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.   


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