An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2013

Black, White, or Gray?

I gave my 9th grade English students practice debates on values while we were reading Romeo and Juliet. They complained that I only gave them one-sided situations. “What do you mean?” I asked and read aloud the day’s prompt: “You should be friends with odd kids that your own friends make fun of.”

They insisted that statement had only one side. I said, “Come on. There’s the side that you say you believe and there’s the side that you actually do. That’s two sides.”

My students were sincere. In their minds the principle of being nice to the less fortunate is true. They’ve learned that at school, at church, and at home. In their minds, it is a truth with which they cannot argue. They believe they should be nice to others, but no one has given them permission to count the cost of acting upon this principle.

For most fourteen and fifteen-year-olds, the cost of befriending “odd” or “weird” classmates is more than they can handle. Kids are not hypocrites when they say they believe in befriending everyone. They simply avoid thinking about how their actions don’t measure up to their beliefs. Admitting they fail to live up to this principle would cast themselves as uncaring people.

When I gave my students permission to think about valid reasons they had for not wanting to befriend “losers,” they engaged in honest discussion. I was pleased to hear some strong negative arguments in that day’s debates. Maybe some of them were even freed to think of baby-steps of acceptance they could make toward rejected classmates.

There’s a problem with the way we teach values to children—and even to adults at church. Most of the time, we offer a moral or religious truth as an imperative—something everyone must do—usually in every situation. But, the world is not black and white. Different situations may call for alternative rules and regulations. Even “Thou shalt not kill,” is generally interpreted to allow taking life for self-defense or serving one’s country.

Believing social and moral issues have only one side, prevents us from considering alternatives. And when we can’t live up to a belief or value, we simply avoid thinking about it. If we don’t think about our behavior, we can’t change it.

Open the Canon

Even the most devout Mormons complain about the dullness of the Sunday lessons. The official response is, “Milk before meat.” Unfortunately, no meat seems to be on the horizon, even for Saints who have attended the three-hour block faithfully for three decades or more.

Those of us who remember the beauty of David O. McKay’s sermons where he quoted passages from Shakespeare and other great authors mourn the sterile stuff we have been served for at least a generation. Church lessons are now pretty much restricted to stories and quotations from past and present prophets, supplemented with supporting scriptures. Even General Conference addresses have become rehashes of statements from past general authorities.

Mormon scriptures and the Bible are only four books among a plethora of wisdom that has been recorded and handed down throughout written history. Mormon prophets and apostles represent only a handful of many thousands of brilliant, spiritual men and women who have, no doubt, been enlightened by the same loving Creator.

Why must Church lessons be restricted to such limited sources of light and knowledge? Granted, some favorite topics such as priesthood, missionary work, temple work, and the restoration don’t lend themselves to outside sources. Still, topics like love, family, faith, self-improvement (becoming perfect), charity, service, and following Jesus are all topics where many non-Mormons have wisdom from which we could profit.

Mother Teresa’s record of her struggle to feel loved and approved by God could surely benefit Mormons as well as Catholics. Trappist monk, Thomas Merton’s description of the spiritual oil in our lamps that will keep burning after the body dies is a beautifully, comforting analogy. In his 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman, the African-American pastor and university dean, teaches a truth which pertain to ethically-challenged Americans today. He writes, “If a man continues to call a good thing bad, he will eventually lose his sense of moral distinctions.”

Not only Christians have been inspired to speak beautiful truths. In his book, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has a wonderful treatise on faith and works. He writes, “A concern with one’s own salvation and righteousness that outweighs the regard for the welfare of one other human being cannot be qualified as a good intention.”

I gained a deeper understanding of the teachings of Jesus from reading Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus. Wouldn’t a Gospel Doctrine class discussion on sin and redemption be deepened by the questions Chopra raises:

Is sin the same as a crime, mental illness, defective ego development, Karma, nature, or poor genetic programming? Is redemption a subjective state that makes you feel better, free of neurosis, and capable of fulfilling your potential?

Mormons often excuse repetitious lessons by saying, “We need to hear it until we learn it.” While oft-repeated statements (whether true or not—think advertising jingles) can burn into the memory, real learning requires thoughtful engagement. Not much thoughtful engagement takes place when bored members access the Internet or text friends during Church lessons and talks they’ve heard scores of times.

The Doctrine & Covenants tell us to teach diligently. It does not say we must restrict our teaching and learning to Mormon scriptures. Enlarging the Mormon curriculum to include uplifting statements from those outside our fold would not only make lessons more interesting—stimulating thoughts and discussions might create the kind of thinking which increases spirituality and improves behavior.

Let’s Not Talk About It

Thich Nhat Hanh is my favorite Buddhist author. The gentle Vietnamese monk uses homely analogies to teach mindfulness, self-understanding, and compassion. I love the way he compares human relations to plants decaying into garbage, then composting into rich soil which feeds new plants. “We do not expect a person always to be a flower. We have to understand his or her garbage as well.”

I find his “In-Out” exercise helpful for curbing stress when driving through heavy traffic, waiting in line, or rushing frantically through a to-do list.

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.


One area where I do find the celibate monk lacking, however, is his marital advice. His recommendation that husbands and wives talk problems out before they become major obstacles is great in theory. It would, no doubt, work for couples who have gained control of their own egos and can overcome the temptation to manipulate the other into agreement. Unfortunately, few mortals attain that degree of perfection no matter how diligently they pray or mediate and practice mindfulness. Most married couples find, in George Eliot’s words, “invisible barriers to speech between husband and wife.”  That’s certainly true in areas where compromise isn’t an alternative.


A friend told me her parents survived years of marriage by walling off a painful topic. In their early years, he wanted to take a job with great opportunity for advancement. She refused to move, and he missed the opportunity for a more fulfilling career. The decision could not be changed. I suspect they eventually reached a point where it was no longer an issue.


I don’t see how this couple could have compromised. She did not want to uproot the children and herself to move to a remote, inconvenient area, but his self-esteem needed success in his field which only this job would provide. What was the point in having a conversation that would likely end with blame and accusation: “You’ve always been selfish.” “You don’t care about what I want.” Discussing difficult issues requires more understanding of self and spouse than most of us have.


When I was a young wife, our Relief Society President told a story on herself. “It made me mad that my husband never rinsed out the basin after shaving. So, one day I told him we should each tell the other one thing that irritated us. He agreed and I told him about the whiskers. He said he would remember to rinse the basin, and I said, ‘Now it’s your turn to tell me what I do that irritates you.’ He said, ‘Nothing you do irritates me.’”


I remembered her story one day when George suggested we tell each other one thing that really bothers us. “Go ahead,” I said sweetly. “Nothing you do bothers me.” That little lie has saved me from hearing how many of my favorite habits get on George’s nerves.

Mormons and Porn

For interesting comments on the way Mormons deal with pornography–including the very definition–check out Joanna Brooks’ blog.

Final Faith

What do you say to a friend who calls to tell you good-bye because she’s just refused treatment to prolong her life? I knew Anna has not been doing well since she took a fall last year which complicated other health problems and resulted in her being confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living center—in constant pain, unable to use her computer or to enjoy talking with friends for more than a few minutes . Still, I was not prepared to hear her state forthrightly that she is calling it quits.

Her voice trembled with the effort to control her emotions. I asked how her children felt about her decision. “They’re fine with it,” she said. That was good. Urging Anna to undergo further pain and suffering would be neither kind nor loving.

I told her I understood her decision. George and I have discussed end-of-life issues and whether he will undergo further treatment if his cancer returns. Anna said she made her decision carefully and prayerfully and suggested we take our decision to the temple. I’m no longer a devout believer, but that’s not something I brought up with Anna. Obviously, her faith sustains her at this difficult time.

I talked about good experiences we’ve enjoyed together. I said, “I love you. Say hello to Jack (her deceased husband) for me when you see him again.”

I hung up, hoping I’d said the right things. I do hope for a heaven where Jack waits to greet Anna. It’s a comforting thought as the end-of-life approaches.

Spirituality and Stress

Rereading some of my old journal entries from the time when George and I had four teens still at home and I was teaching full time, working on my masters’ degree, and serving in our ward Young Women’s presidency, I am struck by how tired and frazzled  I was at that time. Most of my journal entries expressed fatigue and frustration.

One dreadful entry chronicled a day when I got home late from a school meeting, dashed to the meetinghouse to help decorate for the YW New Beginnings program that evening, then sped home to toss fish sticks and frozen fries in the oven to heat while I changed my clothes. I served supper, but only swallowed a few bites before leaving the table to track down my youngest daughter. “I’m not going,” she said when I told her to hurry. “I have to study for a math test tomorrow.”

“You’ve been home for three hours!” I stormed in a burst of temper than ended with her sassing and me slapping. Not a spiritual evening.

I relate this incident because I see so many families in this situation today. Providing for a family in the 21st century requires a lot of time—in most cases both parents employed outside the home—sometimes with more than one job. Jobs are more demanding now, too. As companies downsize to save money, fewer employees must work longer and harder to make up the difference.

I look at our grown children—and at my neighbors and I don’t see much leisure time—or even family time after work. Ten and 12-hour work days are fairly common for those with high-paying jobs—or those with two low-paying jobs. One-hour or longer commutes are also common for those living in metropolitan areas.

Mormons, with the financial pressures of large families, missions, and tithing, cannot afford to cut back on work. Their only option is to cut time spent on rest, family, or church. For active Mormons, only Monday evenings are unscheduled. Besides the three-hour Sunday meeting block, and leadership meetings for some, Mormons have weeknight church meetings, home or visiting teaching, temple attendance, and even Saturday building cleaning. Mormons outside Utah must get sleepy teens up at an ungodly hour and drive them to early morning seminary.

Church leaders have attempted to cut back on meetings in the past. The consolidated Sunday meeting schedule was an attempt in this direction. But week night activities for youth, Primary activity days for children, and enrichment meetings for women soon crept back onto the calendar. As it stands now, youth and their leaders now spend more time in meetings than they did before the 1980 change.

When I attend non-LDS churches, I notice they offer many activities besides Sunday meetings. Churches offer activities such as weeknight study and prayer groups, choirs, dinner groups, book discussion groups, service committees, and youth activities. The main difference I see from Mormon activities is that participation in these events is voluntary. Members are invited to attend, but not guilt-tripped if they opt out.

Another major difference is that positions in other churches that require extensive preparation time are paid. These positions include music directors and accompanists, youth activity leaders, and nursery and children’s instruction leaders. Volunteers help throughout the organization, but members are allowed to choose where to serve.

I wonder what would happen if Mormons were allowed to volunteer for ward service rather than receiving “callings?” I expect some positions would go unfilled. Maybe, if no one is interested in a certain program, it could be eliminated. Necessary programs which hardly anyone wants to do, such as nursery and custodial work, should be paid. Paid youth leaders, assisted by volunteers, might work well.

Funding for paid help could come from scaling back existing programs. Seminary could be cut to a two or three year program. No empirical evidence exists to show that seminary is a cost-effective way to mold young Mormons into faithful adult members. Church rhetoric claims seminary graduates are more likely to serve missions and marry in the temple than non-graduates, but isn’t that because seminary graduates come from more active families than non-graduates?

Another source of revenue for paid services on ward levels could come from reducing temple construction. The current high attrition rate for Mormons has multiple cause, but I suspect burn out is a more common factor than lack of nearby temples.

Constant pressure and fatigue are not conducive to spirituality. At one moment of frustration during my hectic years, I even told my journal, “I hate my church and family.” Church leaders need to look at the stress caused by too many demands upon ordinary members in today’s world. Perpetual stress drains rather than recharges spirituality.

Why We Read

Literary critic, Harold Bloom, says the purpose of reading is not to make people better. As a Mormon, I find that hard to accept. Mormons are commanded to read the scriptures regularly and urged to peruse other uplifting books in the hope such reading will make us fit candidates for exaltation. Bloom’s statement provokes a valid question: Does reading improve us? And if so, how?

What Bloom does believe reading can do is to develop our self-awareness. He tells us:

Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.  (Western Canon, p 31)  

Teaching us how to accept change in ourselves and others does sound like improvement to me.

I like the idea of using increased self-awareness as a measuring stick for the worth of what we read—or view. Since every “self” is different, a book or film meaningful to one person may not work at all for another. I’m currently reading Tom Rachman’s novel, The Imperfectionistsa collection of vignettes about the staff of a large international newspaper headquartered in Rome. I found myself identifying with two of the characters—the nerdy copy editor and his dissipated friend.

 Herman, the copy editor, does his unglamorous job well and enjoys the respect if not the friendship of colleagues. He has a long-time marriage, a daughter, and grandchildren. Yet Herman feels his life has been less meaningful than that of Jimmy, the charismatic school friend who planned to be a writer, but spent his life underemployed, while drinking and chasing women. When Jimmy visits, Herman finds the friend he thought so talented is unable to compose a coherent paragraph let alone write the book he’s talked about for 40 years. Unable to work and broke, Jimmy hopes his daughter will take him in.

I recognized Herman and Jimmy as two parts of my personality—the dependable, non-flashy person who is usually in charge, and the restless seeker after fame and fortune—generally relegated to the cellar of my being. I don’t know if that’s how the author intended readers to take these characters, but I enjoyed the flash of insight I received about my life. Did it make me a better person? Maybe not, but I enjoyed seeing two facets of my personality in print. The story made me appreciate my Herman facet which is usually in charge and grateful for the Jimmy facet that occasionally leads me into adventure.

Maybe entertainment and glimpses of self-awareness are all we should ask of literature. Self-improvement probably requires more effort than a good read can provide.

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