An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner’s reminiscence of his boyhood in Saskatchewan, describes the rough frontier society of 100 years ago. But, his comment on conversation could have been written about my childhood in the 1950s. Stegner reflects:  “I even at times find myself reacting against conversation, that highest test of the civilized man, because where I came from it was unfashionable to be ‘mouthy.’”

In my working class Provo, Utah neighborhood, it was also “unfashionable to be mouthy.” Conversation amongst my neighbors was generally limited to local people and events. Discussions about politics and religion were held only with those with whom one agreed. Children did not contradict adults, and women did not contradict men. Knowing the rules was important because discussions involving differing points of few were seen as arguments—and the point of an argument is to win.

No one broached a conversation topic with the idea of learning something from an acquaintance. The idea was to prove oneself smarter than the other. People reacted to a controversial statement with  scorn, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” or with defensiveness, “I’m not afraid to stand up for my beliefs.”

Not until college was I exposed to conversation as a search for understanding—and not often there. Meaningful conversation takes time, education, and probably example. My Provo neighbors had more opportunities to read and learn than people in frontier Saskatchewan, but few knew how to make use of this time. Men read the Daily Herald to keep up with events and people. Women read women’s magazines and paperback romances. They talked about that no-good Ron Bowyer who left his wife and kids to run off with a loose woman. They speculated about who might be the next bishop, but they never questioned McCarthy’s assertions that Communists were infiltrating our country.

Much as he loved the open spaces of the Western plains and the grandeur of mountains and canyons, Wallace Stegner, didn’t fit comfortably in Western society. He excelled in academics rather than sports and became a university professor and a writer rather than a businessman.  While he often sought Utah’s Zion Park and Utah wilderness areas for hiking and solitude, he chose to live and teach at Stanford and spent his summers in Vermont rather than in the Mountain West. I suspect it was because the conversation was better.

Sabbath Sense

This week’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly featured MaryAnn McKibban Dana, a Presbyterian minister and mother of three young children.  A few years ago, Rev. McKibban Dana, like many working mothers, felt great pressure from the demands of her job and her family. She needed a day of rest from work and other busyness to spend time with her family. Obviously, Sunday is not a day of rest for a pastor, so she and her husband designated Saturday as their Sabbath—a day when they turn off the television, computer, and cell phones, avoid shopping, and spend time restoring themselves.

Their Sabbath is not overtly religious. Family activities include taking their children on nature walks in a nearby state park, playing games, and cooking together. She and her husband renew themselves by doing things they and their children enjoy.

I couldn’t help comparing this family’s Sabbath with Mormon Family Home Evenings—a program consistently emphasized by the Church for the past half century. Constant admonishments from Church leaders for parents to hold FHE, comments from friends, and our own experience on Monday evenings cause me to believe the program has been less than successful. The problem with Mormon FHE is the formal structure outlined: Father presiding, opening song, opening prayer, discussion of family matters, lesson, closing prayer, refreshments. After spending three hours in meetings on Sunday, do Mormon families need another Church meeting on Monday evenings?

Mormons place great emphasis on formal instruction. Besides the three-hour block on Sunday, they send high school students to daily seminary classes, schedule semi-annual general conferences with four two- hour sessions, semi-annual two-hour Priesthood and Relief Society conferences, semi-annual two-hour stake conferences—usually with extra sessions for youth and for adults, and quarterly stake priesthood meetings.

If all this formal instruction were effective, it seems unlikely the Church would be experiencing a retention problem, or second apostasy as Elder Marlin K. Jensen termed it. Mormon parents are admonished to teach their children the gospel, and teaching for Mormons involves one person presenting information while others sit with arms folded—and ideally, mouths shut.

Values are most often transmitted by actions rather than words. When our oldest son entered high school, we often spent Monday evenings at the city library where he and his 7th grade sister did homework research (this was in the age before home computers) and the younger kids selected new books.  Why don’t Church leaders encourage Mormon parents to simply turn off the TV, computer, and phones on Monday evenings and interact in whatever ways are meaningful to their family?

Follow Which Prophet?

A recent blog by mmiles at By Common Consent compares an article in the April 2013 Ensign stating that equality in marriage is God’s plan with a Feb. 1973 Ensign piece claiming that patriarchal rule in marriage is God’s plan. Both pieces proved their arguments with quotes from scriptures and Church leaders. Since the Ensign is an official Church publication and does not print pieces disagreeing with Church positions, one can only assume that the Church position on marriage has evolved during the past 40 years.

My first reaction to reading this blog was that it’s evidence of the fluidity of Mormon doctrine. Continuous revelation means the current prophet takes precedence over past prophets—a benefit to the Church in a rapidly changing world. Patriarchal authority in marriage is about as popular in the 21st century as polygamy was in the 19th and 20th centuries. A church embracing either is likely to shrink to the size of the Shakers who insist that celibacy is God’s plan.

My second reaction to this blog was, “What about the Proclamation on the Family?” Will the phrase, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families . . .” be quietly erased from the text—or will the word “preside” be redefined in Mormon rhetoric to mean equal representation?

My final reaction to the 180 degree switch on marriage roles from the tenure of Spencer W. Kimball to that of Thomas S. Monson is that it demonstrates the need for Mormons to make our own decisions rather than to blindly follow the leaders. The author of this blog ends his piece with the statement, “The eternal truths of today might not be the eternal truths of tomorrow.” An interesting thought for Mormons who are conditioned since Primary to “Follow the Prophet.”

How would it feel to be a woman who has endured a patriarchal marriage with an overbearing husband for 40 years to pick up her current Ensign and read that equal partnership is now God’s plan? Church leaders, including the prophet, are not infallible. Individuals are entitled to their own inspiration in making life decisions. If eternal truths do exist, they are in the realm of principles such as integrity and human dignity rather than positions on social issues.

Parker Blount has a wonderful piece in the latest Sunstone Magazine, “Ancient Fairy Tales Written for This Generation.” My brief summary will not do justice to Blount’s witty insights, so read it here.

In his article Blount draws parallels between Book of Mormon stories and fairy tales. In both, the hero finds a magical object that helps him on his journey or to fulfill his goals. (Think Liahona, Mosiah’s interpreters, and stones that emit light in the Jaradite barges). The hero takes a journey into a dark forest (wilderness), defeats his enemies, and protects the kingdom.

Blount also finds differences in the two groups of stories. Unlike fairy tale heroes, Book of Mormon leaders never make mistakes, and they never get distracted by pretty women—or marry the princess. Another difference is that nobody lives happily ever after. The Nephites perpetually relapse into sin and war. Blount interprets their perpetual warfare as a symbolic battle with ego.

I think I could stand to reread the Book of Mormon again if I looked at the stories metaphorically. Unfortunately, that’s not really an option for active members. Mormons “know” the book is a factual history of early inhabitants of the Americas. Readers are not free to interpret history symbolically.

Mormons also take Bible stories literally. I don’t think Jonah being swallowed by a whale is a litmus test for Mormons, but most still adhere to Joseph Fielding Smith’s insistence that the earth was totally covered by water as a “baptism” during the flood. Joseph Smith thought Job was likely a real person, so Mormons defend that story as literal despite having to do mental gymnastics to explain God giving Satan permission to afflict Job and kill all his children. Although the Church has not taken an official position against evolution, insistence on a literal interpretation of the Creation story puts many Mormons into the Creationist group.

The Catholic Church no longer insists their members accept biblical accounts literally. I would like to see the Mormon Church open up and encourage members to find personal symbolic meaning in scriptural stories. I would like the freedom to say in Gospel Doctrine class that I see the Book of Mormon cycles of war and peace as a message that few people live happily ever after. Peace and happiness come and go in our lives as we deal with situations that arise—not necessarily from sin. Like the Nephites, we soldier on doing our best through times of trial. If we’re lucky, we get a few peaceful breaks between difficulties.

I do think my interpretation is at least as spiritual as my neo-con neighbors’ insistence that Book of Mormon war cycles are a message that the U.S. needs to maintain a strong defense system and aggressive foreign policy.

I am pro-life. I not only believe fetal life is precious, I value all life. Therefore, I oppose war and gun violence. I support health care for all people. I support programs to provide prenatal care for pregnant women to reduce the risk of babies not carried full term and babies born with preventable birth defects. I also support programs to help handicapped persons have a fuller life.

I believe in lowering abortion rates, so I support sex education for teens and access to birth control for all women. I believe a mother’s life and health are as important as that of a fetus, so I oppose laws which interfere with difficult choices which women and their doctors must make in the event of risky pregnancies.

I am also a fiscal conservative. I hate seeing money wasted. I especially hate seeing special interest groups receive benefits at taxpayers’ expense because of donations to politicians. I am frustrated that neither political party wants to pass legislation to get the money out of politics. I am appalled that Congress has no interest in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare recipients. I am disgusted that it is impossible to curb military spending because defense plants are located in every state and no senators or congresspersons are willing to vote to reduce a program that affects their state.

I am tired of politicians who insist that private enterprise can do everything cheaper than government—but want private schools and private prisons, with highly paid CEOs, to be funded with tax money.

According to a piece in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, for-profit online schools are making money without producing great results. The graduation rate for K12, the largest online for-profit school, was 49% in 2011. Only 19.4% of their schools tested during the school year of 2010-2011 met Adequate Yearly Progress standards. The CEO of K12 made $5 million in 2011. Profits to shareholders were $13 million that year.   Financing large CEO salaries and corporate profits is not how I want my tax dollars for education spent.

For-profit prisons have been around longer than for-profit schools, and the results are not encouraging. According to a study by the U.S. Board of Justice Statistics, for-profit prisons have not produced cost savings. For-profit prison companies also lobby for state laws to increase sentences and to mandate incarceration for lesser crimes.  A good way to increase their profits, but, again, not the way I want my tax dollars spent.

I grew up in a family of conservative Republicans. My dad voted for a Democrat for the first time in 2004 because he was so appalled at the deficit spending of George W. Bush. I find myself agreeing with my dad. The Republican Party is no longer the party of the conservative values we hold dear.

Anne Lemott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow, would be a great lesson manual for Priesthood/Relief Society if the curriculum committee realized that Lemott’s honest prayers, like “God help me not to be such an ass” are more spiritual than most of the “vain repetitions” Mormons are conditioned to offer.

Unfortunately, many Church members struggle with problems which current lesson manuals don’t address: poverty, financial insecurity, work that takes parents from home too many hours a week, mental illness, debilitating physical problems, abuse, and addiction.

Would it destroy our faith to admit that God gives light and knowledge to non-Mormons? To have lessons that step outside our own small circle and use thoughts from inspired, non-Mormon thinkers?

Mormons often have the idea that life will run smoothly so long as we obey gospel principles. Lemott is more realistic. She tells us:

. . . we learn that people are very disappointing, and that they break our hearts, and that very sweet people will be bullied, and that we will be called to survive unsurvivable losses, and that we will realize with enormous pain how much of our lives we’ve already wasted with obsessive work or pleasing people or dieting. We will see and read about deprivation and barbarity beyond our ability to understand, much less process.

For Lemott, the answer to the horrors of a world we can’t control, is to pray, “Help!” and “find God in our human lives”—in the people who do unasked for acts of kindness, and for moments of intuition that allow us to take a step in the right direction.

Mormons often measure our spiritual growth by how many meetings we attend, callings we fulfill, and scriptures we read. I prefer Lemott’s measurement:

Have you become more generous . . . ? Or more patient, which is a close second? Did your world become bigger and juicier and more tender? Have you become ever so slightly kinder to yourself? This is how you tell.

Lamott believes it’s more important to thank God with actions than with words:

. . . God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter. God must love to see us serving food at the soup kitchen at Glide Memorial Church, or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in because no one else in the family speaks to him.

I love Lemott’s definition of sin: “Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth.” I doubt it would undermine Mormon core values to open up our discussion of sin beyond sexual transgression.

Besides her quirky, irreverent sense of humor, Lamott has a gift for poetry. She describes a hike in the hills on a day when, “The scent of spring was as light as goodness.”  The prayer she offered was answered when, “the wind had blown away much of my unhappiness.”

I believe prayer is one of many topics which doesn’t need to be forced into a right-way/wrong-way point of view. Unfortunately, the curriculum committee is unlikely to take my advice and choose uplifting books by non-member authors as lesson manuals for Church classes. Fortunately, I can skip the 3-hour block of Sunday meetings and pursue inspiration that meets my needs from Lamott and other “worldly” sources.

Don’t miss this terrific post on By Common Consent.

I suppose I will never catch up on the books I missed reading during the years my job as mom and ward “I’ll do whatever you need me to do” person limited my reading to short newspaper and magazine articles. I have finally read Wallace Stegner’s wonderful, Angle of Repose now that I have time to repose myself into a horizontal angle on the sofa.

Angle is a book about marriage. Stegner had an ear for realistic dialogue—the words couples use to snipe at each other in the frustration of their unfulfilled dreams. Like the secondary characters in his later novel, Crossing to Safety, the husband and wife in Angle are often in a situation where the wife’s income is more important to the family than the husband’s—a tricky situation in the 21st century, but really difficult for a couple in this 19th century setting.

Oliver, the husband, is a self-taught mining engineer who must move from job to job in rough mining camps. Any man in that occupation should probably stay a bachelor—but Oliver falls in love. His fatal flaws, which are partly responsible for his lack of prosperity, are his trusting nature, aversion to confrontation, and inability to forgive serious wrongs.

Susan, the wife, comes from a genteel, Eastern background. Her fatal flaw is wanting to be like her best friend, Augusta, who comes from a well-connected, prosperous family. Susan almost worships Augusta. She believes Augusta is the more talented artist even though it is Susan who gets paying commissions for her work. Susan dreams of marrying the magazine editor who befriends her—but proposes to Augusta.

Probably few women could be happy moving from one rough camp to another as Susan must do with Oliver. Still, her envy of the perfect happiness she imagines Augusta’s life makes her own situation more difficult.

Susan and Oliver’s story is told through the eyes of a grandson who reconstructs their lives from a collection of old letters and newspaper clippings. In the process he gains insight into his own fatal flaw and begins to deal with it.

It’s easy to identify fatal flaws in friends and family members. Possibly we should ask ourselves, “What is my fatal flaw?” Admitting a flaw helps us deal with it even if we can’t entirely overcome it.  Probably most flaws, like Oliver’s trusting nature and aversion to confrontation, are really virtues overdone. Usually, we just need to reign them in a bit.

Question of the Day: Are many bright, confident, articulate women unmarried at age 30 because men fear bright, confident, articulate women? Or is it because a woman who is single until age 30 has more opportunity to develop these attributes through education, work, and travel?

In Mormon culture—which for decades has urged 21-year-old boys returning from missions to marry— women who haven’t snared a man by that age are likely to still be single at age 30. Now, marrying young needn’t preclude a woman from further education and a stimulating career—unless her culture also prescribes motherhood within a year of marriage.

A consequence of a culture that effectively limits many women’s education and professional development is a dearth of bright, confident, articulate women. I can think of only three dynamic women speakers in recent Mormon history: Sheri Dew, Chieko Okasaki, and Ardith Kapp—all career women.

I wonder if they would have developed the abilities which gave them so much credibility with Mormon women had they become wives at age 19 and mothers at age 20. While it’s not impossible for married women with children to continue their education or to pursue professional careers, it is more difficult—especially if the wife is forced to drop out of school and work a low-paying job to pay for her husband’s education.

But, back to my question. I think it’s pretty obvious than single women do have more opportunities to develop their brains and self-confidence than women who are supporting spouse and/or feeding babies and potty-training toddlers. (And I don’t have anything against babies and toddlers. I enjoyed my own—but I am glad they didn’t arrive until I had time to learn a few other things.)

The real question boils down to:  Are men turned off by brainy, assertive women? According to David Brooks book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, high-achieving men tend to marry women from the same prestigious universities which they attended—producing highly intelligent children who will be given all the advantages which bright, successful parents can provide. These children, in turn, will have access to the best universities where they will meet their future spouse—essentially creating an intelligent, elite upper-class which is closed to everyone else.

I doubt if the phenomena of brainy men selecting brainy wives from the same educational institutions applies to many Mormon men. Physical attraction plays a role in selection of mates, of course. And a Mormon male who have been acculturated to see himself as the main provider for his future family may be unconcerned with a woman’s brains if he sees her role as essentially providing him with sex and children. When I taught junior high in an affluent Wasatch-front neighborhood, I dealt with fathers who, as successful, professional men, could not understand why their child struggled with school. I suppressed the urge to say, “Well, Lumpford must take after his mother.”

A Huffington Post blog ran a piece today about the issue of men fearing brainy women. Essentially, their advice was for smart women to not assert themselves in relationships the same way they assert themselves on the job—and to not demand perfection in a potential spouse. Good advice for men, too, I might add.

Change of Heart

Images of people with rage-distorted faces chanting slogans and holding up signs with mottos like, “God hates fags,” and “Obama’s a baby killer” have damaged the evangelical movement in the eyes of many Americans. My sons and their families are evangelicals, so I know that hatred of those with different opinions and lifestyles is not typical of evangelicals—nor is it limited to them.

I was happy to see, on a recent Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program that Focus on Family, one of the more strident evangelical groups, is working to incorporate more Christian behavior into the defense of that they consider key moral issues.

Leaders of Focus on Family are now talking to gay rights and pro-choice groups in their Colorado Springs community. With their history of animosity, the process is difficult, but both sides feel it is worthwhile to meet together to seek common ground. Some mmbers of the FOF group, energized by previous leader James Dobson’s denouncement of liberals, feminists, and gay activists, accuse current leader, Jim Daly, of surrendering to the enemy.

It will be interesting to see how the change of leadership in FOF plays out. It’s much easier to lead a group by revving up fear and anger than by encouraging rational thought. And it’s human nature to prefer limiting our friends and associates to those who agree with us. Daly admits the harsh rhetoric and partisanship of the past have alienated young people. Will he be able to lead his group into a stance that keeps their moral values without hatefully opposing those who differ?

I think Mormon leaders have a similar situation to that of Daly. General Authorities have softened their stance on gay rights. They have come out for humane treatment of illegal immigrants. They espouse political neutrality. Still, with all the rules about what may and may not be used as source material for Church lessons and talks, far-out quotes from past leaders are often heard in talks, lessons, and discussions. It’s easier to rev people up against “so-called intellectuals,” gays, and feminists, than to put the genie back in the bottle and get members to exhibit more Christian behavior.

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