tried all the suggestions: I gave up swearing, wore dresses to all my meetings, accepted callings I hated, obeyed the Word of Wisdom, read my scriptures daily, prayed, attended the temple, encouraged my children to serve missions, and restricted myself to one earring piercing. I did all that and more. It worked for several years, and I felt spiritual in meetings. Gradually that changed. I think I mastered the basics which the Church had to teach me and needed to move on.

In his popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey emphasized the human need for daily spiritual renewal. Unlike Church lessons and sermons, Covey did not prescribe the activities which bring spiritual renewal. He stated that spirituality is “a very private area of life. . . . And people do it very, very differently.”

One place I go for spiritual renewal is the PBS program, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.  In an interview on that program last week, Anton Armstrong, director of St. Olaf’s Choir said,  “ . . . still small voices and burning bushes don’t seem to work with me. You know? But in the minute when that chord locks and we’ve been struggling with it and it finally works, it’s as if, yea, God is there.”

If Armstrong were Mormon, he would be expected to devote a minimum of three hours a week to Church meetings, do home teaching, attend the temple, research his genealogy, and probably teach Primary or serve as scoutmaster. Would any of these elements of Mormon culture be as spiritual for him as his musical experiences with St. Olaf’s Choir?

 We are all different. I wish Mormons would take Covey’s wisdom to heart and give ourselves and others permission to find God in our own way.

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