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!  

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