An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormons’

I’ll Be Watching Conference Sunday Morning

Our daughter called to see if our three youngest grandchildren could stay with us Sunday afternoon. She, her husband, and their 9-year-old have tickets to the afternoon session of General Conference. I agreed, knowing I could change my tickets for the matinee of The Caretaker. I never turn down a chance to spend time with our grandkids, ages 2, 4 and 6. Then Lolly said they would all need to spend Sunday morning with us in order to be close enough to Salt Lake to make the afternoon session by 12:30—the recommended time for seating. That means I’ll have to watch conference Sunday morning—I do worry about losing grandparenting rights if my devout daughter learns how casual my church commitment is.

For years I devoted two weekends a year to General Conference. I have photos of myself and George dozing on the sofa to prove it. We did rest our eyes occasionally, but basically the messages uplifted me. I read the synopses in the Church News, then reread the addresses in the  Ensign. I highlighted thought-provoking phrases and copied them in my quote book.

Gradually, I found fewer phrases to highlight—fewer original passages that provoked deeper thinking about this world and the next. A sense of déjà vu descended upon me when I clicked on the TV at conference time. I noticed the same topics recycling year after year even when new general authorities took their turn at the pulpit: Follow the Prophet, Keep the Commandments, Be Morally Clean, Families Are Important, Prepare for Catastrophe, Share the Gospel, Magnify Your Callings, Try Harder. Has it always been like this and it just took thirty years of adult membership for me to memorize the messages? I’m not sure. Listening to conference gives the impression that nothing much has changed in the world in the last 20 years except for Satan becoming hyperactive.  Now that may be evidence of the timelessness of the gospel. And it’s sort of a positive. Once you have the messages memorized, you’re free to pursue other interests on conference weekends.

A recent Mormon Matters posting asked readers what they expected to hear in October conference. Nostalgia is probably burnishing my memory, but I expect nothing as good as the messages I enjoyed decades ago. The eager anticipation when Boyd K. Packer’s name was announced as the next speaker. Homey stories about his children touched me as he taught gospel truths—before age and duty gifted him with perpetual gloom and grumpiness. Sterling W. Sill’s literary allusions and Marion G. Hank’s genial humor carried their messages to my heart. I know Paul Dunn embellished his stories—I suspect he’s not the only one—but he was optimistic as well as entertaining. The last time I was truly entertained by a conference address was a few years ago while in Cedar City. Equipment at the local radio station malfunctioned during an address on morality and the tape or whatever they use stuck— repeating the word “sex” over and over and over. No, I expect to be neither entertained nor enlightened by conference speakers this year, but I will enjoy the grandkids.

I Wanna Be a Bully

Gideon Burton’s recent blog describes the persecution his elementary school-age son has received because of the extreme right-wing reaction to the President’s speech to school children. And, of course, bullying is not limited to children. Bullying occurs whenever a person with power intimidates persons with less power.  Two weeks ago a minority of right-wing parents intimidated timid school officials into disallowing their students to listen to the President of the United States address them.

I find bullying despicable, especially since I recognize in myself a (mostly) latent desire to be a bully. When neighbors and relatives tell me that President Obama’s birth certificate is not authentic or that invading Iraq was a positive because “now girls can go to school there,” I want to grab them by the ears, shake them until their teeth rattle, and make them promise not to turn on talk radio again for the rest of their lives. I want to demonstrate the stupidity of the propaganda they’ve inhaled and make them squirm like a puppy about to get its nose rubbed in a puddle.

I think my problem stems from reading too many Batman and Robin comic books as a child. I fantasized about carrying a rope, mask, blue jeans and a blue shirt and cape undetected to school.  When an older child picked on a younger at recess, I would swoop from the roof of Franklin Elementary School on my rope kicking the teeth from the jaws of the bully (at age ten I didn’t worry about how I would get on the roof or what my rope would be tied to). When my awed classmates asked, “Who are you?” I would answer, “The Jesse James Rider,” then swing back to the rooftop on my trusty rope, change back into civilian clothes, and return to class by the time the bell rang.

Somehow I haven’t outgrown the desire to defend the underdog. Last week one of my visiting teachers made a solo visit when her partner was delayed. Margaret hesitantly admitted having grown up in a family of Democrats and favoring those policies. “But I can’t say anything about that at Church,” she said, “or everybody will jump all over me. And I have to listen to the most awful things about President Obama who is doing the best he can in a bad situation.”

I consoled Margaret and told her she was not alone, but deep in my heart, I know that’s not enough. I want to attend Church and challenge the nutcases who make comments like, “They are trying to take ‘in God we trust’ off our money.” I want to drip sarcasm, “Well, that will really make shopping a less spiritual experience.” I want to challenge those who agree with Elder Bruce Hafen’s assessment that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation to imagine trying to change their own sexual orientation. I want to defend ward members who are not wing nuts—to show them they are not alone.

But I don’t. I tell myself it’s because it’s not Christ-like to attend church for the purpose of showing up illogical thinking. For a while, I tried the adversarial approach. I carefully read the Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society manuals and came to class armed to refute misinformation—i.e. “Brother Instructor, when you said the creation of Israel was a sign of prophecy being fulfilled, you overlooked the fact that every Book of Mormon reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land says it will be after they have come to a knowledge of Christ. Clearly, that has not happened yet.”

Somehow my comments placed me in the bully rather than in the hero category. I was neither Batman nor Robin. I was the Joker. The narrow line between defending truth and righteousness and becoming a bully myself runs across a mighty slippery slope.

Poets As Well As Prophets

Tom Roger’s recent article in Dialogue ,”‘A Climate Far and Fair’: Ecumenism and Abiding Faith,” scores a bull’s eye for 21st century Latter-day Saints. He cautions Mormons that “In our earnest striving to be ‘not of the world’ (John 17:16), we risk insulating ourselves from much that is ‘virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy’ and thereby disqualify ourselves as participants in the grand human conversation.”

Rogers is of my generation, the David O. McKay era when General Authorities quoted Shakespeare, Emerson and many other non-LDS poets and philosophers.  A time when we remembered Joseph Smith’s teaching that “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism’ is to receive truth let it come from whence it may” [italics added]. A time when Latter-day Saints felt free to look beyond Mormon culture for truth and light.

Rogers recommended, half-seriously, that the four-year cycle of Gospel Doctrine texts be expanded to five years and include Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina “as a cautionary manual in courtship and marriage.” Now I haven’t revisited this novel recently, but thirty years after reading it, Anna lives in my mind. While reading about her infatuation with Vronsky, I wanted to shout “Stay away from him, you imbecile! Can’t you see where this is leading?” Of course, Anna couldn’t see. “Harmless” encounters morphed into an illicit affair destroying her marriage and ultimately her life.

Reading and discussing a novel with realistic characters in believable situations would likely impact Latter-Day Saints’ moral decisions far more than reading Alma’s warning to his son Corianton about the harlot Isabel. Neither Corianton nor Isabel is well-developed enough for most of us to relate to emotionally—and rash actions originate in the emotions.

But why limit our church exposure to great works of literature to a fifth year cycle? I remember when the Relief Society course of study included a monthly literature lesson.  One year sisters studied the full text of Hamlet. Later, a multi-volume anthology of great literature, Out of the Best Books was published for use as a Relief Society manual. Why do we now restrict our lesson material to LDS scriptures, quotes from General Authorities, and Ensign articles?

Vicarious experience beats firsthand experience when it comes to learning about any kind of evil—selfishness, dishonesty, substance abuse, using people. Gifted writers with inspired insights into human nature help us explore the minds and actions of persons wrestling with conflict between themselves and others or within themselves. Dead, white, male authors whose characters still live within their pages include Dickens, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. Contemporary American authors with much to teach us include Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Yes, Morrison and other contemporary authors include sex in their stories—but so did the Old Testament authors. Sex is part of life and pretending it doesn’t exist outside of holy matrimony doesn’t help us deal with real situations that may arise in our lives or the lives of family and friends.

A wise person once stated that humans need poets as well as prophets. Prophets exhort us to keep God’s commandments. Poets, playwrights and novelists touch our hearts with the understanding of what it means to be human and make it possible to keep the most important of the commandments—to love others as ourselves. Let’s spend some of our daily study with poets as well as prophets.

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