Tag Archives: Jesus

Mormons, Hipsters, and how we forgot about Jesus

My friend David and I have a sort of dueling blogs kind of relationship. He writes over at Catchy Title Goes Here, and we tend to have pretty divergent views on Mormon culture and how it should interact with the world around us. I guess we can get away with this sort of thing because we avoid name-calling and we’ve known each other since forever.

Recently, our circle of friends is talking about the New York Times article To Be Young, Hip, and Mormon. My friend David talked about how he felt this was an affront to what the Church stood for, that it’s just an article about how to compromise with the world and avoid following certain commandments:

And the most offensive part of the article was at the end where the New York Times writes about What the Church Says and How to Get Around It. The very idea that you want to “get around” the commandments and doctrines of the church, just so that you can fit in with the cool kids, is just unthinkable to me. Either you are a Mormon, you want to be a part of the faith, you want to believe and accept the tenets of this faith, or you do not. And if you do not, then don’t. No big deal. There’s no one forcing you to be Mormon, there’s nothing, other than social pressure, which is, ironically, the only thing encouraging people to be hipster.

The offending portion is in the end of the article, where they write a tl;dr version:

Rebelling, If Only Just a Little

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Many adult Mormons follow the practice of wearing the temple garment, which for men, means long boxer briefs and a scoop-neck T-shirt and, for women, knee-length shorts and a top with cap sleeves.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

For men, tank tops are out, but you can stay on-trend in a button-down plaid shirt, rolled selvedge jeans and boat shoes. For women, one popular option is the “Zooey Deschanel look” — ruffled blouse, bow collar and a high-waisted pencil skirt.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Mormons are told not to “disfigure” themselves “with tattoos or body piercing.”

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Cover up the tattoos or at least try a compromise, like getting a tattoo of a beehive, a Mormon symbol of working together for the common good.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No beards on missionaries or Brigham Young University students.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

An allergic reaction to shaving, demonstrated by razor bumps, can score you a “beard card” at B.Y.U.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No consumption of alcohol, even at social functions.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Drink Pellegrino and don’t bother to correct other party guests who assume you are in recovery.

What I found so interesting about all of this is that outside of the tattoo advice (which blatantly defies the “no tattoos” rule our Church has), none of this actually advocates breaking any of the commandments. A beard card is a legitimate tool at BYU for wearing beards. No one said anything about altering or forgoing garments; they suggested clothing options that were still “hipster” yet modest. And nobody advocates drinking at parties; the author advocates drinking fancy bubbly water. In fact, if you simply changed the setting (say, for some bizarre reason, this appeared in the Ensign), this is all legitimate advice in being a faithful member but participating in this subculture (which, for some reason, you wanted to).

I actually found this to be a fun, if not somewhat banal, fluff piece. Why the New York Times is interested in Mormon hipsters (outside of the incongruity with our public image and the hipster fashion movement) is beyond me. Why do they care so much about us? I suppose we really are experiencing some kind of Mormon Moment.

However, a lot of people were really offended by this (or at least upset). David wasn’t the only one; my “Mormon Folks” Google Plus circle was all a-Buzz (see what I did there?) with commentary on this article, mostly negative. They view this as compromising our Church’s core values with the desires of the world. And this is the part I get upset about, for two primary reasons.

First of all, let’s not pretend that the Church has never compromised our core values with the world (see also: Polygamy). Speaking of the document that is now known as the Manifesto (and is actually, very curiously, canon), then-current Church President Woodruff wrote about the Lord’s justification on why we stopped practicing polygamy — the opposition was too much. We’d lose control of our temples; all of our leaders would be jailed; the entire religious movement would collapse under the strain. The impetus was revelation, that God said it was okay, but the explicit justification given (by God, if you are inclined to believe so) is to compromise to the pressure of the world.

Or let’s even talk about tattoos. In certain cultures (such as in Polynesia), tattoos are a vitally important part of their society. It marks rank, age, social prestige, etc. So what did the Church do when large numbers of Polynesians joined the Church? They compromised. Polynesian men can still get tattoos which are important to their culture and standing in society, but with Church permission on a case-by-case basis. This is hardly a strong, black-and-white stance that we often advocate here in the United States.

Now, yes. The key point to every Mormon here is that all of these “exceptions,” if you want to call them that, are regulated by the Church ecclesia proper. Yes. But there are other compromises that were not exactly brought about by revelation. In the beginning, the early Church Fathers taught vehemently against the idea of rampant capitalism; they taught that the nuclear family (a product of the Industrial Revolution) destroyed traditional kinship relationships and was a product of selfishness. They taught that communitarianism was more important than making money. Well, we’ve mostly forgotten those lessons. Sure, you see shades of it here and there, but we’ve actually gone and sacralized the nuclear family structure (See also: Proclamation to the World: The Family) and a good part of States Mormons embrace capitalism wholeheartedly.

Or take women and working. Twenty years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson said by no circumstance should women ever work outside the home. Ever. Then, in the 2000s, we had prophets saying it’s okay when necessary, but should be avoided. Now, in the 2010s, we have an I’m A Mormon ad celebrating a Mormon who is…you guessed it, a working mom who loves her job and doesn’t intend on quitting any time soon.

But this is not what really irks me and really more of a side point than anything else. Here’s my real beef and my second point. The New York Times article is banal and trivial; don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a fluff piece and nothing more. I think the whole hipster movement is kind of ridiculous. But that’s the thing. Our negative responses by and large have done the same thing — we’ve reduced our vibrant, beautiful faith into a banal list of outward appearances.

The advice in the article is really, really shallow. Mormonism isn’t about beards and blouses and skinny jeans and glasses and drinking sparkling water at loft parties and tattoos. Not really. Mormonism is about a beautiful cosmology, about a God who is our Father and who loves us, who sent His Son to die for us in an attempt to save us all from our wretched natures and exalt us to his level. We believe in a religion that not only saves us, but extends the salvic power of Jesus through the chains of our ancestors and our descendants, in infinite web of humanity all embraced and linked together through the power of God so that we can all become kin, and all re-enter into our inheritance as the offspring of deity.

Nowhere in the article (or in the complaints) is this idea. The article is not advocating denouncing Jesus, or abandoning baptism or membership. They’re talking about wearing modest clothing and still looking hipster, for Pete’s sake. And here in lies the Big Problem, both for our perception to the outside world, and our own perceptions of ourselves.

What makes a Mormon Mormon? Is it the way he dresses? What she drinks and where and why? Is it whether or not she has a tattoo or whether or not he has a beard? God forbid this is what we think of ourselves. But this small slip reveals a lot — we don’t require that you just believe in Mormonism, you need to look the part, too. Which I think is sad. How sad is it that we see a guy with a beehive tattoo and we think, “He must not believe in the core doctrines of this Church.” How sad is it when we see a girl drinking sparkling water at a loft party and dodging questions about why she doesn’t drink to avoid social scorn and then looks dejected when everyone else around her is drunk and she’s not having any fun, we think “She has no moral values. I bet she doesn’t even believe in Jesus.” Because that’s what we’re saying. We’re drawing the line in the sand on what makes you a “good” Mormon, and it’s not what you believe, but it’s apparently how you dress and your attitudes towards loft parties.

Sure, people will extrapolate motivations from actions. If you want to get a tattoo but the prophet told you not to, then you obviously believe in the prophet. But then again, I’ve yet to meet a Mormon who is perfect in everything the prophets tell you to do (in fact, every General Conference, my feeds are flooded with Mormons publicly confessing that they could always do better). Whence did all this judgment come from? And why do we keep doing it?

We’re all sinners here. To pull an old card from classic evangelic street preaching, have you ever lied? Have you ever thought an inappropriate thought? Have you ever called your brother a fool? Then you have sinned, and we all stand in need of the atonement of Christ. I love the I’m A Mormon ad campaign precisely because it broadens the idea of what it means to be a Mormon. Sure, they hook you in with the fact that this guy is an edgy photographer, or this guy makes handmade books, or this lady raises bees or this guy skateboards professionally. But when you get to the center, what makes them Mormon? Is it the leisure activities they do? No. It’s what they believe. It’s how they structure their worldview, and what they hope for in this life and the life to come. That’s what makes you a Mormon.

But we’ve yet to absorb the message. We ignore the message entirely, in fact, and often descend into a destructive, futile attempt at brand control. When a newspaper writes a fluff piece about Mormons trying to look hipster while trying to keep the faith and working around commandments that clash with their cultural surroundings in the least conflicting way possible, suddenly we descend, upset and angry, that they have somehow misrepresented us, as if Mormons struggling to blend in with the crowd while maintaining their faith makes you imperfect, a sinner, less than us, and unworthy to carry the Mormon name. The fact that an article which never mentions their faith in Jesus but mentions maybe getting a tattoo or complaining that loft parties aren’t fun (don’t our “strong” youth always complain about how worldly parties aren’t fun in the New Era anyway? When did this suddenly become a sin?) gets us so riled up is sort of telling, and what it’s telling is not pretty. In fact, to me, it’s really ugly.

We’re all trying. And every day, we have to make little compromises here and there, in hopes that our neighbors don’t burn down our houses and drive us out of the country to, oh, I dunno, Nunavut or something. Our compromises just aren’t visible ones; we’re the lucky Mormons. Let’s have a little bit of faith and a little bit of charity. Even for hipsters.

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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.

_____________________________________________

* 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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The Lord’s Prayer v. The Lord’s Prayer

A common criticism of the Book of Mormon is that Joseph Smith was so uncreative that he simply lifted entire portions of the King James Bible and dumped it into the Book of Mormon (and some members wish that Mormon/Joseph Smith went easy on the Isaiah, but it’s good for them in the end). One such “uncreative” passage is when Jesus visits the inhabitants in the Americas and teaches them the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew 6. The prayer, along with the Sermon on the Mount, is repeated verbatim by the Savior — or so a lot of people think. There are actually some surprising differences between the King James Lord’s Prayer and the Book of Mormon Lord’s Prayer, and it raises some really interesting questions.

The following is a verse by verse comparison of the two passages:

New Testament Lord’s Prayer Book of Mormon Lord’s Prayer
After this manner therefore pray ye:

Our Father which art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

__________

After this manner therefore pray ye:

Our Father who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

__________

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

__________

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

__________

Give us this day our daily bread.

__________

This passage is missing in the Book of Mormon.

__________

And forgive us our debts,

as we forgive our debtors.

__________

And forgive us our debts,

as we forgive our debtors.

__________

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever. Amen.

__________

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

forever. Amen.

__________

There are two notable omissions in the Book of Mormon Lord’s Prayer (and no additions). The first omission is the line, “Thy kingdom come,” which would make sense as this is post-Resurrection Jesus, and with his Earthly mission fulfilled, the kingdom has, in a sense, already arrived. After all, throughout his entire ministry, Jesus kept telling people that the kingdom of God was at hand. Now, with the kingdom established, the line could be considered no longer necessary (though there are theological/spiritual reasons why we might still need this line in our hearts).

The second omission makes less sense. The Book of Mormon Lord’s Prayer makes no mention of asking for our daily bread. Why the omission? Is there something significantly “un-LDS” about asking for our daily bread (I would venture no)? Did Joseph Smith simply forget while writing it down? It’s somewhat of a mystery. This sentiment is certainly not missing entirely from the Book of Mormon. Amulek, a Book of Mormon missionary, preaches a sermon where he implores people to pray for, in essence, their daily bread:

Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you; Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save. Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him. Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks. Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening. Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies. Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness. Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them. Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase. But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness (Alma 34:17-26).

So why the omission? Some would point this out as an example that the Book of Mormon is uninspired, but I would disagree. Such a pittance does not really detract from the fact that the Book of Mormon is an incredibly robust piece of devotional literature. What makes it feel intentional as an omission is the fact that the first omission kind of makes sense. But at the same time, my personal opinion is that it could have simply been a piece of human error — perhaps young Joseph Smith had a hard time memorizing this prayer during his youth and always left out the “give us this day our daily bread” part. Then, while reciting the Book of Mormon to his scribe, childhood practice took over and he omitted it once again. I admit this is a somewhat fancypants-post-modern, totally unsubstantiated explanation. But is there any possible theological explanation for the omission? If there is, I can’t think of any at the moment.

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Pascal’s Wager, or why you should fear the Rapture tomorrow you dirty, dirty heathens

So there’s a big hullaballoo about the Rapture happening on May 21st, 2011 at six o’clock P.M., according to your time zone or something like that. Amongst this hullaballoo is a lot of mocking of people who sincerely believe this is going to happen (and have thus either abandoned society or are preaching the word out in the streets about it). There have been Rapture dinners and parties planned for the night and everyone and their mother has gone out on Twitter or Facebook and made at least one Rapture joke (myself included). How could anyone believe that the Rapture is actually going to happen? Christians zapping up into the sky? The unbelieving left to roam the zombie-infested streets, abandoned by a justly wrathful and vengeful God? Poppycock. Saturday will come and go and we will be left to go back to school and work on Monday while the “believing” will come back home, their tails sheepishly tucked between their legs.

However, the joke is on us, and good old mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal is here to explain with his famous Pascal’s Wager.

In a gross dumbed-down version of Pascal’s Wager, Christianity is kind of a zero sum game. You believe in Him and gain all the rewards of heaven, and if you disbelieve him, you gain all the horrors of Hell. It’s just how the game is played. Unfortunately, Pascal says, we can’t know for absolute surety that God is out there, silently and quietly judging us until the time is right to steal away His chosen and punish the rejected. We have to, essentially, make a wager. And so, what’s the best decision to make?

If you believe in God and God is there, you gain everything, but if it turns out that God isn’t there, well, that’s that. You die and nothing happens. Your life has no meaning. If you don’t believe in God and God is there, you lose everything, but if it turns out that God isn’t there, well, that’s that. You die and nothing happens. Your life has no meaning.

Therefore, Pascal reasons, in the end, you’re better off believing in God. You have everything to gain and very little to lose because honestly, life on this planet can suck a lot of the time.

Ohhhh man, if the Rapture does happen tomorrow, life is gonna suuuu-u-u-u-ck for you!

Consider if the Rapture did happen. All of those guys out there preaching and waving signs and stocking up on canned beans or whatever you do to prepare for the Rapture, they’re gonna get caught up and float up into the sky to hang out with Jesus forever, and that sounds pretty awesome. Meanwhile, we’re on the Earth, duking it out with insectoids with female heads breathing fire while a beast with seven heads and seven tails and seven horns or something bursts out of the Pacific Ocean and starts ravaging Hollywood, eating liberal actors and journalists alike. That’s gonna suck if you’re not one of the believers shooting up into the sky.

Consider if the Rapture doesn’t happen. All of those guys out there preaching and waving signs and stocking up on canned beans or whatever you do to prepare for the Rapture will poke their heads out, notice that they have not, in fact, been clothed in golden robes and given harps to play the hymns of God for all time everlasting, and they will return to their homes and endure some heckling and teasing. They’ll probably move out of state to get away from it, start their lives over, and just blush and look away whenever someone at a dinner party says, “Remember that May 21st rapture thing?”

And us smug guys? We’ll go through life as usual, trudging back to our responsibilities over the weekend, battling with that gnawing uncertainty that there is nothing after this life but the void, that our lives hold no meaning, and that perhaps all there is to life is to futilely endure the slow, demoralizing grind of life until we die as husks, shells of our former selves, our youth and ambition and idealism ground to dust and scattered across the winds like the ashes that once held our consciousness before that final neuron gave up the ghost in a silent scream of forfeit.

For a split second in their lives, these rapture guys are really worked up and passionate and believing in something. Yeah, maybe this whole thing won’t pan out and they’ll go home major disappointed, but if, for some miracle, it does happen? They won the lottery a million billion hojillion times over. And if they’re wrong? They’ll go home to their boring, boring lives and endure a lot of mockery, but it’s not like these types of people aren’t used to mockery. In the end, they’ve really lost not a lot.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re the sane ones.

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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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The Light of the World

This week is perhaps the holiest week of all Christendom. The culmination of the Lental season begins this Good Friday (the celebration of Christ’s crucifixion) with a spectacular Easter Sunday (the celebration of Christ’s resurrection). Even more interestingly enough, Good Friday coincides with Earth Day this year, combining my love for the environment with my love for spiritual rituals.

To celebrate this Good Friday, the wife and I will be holding a traditional Passover Seder (or, at least, to the best of our goyim ability). However, to also commemorate Earth Day, we will be unplugging all of our unnecessary electrical appliances at sundown, the start of the Sabbath. So computers, the Wii, our television, lamps, lights, electric mixer, toaster oven and griddle will be physically unplugged. We will hold our Seder in candlelight, not only to help us appreciate the modern-day luxuries we have today, how dependent we’ve grown on them, and how to use them responsibly, but also to represent how the motif of darkness is oft repeated in the scriptures to signify the death of the Savior and the world’s rejection of God’s light. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon speak of darkness, and for us, we will plunge ourselves into a type of darkness in modernity, to disconnect from the world and reconnect with each other and the Divine.

Saturday, the Sabbath, will be spent not only in the company of each other, but in the activity of unburdening our lives of the physical things which weigh us down. The Gospel of Thomas has a great parable in which the Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto an old woman carrying a bag of grain, which represents the precious things of the world. As she approaches her destination, a tear develops in the bag, and the grain trickles out. When she reaches the end of her journey, her bag is empty. We will make an inventory of all of our physical possessions and decide which we should keep and which burden us unnecessarily in our journey through life. We will also clean our apartment thoroughly, which has fallen into disrepair since both of us have sold ourselves to the pursuit of mammon (for the kid! I tell myself), as if in preparation of receiving Christ Himself into our home.

Saturday, we will also work and bustle to put together our garden. Our seedlings have recently sprung into life, and we need to transfer them into the pots we’ve prepared for them. We may even take the time to meditate on our little second floor apartment porch. Or maybe we’ll just set up some chairs out there and read. The day is open to whatever we decide.

Of course, Easter Sunday, we will attend church (though Mormon meetings usually lack some of that traditional Easter…oomph) and then spend the time together with family. At sundown, we will plug in all of our electronics again, and once again artificial light will re-enter our world. Then again, maybe for our Easter dinner, we’ll just light all of our tea candles and scatter them all throughout the house, so to remind ourselves one last time who the real light of the world is.

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Moderation and Extremism

There is a fascinating quote by Aristotle in his work Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses the idea of a mean, or average, in virtue:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

(Book II)

In other words, if you want to know how to increase a virtue (something that occupied much of Aristotle’s mind), you have to find a middle ground, and work on it. However, his middle ground is different for everyone. For example, a skilled runner, for example, will find one mile a day very paltry. If he only runs one mile a day, he will not develop, and may even backslide. But for a very beginner runner, one mile a day may be destructive; he’ll be prone to injury and pain, which will only halt his progress. But if he doesn’t run enough to push him, he will also never develop. Somewhere, there lies a happy medium, and this is the key to success.

I love this idea, but recently, I’ve been challenged by another great thinker, who wrote this:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

(Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Compound this with this recent blog by Winterbuzz at Feminist Mormon Housewives, where she writes:

What about Mormonism seems to demand balance? What about the Word of Wisdom suggests balance? What about our faith, our dedication, our worship, our study, our sacrifice suggests ‘balance?’ As Mormons, we were raised to be extremists. If we use our linear graph to gauge ourselves by the world’s terms, we’re so far to one side we’re almost out of view. Polygamy anyone? Mormons are some of the most extreme people on earth. (As a side note, it was also pointed out that Jesus doesn’t actually talk about balance very often, although he does say that if we are lukewarm then he will spit us out of his mouth.) When we Mormons talk about moderation, it’s kinda silly; we have no idea what that means.

She kind of has a point.

The thing is, I’m with Aristotle on this one, for the most part. When developing virtue, whether it’s virtuous basketball playing or virtuous honesty, a person must start small, and slowly work their way up. But, at some point, in order to improve, one must become a fanatic. A runner who only runs three or so miles a day will never become the fantastic runner my sister became one summer while training for a half-marathon, where she started running eight or so miles a day. In order to become a “virtuous” runner, you must begin to adopt extreme measures. In order to be a virtuous person in the Church, you must become extreme. After all, we follow, as Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly put, a fanatical Son of God, a being who during his physical incarnation told his disciples to sell everything they own and distribute it to the poor, who told them on the one hand to take no thought for the morrow, but then to scrutinizingly count the cost for their actions to make sure it has spiritual significance, who told them he would die for them, and then told them that he expected them to do the same for him.

We worship a guy who ran into the sacrosanct temple grounds and started upsetting tables and letting loose the animals. He made a whip, for heavens’ sake, to drive out the animals and moneychangers.

Imagine if a robed man with a big beard ran into the local temple and started upsetting tables and chasing people out with a homemade whip? I imagine most Mormons would look at him with shock and horror. How absolutely vulgar, we’d say. He has no concept of sacred.

Or maybe it’s us who don’t have a real concept of sacred? Are we like Jesus and extremists for love, or are we Aristotelean moderates, both individually and collectively as a society? I’m not so sure anymore.

 

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