Tag Archives: commandment

Designing modesty

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupry

Recently, there’s been a lot of hullaballoo surrounding an article in the June issue of the Friend magazine. I’m not going to discuss the virtues of whether or not you should allow four year old girls to wear sleeveless sundresses — that has been discussed in the Bloggernacle ad nauseum. My main concern about the modesty issue (concerning the Church) is how convoluted our stance on modesty has become (especially for girls). Here are some rules (though they are not limited to this list), as codified into our culture by the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and the hallowed Honor Code of BYU*:

– No sleeveless anything, whether it be tank top, spaghetti strap, or otherwise. Halter tops are right out.

– All shorts must cover the knee

– No more than one pair of earrings for girls, no more than zero pair of earrings for boys

– Do not wear tight-fitting clothes

– Always cover your stomach

– Avoid extreme styles and colors (I’ve always wondered what they did in the 1980s with this rule, what, with the preponderance of lime green and hot pink)

– Guys should have well-trimmed, non-shaggy haircuts, no facial hair, and, if mission standards are to be followed, a part in the hair as well

– No tattoos, even if it’s like, a totally radical tattoo of a Chinese character

– Clothes should not be low cut in the front or back

– One piece swimsuits for the ladies

– And now, apparently, no sleeveless for little girls either

I’m a big believer in simplicity. Though I fail at it many times, I try to live as simple and as modest a life as possible. I believe that ultimately, a well-lived, modest life will have trimmed away the gluttony and excess and spend its time doing that which has the greatest and most value. I believe this concept applies in many situations, including my spiritual and religious life.

The modesty rules we have currently today are anything but minimalist. In fact, most of the rules we have concerning modesty are reactions against cultural trends of which we disapprove. Few, outside of the more vague ones, such as “avoid extreme styles or colors” or “no tight-fitting clothes”, contain any kind of gospel principle (and even then we’re stretching it); rather, they sound similar to the edicts of Cosmo’s fashion section, a list of do’s and don’ts to stay “in fashion” with the latest LDS style.

I like to think that Jesus is the prime example of a minimalist. When asked which of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) were the greatest, Jesus boiled them all down (all 613 of them!) into two great commandments:

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

The minimalism behind this is breathtakingly beautiful. Yes, commandments and standards are important, but instead of creating a “modesty checklist” (which the Friend also did), couldn’t we instead emphasize that our bodies are gifts from God? If we love God, we will respect and cherish that gift. Empowered by the love of God and a perspective of our place in the universe, we would refuse to abuse and exploit that gift when propositioned to do so by others. Such thinking would allow the flexibility and breathing room for cultural fluctuation but still provide concrete understandings of what is right and wrong. Rather than measuring ourselves against a list of rules, we measure ourselves against our worth prescribed to us by God. We use personal revelation to guide our way. Modesty, like all other commandments and standards, hang from those two great edicts.

Rules are more comfortable precisely because they are so specific and inflexible. We can hide our ignorance of the gospel, our insecurity in our faith, and our anxiety before God’s presence behind the wall of man-made law. We can be mean-spirited, bitter, judgmental, rude, spiteful, proud, back-biting, or all of the above, but as long as we pay our tithing, attend Church services, and do our home/visiting teaching, we’re still “righteous,” even if the love of God is not within us. It is easier to teach and instill skirt length, sleeve length, midriff coverage, one-piece swimsuit expounding, and one-pair-of-earrings exposition in 30 minute bite-size increments in Sunday School than either the love of God, or the love of others. Yet it is exactly the latter that saves and has eternal worth.

So what would Jesus say? Suppose a faithful disciple approached him and asked, “Master, which of these modesty rules are the most important? No bare-midriff? No knee-cap flashing?” The great thing is that deeply embedded in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, we already have such a minimalist statement that Jesus could possibly make:

Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

I propose that we eliminate all else in the “Dress and Appearance” section of the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and teach our youth this one basic principle above all else when teaching modesty. All in favor, please manifest in the comments. Any opposed do so by the same sign.

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* I’m not sure if including the BYU Honor Code in our list of unofficial official cultural standards for modesty will garner controversy or not, but BYU is possibly the single greatest exporter of Church culture, and so I have included it as most Mormons would probably agree to the standards espoused in the Honor Code anyway concerning modesty.

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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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Converts versus Members

My brother, who recently came back from a mission full of fascinating observations, remarked on this difference he saw in the Church:

When you meet a convert and ask them what it means to be Mormon, they usually talk about belief or doctrine. They talk about how they have a prophet on the Earth today. They talk about Joseph Smith’s personal encounter with the divine and then their own personal encounter with the divine. They talk about new scripture. They talk about the Godhead.

When you meet a “member” and ask them what it means to be Mormon, they usually talk about commandments. They talk about the law of chastity, or the word of wisdom, or tithing. They talk about what you must do to become Mormon.

Not all members who are “born in the Church” are members. Not all “converts” are converts.

Discuss.

Edit: My brother wrote back, “I think what would clarify this is I meant when another Christian asks a Mormon “How are you guys different from us?” gets the response I was talking about.”

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The Cohab Standards Week

General Conference has come and gone, and all that goodness got me thinking – what exactly do we mean when we talk about “standards?”

Mormons who grew up in the Church know what I mean; every once in a while, the bishopric or some other form of ward leadership will gather the youth together in a fun-filled fireside romp often titled “Standards Night.” Usually, the firesides came in the form of a good old-fashioned pulpit thumpin’ sermon about the length of our skirts, the age of our dating, and the beverages we drink. We talk about all the no-noes in our religion – alcohol, smoking, drugs, immodesty, heavy petting and necking (whatever that means), exclusive dating, the works.

Well, we’re not gonna pound the war drums against texting in church or flip-flops (thank goodness), but for the next week the Cohab will discuss some of the more particular ideas of what standards mean in our Church, inspired by some recent personal experiences and some excellent talks in last General Conference. So without further ado, the schedule:

Where Do Standards Come From? – We’ll open up the interesting question raised by Elder Oaks’ talk about priesthood lines of communication and personal lines of communication. Should we derive standards from personal lines or priesthood lines? Are standards derived as a form of Church administration, or personal worthiness? Is it a mix of both? How can we tell which is which?

The Best Standards Night Ever – My bishop as a youth gave a standards night one month that left everyone rolling in the aisles with tears of laughter. The next month, my bishop announces another standards night which every youth attended, hoping for a repeat performance. Instead, I was bored out of my skull. He never cracked a single joke about drugs and didn’t bring up sex even once. When I mentioned this to my dad, he rebuked my sharply, saying it was the best standards night he’s ever attended. As I grew older, I began to understand why.

Boys will Be Boys – In the same talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley urged young women to only wear one pair of earrings, and for the young men to please, please, pleease pull up our pants and stop wearing them five sizes too big. The next General Conference, speakers talk about boyfriends who break-up with girlfriends who didn’t pull out their extra pair of earrings, but how come we never heard about girlfriends who dumped their boy-toys who refused to stop wearing baggy pants? Is there an unfair advantage for one gender over the other?

Sleep-overs and Video Games Some General Authorities spoke disagreeably about video games and sleep-overs, talking about the general malfeasance inherent in them. But for me, sleep-overs and video games kept me clear out of trouble and squarely in the Gospel. Dare I say, they even helped my testimony from burning completely out. How flexible can standards be before we start our mental gymnastics into apostasy?

Standards, Culture, and Commandments – The Church continues to work eagerly in sending missionaries to China (as does every other proselyting religion). Friends confide in me that because of the presence of our humanitarian missionaries, we already have a large, underground base of support in China, and when the bamboo curtain finally rises, entire swathes of China will baptize overnight. However, even if such rumors are true, we overlook one incredibly important part of Chinese (and most of Asia’s) culture – tea. Where does the Word of Wisdom lie – culture, standards, or commandment? Is there even a difference?

Keep the Flock Safe, Starve out the SinnersWhile I understand the scriptural basis of the practice, denying the Sacrament to those who aren’t “worthy” of it never sat right with me. The Sacrament is a powerful symbol of God’s redemptive and cleansing power. It’s one of the few physical symbols we indulge in as Mormons on a regular basis. What does it say about us when we deny God’s redemptive and cleansing power only after we’ve already become clean? Don’t those who are sick need that power more than the healthy? Do standards prevent us from ministering to the spiritually needy, or do they keep the plague out of the already healthy flock?

As you can see, we’ve got quite the lineup. I hope you stick around for standards week, and bring your copies of the Book of Mormon to place between your partner for the youth dance afterwards!

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Kosher laws and the Word of Wisdom

My last post detailed a theory of mine that maybe commandments like the Word of Wisdom can create a healthy effect on our very strict, orderly religious society by scandalizing substances that are, for the most part, inherently harmless, in order to diffuse very strong feelings of rebellion and revenge towards an institution. This had me thinking, of course, why I follow the Word of Wisdom personally. I fully admit that I don’t usually subscribe to the same program used by the orthodox establishment, but I feel my story has some merit nonetheless and so I share it with you.

I couldn’t tell you where I picked up this story, but I remember hearing about a rabbi asked why God forbade the eating of pigs and prawns when they don’t really pose that much of a threat to your health. The rabbi responded that kosher laws (or any of the commandments for that matter) did not really have much a practical, worldly value.  The purpose of kosher laws, he taught, was that it forced us to think of God in everything we do.

Dang it, even the Jews get to have more fun than us?! I'd gladly give up bacon for wine and coffee.

Dang it, even the Jews get to have more fun than us?! I'd gladly give up bacon for wine and coffee.

Kosher laws are erroneously thought of as just prohibitions on what to eat. However, kosher laws deal with everything from how to prepare food to how it is grown/raised. In other words, from the time you plant your wheat to harvesting it to using it for food is laced with commandments to help us remember God. In this way, every action in your life helps you remember who it is that provides everything we have.

I like that interpretation. Some Mormons I know try to make the Word of Wisdom into a super-huge prophesy given by Joseph Smith to prove he was indeed a prophet. They say that during his time people drank alcohol like crazy and smoked like chimneys. They drank coffee and tea by the gallon, and because of this, health in those days sucked. However, we know this isn’t necessarily true – people then knew about (and belonged to) temperance movements long before Joseph Smith’s utterance of the Word of Wisdom. People also knew that tobacco wasn’t exactly the best thing for you. Joseph Smith even drank wine before his martyrdom while Joseph Smith Sr. had developed several beer brewing recipes (this, I think, we need to re-discover and capitalize). And as time has marched on, science has shown that coffee and tea, when consumed in moderate, reasonable amounts, can actually help improve health.

Like I mentioned in the comments on my previous thread, I don’t like basing my testimony on physical evidence anyhow, because it can so easily be yanked out from underneath you as new information comes along. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord. So the Word of Wisdom bothered me for a long time – what was it really? A cultural practice enforced to create a sense of community? Misinterpreted scripture? A wresting of the original intent of Joseph Smith’s suggestion?

Nowadays, it’s turned into a full-blown important commandment (admitting to drinking a cup of Earl Grey every morning, for example, can keep you out of the temple). And so, I think I’m going to follow the Jewish interpretation of our own kosher laws. Perhaps the Word of Wisdom is more for us to remember God in a world where it’s so easy to forget Him. Every time we take pause to eat, we think of Him. When we plan our meals and walk through the supermarket, we think of Him.  And when we live our entire lives following the Word of Wisdom but still get afflicted by some kind of health problem while our friend who smokes a pack a day and drinks like an unemployed Russian mafia hitman can outrun us on the racetrack, well, then we don’t feel so bad anyway because it really never was about that, right? After all, our health (like everything else in life) comes from the Lord, and the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Spiritual Heat Sinks

A good friend of mine once related a story I had long since forgotten. While we were both attending BYU, I told him, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve drunk coffee before.”

He said back, “Don’t tell anyone, but I haven’t.”

When I was a teenager, in a fit of fury (I have forgotten since then what I was just so angry about) I bought a frappuccino at Starbucks. I remember distinctly sitting in the coffee shop, drinking triumphantly with that familiar adolescent glee, furtively glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching. My rebellious urges satiated, I walked out, feeling much less stressed out and used by the man or whatever.

A person I know is incredibly angry at the Church right now. She feels betrayed, lied to, manipulated, and used. And so, to distress her parents, she drinks Mountain Dew. Because it has caffeine. You know? Her parents are mortified.

Of course, thinking back, I wonder how ridiculous we must have look. Certainly, out of all the rebellious teenager behaviors I could have committed (running from the silly to the absolute destructive) my action was incredibly benign. And for this person I know, she could have gone out and done much worse things – many disaffected members I know have run off in a passion and committed some very rash actions they later regretted, just to “get back” at the Church. But this got me thinking – could our very strict interpretation of the Word of Wisdom act as a heat sink?

A heat sink is a component (usually in electronic devices) which takes heat generated from the machine and transforms it into a less harmful heat or absorbs it so that it doesn’t ruin the rest of the system. Our “minor” commandments like the Word of Wisdom can act as a heat sink by taking powerful emotions such as resentment, rebellion, anger, fear, or revenge and transforming it into a particularly harmless “sin.” The teenager who wants to assert his own independence from his cultural upbringing in the Church might (instead of, say, experimenting with drugs or sex) begin to watch violent rated R movies. Or maybe the former member, who leaves out of offense and hurt, nurses his wounded pride over a mug of black coffee. Or the member who – because who doesn’t like the initial thrill of sin? – locks himself in the storage closet during an especially stressful day at work and launches into a tirade of profanity mixed with “Mormon” swear words? In the view of the world, they’re not doing anything “wrong” at all; in fact, all of these signs of rebellion might seem a little lame. But for these members (or former members) it acts as a very safe – and yet very real – act of independence which they crave, while preventing them from doing other acts which are by far more self-destructive and harmful to others.

I, for one, might start teaching my future kids the more strict interpretations of the Word of Wisdom, even though I don’t think it’s doctrinal or required for salvation at all, simply because I would rather have my children act out against my position of authority by drinking a cup of coffee or a can of Mountain Dew rather than other more serious actions. And, of course, I’ll pretend to act mortified.

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