Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Temple in the Age of the Internet

For about an hour this morning, I left the world and walked into the temple--and was struck again by the grounding beauty I can experience there.

Struck again by a beauty that's woven partly out of sights, yes, and partly out of the texture of words, but mostly out of the way promises and blessings fuse together into a covenant in the presence of God. 

In this age of 24/7 electronic commentary and creative deconstruction, of course, the temple can be difficult to explain. Because contemporary culture has totemized transparency, many find it deeply alarming that we limit access to our temples (like ancient Israel did). Because contemporary culture places so much value on talk, it's common to think of silence within a religion as sinister rather than sacred.

But it wasn't contemporary culture that I was thinking about as I walked out of the temple and back into the world this morning. No, I was thinking thoughts that are positively neolithic.

Feeling awe for the fertility of and on the earth.

Treasuring the deep belonging of tribe.

Acknowledging the presence of the dead.

I like the internet. I like democracy, even when it's turned up way too loud. I like pulling my lunch out of the refrigerator and microwaving it, then skimming the headlines from halfway across the world only to find an article that quotes my wife

But I wish sometimes that more of the people who fill this wonderful, whirling modern world of ours could grasp that some things, like our temples, deserve a place in our time but outside our time's assumptions.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Oliver Cowdery and Eric James Stone

"Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time." (D&C 6:14)

What fascinates me about this scripture is that the Lord first praises Oliver Cowdery for seeking and following divine guidance--but then has to prove to him that he actually did the thing he's being praised for! Which suggests that Oliver, like so many of us, isn't quite sure whether he's been following a divine plan, or just wandering in a big strange earth.

I've had experiences that made no sense when they happened but felt important later. I've had other experiences that felt important when they happened, but then confusing later. And I've had a few experiences that felt first important, then confusing, then (years later) important again...and that may, for all I know, have one more round of confusing left in them as the stories I use to make sense of my life change.

Yesterday at Everyday Mormon Writer, we reprinted an Eric James Stone story that does justice to the intense existential motion sickness that can come when your own story for the meaning in your life has been called into question. And if you're interested in this topic, I also have to recommend Pres. Uchtdorf's talk "See the End from the Beginning."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Prayer and Profanity

I usually think of George Albert Smith as an older man, whose physical frailty and vulnerability accentuated his deep generosity and spiritual strength. But last week in elders' quorum, we read a story of when Pres. Smith was a young man who liked to swim out past the breakers on the California coast and then lie on his back and let the swells carry him up and down. I can only imagine how he would have savored the feeling: first getting to use his strength and energy swimming out against the force of the waves, then getting to let go of everything, held up by the steadiness of an ocean that pulses across a third of the earth. I imagine him taking deep breaths of salt-scented air, staring out at an endless blue sky, and feeling utterly at peace as the swells carry him gently up and down.

Except for on the day when he almost died. That day he's swimming out like any other day, diving through the waves as they crest and break over him. Each wave tries to drag him with it, but he's too strong. He always pushes through (no matter how the waves want to toss him side to side), then muscles himself back into position for the next dive. Only this day, a little before he's out safe in the swells, the next wave comes before he's reoriented himself from the last one. And because he's not ready, it grabs him, hard, and slams him all the way down against the ocean floor. And then the undercurrent yanks his weight out from under him, pulls his body farther out to sea, and then up into another wave that pitches him forward and then slams him down, thwack, against the ocean floor again.

He keeps trying to right himself, tries to get back into a familiar rhythm, but the waves keep coming faster than he's used to and they keep pulling him under and then tossing him up. When he's trying to right himself he's at the top of a wave; when he's ready to dive through he's already been pulled under the surface. And he struggles, sure, but it's like a little kid against a grown up's firm grip and pretty soon he realizes he's going to tire out and breathe in water and salt and sand until he dies.

But then he sees, at a disconcerting distance, the pilings under a pier. So he prays. Out of instinct, probably, more than decision. He prays that he can have the strength to make it far enough sideways to reach them and as he prays he keeps struggling and pushing and can finally get his hand up against the rough, barnacled pole.

When the tide pulls out, he wraps his arms and legs around the pole to keep from getting dragged out again. The barnacles cut his chest and thighs and the water runs salt through all the wounds, but he prays for the strength and presence of mind to let go at just the right time for the next wave to carry him to the next pole, where he clings again and gets cut again and stings again and prays again and so on and so on until the water is shallow enough that he can walk and he stumbles up onto the beach and collapses in a heap, exhaling his thanks to God.

That's more or less the story we read. A story about how making prayer a reflex can save your life.

But after I read it, for some reason, all I could think is that I'd be as likely, in a situation like that, to swear as to pray. When honest-to-goodness trouble comes, I'm as likely to curse it as to cry out for help.

Which made me realize: in some ways, prayer and profanity have a lot in common. Fervent prayer works, in part, as a magnifying glass for the power in our spirit--focusing what we have left and merging it with the extra we've given.  

And profanity? I use it to focus all my anger or frustration. And I often find that it multiplies as well as magnifies those negative feelings. Just as prayer can open and channel our capacity for hope, profanity can tighten our sense of defeat, resentment, and despair.

Sunday I prayed in the morning and swore when something went wrong just before I left for church.

So which is becoming my reflex: profanity or prayer?

The BBC Interview and Some Thoughts on the "Mormon Moment"

Before we went on the air yesterday, Paul Adams of the BBC asked us each how we felt about the "Mormon moment." Charles Dahlquist, who is a braver man than I, was most optimistic: he called it a "wonderful opportunity for understanding" then (and again, I think, during the broadcast). I really admire his attitude--as long as you believe there's an opportunity for understanding, you'll try to stay open to questions and ready for the people who do really want to understand.

But I was a little more pessimistic. I'm OK with Mormonism in the media and understand that criticism is part of the process, but I'm worried by the combination of debates about Mormonism with the strong feelings people have about national politics. Conversations are good, but what sort of conversations are we having?

If I'm talking about my faith with a friend, we'll probably talk about how it influences my life. But when people talk about faith through the lens of national politics, they seem disproportionately focused on broadly classifying Mormonism as backward or ultra-American or cultish and sinister or just-like-every-other-faith. They want to know how to label Mormonism so much they often seem uninterested in the experiences of individual Mormons. And the common label-and-move-on attitude means it's hard to talk in any depth about how we feel.

I still have these worries. But after the interview, I'm more willing to admit that Charles' view may be correct as well as admirable. A lot of the questions we got were a bit of the label-and-move-on variety. A lot of the questions did invoke negative stereotypes. But I felt like we were also given lots of opportunities to talk about our experiences, to tell our own stories. And it felt nice.

People who have already decided the Church is horrible almost certainly assumed we were brainwashed PR puppets and immediately ignored us. One commenter on the World Have Your Say Facebook, for instance, wrote: "I'm concerned that this valuable airtime is being turned into a public-relations pep rally for the more pleasant sides of Mormonism, avoiding tough current-events questions like the LDS church's rigorous battle against equal rights for gays and lesbians. A useless conversation not worthy of the BBC's journalistic ethics."

It is too bad that LDS perspectives on same-sex orientation didn't come up, since Melissa Leilani Larsen's Little Happy Secrets is a great example of the nuance people miss on that issue. But I'm glad that BBC's journalistic ethics don't force them to reduce people to any given controversy they are tangentially involved with. And I hope (and think) that--for people who haven't already decided that Mormons are enemies of progress unless proven otherwise--the broadcast did help show that a reasonable, decent person can find a lot of meaning in Mormonism and that Mormonism is not the threat that many people present it as being.

If you're interested, you can listen to the broadcast on the WHYS website for at least the next seven days. I believe that after that, it will still be available for some time in their online archives. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Listen to me on the BBC

Tomorrow morning at 11 am Mountain Time, my wife Nicole and I will be on BBC World Radio's "World Have Your Say" program as part of a panel of Latter-day Saints talking about our faith, lives, and whatever else callers are asking about.

BBC reporter Richard Lawson, who will be moderating the discussion, called last week to chat with us. I was impressed with how polite he was and how interested he was in simply understanding the way different Latter-day Saints are thinking.

One moment I particularly remember from our conversation was when he'd asked about Mormon family values and I mentioned how we seem to be a lot more invested in extended family than many Americans and Europeans. He was interested, asked why I thought that was, and I told him I think it has a lot to do with the temple and the work for the dead. And he said something like: "You know, in the press that usually comes up because of controversies. But actually, you're getting a lot of good things out of it."

It was really nice to have a journalist step back from some of the media talking points about Mormonism and try to get a bigger, more holistic picture. And I'm optimistic about the discussion tomorrow: listen if you can. I'm not positive I've got the link right, but I think you can do so on this site for a week after the broadcast date.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Setting the Record Straight on Romney's Family History: The Murder of Parley P. Pratt

On 13 May, 1857, Hector McLean caught up with Mitt Romney’s great-great grandfather, Parley P. Pratt, who he’d been pursuing for some time. McLean tore the unarmed Mormon apostle from his horse, stabbed him three times near the heart, shot him in the neck at point blank range, and left him to bleed to death over the next two hours.

Because McLean’s estranged wife, Eleanor, had married the polygamous Pratt, the story made headlines across the nation as a sort of sensational morality tale. The Chicago Weekly Ledger summed up the tone of coverage this way: “McLean is almost canonized as a hero for the deed. Pratt is treated as would be the death of a beast of prey.” Among the few editorials written in defense of Pratt was one by Eleanor herself, which was widely reprinted—but typically with caustic and derisive editorial commentary.

I’m more saddened than surprised that the nineteenth-century press celebrated an unrepentant and unprosecuted murderer and ignored the counter-narrative offered by his former wife. But because we now claim to value evidence over blanket prejudice, due process over lynch law, and because we now feel an ethical commitment to acknowledge the perspectives of the marginalized, I thought twenty-first century coverage of my great-great-great-grandfather’s murder would be more nuanced.

I was wrong. Here’s Alex Pareene, a senior political writer for Salon, responding (in an article that says it provides “everything you need to know” about Romney’s Mormonism) to a brief passage in Turnaround where Mitt Romney dares to speak highly of our shared ancestor’s tenacity during the settling of the Salt Lake Valley:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Wrong Side of History

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post suggesting that our all-male priesthood needs to be evaluated in the context of an LDS "cooperative culture" and not through the lens of the "competitive culture" most Americans know best through school, work, sports, and so on.

Well, a recent commenter isn't buying any of it. Mormons are an oppressive corporate cult, this anonymous individual informs me, and we are on "the wrong side of history."

I'm sort of bored, quite frankly, with the "legitimate religion or oppressive corporate cult?" debate, so I'm going to accept the sad truth that I have to live my life without an anonymous internet commenter's approval. But I am still interested enough to spend a post on the "wrong side of history" debate, because I'm intrigued by the way it combines social studies with geometry. Does history have a shape? Is there a right side of history to be on? 

The Dominant View

Click on the illustration below to see how I think many people imagine history and our place in it:

This view of history is based on the assumption that as time passes, the world inevitably gets better. History=Progress. The right side, where the future (and Pacman?) live, is good. The other side, where humankind left the cruel and benighted past to die, is mostly useful to provide contrast.

Being a Latter-day Saint has never looked great in this picture.

In the early days of the Church, we were backward for believing in prophets and miracles and temples and all that primitive Israelite garbage decent Protestants had long since progressed past.  Later, an intelligentsia that had progressed right out of Protestantism and into enlightened secular rationality found even our faith in God vestigial at best, and more likely a tell-tale relic of barely-concealed barbarism.

Currently, it seems most common to see Mormons as backward on our principles of community building. Surely respect for authority should have gone the way of Nixon--or did we sleep through the '70s somehow? What's our obsession with meddling in personal choices: don't we know that it's systems, not people, that are moral or immoral these days? And seriously--who can believe in gender after glam rock?

On a left-to-right map of history, we are a stubborn, perplexing, willfully primitive Church.

An LDS View

But to the best of my knowledge, nothing in the scriptures suggests that human beings are fundamentally better for having largely switched from cooking fires to microwaves. Better off, sure, but is that truly better in any important sense? While most of us feel blessed to live in these latter-days, we also understand that each time period has had its own blessings and burdens. 

Maybe the best way to draw an LDS view of history relies more on the Book of Mormon than on the European Enlightenment, as shown when you click on the illustration below: 

In this view of history, the past and the present are not nearly so different as most people might believe. Technologies and ideologies come and go, but the same sorts of patterns happen no matter what the costumes are.

This view of history reserves no special disdain for people who look "backwards" or "forwards." No, we save our worry for those who are "lifted up in pride"--and if we're smart, we remember there's a good chance they'll be hanging out in our mirrors.

Some progress, in this view, may be genuinely good and even righteous. But some things society labels as "progress" now might be castles in the clouds that are set into stark perspective by the next honest-to-goodness crash. 

So let's be backward for now. Why not? And if we live to experience the next big crash, maybe we'll get the chance to teach former anonymous internet commenters how to plant gardens, listen to prophets, and make it through history's storms.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Conflation Station

Yesterday, I saw the headline "Mormon church softening on gay marriage" and just had to read. Since the media is usually a century or so behind in the way they talk about LDS issues, I wondered if maybe they were confusing the church-state tension over plural marriage then with gay marriage now? It seemed like as good an explanation as any other.

It turned out they were confused, but in a way that's actually more revealing. The article was about evolving church teachings about and for gay church members (which puts it only 15-20 years behind, not 100)--whoever wrote the headline just assumed that being comfortable with the idea that awesome people have different orientations automatically equates to support for gay marriage.

But in the case of the Church, it doesn't. As far as I can tell, the Church today is striving to be affirming toward (and increasingly sensitive to) same-sex-oriented members committed to celibacy, charitable and understanding to individuals who choose to pursue same-sex relationships (though uncompromising on the teaching that sex is only right in the context of faithful opposite-sex marriage), and to balance significant political opposition to gay marriage with support for the civil rights of gay people (in areas such as housing, employment, and protections from violence).

It's a fairly balanced, moderate position--on an issue where few people are able to recognize that such positions exist.

It seems to me that, sadly, America is moving toward a very binary views of gay rights. EITHER you are pro-LGBT: accepting all committed sexual relationships as equal, attending pride rallies, and (in the case of the T) seeing gender as a personal choice, OR you are anti-LGBT and pretty much in line with the Westboro Baptist Church in your view of LGBT people, only less vocal about it. The erroneous headline "Mormon Church softening on gay marriage" suggests to me that any mid-points are seen as evidence of a shift toward one pole or another, not as viable long-term positions.

If you're interested in how attitudes around this issue are evolving, take a look at the video in the article. Try not to get too offended--the useful thing is to identify to what the gap between Romney and the commentator is, not just to recognize that Romney's statements are being mischaracterized (I like to call it "uncharitably interpreted").

Romney seems to stand for a version of gay rights that recognizes prejudice against gays and attempts to redress it in general human rights areas. His goal is to treat people as people: to create, if you will, a sexual-orientation-blind society, where it's no one's business who you're attracted to and it's illegal to refuse to hire someone or rent them an apartment or anything like that on the basis of orientation. His points to gay members of his team to say that he works with people based on competence, not based on orientation. His comment about "later finding out" judicial appointees were gay is not, I think, some sort of excuse for having appointed gay judges, but rather an indication that "are you gay?" is not part of his background check or interview process. When hiring, Mitt Romney insists he simply doesn't care whether you're gay (and his track record seems to support that assertion). He finds the sin question irrelevant, probably, because it's sort of like finding out Romney believes drinking coffee is a sin and assuming that means he'll discriminate against people who drink coffee. Mitt Romney doesn't want to answer questions about sin in part because he believes in equal legal rights for sinners, from those who use four-letter words to those shop on Sunday to those who have sex outside of opposite-gender marriage.

I think the way Romney distinguishes between his support for gay rights and his opposition to gay marriage is in his insistence that marriage is, by definition, between a man and a woman. He would support the right of any man and any woman to marry each other--even if that man and woman are gay--but for obvious reasons, not many people are interested in that right. It's still worth noting, though, because it suggests that Romney doesn't see himself as offering gay Americans "some of the rights" of straight Americans: he genuinely believes he's offering to protect all the rights every American is equally entitled to. He just thinks that the right of any American, gay or straight or somewhere in-between, to marry a member of the same-sex is a new right, and it's one he doesn't support.

Now, I can understand that for many gay rights advocates, that sort of position is simply not enough. But it's a bit of a stretch to treat it as anti-gay and it's unfair (not to mention bizarre) to suggest from Romney's comments that he wants to distance himself from his judicial appointments of gay people--or, in Romney's terms, people who happen to be gay.

No one really benefits, I think, from trying to push Romney's position into a binary model of pro-gay or hateful.

And, since this is my religious blog, I will add that no one benefits when religious people cast the issue as pro- or anti-faith. Are we guilty of assuming that anyone who supports gay rights is also against our religious rights? If so, we need to repent. Because no one benefits from that sort of either-or thinking.


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