Legalistic Mormonism and the Mystic Savior

One Sunday School, the teacher introduced the subject of the Sabbath. As a huge fan of anything Judaism, I flinched reflexively as the class devolved into what can only be considered as “Shabbat bashing,” the usual litany of railings detailing why the Jewish interpretation of the Sabbath had become burdened with “made up rules” restricting the specific number of steps you could walk and whether or not you could heat a kettle of water. “They even criticized Jesus for healing a sick man on the Sabbath!” the collective cried out. “How backwards can you get?”

How backwards can you get indeed? If the first part of the lesson consisted mainly of “Shabbat bashing,” the second part (which made up the majority of the hour) could only be considered as “Sabbath legislating,” a most ironic twist of events that couldn’t get any more ironic even if a hipster attempted to be as intentionally ironic as she could possibly be. Not even stopping to take a breath, the entire class devolved into quarreling schools of thought debating what exactly was allowed and what was not allowed on the Sabbath. Are video games okay? Television? Movies? What if it’s a Church movie? What if it’s not a Church movie, but it’s a family movie like Disney? Should they be Disney movies that have morals or not? Is secular music allowed? What is more Sabbath appropriate (and thus more righteous), Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Mindy Gledhill? Are walks allowed? Should walks be restricted in some way, such as only with family, and you have to take a walk as a family in church clothes? Should you wear church clothes all day? Is that respectful, or disrespectful to the sanctity of the Sabbath? Should we schedule Church meetings on the Sabbath? What about Family Home Evenings? Are multi-generational family gatherings too boisterous and chase away the Spirit? And don’t even bring up the idea of napping.

Even when the presiding priesthood leader, our local bishop, stepped in and said under no certain terms you should play video games on the Sabbath, people still continued to argue. We never really progressed any further in the Sunday School lesson.

If you’re a Mormon, this should sound pretty familiar. Like the Jews, we have a lot of commandments — maybe not comparable to the 413 Mitzvot, but still pretty close — and a lot of them sound like the “legalistic Judaism” so often cried out against in Sunday Schools and Priesthood and Relief Society meetings everywhere. How many earrings should girls wear in each ear? At what age is it appropriate for a teenager to start dating? Is facial hair appropriate for upper-echelon positions in the Priesthood hierarchy? Should men wear a white shirt and tie or not when performing public Priesthood functions?

Granted, some of these seemingly silly rules help protect the wholeness of symbolism within our sacred rituals (“An entire body must be submerged during a baptism. If so much as a pinky toe pokes out of the water during the submerging, re-do the ritual”). But others are often criticized as stumbling blocks for members already struggling with larger problems and weapons for the self-righteous (“No flip-flops in church meetings”). And others seem to exist simply to drive a Mormon into a frothy, contentious rage (Mention caffeine around a Mormon and watch them hastily express their very strong-worded opinion about it).

Our Church, in short, has become incredibly parallel to the legalism we oft criticize Jesus-era Judaism for having. We have an interview before baptism — the candidate must undergo a thorough questioning process in order to determine whether the person is “ready” to be baptized. The same thing occurs if you wish to enter the temple of the Lord. Interviews, in fact, are a frequent tool that Mormon leaders use to “keep their fingers on the pulse” of which they are now accountable for, but interviews (especially standardized interviews) are rarely flexible or creative enough to assess the needs of every person (which doesn’t stop us from designing some especially thorough interviews). And all too often, we use the interview more to keep certain people out rather than to assess need. Discontent with the freedom Christ won for us and which Paul celebrates over and over again in his epistles, we are quick to saddle ourselves with more and more rules in order to (let’s be honest, here) parse out who the “real Mormons” are as opposed to the false ones, the weak ones, or at the very least, the ones who are trying really hard but just aren’t quite to the level of Mormon we as a collective whole are satisfied with in order to qualify for such a ranking title.

Which is quite curious when one of the main themes of the Book of Mormon spoke harshly against this very type of extreme codifying the rules. Alma’s explanation of the baptismal covenant does not include a waiting period to see if you are really committed or not. And that Alma’s son of the same name certainly stood stupefied and flabbergasted at the discovery of the apostate Rameumptom and its correlating prayer, which included such classically diabolical lines as, “And thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell” (Alma 31:17).

Even more curious is that we worship a Jesus who was more rebel than authority, more mystic prophet than clean-cut salesman. Sometimes I wonder what Jesus would do if he came down today? I imagine that he’d shock a lot of Mormons. Imagine going to the temple for your weekly temple trip and watching in shock as Jesus drove out the temple workers with a homemade whip, roaring about moneychangers, or some business like that. Imagine walking into a restaurant and noticing Jesus sitting a table, gently reassuring expensive escorts that God loves them and wants them to come to the local ward while sipping a glass of wine (of his own make, of course), and then startling the entire restaurant by standing up suddenly and denouncing publicly your Stake President that he and his cohorts were a den of vipers. Imagine watching Jesus walk into a McDonald’s (on a Sunday!) to buy some hamburgers to give to a homeless man, or Jesus chiding your father for working too hard to provide for his family and not taking the better part, or taking your iPod, throwing it into the ocean and telling you to render unto Steve Jobs what is Steve Jobs’ and to God what is God’s, or Jesus sitting down to play Halo if it meant the surly seventeen year old priests will talk to him about what they want out of their lives, even if it’s a Sunday?

Which is not to say that our current temples need cleansing, or that your Stake President stands in need of rebuking, but this is the kind of anti-establishment stuff that Jesus did all the time. He was a jobless, hairy hippie wandering the streets of Jerusalem, convincing people to quit their jobs and leave their homes and spouses and children and to literally follow his wanderings and help him spread a message of peace and love. When he walks up to you and extends his hand, his jeans dirty and his t-shirt ragged, and tells you that the birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to place his head, would you invite him into your home? And would you then sell all of your belongings and leave your spouse and kids and walk away from your house and your job and your responsibilities to preach the bigger message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?

Often, we forget how absolutely radical our religion is, and I don’t mean this in some terrible 90’s slang way, but in the revolutionary sense. We work hard to dumb things down and to dress things up, to make our doctrines more palatable to the American markets (and markets and consumers we treat them). We can recite our religion’s “specs” and special features and what makes our product so unique and enjoyable and valuable and we design ad campaigns and pamphlets and websites and Twitter accounts and YouTube videos, but I would venture that very few of us could muster the courage and sheer grit to really commit to to the gospel, to do the things that Jesus asks us to do, to really walk away from the world and all of its trappings and shiny things and prizes and bells and whistles and really live it. We do what we can with the lives that we have, making small compromises here and there, promising ourselves that even if we seem (and feel) a little self-centric now, we’ll serve a senior mission later and besides, we served a mission already so will you please leave us alone we’ve done our time, darn it. We live uncomfortable double lives, one foot firmly planted in Babylon and one foot firmly planted in Zion, trying to negotiate some middle way. And in order to feel like we still belong to this tradition, even though we’re not fully committed just yet (though we are working very hard to get to that point, promise!), we must legislate who is in and who is out, even though, really, all of us are never really in and never really out. We’re all just grasping, trying to reclaim and model after the divine which has touched our lives in some form at some point in some way that transcends space and time.

And so, in the midst of all this legalistic battling over what is and is not permissible for a good Mormon on the Sabbath, may I suggest we take a page from Judaism’s book? I suggest that when such a fight begins in a Sunday School, one of us brave folk will stand up, throw out his or her arms wide and declare, “We shall have a large dinner tonight at our house; all are invited and will be treated as family! If you know anyone, bring them along! Come, celebrate the Sabbath with us and share with us our food and love and company! We shall light candles, give thanks to the Lord, break bread, and raise our glasses of wine (of our own make, of course) and shout with all of our muster in the company of angels, To life! To life! L’chaim!”

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2 Comments

Filed under religion, wordsmithing

2 responses to “Legalistic Mormonism and the Mystic Savior

  1. dteeps

    Wonderful post, Ted.

    Reading what you imagine Christ doing if he were here today reminded me of the play I saw, and blogged about, a few months ago WWJD. You would have really enjoyed it. Check out the script here http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd2433.pdf

    And please help support a film version that Davey is trying to get going. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1528368836/wwjd-feature-film?ref=recently_launched

    • Ted

      I was most displeased of missing it! Good to know Davey is helping it go out to more people than just the ones in Utah. :p

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