Thursday, December 20, 2012

Some thoughts on gender and the church

A Thought on Gender Inequality

Since a friend mentioned it on Facebook, I have been thinking about Gender Inequality in the church. I've decided I don't love the term because it's more emotionally charged than precise--we all know inequality is bad, but we can't seem to agree on which practices might be "unequal" in the negatively charged sense. I worry that talking about "gender inequality" in the church is going to end up counter-productive because the term itself switches us straight from discussion mode to impassioned reaction mode. That is: if you think a certain practice is promoting inequality, you are probably going to bring a certain righteous indignation to any discussion of it. And if you think a certain practice is being unfairly labeled as promoting inequality, you're likely to bring a very defensive mindset to any discussion.

So what if we threw the term out altogether? Would we have more room to talk about the differences between male and female experiences in the church if we simply acknowledged that they are different, but withheld judgments about equality and talked instead about what each gender needs to increase the quality of its average experience? 

For this post, I've prepared a list of four gender-related differences in church experience I've noticed. I'm not trying to be comprehensive. I just want to offer a few talking points to test this kind of discussion.

The List

1)  Relationships of children with opposite-gender adults

In general, I think LDS boys are far more likely to have multiple positive relationships with adult women and more feelings of trust toward adult women than LDS girls are to have positive relationships and general feelings of trust toward adult men.

Part of this comes from parenting: the number of mothers who are physically or emotionally absent is rising, but remains low relative to the number of physically or emotionally absent fathers. And even in cases where both mother and father are highly involved in the family, I would imagine that statistically, boys tend to feel closer to their mothers than girls to their fathers.

Part of this comes from the community: while many girls will have positive associations with the Priesthood, girls' childhood relationships with priesthood holders are likely to be more distant than young boys' relationships with a Primary President, Primary Chorister (who may be one of the key charismatic figures in many children's ward experience), and a majority of Primary teachers. Sisters in the ward in general are probably also more likely to give positive attention and signals of approachability to boys than brothers in the ward in general are likely to give  positive attention and signals of approachability to girls.

Part of this also comes from the broader society and media: while there are periodic news stories of female teachers sexting or otherwise harassing male students, people don't tend to internalize them and warn their boys about female predators. There are far more stories in the news of male predators, and many parents have internalized them and overtly or implicitly trained girls to act with caution and fear toward unfamiliar men. Beyond the news, there are probably far more fictional media portrayals of aggressive, overbearing, and dangerous men than of women who pose a danger to children.

For all these reasons, I suspect that boys will have an easier time bonding and feeling safe with women than girls with men.

2) Degree of Scripted Life Expectations for Youth (Mission and Marriage)

Thirty years or so ago, there may not have been as much of a gender gap here, but in today's church culture young men have a much more standardized script of expectations for their early adulthood while young women are left with a somewhat more open story of what to expect from their future.

LDS young men are typically trained to expect to serve a full-time mission as a rite of passage, while young LDS women are taught to seek individual inspiration as to whether they should serve as full-time missionaries. Recent changes in the age of missionary service will make it easier for women to fit full-time missionary service into their lives, but were not accompanied by strengthened calls for young women to consider missionary service as a rite of passage. Probably, the position of missionary work as normative for young men and a matter of choice for young women will continue.

Because marriage is a central religious value, both LDS young men and young women are taught to prepare for marriage. But there's significantly more discussion for young women about how preparation for marriage does not always result in marriage: most young women are taught to consider the possibilities of not finding a spouse or of losing a spouse to death or divorce. Perhaps because most cultures still expect men to initiate relationships, there seems to be less sympathetic attention to the possibility of young men failing to find a spouse. Possibly because of higher remarriage rates for men, there also seems to be less attention to encouraging men to prepare to function effectively as a single parent in the event of a spouse's death or divorce.

LDS young men are also expected to prepare to serve their families as economic providers in addition to their emotional roles as husbands and fathers. Young women are counseled to obtain as much education as possible, but with more varied expectations as to how that education might serve them as individuals, as mothers, as citizens and community volunteers, and as economic providers as circumstances require. 

In general, I think young LDS men are raised with more fixed or rigid expectations for the next steps in their lives, while young LDS women are raised with more conditional counsel and circumstance-based caveats as far as their expectations for adulthood.

3) Volunteering

One small area where my wife and I have noticed what seems to be a gender difference is in volunteer sign-ups within the church. While the calling system seems to work in similar ways for most men and women, Relief Society sisters seem (anecdotally) far more likely to volunteer to fulfill individual assignments than their male counterparts--especially than the younger adult men in Elders' Quorum. Specifically, my wife has noted that volunteer assignments in Relief Society seem to be filled more evenly by members of the group, while Elders' Quorum volunteer assignments seem to be filled disproportionately by a few quorum members.

It's hard to say what exactly is happening here. It may be that the higher percentage of men than women with full time employment is the explanation, though I suspect that women who work full time are still more likely to volunteer than men who work full time. I've noticed that many married men in Elders' Quorums I've served in don't feel comfortable volunteering for something without checking with their wives first--and then often forget to check. My wife has not noticed the same pattern among women--most sign up without waiting for a discussion with their spouse.

Maybe women on average feel more emotionally invested in the lives of other ward members, and are therefore more quick to contribute. Maybe men on average feel less mentally prepared to handle variations from their standard schedules. Maybe Relief Societies, drawing on larger numbers of women, tend to be better organized than the smaller separated Elders' Quorums and High Priests' groups.

Assuming that there are broad differences in volunteering culture between men and women throughout much of the church, and not just in wards where I've served, it suggests a different gender-based experience of how small task volunteer sign-ups are perceived and received.

4) Adult intra-gender relationships, especially across generations

In theory, the Church provides great structures for both brotherhood and sisterhood. But in practice, I suspect that there is slightly more tension and distance on average in a ward or branch's relationships between men than between women--especially across generations.

My sense is that there's a higher chance of annoyance or tension in relationships between men than between women in the church. This is especially clear if you look at inter-generational relationships: most younger women seem to deeply enjoy having older women in Relief Society with them, while many younger men seem a little more susceptible to annoyance or resentment toward some older men and vice-versa.

There are many theories, of course, as to why women may got along with each other better than men. At least in some cultures, men tend to make slightly more rapid and action-oriented decisions about how to handle problems while women tend to take more time, pay more attention to relationships, and work more to build consensus. Women's slightly different average patterns of focus may make it easier for them to manage relationships in a larger group. Conflicts for power between generations of men may be more deeply ingrained throughout our culture than conflicts for power between generations of women, leaving women's relationships with each other a little less complicated by the general baggage of culture.


I chose the examples above because they seem important, but I don't know how they relate to the idea of equality.

It seems like girls deserve better relationships with adult men, but I'm sort of hesitant to call that an equality issue. Maybe that's because our society typically uses "equality" in contrast to active oppression and I just don't see an oppressor here. Maybe it's because our culture typically treats greater roles for women as the answer to gender inequality, while in this case, better quality seems to require more active roles for men. 

While I see a clear difference in how our culture treats life expectations for young men and women, I honestly have no idea which gender gets it better. If we think that equality means treating everyone the same, should we make young men's expectations more open, or young women's more concrete? If we're OK with treating young men and young women differently so long as we're treating them all in the best way we can imagine, then are more concrete expectations good for young men? And are more flexible expectations good for young women? Why?

Volunteer sign-ups seem to be set up basically the same way in both Priesthood and Relief Society classes. So why does there seem to be a disparity in how they're received? Would it be better if men in Elders' Quorums had a different system for small task volunteering than their female counterparts? Why or why not?

And if it's true that women have stronger intra-gender relationships on average, does that mean there's plenty of room for men to improve? Should we be talking about closing a relationship gap? How different are male and female ways of building relationships--and could men be learning something applicable from women on this issue?

We do have trouble talking about gender inequality in the church. But can we talk about gender differences in experience in a way that's more productive, a way that can ultimately increase the quality of experience for men and women in the church? 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eric James Stone Recommendations

In May, I recommended an Eric James Stone story called "A Great Destiny."

Today is apparently Eric James Stone appreciation day, so I'd like to take a moment to recommend a few more of his stories.

"Loophole" is a relatively early story of his that shows that Mormon comedy can actually be funny. I especially recommend it to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"The Ashes of His Fathers" is the one I personally find most moving. It brings old, epic values of sacrifice, the search for dignity, and heroic compassion into a tidy, bureaucratic futuristic setting. Beautiful and unexpected. It's also wonderful for showing how a character can find meaning in his faith without requiring any kind of faith from the reader. That's a gift of Eric's that shows up in several of his other stories as well.  

And of course, I have to plug "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made," which explores what Mormonism might mean to aliens far older and more advanced than us. And what it's like to be stuck without a date in the middle of the sun. 

In all seriousness: I think the stories we dwell on help us think through and refine our views of life and morality. And so I think it's worth paying attention to and supporting great writers like Eric James Stone who come from our community and aren't afraid to artfully share some of their insights with us and the rest of the world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A student's prayer

Give me a heart-breaking gospel
Give me God's awesome demands
Give me a burden too heavy to hold
in any human hands

Then show me the wounds on my Master
Show me the stripes that he bore
Show me the strength of his silence and teach me
to answer his knock on my door

Monday, December 17, 2012

Prophecy and Climate Change

I taught the lesson in Elders' Quorum last week--it was the last chapter of the Teachings of George Albert Smith book, "Righteous Living in Perilous Times."

In the lesson, President Smith makes brief reference to old prophecies about changing weather: the seas will become tempestuous, he says, and great tornadoes will fall across the land unless mankind repents.

During Smith's tenure as President of the Church during the late 1940s, scientists would have dismissed this kind of thinking as pure religious superstition. Primitive magical thinking. What does human pride have to do with the weather? they would have asked.

Six decades later, our science has changed. An overwhelming majority of scientists today agree that when human restraint has fled, storms and droughts and floods and fires are our pride and power's price.

Now: the Book of Mormon warns against excess and conspicuous consumption. The Doctrine and Covenants warns against inequality and heedless use of wealth. Modern day prophets have counseled in clear and concrete terms about living within our means and avoiding debt, about growing food locally and managing our resources well.

And when the vast majority of human beings disregarded all these warnings, scientists began to release quantitative data to suggest that the weather was in fact destabilizing as a result of human activity.

I don't mean to suggest that the end of the world is coming tomorrow. Or in four days, four decades, or four hundred years.

I'm just wondering...with so many witnesses that we need to live more simply, why are we still so slow to repent?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Poetic Experiment--Alma 7:7-9

I am home from sacrament meeting today to stay with our baby. And so I've been reading Alma 7, which includes some of my favorite Christmas scriptures.

As I read verse 7 and noticed the three "beholds" in that sentence, I started to wonder: might this prophecy have been in verse before its translation? What might it have sounded like if I had the original language?

I don't claim any right to retranslate the Book of Mormon, but I decided to experiment with the basic structure to emphasize the poetic parallels in verses 7-9. You'll notice I've taken a few liberties with the text--I will excuse myself for doing so on the grounds that you already have the correct version and that sometimes getting a few things wrong in a literary variation is worth it if it helps you discover more of what's going on in the source.

Here's Alma's prophecy in my lines:   
For behold: I say to you, many things will come
And behold: one is greater than all others
For behold: the time is not far when the Redeemer will live
and be seen by his people.

Now listen: I do not say
if he will come to us
while he dwells in his mortality.
Yes, listen: the Spirit has not said
if he will come to us
while he is clothed in clay.

Of these things, I do not know:
but there is one thing I know:
that the Lord God has the power
and his Word can do all things.

But behold: the Spirit surely called to me, saying:
"Cry out to this people, saying:
'Repent! And ready the path for the Lord!
Yes, walk in his paths, in his iron-straight paths.
For behold: the kingdom of heaven is coming down
Yes, the Son of Heaven's King is coming down
to dwell on the face of the earth.'" 

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Of Pants and Protest

If you are LDS and on Facebook, there's a pretty good chance you've heard about the drive to make this Sunday "Wear Pants to Church Day" for women. (If not, here's the Joanna Brooks version of the call to action.)
As it happens, my wife and daughter wear pants to church quite frequently. They are typically baggy, brightly colored, and accompanied by long shirts called kameez. They wear them because those are the the kind of clothes they get from cousins and because they're both beautiful and comfortable. Nicole particularly enjoys wearing salwar kameez when she's pregnant, since drawstrings are way easier on a changing belly than rigid Western-style sizes. As far as I know, the women in my family have only had compliments on these clothes.

I have never worn a skirt to church. But my home teaching companion, who is Fijian, often wears the kind of wrap that's common on his island. I don't think that bothers anybody either, and I know that a lot of people enjoy seeing him worship in clothes he associates with tradition and reverence.

So: I'm not bothered if the people who are trying to organize this event wear pants (for women) and purple ties (for men) to their wards' meetings on Sunday. Why shouldn't they?

But here's a confession: I feel pretty uncomfortable with using the internet to organize just about anything symbolic that people carry into their regular wards on a certain day.

It just strikes me as potentially factionalizing. If we decide it's a good idea for people to wear pants this Sunday to show they agree with x or y perspective on gender, what sort of precedent do we set? What happens next year if someone starts a Facebook group asking Mormons to wear red if they think their government is off track? Or to wear hats if they think 1930s Mormonism was way better than today's?

The hope, of course, is that wearing pants (or red or hats) would start productive conversations. But I worry that it would actually just take the focus from the ward family and the inner spirit of worship, where it belongs, to, well...Facebook stuff. I worry that by starting a movement on the internet and importing it into our churches, we'd also risk importing internet comment culture and petty divisions into our churches. And we don't want that. Or at least I don't want that.

By Sundays, I'm tired of Facebook. I want God.

And I want to see God's face in my brothers' and sisters' faces. I don't want to worry about where I stand relative to conscious messages of protest or faction coded into their clothes.

So...could we maybe ask people to change their profile pictures next time we want to raise awareness for something? And just let everyone come to church ready to worship and in their own usual Sunday best--whether that means salwar kameez, Fijian wraps, or cowboy boots and jeans.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Midrash Tanhuma on Wine

 I should be grading papers. But instead, I am reading in Midrash Tanhuma. And I just ran across a very cool story about Noah's vineyard:
When Noah set out to plant the vine, Satan encountered him and asked upon what errand he was bent. "I am going to plant the vine," said Noah. "I will gladly assist you in this good work," said Satan. When the offer of help was accepted Satan brought a sheep and slaughtered it on the plant, then a lion, then a pig, and finally a monkey. He thus explained these symbols to Noah. When a man tastes the first few drops of wine he will be as harmless as a sheep; when he tastes a little more he will become possessed of the courage of a lion and think himself as strong; should he further indulge in the liquid produced by your plant he will become as objectionable as a pig; and by yet further indulgence in it he will become like a monkey.
I am definitely using that next time I get to teach a lesson on the Word of Wisdom. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Giveaway Winner (and some Trivia)

According to an online random number generator, the two copies of The Five Books of Jesus from last week's contest should go to Scholarstastic. I must say the random number generator chose well--two copies of this book is a fun wedding present! 

Congratulation, Scholarstastic. Please email me your address so I can send them to you.

I said I would also provide some additional information about the people entrants seemed most interested in. In total, entrants chose nineteen individuals.

Thirteen appear in The Five Books of Jesus:
The Leper of Matt. 8:1-4, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Martha, John, the Centurion in Capernaum, the Woman from the Tyre/Sidon region, Joanna, Chuza, Nathanael, Thomas, Mary and Joseph.
Six don't show up in the book (all but one of whom are unique to the gospel of John):
Nicodemus, the Woman Taken in Adultery, the Woman at the Well (in Samaria), the woman who washes Jesus' feet with her hair, Lazarus, the boy with the loaves and fishes. 
 A few interesting facts related to three of these people: 

Lepers. In my research, I learned that 95% of people are naturally immune to leprosy. Which may explain why it carried such a strong stigma in the ancient world--because most people didn't get sick when leprosy spread in an area, it may have seemed even more than other diseases like a condemnation from God. The lepers Jesus heals likely thought of their own condition as both physical and spiritual. They must have felt a sense of pardon as well as of strength. 

The Woman from "the coasts of Tyre and Sidon." One story that's troubling to many modern Christians is the account in Mark 7:24-30 where Jesus calls a foreign woman a dog. Is he racist? Is he sexist? Is he just plain rude? What's going on? 
As I researched for the book, I realized that the strangest thing about this story is that it's physically quite distant from all the stories around it. Why would Jesus walk for days just to turn someone away? 
I wonder whether Jesus went specifically for this encounter. And whether the location of this encounter near the OT village of Zarephath was significant and would have meant a great deal to the apostles who accompanied him. 
Joanna. The gospels briefly mention a follower of Jesus named Joanna, who was the wife of Herod's steward Chuza. It's pretty interesting that the gospels don't mention any of the bigger, Hellenized cities in Galilee (like the capital, Tiberias) where Herod himself would have spent most of his local time. And yet someone from his "household" sought out Jesus. The hint that someone like Joanna existed is fascinating.   

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Song for the House of Jared

My latest poem is up on Real Intent. Off the top of my head, I can't remember having heard another poem involving the Jaredites before. Which is too bad, because their story is one of my favorite parts of the Book of Mormon--it's been interesting this time through the Book of Mormon with my family to notice how much the Jaredites are referred to one way or another long before the Book of Ether.

If you're in the mood for something more Biblical, there are also still two days left in the giveaway for two copies of The Five Books of Jesus.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Christmas Offer and Book Giveaway

Christmas Offer

A few people have expressed interest in purchasing multiple copies of The Five Books of Jesus to give as Christmas gifts. The book is $12.95 plus shipping on Amazon, but if you'd like five or more copies for $10 each (and free shipping to most countries), feel free to send me an email (to james dot goldberg at gmail dot com). I'd be happy to send you a holiday package of copies I order at my lower author rate.

The book makes a good Christmas present for a wide range of people because it:
-pays off both intellectually and emotionally
-respects faith without expecting it from every reader
-finds beauty in human moments that are both simple and surprising

Book Giveaway

Another reason the book makes a good Christmas present is that it's about Jesus--and about the culture of giving and service he taught, and which his disciples preserved and passed on.

Many people are mentioned in the gospels as followers of Jesus during his lifetime. If you could have any two of them come to visit you, who would you choose and why?

Answer in the comments to be entered into a drawing for two copies of The Five Books of Jesus. Share your answer and a link to this post on Facebook, through Twitter, or in an email to friends and comment to say you've done so to have your name entered a second time.

On December 1st, I'll randomly select and announce a winner and write a little bit about the disciples people seem most interested in meeting. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Doctrinal Speculation

I don't know where I first heard the theory that resurrection is an ordinance, and that when the day comes, Jesus will send us out to resurrect each other.

I don't know if that's how resurrection will actually happen, or if it's doctrinally sound--but it's a beautiful story. I love the image of people being raised from the dead and then immediately going out to bless and wake others, to place hands on heads and ask God to clothe naked spirits in fresh perfection. 

Here's the thing: even the story isn't accurate, I think it's true. In the sense that it can wake a profound truth within the listener about our connections to each other and about the kind of hope the promise of this earth's end can bring.

On Real Intent, I wrote a poem that builds off this idea to imagine a moment in which Elijah Abel gives the blessing to raise Brigham Young. Only after writing the poem did I realize that many LDS readers have probably not heard the idea of resurrection as ordinance that the poem invokes, especially seeing as it's speculation rather than standard Mormon belief. And only when I thought about the speculation element did it occur to me that I'd need to give some kind of disclaimer to share the resurrection-as-ordinance story.

And that made me think about how we tend to have mixed feelings in the Church today about speculative religious stories or ideas which aren't confirmed doctrines. Part of that suspicion is good. There are plenty of chain email type stories which may be inspiring, but are also deeply problematic. And there have been many doctrinal speculations that were actively harmful, from the heresy of one true soul mate in Saturday's Warrior to racist stories that built up around the 1846-1978 priesthood restrictions. So I can see why we care about patrolling the line between doctrine and speculation.

And yet...

Mormon religious imagination is so rich and varied I'd hate to stifle it too much. Does a grain of sand contain an intelligence that demands justice? Was Melchizedek a title for the ancient patriarch Shem? Did our spirits act as angels until it was our turn to be embodied on earth? Are the Three Nephites still serving across the earth today, heedless of modern nations' insistence that all wanderers be documented?

We don't know. And because we have no good reason for needing to know in this life, we are unlikely to find out. At least not until take the advanced trivia class in the Spirit World MTC, or our mortal blood is swapped out for divine light, or until Elijah Abel puts his hands on our heads just after breakfast on the morning of the first resurrection...

We don't know. But we can imagine. And maybe by opening our imaginations, we'll have eyes for deeper truths.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gesturing toward the Kingdom

I was just looking through my book for quotes of the day to post on Facebook and ran across this passage:
"What if  soldiers give us trouble?" says the southern Simon.

"The laws of their kingdom say an armed soldier can make an unarmed man carry his pack for a mile," says Jesus. "But if one does, go two miles to show him that in God's kingdom, it's the strong who will help carry the burdens of the weak.

"The laws of their kingdom say a soldier can slap us with the back of his hand, like he would strike a slave," says Jesus. "But if one does, turn your face so he has to slap you with an open hand, the way he would challenge an equal!"
 The concepts of going the extra mile and turning the other cheek are so deeply ingrained in our culture it's possible to think of them as common sense rather than radical teachings. But I find myself moved by these ideas again and again when I think about them in their possible context as counterpoints to the accepted order of the world in Jesus' day.

What do I find so beautiful about these sayings? In two simple pieces of advice, Jesus gives his disciples concrete actions they can perform which hint at their belief in a whole different way people could relate to one another. Two simple ways of reacting that highlight the contrast between the dominant mindset and the culture of the Kingdom of God.

Reading today, I find myself just a little envious of those early saints and their gestures.

I don't believe in the dominant assumptions of our age about how power and happiness and progress work. And I do believe that there are better ways we can relate to each other, ways more in line with the Godliness in each of us.

But what gesture do I have today which can compare with the power of going the extra mile or turning the other cheek? What simple actions can I take to show and share my belief in a real alternative to the ways of this world?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Final Campaign Pitches

...for each of the "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" contest finalists.

Because you really do need to take twenty minutes to vote in this election if you want to think of yourself as a decent person after tomorrow. Remember: you need to read at least six of these twelve very short stories and rank your top four in an email to

19th Century

"Little Karl" by Melissa Leilani Larson
Pitch: It's a ghost story with no ghost, a tale that tells us why we're still haunted by our history.

"Ruby's Gift" by Emily Debenham
Pitch: A father's sacrifice is a burden for his whole family: how will they choose to carry it? A subtle, thoughtful story about the costs and blessings of service.

"Numbers" by Melody Burris
Pitch: We are how we see. Melody's story creates engaging characters through their distinct ways of seeing.

20th Century 

"Maurine Whipple, age sixteen, takes a train north" by Theric Jepson
Pitch: The story is made up, but the names are real. Voting for this story about two past Mormon writers gives you Mormon Lit street cred. Which everyone needs...

"When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs" by Steven Peck
Pitch: Mormons are known for valuing practicality. This story presses that value just past its limit (which is just where a good story should go).

"Something Practical" by Melody Burris
Pitch: There's a gap sometimes between what we think we want and what we actually need. This story helps close that gap, but only if we're willing to find out what lies beneath the casserole...

21st Century

"The ReActivator" by Wm Morris
Pitch: The lone but capable standard-bearer of serious contemporary realistic fiction. The other stories explore real Mormon dynamics, but this one feels like it might actually happen to real Mormons today.

"Oaxaca" by Anneke Garcia
Pitch: When crises come, we often have an opportunity to see the accumulated effects of our mundane, forgettable, everyday decisions. This story helps give me such a vision in advance.

"The Defection of Baby Mixo" by Mark Penny
Pitch: A smart, surprising piece which feels just a little dangerous to read. Deliciously dangerous? You be the judge.

22nd Century

"Release" by Wm Morris
Pitch: The situation is influenced by Mosiah 24. A key phrase is borrowed from Moses 7:69. The central dynamic brings Matthew 25:37 to new life for me. This story is a symphony of silent scriptures--never referenced, but woven deep into the work's soul.  

"Avek, Who is Distributed" by Steven Peck
Pitch: A professor of mine once referred to long-term optimism as a "Star Trek view of the future." This story has an android apostle in it.

"Waiting" by Katherine Cowley
Pitch: Two of the key recurring motifs of the (allegedly male-centered) Bible pregnancy and birth. This story extends that tradition into Mormon sci-fi, and gives us a compelling human story in the process.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A gentle reminder...

Have you emailed in your vote yet? Mormon Literature needs you!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Digital Waiting Room Sampler

There are lots of blog posts in my brain, but very few are making it out into the world lately.

Since I haven't written much lately, though, I think I'll just refer you to a few articles I'e been meaning to write about:

"The Idea of Abrahamic Religions: A Qualified Dissent" by Jon D. Levenson is pretty interesting. I like his emphasis on Abraham as the founder of a family/people rather than just as an advocate of an ideology. As someone who still believes that God wants to call a people and not just teach good principles, I particularly appreciated the way he treated Paul's thought.

 "The Most Progressive Organization on Earth" by Steve Piersanti is great in bringing out the components of church organizations that are egalitarian, socially leveling, communal, and otherwise delightfully socialist-sounding. ;) I also really identified with his observation that one thing keeping more Latter-day Saints from self-identifying as liberal is the number of self-identifying liberals inside and outside of the Church who complain about how conservative the Church. I know that personally I grow less and less confident in my (now very lukewarm) self-identification as a Democrat when I hear Democrats rag on my religion (especially when those Democrats are also Mormon). I mean: conservative members don't call the church backward for disrupting the free market by assigning people to wards rather than letting them choose. Can't liberal members let certain ideas

While we're on the subject of political self-identification, I'd also like to recommend "Politics Is Not My Religion" by Merrijane Rice. It's become quite common to judge people by their political beliefs--and that's silly. You can vote "wrong" and still be a pretty great person. You can vote "right" and still be a jerk. So...I know it's quick and easy to judge someone by party affiliation. But if you're going to be sinful and judge someone, at least try to do it over things they do in their real lives, and not things they think about policy decisions they have extremely little influence over.

Also on the subject of elections: I highly recommend voting. In the "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" contest. Because wouldn't the next week of November be so much better if fewer people got worked up about Obama or Romney and more people got worked up over Mormon Lit?

 Those are pretty much my suggestions. To round out this sampler, though I'll add quick plugs for my recent poem on Real Intent and an interview with Scott Hales about my book on Modern Modern Men.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest Discussion: The Defection of Baby Mixo

So...remember when I mentioned that we'd be holding a writing contest for short stories dealing with Mormon experience over four centuries? Well, we picked the finalists and (as of today) have posted 3/4ths of them, with our final century of stories coming by the end of this week. As the stories go up, we've also been wandering from blog to blog to discuss each piece. For today's story, Mark Penny's "The Defection of Baby Mixo," I'll be hosting the discussion. Please take a moment to go read this (very short) story and then come back and join our conversation. 

When my persuasive writing students ask about humor, I tell them to be very careful. Humor can work well to set people at ease, I say, or to shake them up just enough to see a familiar issue in a new way. But it can also be divisive and hurtful and generally unhelpful. So as beginners, I don't advise them to play with it if they want to open conversations up--except maybe for some mild self-deprecating humor to show they're not a threat.

But Mark Penny is no beginner, and his story doesn't limit itself to gentle self-deprecation. This is the kind of satire that seems swing at everything in range.

As an editor, I was sold on this story from the third sentence, when Penny hit my prejudices with a zinger to remember. But as a discussion moderator, I have to admit some trepidation. Will this piece give us a productive way to think about some complicated issues (including this one), or does it cross a line from provocative into offensive?

To phrase this another way: can we talk about this story productively? And if so, what does it seem to be inviting us to consider or talk about?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Describing Mormonism Clearly

Just ran across an article in Christianity Today called "The Real Differences Between Mormons and Orthodox Christians." And it's pretty good!

The main take-home idea is that Mormons and historical Christian denominations don't actually differ that much on questions of faith and works or belief in Jesus. Where Latter-day Saints do differ most from others is in our belief about the divine nature and potential of humans.

So what if we emphasized that belief more when invited to explain our theology?

We believe in God, we believe (in a very radical sense) that we are God's children and can become like Him, and we believe that we need Jesus' help for the divinity within us to grow.

We also believe that we are closest to the divine when we serve in our families, communities, and world. And we believe that God has called forth a prophet-led people in the past and again in our era to protect and transmit a heritage of service and faith.

This is pretty close, I think, to what we tell people now--but wouldn't it be nice to emphasize our most divergent belief from the beginning?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Two Memories of Marlin K. Jensen

This past weekend, Elder Marlin K. Jensen was released and made an Emeritus Seventy after 23 years of service as a General Authority of the Church.

I'm sure he deserves the rest, but I will miss him. I met Elder Jensen during my mission and he said two things which meant a lot to me.


The first was during a missionary training he gave. Elder Jensen had just taught us a new way of quickly introducing future discussions to new contacts so that they would know from the beginning what we hoped to teach them, and I was thinking about how helpful these new instructions would be. Then Elder Jensen turned to us and asked, "Where do you think this idea comes from?"

I can't remember what we said, but most of us surely felt that there was an element of inspiration involved. And Elder Jensen agreed--but emphasized that the initial inspiration had come not to a General Authority, but to a missionary in another area. Just a regular Elder who had been thinking about the problem of expressing to new contacts just what missionaries want.

The role of a General Authority, said Elder Jensen, is not to come up with every piece of guidance independently--in most cases, the General Authority's role is to be guided in recognizing which of other people's inspired innovations should be shared with the larger body of the Church. That is to say: revelation comes in pieces to everyone, and the role of an inspired leader is to gather, organize, and transmit it.

This really changed my thinking about how the Church functions. Since hearing from Elder Jensen, I've had a clearer understanding about how individual revelation and presiding revelation work together. Imagine a body in which every cell was able to consciously change and adapt independently, but with a central nervous system that was able to transmit the best of those changes quickly across a whole system or even across the whole body. As the body of Christ, the Church is supposed to work this way: harnessing both our individual creative energies (to seek after new solutions to problems within our stewardships) and our humility (to allow for effective and organized adoption of new inspiration carried to us from elsewhere in the body).

It's easy, as a missionary, to cling to obedience as a simple way to feel in control of an otherwise-overwhelming calling. So I'm grateful to Elder Jensen for gently helping a few missionaries see how obedience is only one element of our larger obligation to serve in our appointed place. 


After the training, Elder Jensen took some time to interview a few missionaries as a way of getting a feel for the work of the mission. My mission president, Erich Kopischke, had asked me to be one of the missionaries Elder Jensen talked to.

I honestly don't remember a single thing Elder Jensen asked me about our work. All I remember from the interview is that at the very end, Elder Jensen stopped asking me questions and asked if I had any questions for him.

"Yes," I said. "Give me a second to think of one--but if I have the opportunity to ask, I'm not going to pass it up!" And then I thought of a simple question. I asked him if there was a certain scripture that had particular meaning for him personally, or that he often found himself thinking about.

And he told me three scripture from different places which made up one complete thought in his mind, one thought that sustained him through the challenges of his own life and work:

The first scripture was John 16:13:
 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
Elder Jensen said the promise is real, but the scripture as whole is a bit puzzling. If the Holy Ghost "speak[s] not of himself" but rather tells you "whatsoever he shall hear," who is he listening to?

To answer that question, he shared a second scripture--Alma 7: 11-12:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
 Elder Jensen said that when he'd really struggled, he'd also often felt the Holy Ghost's influence on him not just as the warm comforter we often think of, but as a messenger from a Savior who knows our sorrows through his own suffering.

And when he thinks about this knowledge of Christ's, Elder Jensen said, one more scripture--2 Ne 9:41--means a great deal to him:
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.
The same Lord who knows us and sends his comfort to us will also judge us. And no one else can--he may send others to serve us, to warn us, to teach us, but there will be no servant at the gate when we meet him in the end.

And it was that thought which gave Marlin Jensen strength. That combination of the knowledge that Christ had sustained him along his path and would meet him at its end.

I can still remember sitting across from this good and humble man, watching him look past me as he talked about Jesus.

To many casual observers today, our apostles and seventies probably look like old men in dark suits. Like boring business stereotypes, hardly worth our attention.

But for a moment, I got to see one of those men filled with longing. The deep longing of a disciple for his Master, of a saint for his Lord.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Frames

Let's say we encounter a carefully crafted piece of language--whether it's a popular novel or a conference talk--and care enough to keep thinking about it, or maybe even to talk with others.

It seems to me that we have at least two possible ways to frame our thoughts or discussion on the work:

1) We look at the work.

What got me thinking about this topic was a blog post I saw yesterday about Elder Holland's conference talk. The post is pretty simple--it summarizes the talk and then invites readers to share their opinions, which is pretty standard formatting for a discussion blog.

But in this case, that standard format felt a little underwhelming to me. And I think it's because talking about a work often presupposes that we are beyond it--that we look down from our established lives and vast knowledge bases. The very act of asking, "How was it?" puts us in the position of evaluator or critic, prioritizing our tastes and attitudes over the message of the work.

2) We let the work look at us.

As I thought about my disappointment with a "How was it?" discussion of General Conference, it occurred to me that we have another option: instead of framing the work as the object of our evaluation, we can try reframing our lives by the work. Rather than asking "How was the talk?", we can ask "How is my life in light of this talk?"

This type of discussion prioritizes the message of the work over our default tastes, attitudes, and experiences. When we frame a work this way, we lend it authority rather than assuming authority over it. 

Therefore. . .what?

In the case of Elder Holland's general conference talk, I definitely prefer the second way of framing to the first, but I don't want to suggest that the moral of this story is that the second kind of framing is better. In fact, I think the second kind of framing is what makes some media so harmful: it's a disaster when people use Hollywood portrayals of romance, for example, as authorities for evaluating their own lives.

I am grateful for parents who taught me, from a very young age, to use the first approach when I watch a commercial--and who taught me, also at a very young age, to use the second approach when I read the gospels. But since most of what I encounter these days falls into the vast space between a toy ad and Jesus, I'm not sure I have a set reflex for how to frame the messages I encounter. 

Sometimes, I miss out on a great sermon or artwork because I'm too busy deciding what I think of it to let it really change my thinking.

Other times, I lend an article or story too much power by applying it to my life when I should be thinking about whether it's good and reliable first.

I hope, though, that thinking consciously about these two types of frames will help me choose better which way to frame things. And I hope that being aware of this framing choice will help me recognize more clearly how conversations already happening around me are framed, giving me a clearer choice to either accept or reject the frame rather than simply getting pulled into it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Family is the Fundmental Unit of the Revolution

Yup. That's pretty much what I believe.

Some details are sketched out in a guest blog post Jocelyn Christensen invited me to write as part of multi-blog celebration of "The Family: A Proclamation to the World."

Friday, September 28, 2012

A thought on happiness

Today I feel kinda sick and completely drained.

Once upon a time, I thought this is what happens to everyone if they don't sleep enough. Then a few years ago, in the follow up a while after a completely successful cancer surgery, doctors noticed that I have persistently low white blood cell counts. Since it was cancer doctors who noticed this, they were a little alarmed: did I somehow get cancer in my bones? They did a marrow biopsy and found out that no, I didn't have more cancer. Just a freakishly high percentage of fat instead of marrow in my bones, probably since birth.

"Do you get sick a lot?" asked my doctor.

"I don't think so," I said--and then realized I might not be qualified to identify "a lot," since I have sort of a skewed sense of what constitutes normal.

I am rarely too sick to function, but often mildly sick. If I rest, I get better soon. If I don't rest, I get more and more tired until I'm ready to fall asleep on any available floor space. Home or office. Usually a few steps from the door.

Today should be an exciting day. A production of one of my plays is opening. I have my first post up on a cool new group blog. My book is not only out, but also selling far more quickly than I'd expected. And the entries for the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest are looking awesome so far.

But the day is not exciting. Because I'm feeling too drained to be very excited or have much fun in the standard sense.

Here's the thing, though--I'm pretty sure I'm still happy. I don't necessarily feel it, but I don't think happiness has to be a joyous feeling. What if it's just a quiet confidence, in the back of your mind, that you're doing your best to live in harmony with God and your fellow men? What if it's the subtle peace just under your skin that says your deepest commitments matter?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Now Available--The Five Books of Jesus

I'd always thought of the Jordan River as straight.

It's not, of course, as you can see in the cover image. Rivers only run straight in our minds. Between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, the Jordan twists and turns time and time again. It's wider at some points and narrower at others, sometimes deep and slow, others shallow and swift.

When I was young, I thought I knew the story of Jesus. But just like with the Jordan River, it's easy to overlook the twists and turns when you know where a story ends. 

The core plot of my book is probably the best known story in the world--a story whose influence reaches far beyond the bounds of religious Christianity. But from the very first chapters of The Five Books of Jesus, I can promise I'll give you that story in a way that feels new, that invites you to notice its forgotten twists and turns. 

 How to start the journey

The book is available in both print and ebook formats. The print version, which is prettier, normally sells at $12.95 plus shipping. The ebook, which delivers faster, sells for $2.99.

To get a print copy, you have three options:

Amazon: USA, UK, Germany
-If you order enough to get free shipping and live away from Utah Valley, I recommend ordering the book on Amazon.

Amazon Create Space
-This is a store to buy directly from Create Space. They don't give free shipping, but they do allow me to create coupon codes. So if you're ordering just this book and paying shipping anyway, enter the code HXT5UDZL to get 10% off the book price.

Pre-order from me
-I get a low rate when I purchase directly, so I can offer $10 copies to anyone who's able to drop by my BYU office to say hello and pick theirs up. Just email james dot goldberg at gmail dot com to preorder as many copies as you would like, and I'll email back to let you know when they come in.

To order an ebook copy, you have two options (with more on the way):

Kindle Store: USA, UK, Germany
-The cover and "look inside" features are up already in the Kindle Store, so this is a good place to go even if you don't have a Kindle to get a feel for the book. If you have a Kindle, ordering from the Kindle store is the easiest way to start reading right away.

-If you read ebooks on a device other than a Kindle, or if you think Amazon is a dangerous 800-pound gorilla and wish to avoid patronizing them, you can buy the book in various formats--including ePub-- through Smashwords.

In the future, the ebook should also be available through the Barnes & Noble online ebook store and through Apple's online store. If you use a Nook or Apple device, you can get a Smashwords ePub file now or wait a week or two for the book to become available in those sales channels.

Sharing your progress and spreading the word

If you like what you read, I hope you'll let people know what you think, and help spread the word about this book's existence.

I've set up a Facebook Discussion group for anyone who'd like to discuss the book as they read--or who'd like to discuss the book chapter-by-chapter after they finish. In addition to giving you a chance to talk about the book, the discussion group will give your Facebook friends a chance to glance over your shoulder, as it were, to see what you're reading.

There's also a Goodreads page for the book--if you use Goodreads, I hope you'll mark when you start and when you finish, and take time to leave a review when you do.

And of course, it would be wonderful if you could leave a customer review on the Amazon page, and if you'd tell your friends what you thought of the book--good or bad, I'll be happy just to know my work is being talked about.

Thank you all for your interest in this project--and to so many of you for your support through the process. I hope you enjoy the Five Books of Jesus, and I hope that someday we get a chance to talk about it!

-James Goldberg
25 September 2012


Saturday, our ward and the next ward over were assigned to clean our building in preparation for the broadcast of the Brigham City Temple dedication yesterday. 

Ordinarily, a few families go in on Saturday to tidy up a bit, but since our meetinghouse was going to serve as an extension of the Temple for a few hours, the bishop asked everyone in the ward who could make it on Saturday morning to come.

We started with breakfast: the bishop heated tortillas for us and his counselor offered grilled potatoes and peppers, eggs, cheese, and salsa to fill them. We got time to talk and enjoy the food while our leaders literally served us, blessed to be able to take for granted that aspect of Jesus' teachings.

After breakfast, we went in to the building. The Relief Society president had drawn up lists of tasks to be done, and people fell into place working. Because of my height, my job was to take down light covers in the hall. I would then hand them to my friends' four-year-old daughter, Mary, who would carry them out the doors so the young women (with help from my eight-year-old daughter) could clean them out without dropping dust or dead bugs on the church carpet in the process.

As we worked, Mary and I would sometimes pause to help out with another task. We helped the Relief Society president bring some things to a closet and stayed to pack them in, so that she could go back to answering people's questions. ("I feel like all I'm doing to help is talking," she told me. "Your brain makes it easier  for everyone else to work," I said.) We helped the Executive Secretary get the covers off the lights in the Clerk's office. And then we'd always go back to getting light covers off through the long hallways and in the classrooms, walking past people happily at work on our right and on our left. 

After maybe an hour of work, we passed Mary's mom, who was cleaning with some other ward members in the Elders' Quorum room.

"Your daughter's a really hard worker," I said.

"She's having an easier time here than at home," she said back. 

"I guess that's the Beehive effect," I joked. "Work is better when we're all together."

But here's the thing: it really was. I spent my whole morning with my arms above my head, taking off plastic light covers until I wore away the outside layer of the skin on my thumbs and scraped up all my knuckles on the ceiling, and it felt so good. I mean: how can you not feel good when a four-year-old girl is working steadily alongside you, feeling strong and important as she carries pieces of plastic up and down the hall? How can you not feel good when you see your daughter working next to young women and the women who guide them, wrapped in their sense of belonging and purpose? How can you not feel good when everywhere you look there are people who believe that this work means something, who see their simple labors as part service and part worship?

Last week, I wrote a post about how organized religion can be useful. Today I want to say that it's also beautiful to me, that there's something hard-wired into my biology and inherent in my immortal soul which can't help but find such harmony stirring.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A thought on organized religion

I want to talk about the increasing American antipathy for organized religion. But I think I'll talk about hurricanes first. 

On the way home from work today, I listened to an interview with Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist who has studied natural disaster response. His main point (which he also argues in a short NYT article) is that in a disaster situation, deep social connections and shared trust matter more than money, education, or numerous other factors.

This is, of course, no surprise to Latter-day Saints--though the details are interesting. Aldrich mentions, for example, that you are far more likely to be successfully dug out of rubble after an earthquake if a neighbor knows where in the house you sleep. (Suggested Sunday school question: "If your home or visiting teachees were buried in a pile of rubble tomorrow, would you know where to dig?") In so many small ways, we are prepared to bless each other in hard times as we come to know and trust each other in easy ones. What we earn through countless minor acts of service and interaction is a gradual strengthening of our shared social capital.

But if neighbors are more likely to save our lives than money is, why aren't more people investing in their local social capital supplies?

Probably because it's a long, potentially boring process where most of the payout is delayed. Sort of like saving for retirement later instead of going out to eat now. Or working on a long-term relationship instead of looking for another new romance.

Most people in any culture would prefer to do what's interesting now rather than what pays off in the future. And Americans are particularly prone to this, because we value freedom and we value being current and we value having stuff we can touch. So having to give up your own freedom to spend regular time with neighbors can feel stifling, neighborhood values can seem old-fashioned or lame, and spending time with people can feel unproductive if there's no acquisition of objects involved. 

This is where organized religion comes in. Organized religions often facilitate organic, local growth of shared social capital by making demands of us: we have to gather together to worship, and we have to do small acts of kindness for each other, and we have to sit and talk--and even listen to the people around us. We are expected to do these things even when we could be doing things that are more interesting or timely or short-term "productive." Religion calls on us, reminds us, to do things we might easily neglect without its voice.

Can a person be spiritual without being religious? Yes. Can love your fellow men without organizing with any of them around shared beliefs? Absolutely.  Can choose your own path in life without dealing with the pressures of an Institution? Sure. 

But I'm thankful for a religion with organized demands. Because, speaking from both personal experience and statistical evidence, it's my religion as much as my spirituality that has led me to invest in others, day by day, in ways that will prepare us to endure difficult times--however they may come.

It's my religion that will call to me the moment after the storm comes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Two Good Men

I just ran across a two-week old interview in Time Magazine in which Barack Obama was asked to list a few things he admires about his opponent. Here's what he said:
He strikes me as somebody who is very disciplined. And I think that that is a quality that obviously contributed to his success as a private-equity guy. I think he takes his faith very seriously. And as somebody who takes my Christian faith seriously, I appreciate that he seems to walk the walk and not just be talking the talk when it comes to his participation in his church.
For all the clamor and contention of politics, I am certainly grateful to have two candidates to choose from who value both hard work and humility. And I'm touched to think that both Presidential candidates seem to have strong faith rooted in their personal experiences seeing Christian service in action and not out of any desire for political gain--in a way, it's strangely comforting to see this level of success for two faithful followers of Jesus who so many Americans are unwilling to accept as "Christian."

Personally, I prefer Obama's policies to Romney's. I admired his determination to expand Americans' access to health care and  would love to see him defend it (even if his program turns out not to work, I have a soft spot for noble failure). I thought he did an excellent behind-the-scenes job finding the right level of response to the Libyan crisis and would love to have him serve for another four years as the face of American government to countries around the world.

That said, I respect Romney's strong personal commitment to service and community. In the long term, I think volunteer service is better than bureaucracy, and if more people freely gave as much of their time, energy, and resources to others as he has, his running mate's debt-slashing policies would probably work just fine. Since most Americans don't live in service-driven communities, I'm skeptical--but I think Romney's failure would be every bit as noble as Obama's.

Their hearts are good--even if contemporary campaign culture often makes them pettier than they need to be. They both seem to be trying hard to do what's right and what they think is best for the country--even if they turn out to be wrong.

So can we give them some credit for that? We have to choose which candidate to vote for, but most of us don't have a professional or personal obligation to despise the other.

Can we judge these men, perhaps, as we might want to be judged? 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

FAQ: Do Mormons Really Believe They Can Become Gods?

Short answer: 


Unpacking the question: 

This question has been coming up lately from two groups who might be surprised how much they have in common with each other. Religious conservatives often bring up the belief to show that Mormons are unorthodox and blasphemous and shouldn't be listened to.  Secular cultural liberals don't see "unorthodox" or "blasphemous" as negative labels, so they bring up the belief to cast Mormons as weird (secular for "unorthodox") and arrogant (secular for "blasphemous") and not worth listening to (no translation necessary).

Now, someone who is trying to say Latter-day Saints aren't worth listening to is probably not going to listen to an answer to this question. Which is too bad, because it's actually a question that gets at some of our most fundamental beliefs.

And while I will freely admit that this particular LDS belief is far outside the cultural mainstream, I think it is a greater influence for good on us than most observers realize. 

Long answer:

Most Western religions teach that we are primarily God's creations: beings he made (in his image, no less!) to find joy and to help complete the beauty of the universe. Most Eastern religions teach that we are actually a part of God: that a portion of him is manifest in every being and that we will eventually merge back into God as a drop returns to the sea.

Latter-day Saints join Western religions in treating humans as beings who exist separate from God, but join Eastern religions in interpreting our true natures as radically divine. In our view, the soul is the seed that contains the tree. Or the tiny atom whose mass quietly contains incredible quantities of energy. God, as a distinct and separate individual, is with us, watching over us, and communicating with us--but his full Divinity is also in us, waiting to be allowed to unfold.

This view is not an obscure Mormon teaching--it's a basic assumption for many Latter-day Saints. And it informs the way we look at several issues. For example:

Parenting. One reason family matters so much to Latter-day Saints is that we believe so fully in parent-child relationships as a manifestation of the divine. We believe our souls are still children even as our bodies become parents, but that in earthly parenting we can experience a portion of God's identity and unlock our own divinity in the process. Learning to be a good parent is, in Mormon terms, the most direct route toward learning to be like God.

Facing Adversity. For most Western religions, God created the universe. For most Eastern religions, God is the universe. And either of those views raises a significant question: if God is good, why do bad things happen? In a Latter-day Saint view, the cores of our souls (called "intelligences") are eternal in both directions: they have always existed and will always exist. God didn't create himself and he didn't create the innermost core of us--he is a God partly because he so fully understands us and processes by which we can grow into our divinity. And so for Latter-day Saints, adversity is not a flaw in the universe so much as an opportunity for growth. Our reputation for rising to face difficulty comes in part from the example of our history, but also from our beliefs about the nature of our own souls.

Sin. There are numerous reasons to believe sin is bad. There may be consequences. It's against the rules. It will disappoint someone you care about. It can hurt people. But our belief in the endless potential within every human being allows us to focus on another reason sin is bad: sin damages us, it dams our eternal progression. And so after we sin, we don't just seek forgiveness--we are looking for healing, asking Christ to help mend and nourish our damaged divinity. And when we live good lives, we can feel how much more they're in harmony with the impulse of growth within us.

So do Mormons believe we can become Gods in the afterlife? Absolutely. But it's not like we sit around all day and dream about that future in cartoon terms. For most Latter-day Saints, our divine potential matters now: as we watch our children grow, when we face trials and adversity, when we seek healing through Jesus Christ's Atonement.

And if anything, I wish we would talk about this controversial part of our doctrine a little bit more. One thing I think Latter-day Saints have to offer to our neighbors and friends of other faiths is just a little sense of wonder about whether our most sacred humans traits--our interest in creating and organizing, our capacity for empathy and imagination, our longing to nurture and to serve, our innate abhorrence for cruelty and evil--are really signs of a radical godliness that is already part of every human soul.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Judging my book by its cover

After two summers of obsessive, consuming work, Nicole and I finished revising my book last night. It may still be a few weeks until it's publicly available--my copy editor is waiting with a list of missing and misplaced s's to correct, and I'll want to go carefully through the first printed proof before launching--but the book is essentially ready now.

I'm biased, of course, but I think it's really beautiful.

Which is why I'm so glad I commissioned Nick Stephens, an artist whose work I've admired, to create the cover: 

I love the way he's blended the two simple images of the Jordan river and the dove with the geometric texture of the background.

I hope my book has achieved something similar: to tell an important story simply, but with a texture based in underlying patterns that give meaning to the most mundane of moments--a bird swooping down over the water, a man breaking bread with his friends.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Five Books of Jesus Excerpt: Story of a Vineyard

            The next day is the Sabbath, and Jesus is invited to preach in the congregation of a village that stands at the base of the mountain, built on the ruins of what was once an important city. He takes the scroll gently in his hands, opens it slowly, and reads:
I will sing to my Beloved a song of his vineyard. My Love had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
He plowed the land and cleared it, and planted good vines;
he built a tower and a winepress for the harvest that would come.
But when he gathered the grapes, they weren’t sweet but sour.
Though he’d tended the vines well, they bore wild fruit.
Judge, men of Israel, between my Love and his vineyard!
What more could the Keeper of the Vineyard have done?
            “I knew a man once,” says Jesus after he rolls up the scroll and sits down, “who tended a fig tree for his father. For three years, the father waited to taste the tree’s fruit, but for three years it produced nothing. ‘Why are we still waiting?’ said the father of the man I knew, ‘The soil is good: if this tree gives us nothing, why don’t we cut it down?’ But the man asked his father for one more year. ‘Let me care for it a little longer,’ he said. ‘If it bears fruit, we’ll rejoice together. If not, we’ll cut it down.’”
            Jesus stops there and closes his eyes. It’s silent in the assembly for a moment.
            “What happened to the tree?” says someone from the back. 
            Jesus opens his eyes. “I don’t know,” he says. “Before the year was up, some of the father’s servants killed his son.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Naming the Eras in Church History

As part of my preparation as an editor for the "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" contest, I've been thinking a lot about how different moments in Mormon history might have felt at the time, and about what sorts of broad patterns we might see in the next two hundred years of Mormonism's future.

As part of my research, I ran across an old blog post by Dave Banack, in which he first tried to identify the main themes we use to describe 19th century Mormon history, and then asked whether we even have a way to talk about any big patterns in 20th century Mormon history.

In the spirit of Banack's project, and as a possible brainstorming aid for contest writers, I've tried to put together my own list of possible large pattern "grand narratives" for the Mormon past and future. I've decided to post them here because I think we can all learn about the gospel by thinking about what it might have meant to different people at different times.

The big stories I see:

Early 19th Century: Becoming Saints

Banack calls this "The Restoration of the Gospel," and I agree with him that it's the main theme of early Mormon history. But if we're trying to get at what the history felt like at the time (which Banack, by the way, isn't concerned with), I prefer the phrase "Becoming Saints."

Here's why. During graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for the Joseph  Smith Papers Project and spent a lot of time poring over the minutes to early church meetings and councils, trying to figure out how different early practices evolved. And in the process, I developed a deep admiration for people who committed their lives to the idea of being Latter-day Saints without having a clear idea what such saints would look like yet. For the first generation of Mormons, I think the story of their faith was a story of feeling around and finding out what the faith would look like. They faced dilemmas and held councils to seek revelation--then had to live with the revelations, or gradually grow alienated with the movement. They made bold plans and watched some succeed and others seem to fail, yielding experience it sometimes took them years more to find a use for. And line upon line, precept upon precept, they learned what it might mean to be Latter-day Saints.

The story, of course, isn't exclusive to this period. My own aunt grew up Mormon in India at a time when the church was very young and small there, and didn't find out until she was fourteen that tea was against the Word of Wisdom. So although she already was a Latter-day Saint, the expansion of the church in her area gave her a similar experience to the first generation of Latter-day Saints. But it was the dominant story of the early period--finding out where Mormonism was headed was a central part of what Mormons did.

Late 19th Century:Building the Kingdom

Banack calls the next big story in church history "pioneers moving West," but because that tends to evoke historically narrow images of oxen teams and handcarts crossing the plains in the 1850s, I prefer "building the kingdom."

By this I mean that most Latter-day Saints in the late 1800s saw themselves as literally building up the Kingdom of God in geographical space. For most, this did involve physical movement and labor building up physical communities. Many Mormons moved west to Utah during this period. Many also moved north and south out of Utah to develop settlements from Mexico to Canada. And many who went to serve missions to gather Israel also saw themselves as gathering good ideas to help build a new culture and nation.

Salt Lake City in this period seems to have seen itself as an innovative cultural center. Though people there lived primarily by farming, they emphasized education. My great-great grandmother, Bertha Wilcken, remembers the enthusiasm for learning Spanish in Salt Lake at the time despite traditional education's emphasis on Greek and Latin. She herself later lived in Mexico and by the end of her life was splitting time between descendants in Utah, Colonia Dublan in northern Mexico, and Mexico city. We tend to remember this period as very insular, but Mormons were possibly better connected with each other in this period than at any other time.

One more family story from this period particularly interests me. My great-great-grandfather Helaman Pratt was engaged as a young man to a Miss Parks in Salt Lake who presumably knew he was likely to end up with multiple wives and had chosen to marry him anyway. But when he was called on a mission to help settle a barren part of Nevada (called, of all things, "the Muddy"), his fiance broke off the engagement. I can't really blame her--Nevada is bleak enough in our age of freeways and air conditioning. I love the story because it suggests how intimidating the land and work of civilization building could be in those days.

20th century: Leavening

Maybe it was government pressure against polygamy. Maybe it was just the growth of the railroad and the de facto shrinking of distance it brought. Or maybe we'd just learned enough from the literal building period and were ready to move on. But it does seem to me that the early twentieth century brought an end to the LDS emphasis on literally building up the kingdom of God in the American Great Basin and a shift of that pioneering energy gradually into a project I call "leavening," in which Latter-day Saints spread out into mainstream society and tried to establish the kingdom of God more in wards, branches, and families than settlements and regions.

For the first half of the leavening century, Latter-day Saints primarily moved into U.S. society, often gaining conventional respectability in business or as educated professionals (though rarely as intellectual elites). Our movement out into the country both physically and culturally was met with some caution on both sides--were we assimilating into or infiltrating the larger society?Were we blessing America or being corrupted by it?

During the second half of the leavening century, Latter-day Saints expanded throughout the world, with growth concentrated in the Americas. Our emphasis to members outside the Great Basin in the 19th century had been on coming to build up the kingdom of God as an alternative to their struggling societies, but our emphasis through the 20th century has been on becoming the responsible, giving sort of people who can contribute to and elevate the societies we already live in.

This is pretty much the church as we know it. But how many of our assumptions about the church are actually based in this century's experience? Take growth, for example. The church has always believed in sharing the gospel, but we seem to identify ourselves in this century as a rapidly-growing, emerging faith. What happens if church growth slows? If our only story for the work of the church is leavening, then we've failed.

Or take the nuclear family. It's always been important in our church, but it used to be balanced more with emphasis on extended family and community. As we've moved in small family units out of settlements and across the world, that focus has been good. But will extended family and community someday be emphasized more again?

21st century: Three Possibilities

Because we're only twelve years into the 21st century, it's highly unlikely that any of my speculations will turn out to be correct. But I'll identify three possible "grand narratives" for 21st century Mormonism anyway because I think the exercise of wondering where history might take us helps us consider what Mormonism is really about.

Mormon Renaissance
In the nineteenth century, LDS leaders were very invested in the idea of developing a Mormon culture of beauty and learning. "Let Zion put on her beautiful garments" meant more than morality then, it meant that even poor farmers would be able to take part in a vibrant aesthetic life in communities organized according to divine principles. We would learn and discover and create. We would read and sing and wonder.

But while education has remained a priority throughout LDS history, an emphasis on the practical benefits of education seems to have grown dominant through the leavening period. It's been a long time since anyone was sent on a mission specifically to study art. (Part of this may come from our anxieties about whether we really are leavening society or being assimilated by society. Is artistic training today a route to expression of our Latter-day Saint values, or a route to assimilation into incompatible priorities and perspectives?)

That said, the economic success of the last century's Latter-day Saints and the creative technologies available to this generation's Saints may put us at a turning point today. There are a lot of very good writers and artists now in our church. An increasing number of them seem interested in expressing the value of our ways of seeing and thinking. Wouldn't it be cool if we could look back on this century as one where the vision of the gospel was articulated in ways that are beautiful as well as practical? Wouldn't it be cool if people could be drawn to the beauty as well as to the virtue of our lives?

Fullness of the Gentiles
The Mormon Renaissance vision is certainly rosy, so I'll counter it with a somewhat more sobering vision of our immediate future which I call "the Fullness of the Gentiles."

This future extrapolates the marked trend since 2005 of young Americans leaving organized religions (including Mormonism) into the next several decades or even through the century. What happens to a faith with lots of U.S. American history and population if the U.S. turns as secular as Europe has, or more so?

The Book of Mormon suggests that at some point, this sort of thing is bound to happen. The "Western" cultures will become wealthy and proud, and the bulk of church membership will shift into Latin American populations, which will eventually come into conflict with and defeat their longtime visitors. Some Gentiles, who are bonded with descendants of Lehi through the gospel, will prosper. Others will struggle.

I don't imagine that we'll live to see that whole Book of Mormon arc fulfilled, but I do think it's possible that future generations of Saints will look back on the 21st century as the beginning of this process. And already, the preparations seem to be under way. The church is saving and investing money carefully to help the transition from the cash-rich north into the faith-rich south. The Perpetual Education fund is helping strengthen families who may form the core of a future geographic and cultural heart of the church.

Digital Transition
A third possibility is that the late 21st century world won't have strong separate regional cultures at all so much as different preferences in online communities and media streams. While the strength of the church has always been in building physical relationships in physical space, we may look back on the 21st century as a time when we learned to function equally well as a digital tribe.

Maybe and indexing service aren't just tangential church initiatives, but the beginning of new modes of connection and worship. I very much doubt the heart of our church experience will move away from the physical sacrament service, but it may well be that much of our work becomes centered on the internet (or whatever we call the successors to today's primitive digital experience).

22nd century: Three Possibilites

Again, the point here is not to accurately predict what will happen, but to think about the gospel more deeply but considering what might happen to the church.

World Crisis, Church Emergence
It is no news that the current course of the world doesn't look sustainable spiritually, socially, or environmentally. But I'm not predicting an immediate collapse. In a hundred years, though? It seems plausible--and even probable-to me that we won't change our current culture quickly enough and will end up with a period of chaos rather than a smooth transition into another way of living.

In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark suggests that it was during times of crisis, whether from plagues or other instability, that the communal and service-oriented values of early Christians were most attractive to their pagan contemporaries. Difficult times compelled many to search for a more sustainable truth.

I certainly don't hope for the day when the world is compelled to be humbler. And LDS life after a collapse of the current world system would be demanding and difficult. But I do wonder whether our current membership growth will prove minimal compared to the growth of a strong, well-organized communal faith during a time of deep struggle and instability. Right now, people can value personal freedom and choose to eat, drink, and be merry. Cultural values may shift when a good job is feeding pigs slop.

The true emergence of the church as a major world religion may only come after significant world crises leads people to reconsider the role of a church in their lives and their societies.

Second Gathering
In the 20th century, the earlier project of literal gathering was put on hold to give the gospel another chance to bless the whole earth. But is a second gathering coming a few centuries from now? Where would it be to and what would it look like? What would get it started and once gathered, what sort of cities would we build?

I'm intrigued by the idea that we might turn to a literal project of Zion again, because thinking about the possibility requires me to speculate about what that project would entail, and what a saint might have to sacrifice or struggle with in the process. 

Assimilation and Amnesia
I like to think, of course, that if the call to gather again came today, many Latter-day Saints would listen. I like to think that if hard times hit the world, our traditions of communal interdependence would lay a foundation for enough organized cooperation to carry us through the crises.

But sometimes, I have my doubts. Are we in the church still humble enough to accept the revealed gospel? Or have we become too absorbed into an individualistic, consumer-driven culture to sustain the cooperative culture of the church through the generations to come?

When I hear people take it for granted that they're smarter and better than our forebears and our leaders, I wonder. When I hear people lose patience with the roots and trunk of our faith's tree, I worry.

I saw an interview recently with the legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela. He called on Africans to do some "heritage preservation," to gather and share the stories of their forbears rather than looking only to the latest trends from the wealthiest countries. He said that if African artists don't do something to preserve and transmit their heritage, the day may come when their descendants say, "you know, they say we used to be Africans once."

I have seen enough strong, solid Saints to believe we'll be around long into the future. But that thought from Hugh Masekela still struck a chord with me. What if we do keep assimilating?  What if we spend more time wishing that church culture were like some more sophisticated alternative than delving into the richness of what we have?

Will the day come when many of our descendants are saying, "they say we used to be Mormons once"?


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