An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘LDS Church curriculum’

“Our Motto Is Monotony”

Before teaching her next Relief Society presidency message, our RS counselor e-mailed the lesson topic to give sisters in the ward time to reflect upon it before class. A wonderful idea, I thought, until I read the chosen topic—“Home.” My enthusiasm dropped faster than the May 6 stock market plunge. I’ve already listened to at least 942 lessons on Home during my years of RS attendance. And I really wouldn’t mind a lesson on home that provided new insights—like the Buddhist notion of connection to the universe which means that home is every place. But I know that won’t happen.

Just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel criticized Jewish services, Mormon services also: “. . . are conducted with pomp and precision. . . . Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: life. One knows in advance what will ensue. There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden burst of devotion. Nothing is going to happen to the soul. Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays. He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives. Our motto is monotony.”

The official reason for keeping tight control of church curriculum is “to keep the doctrine pure.” But I wonder if the tradeoff—monotonous, uninspiring meetings—is really worth it. And I still hear plenty of weird beliefs from devout Mormons, so how pure is this approach keeping the doctrine?

What would I suggest for Sunday School and Relief Society curriculum?    

   Gospel Doctrine was exciting when the lessons were really on the scriptures—when we spent two years each on the Old and New Testaments, read the entire text, and learned about the culture for which these scriptures were written. Ignoring the cultural context and selecting only passages which support contemporary Mormon thought is not scripture study.

I enjoyed RS when the lessons were written by women for women. I don’t really need any more lessons on abstract topics: The Sacrament, The Sabbath Day, Fasting, Sacrifice. Lives of good people interest and motivate me—biographies that show imperfect human beings handling real challenges. Why can’t the RS manual be a biography of an exemplary woman? How about Carol Cornwall Madsen’s biography of Emmeline B. Wells? And why can’t we study the wisdom of non-LDS women? Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea contains wonderful spiritual insights that complement LDS philosophy. How about a memoir by a woman who has overcome great obstacles? Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings deals with some unpleasant situations. She suffered sexual abuse as a child and was so insecure about her feminine sexuality at age 17 that she paid a boy to have sex with her—resulting in a teen pregnancy. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings—but some LDS women are dealing with similar situations for themselves or their children. An honest discussion of contemporary problems which can help women deal with bad situations affecting themselves or others has more spiritual benefit than a fluff lesson about the joys of a perfect home.

Reducing church lessons to “milk before meat” that will not offend the “weakest of the weak” has resulted in lessons for the dumbest of the dumb. If the church wants to retain members, putting some meat on the menu would help.

Favorite Mormon Books

Book lists, like Christmas sales, pop up everywhere this time of year. Inspired by a blogger who had read 24 Mormon titles this year, I decided to write about my favorite Mormon books. My favorite LDS book from 2009—because it’s the only one I read this year—is Mormon Women: Portraits & Conversations which I’ve written about previously. So, my annotated list of memorable Mormon books will come from previous years. Beginning with non-fiction, here are some favorites:

Terry Warner’s Bonds That Make Us Free, written for a non-LDS audience, offers a common sense approach to working out problems in relationships.  He provides insights to the offensive/defensive reactions which we humans often unconsciously fall into. Scenarios from the book worked well as role-playing scripts for my junior high students.  These mini-dramatizations helped them recognize and discuss the dynamics of a person assuming the role of victim in a conflict situation.

Harvard Professor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, won a Pulitzer for A Midwife’s Tale. Her book, based on the diary of an 18th century New England woman, illumines the lives of women and their economic contribution to their families and communities in the post-Revolutionary War period. Life was tough in earlier centuries. Learning about living conditions in early Maine puts the privation of Utah pioneer times, which we sometimes like to see as unique, into historical perspective.

 I don’t know how many copies of All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir I’ve purchased for gifts. I’ve received many thanks for sharing this collection of columns and correspondence from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and poet, Emma Lou Thayne. Their writings reveal the personalities and wisdom of two gifted LDS women who do not quite fit the “model Mormon woman” image. In case the Church Curriculum Correlation Committee is reading, it would make a great RS manual.

My son-in-law tipped me off to Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion, a very different book from Nibley’s heavily-footnoted volumes linking LDS theology with ancient religions. If I were on the Correlation Committee, I would choose this book for the Gospel Doctrine manual for next year. Nibley makes the case for a Zion community with no rich and no poor. Yes, he’s an idealist, but we need a little idealism to counter the materialism of modern culture. Currently, most Mormons marginalize Joseph Smith’s revelations on the Law of Consecration and Brigham Young’s implementation of the United Order. Nibley reminds us that our earthly existence is not for the purpose of accumulating material possessions.

Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion is not an easy read. But for those interested in how Mormonism differs from the theology of other Christian religions, McMurrin provides  a goldmine of information.

Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin hit my must-read list once I’d read Theological Foundations. More than a biography, this book reveals the LDS Church transition in the mid-20th century from a tradition of being more open to philosophical inquiry to the present dogmatic conservatism.

I’m never quite sure whether to place memoir with fiction or non-fiction, so I’ll bridge the gap with two favorites. Juanita Brooks’ Quicksand and Cactus has evocative descriptions of her childhood in Bunkerville, Nevada. As a young widow, Brooks struggles to obtain the education necessary to support herself and child.  She learns of the cover-up of the Mountain Meadows Massacre from a dying neighbor who participated. A devout LDS, Brooks spends years of painstaking research unearthing the facts of the massacre and was surprised and hurt at the negative reception her book received from Church authorities.

One of the books I’ve lent and never received back is Good-bye to Poplar Haven by Ed Geary. It’s out of print now and I don’t remember who has it—but I hope she is enjoying it. Poplar Haven is a collection of stories based on Geary’s childhood in Emery County, Utah. I used the story “The Girl Who Danced with Butch Cassidy” with my 9th grade English students as part of a unit on Utah authors. One year a parent complained that the story described Mormon boys persecuting an eccentric, elderly non-LDS woman in their town. My principal vindicated me. One can’t have a career in Utah public education and retain illusions that Mormon youth are always paragons of virtue.

I’ve already written about my favorite Mormon novels, The Backslider, Aspen Marooney, and the Giant Joshua. Haven’t tried Todd Robert Peterson’s Rift yet. It may show up on next year’s list of favorites.

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