An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Holy Envy

The current issue of Exponent II magazine has a wonderful article by Robert Rees, inaccurately titled “Small Things: Thoughts on Mormon Feminism.” I say inaccurately titled because Rees’ essay is not limited to feminism. In this piece, Rees shares his experiences in teaching courses on Mormonism at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. As they learn about Mormonism, his students find many things they like, even envy, about our faith including:

extensive participation of our members . . . in leadership and other callings, our concept of eternal marriage and family relationships, our welfare system, our ability to foster charitable giving, the principle of continuing revelation, and our training of young children to speak, study the scriptures, and pray.

As he visits services at non-LDS churches, Rees also finds traditions he wishes we could include in Mormon worship such as celebration of Holy Week before Easter, focus on social justice, full fellowship of gays and lesbians, and equal treatment of women. Rees concludes his piece by suggesting the Church consider including traditions from other faiths in our worship.

I thought about Rees’ expanded vision of Mormon worship last Sunday as I enjoyed a service at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake. Unitarians do not work to expand their membership or to gain a reward in the next world. Their emphasis is on improving themselves and the world. The sermon, based on the 7th principle of Unitarianism: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” has relevance to a Mormon audience. The Reverend Tom Goldsmith discussed the interconnectedness of ourselves with each part of the universe. He said respect for other people is essential because what benefits others benefits ourselves and what harms others harms ourselves. He connected Jesus’ teachings to love our enemies, to love our neighbors, and to love God with the unity of all things.

I would like to hear more Mormon talk about caring for others just because it’s the right thing to do rather than for hope of an eternal reward. I would like to hear more about living in harmony with those not of our faith because living in harmony is good—not because we hope to convert them. We Mormons could also stand to be admonished for our materialism and urged to better conserve God’s creation.

Another thing I envy about Unitarian services is the open canon. Sermons are not limited to scriptures and  Unitarian publications. Goldsmith told a Hindu story and quoted Thich Nhat Hanh as well as Jesus in his remarks. The music canon is also inclusive. The choir sang a Welsh carol and a rocking spiritual, “Let All Our Hearts” by Jim Scott I think Mormon meetings would be less boring and more spiritual if we searched beyond the Mormon fold for music and inspiring messages.

 Joseph Smith taught:

 We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true “Mormons.”

I’m glad Exponent II has published Robert Rees’ suggestion that Mormons take a look at how other churches worship. Sometimes God inspires us through other people rather than by direct revelation.

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Moral Certainty

A friend sent me this quotation from H.L. Mencken after she heard Boyd K. Packer’s recent conference address:

Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on, “I am not too sure.”

Mencken’s wisdom made me realize that what I find objectionable about conference addresses (aside from the repetition) is the speakers’ certitude that they are speaking for God. I know this certitude, in a world of rapid change, is comforting to many people. It just doesn’t work for me.

Human beings often have experiences for which no rational explanation exists. Some people experience a power outside themselves providing, without conscious thought, the right words or actions. Other people have felt a premonition to move away from a place before an accident occurs.

 When our daughter, Aroo, was 18-months-old, she developed a severe case of viral croup. We took her to the hospital where she was treated. We returned, kept her in a steam tent, and administered medication. That night, her breathing became labored again. Our home teacher gave her a priesthood blessing and her breathing returned to normal almost instantly. Coincidence or divine intervention? We have no way of proving either.

 I have no quarrel with people who believe what cannot be proven.  I do have a problem with people who insist their beliefs are true and that everyone else should believe the same way.

Jihadists and Christian Crusaders are poster children for the worst kind of religious certitude, but some contemporary atheists are also becoming examples of strident intolerance. I read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene several years ago and was impressed by Dawkins’ brilliant mind and lucid explanations of complex science. I enjoyed the clever analogy against the argument that the existence of God cannot be disproven which Dawkins gave in a radio interview. He described a giant teapot revolving around the sun. It’s too small to be seen by any kind of telescope, so we can neither prove nor disprove that it exists.

Possibly because of his concern for the push to teach creationism and intelligent design in public school science classes, Dawkins has become quite harsh in his criticism of religion—calling faith “the great cop-out.” I agree with Dawkins that religious beliefs cannot be proven and should not be forced onto others, but it seems to me that he has crossed the line and become guilty of the certitude and intolerance of which he accuses the religious.

The Old Testament is full of prophets who roar with moral certainty. I prefer the New Testament and Jesus’s example of humility—as well as Mencken’s motto, “I am not too sure.”

Robbing Agency

Watching a documentary, A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, recently I was reminded of polygamous Mormon-splinter groups which also set themselves apart from mainstream American culture—living in separate enclaves, dressing distinctively, and educating their children outside public schools.

According to the film, Hasids see themselves as God’s chosen (even over other Jews), and have little desire to mix with “lesser’ peoples. Similarly, polygamists teach their children the outside world is dangerously evil and God will protect them only if they remove themselves from the world and follow their leaders implicitly.

Hasid’s refusal to allow their children to attend universities bars their entrance into occupations requiring a college degree—effectively limiting them to low-paid jobs. Choosing a low-paid occupation is an adult’s right. Limiting children’s educational opportunities so they can’t qualify for occupations of their choice is wrong.

 I have no problem with adults choosing to live their religion outside the mainstream, but it is wrong for parents to deny children education. Prohibiting an education which gives kids the skills to survive outside the religious community deprives them of their agency.

Unfortunately, many mainstream Mormon parents also limit their children’s education—although to a much lesser degree. As a junior high teacher in Utah, I often heard parents who were registering their children for high school tell me that seminary was number one priority. Four years of seminary was more important than taking calculus or other Advanced Placement classes.

Mormon parents also often fixate on BYU and its Idaho and Hawaii campuses as the only “safe” places for higher education. They discourage their children from applying to “secular” institutions where they might earn scholarships or be better prepared for their chosen fields.

Our daughter served as YW president in their upstate New York ward. Not all the bright girls with good grades and test scores were accepted into BYU or could afford the cost. Regardless of the Institute programs available at New York State universities, for their families, BYU was the only university where the girls would be sheltered from secular teachings and non-Mormon friends. Instead of pursuing  education, these girls took low-paying jobs hoping to eventually attend BYU—or to miraculously meet and marry a returned missionary.

In the first half of the 20th century, Mormon leaders emphasized education and achievement. Talented Mormon men seized opportunities to leave the security of Zion and pursue education in universities outside the Mormon Corridor. Many remained to work outside Utah. Some, like Willard Marriott, George Romney, Henry Eyring (Sr.), Harvey Fletcher, and Philo Farnsworth became nationally prominent. The dispersion of talented, committed Mormons to various parts of the country helped the Church grow beyond a small, regional organization.

Unfortunately, that pursuit of excellence is missing from contemporary Mormon rhetoric and culture. Too many contemporary Mormons have retreated into an inward-looking culture that fears outside influences. Families that prioritize seminary over education and BYU over all other universities run the risk of limiting their children’s future choices. And a church with few successful, accomplished members will find itself less able to attract converts.  

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.

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