Tag Archives: LDS

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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What part of the brain is agency located?

A massive foundation of Mormon thought and theology rests on the firm rejection of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will and who will not go to heaven before the end of someone’s mortal life. Rather, we espouse the idea that we are free agents unto ourselves, and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling on an individual level. God cannot force anyone to heaven, and He coaxes us through love and kindness.

This idea of agency permeates our theology more than many Mormons might realize. It is our solution to the Problem of Evil (and a better one than most Christian theologies can offer). It’s also the basis of our rejection of Original Sin, a very important Christian concept (and also the basis of our rejection of infant baptism). It’s really quite the game changer.

Which then makes cases like Phineas Gage hard to, well, process and understand.

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who lived in the 1860s. During work, he was struck by, ironically, a large iron rod, and by struck I mean it went clean through his head, destroying his left frontal lobe. Whereas before he was a most conscientious worker, a kind person, and a devoted family man, he became erratic, irresponsible, and seemingly incapable of making any kind of good decision. His professional life suffered greatly, as well as his personal life. In essence, though Phineas Gage the biological organism survived, it’s arguable that Phineas Gage the personality had long been destroyed.

Phineas Gage is used often in psychology textbooks around the world as the  classic example of how personality, as well as the ability to make decisions, is often rooted in biological causes.[1] This also raises some very profound theological questions for Mormons, specifically, (1) did Phineas Gage lose his agency?, (2) how easy is it to hamper the use of agency?, and (3) how much is agency connected to biological constraints outside of our personal control?

To address the first question, I believe most Mormons would say that severe brain damage certainly leads to a loss of agency, especially when it’s accompanied with such drastic personality changes. This falls into line with the idea that mentally handicapped children, for example, cannot exercise full agency and so fall under the category of “without the law” and are automatically covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ (per Jacob and Moroni).

The second question falls into more chilling territory. Situations such as children dying at an early age (before the age of eight) and children born with mental disabilities such as Down Syndrome are what some might call “extreme” cases. Outside of these unusual circumstances, the Mormon standpoint argues that the vast majority of people in the world still can and do exercise their agency. But can someone else take it away? Gage’s condition came about by an accident, but what if it was intentional? The thought certainly seems frightening.

Of course, there are less extreme implications. What about age, such as dementia? As people get older, and some develop signs of dementia, does their agency diminish? As our understanding of psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to manic depressive disorder to psychopathy to just plain old neurosis, and their connection to real deficiencies in the body rooted in the physical realm (and not just an attack of a spiritual or more ethereal emotional nature) increases, how do we judge their effects on agency? Is someone truly free if they suffer from dangerous mood swings? And if psychotropic drugs solve the problem, it brings up a new problem, which comes to port full steam with the third question.

As Mormons, we acknowledge that agency can be taken away for biological reasons. We’ve already mentioned early childhood death and mental disabilities. We also acknowledge that substances which alter our brain chemistry can rob us of our agency, which is where a big defense for the Word of Wisdom comes from. Addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and most illegal drugs will steal away our ability to make decisions, be our own masters, and also to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.[2]

From here, it’s really not a large leap of faith (or logic) that there are reasons we lose agency that might not necessarily be our fault. We’ve already discussed psychological disorders, such as depression, dementia, manic depressive disorder, and psychopathy, which all often have deep biological causes.[3] But we have not yet discussed the plasticity of the brain in reaction to not just other chemicals (via nicotine, caffeine, or Percocet) but also to emotional events. For example, we acknowledge that children (and adults) who undergo traumatic, stressful events suffer some kind of psychic, emotional damage. How in control (or, in other words, how much agency) does a Vietnam veteran suffering from terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really have? And if a teenager who has had a troubled past suffering consistent abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual, or a combination) falls into trouble, or has a difficult time trusting authority figures or making good decisions, how much really lies in the fault of the teenager?[4]

People will accuse me of trying to absolve blame from guilty parties, but that is not the point (though that is a good question to consider — if we acknowledge that agency must be present for true guilt to also be present, how much guilt should we assign to those who may lack some grade of agency?). There is a more fundamental, troublesome consequence of what we’ve observed to be true as far as the human brain is concerned: If agency is such a fundamental part of God’s plan, why did God make agency such an incredibly fragile thing? A person’s ability to choose can be stolen away by a freak accident on a railroad, and, in some cases, people are not born with the capability for agency at all.[5] What are we to conclude when God presents a plan where agency is paramount, and yet creates conditions in which so quickly it can slip out of our grasp without any fault of our own?

I present not these questions to argue against the Plan of Salvation (I am a huge fan of the Plan of Salvation), but rather I point out these questions to perhaps fill in gaps that we have left unfilled, or to re-examine what we believe to know about the plan in order to truly account for who is accountable. Justice and mercy cannot be fully exercised otherwise, and we may unwittingly be condemning too many of our brothers and sisters for actions that may possibly be out of control. In fact, it’s arguable whether we really have much control at all.[6]
__________________________________________

[1] Whenever I mention to people in church that I enjoy studying psychology, I often get suspicious looks. One member asked if it was possible to be a good, believing Mormon and a psychologist at the same time. I believe that it is potentially world-turned-upside-down, status-quo-challenging questions like these that makes psychology unpopular amongst a church with a strong, rigid, hierarchical structure and obsession of eternal doctrine consistency.

[2] This seems to suggest that an ability to commune with God could be based in a biological component (if biological substances can hamper Spirit reception, certainly that means Spirit reception is based somehow biologically). This would explain how many of my friends who suffer from depression mention that they have never had a prayer answered in their entire lives, despite (very) desperate attempts to do so.

[3] I say “often” because of depression. I understand that it is common for people to feel depressed, especially after the death of a loved one, or some other similar traumatic experience. This depression definitely has a biological component, but often goes away on its own. This is very different from the deep-seated, extremely debilitating depression that has strong biological components that simply cannot be “prayed” away.

[4] I have often had people tell me free will does exist; otherwise, how could you have two different people in the same situation but grow up to be so different? For example, some people who come from abusive families vow to break the cycle of violence (and succeed) while others try to break the cycle of violence (and don’t succeed) and others simply (sadly) continue the cycle of violence unhampered. Certainly, free will plays into the occasion. Well, perhaps not entirely. There is an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) which regulates the breakdown of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. In The Personality Puzzle by David Funder, “A gene that promotes the action of MAO in breaking down these neurotransmitters seem to help prevent the development of delinquency among children who have been maltreated (Caspi et al., 2002; Moffit, 2005).” While this doesn’t mean everything is determined by genetics, it does suggest that even those success stories who overcame difficult origins against all odds may have had help from their biological makeup, something outside of their immediate control, and the inverse should be true — some people’s genes seem to simply stack the odds against them even more.

[5] The trickier problem occurs not in people whom we readily acknowledge to have no agency, but people who may have only been born with (to put it crudely) 50%, 40%, 30%, or even just 15% agency than the average person. Where do we draw the line between accountable and unaccountable? While judging is strictly for the Lord and we are told to refrain from such activity, the cold, hard truth is that the ecclesiastical church must judge, specifically for disciplinary reasons (though also for activities like temple recommend interviews). And when someone is disciplined or denied blessings, rumors start and harsh, hurtful judging begins, even if the fault may lie in “faulty” genes, such as someone born with Down Syndrome.

[6] There’s a fascinating cognitive experiment which recording the typing speed of professional typists. A most surprising result was that the typist would actually hesitate (albeit, for only milliseconds) before typing a typo (that is, hitting the wrong key). However, the typist would still make the typo. This suggests that the brain understands for those split milliseconds it’s about to make a mistake, but for some reason (momentum, perhaps?) makes the mistake anyway. Theologically, the results mirror Jesus’ charitable observation on his overzealous apostles that the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. This also resembles (in an exaggerated way) the one instance where no person has any choice in the matter — we will all sin. It’s a decree from God; it’s what makes the Atonement necessary in Christianity. In this one area, we must all abdicate our agency, or at the very least, understand that there may be more powerful biological (fleshy?) forces at work here that override any pitiful attempts on our part to exercise our agency.

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The revelatory power of Gentiles

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

Somewhere, on the East Coast of the United States, a young, prominent feminist, well respected by her peers and community and considered a good, honorable person, is sitting in the breakfast nook of her Boston home, meditating. She is meditating on how she could heal the bridge between the patriarchal (in a bad way) influences in Western religion and women who seek spirituality within the Christian context but cannot feel like they are full participants in certain denominations. As she is meditating, the Holy Ghost descends upon her and she sees a vision. A man clothed in a white robe appears before her and says, “Your meditations have been heard by God and you will receive your answer. Send word to a man named Thomas S. Monson, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He will tell you what to do.”

At the exact same time, President Monson is sitting in the celestial room of the Salt Lake City temple. He has been fasting for several days now, and in the middle of his prayers, he falls into a type of trance. He sees the heavens open up above him and a strange vision appears before him wherein God commands him to do something He explicitly told the Prophet not to do. President Monson refuses, wanting to stay strictly adherent to the rules. This vision appears three times, each time God commanding President Monson to disobey a previous commandment. After the third time, President Monson puzzles over this when President Uchtdorf, one of his counselors, comes in and tells him someone wants to see him.

President Monson meets with the messenger, who tells him of our stalwart and good feminist, and of her strange request to receive word on what to do. President Monson decides to return with the messenger to Boston and meet this faithful sister who was not of our faith, and when he meets her and finds out what she seeks, President Monson is moved upon by the Holy Ghost and decides that now is the time for women to receive the priesthood. He baptizes the feminist and ordains her to the office of a priest.

This story sounds kind of crazy, huh? And yet, it basically happened 2000 years ago, according to Acts chapter 10. Of course, then, it was the centurion Cornelius, and the prophet at the time was the apostle Peter. Still, this chapter in The Acts of the Apostles presents an interesting conundrum, and that is, a Gentile (someone outside of the faith, even marginalized at that point) not only receives visions and is visited by heavenly messengers, but helps to interpret a vision the head of the Church had received, which results in the historical reversal of what was once considered God-ordained procedure.

Could this happen in our Church today? Theoretically, yes. But is it feasible? That’s for you to decide.

When Peter decided to reverse the current long-standing tradition that Jews and Gentiles not mingle, and instead declared the famous stance that God supposedly takes, specifically that He is no respecter of persons, it was not only a seismic cultural shift wherein this strange Nazarene cult would eventually break away from its parent Judaism and become a world religion and a force to be reckoned with on its own, but it also led to explosive growth in the Church, the charge spearheaded by Paul.

However, it also did not take long for Paul to issue this warning in Romans to those very Gentiles who helped the Church’s ranks swell with larger numbers. Comparing the Gentiles to wild branches grafted into a host tree, Paul warned, “Boast not against the branches…. Thou wilt say then, the branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well: because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:18-21).

Paul’s warning and Peter’s experience with Gentiles brings about a good lesson that we as Church members could learn for ourselves. We sometimes as a culture take a combative stance towards anything not Mormon. We forget, like some white Americans do today, that we are all immigrants, and essentially, our religion is a religion of converts. Cornelius is a good example that the world is full of people who, Gentile as they are, can be good people. In fact, they can be good people that have the potential to receive the Holy Ghost as well as we (Acts 10:47) and even spur massive cultural shifts in the Church for our own good.

Be not highminded, but fear — for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he spare not thee.

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How to Talk to and Write about Mormons: A Guide

Greetings, journalist!

No doubt you’ve noticed that for the next few months, you will be hearing a lot about Mormons. And you will probably have to write about them. This is a problem, because it appears that nobody in the mainstream press knows how to write about Mormons, or to talk to them. This guide seeks to rectify that.

Things You Should Know About Mormons Before You Write About Them Or Talk To Them:

1. Mormons are rational about their religion

You may notice that almost every article about Mormons mentions sacred or magical underwear. Or maybe multiple wives. Or golden plates or peep stones in hats or treasure digging. What a crazy religion, you may say to yourself. I can’t believe millions of people in America believe this! This is so ridiculous!

Therefore, it is common to talk about how Mormons are deluded, naive perhaps, superstitious, or maybe even a little crazy or backwards. People love to focus on the tall tales of Mormonism, often to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe it’s because this is all new to you. Whenever you write articles about Christians, most journalists do not feel compelled to insert a paragraph about how Christians believe that a Middle Eastern peasant was killed and then came back to life, and that millions of Christians every Sunday participate in sacraments where they symbolically eat their God’s flesh and blood. There is no need to do so with Mormons.

Mormons regard themselves as very rational. When you run into a Mormon, whether or not you are interviewing him or her on purpose, ask why that person is Mormon. They will often speak of an experience where they feel the mundane and divine intersected. They may talk about our health code, which has been shown to produce happy, healthy Mormons. They may talk about Mormonism’s strong core family values and practices, which has been shown to produce relatively happy and strong families. They may talk about how Mormonism “makes sense in a logical way” that many Christian sects cannot or simply ignore.

The vast majority of Mormons have very good, personal, well thought out reasons for why they adhere to the faith. Questioning and gaining that personal reason is almost sacrosanct and required. You may not agree with their reasoning; however, it is important to weigh whether or not this is relevant to the story at hand. Use judgment and caution when assigning value judgments to other peoples’ faiths.

Above all, if you mention that Mormons believe that they can become gods with their own planets in the afterlife without mentioning much anything else, do not be surprised if Mormons openly deride your article. It is most likely because your piece lacks any journalistic rigor.

2. Mormons are strongly anchored around traditional families

Mormons love families. This you cannot overemphasize. We pay thousands of dollars to run commercials that do not push any of our specific denominational doctrines or ideas, but instead depict humorous family moments. This is a thing we kind of do. Lots of people like that about us.

Almost every political issue the Church (that is, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) takes a stance on points back to this iron-clad belief in the family. Gay marriage? Defense of the traditional nuclear family. ERA in the 1970s? Preservation of old, conservative family values. Even subjects traditionally tied to economic or cultural reasons such as illegal immigration can (and will) be tied to the family (we believe that above all, even illegal immigrants deserve to keep their families intact, thus we espouse a more charitable and lenient policy compared to the rest of the Religious Right in America).

If you played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with a Mormon, except instead of Degrees you used Political and Theological Arguments and instead of Kevin Bacon you used Traditional Family, it would be a very easy game.

3. Mormonism has a cheatsheet when it comes to its beliefs

A lot of articles recently attempt to explain what Mormons believe and it often comes across as scattered, poorly researched, and barely coherent. There is usually an attempt to talk about who Joseph Smith was, or something about the Book of Mormon being about ancient American Hebrews, and then maybe a little bit about secret temples. Occasionally, it will highlight differences between Mormonism and “mainstream Christianity,” which says very little outside of declaring that fact. This is not only a disservice to Mormons, who are a minority and don’t have a lot of power in dictating media discourse about them — it is simply lazy journalism and you should be ashamed.

You should be doubly ashamed about this consistent inconsistency in quality when you realize (and most people already painfully know) that Mormonism is a strong, proselyting religion. We have tens of thousands of missionaries scattered across the globe trained to talk about Mormonism who rarely get interviewed. On top of that, we have a document called The Articles of Faith, thirteen points of doctrine which Joseph Smith drafted and was ratified by the Church as canonical scripture. It is available for free on the Internet, like Wikipedia.

When writing about Mormon beliefs, it is recommended one reads this document at least once. Instead of going to outside resources or touching on a few highlighted cultural oddities, it is recommended that journalists do their job and actually get to know what they are writing about before writing about them, and then to proceed with accuracy and fairness in mind.

4. Mormons are used to being persecuted

Recently, a friend told me about how a high school teacher refused to believe that Mormons were heavily persecuted in the 1800s. Most people are shocked when they hear the details of this persecution. Unfortunately, this was A Real Thing. Lots of Mormons died. Lots more were tarred and feathered or beaten or whipped. Even more lost their homes and property. Eventually, because the US Federal Government refused to intervene on the Church’s behalf, a lot of Mormons literally fled out of the United States into “unclaimed” Indian Territory, which is now present-day Utah. Mormons have not been treated even remotely fairly by American mainstream culture until roughly the 1950s and 1960s, a mere generation ago. Because of this, Mormons are very jumpy about how others view them.

If, when you approach a Mormon, they appear hostile, agitated, or ambivalent towards your presence or questions, it is important to understand this deep-rooted distrust of the outside world. While you should not compromise your journalistic mission and decline to ask hard questions, an understanding and acceptance of past treatment Mormons received will help you interact and write about this still relatively unknown denomination in the United States.

To use a cliche, they are perhaps more wary of you than you are of them.

5. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stopped practicing polygamy in 1890

Apparently, people still think this is something Mormons do, despite the fact that LDS Mormons have not practiced in literally over a century. Polygamy is very much like Sarah Palin — no real relevance to current discourse or political events, but obsessed about by the media.

On top of this, Mormons have a very complex relationship with that marital practice. The closest analogy to a “mainstream” American may be slavery. White Americans have not practiced slavery for a while now. Still, many obsess about it; they talk about it incessantly, and bring it up when it bears little comparison to the subject at hand. Some people refuse to move past it, while many others refuse to even acknowledge it.

If you must talk about polygamy, understand you must talk about it tactfully. Avoid any opportunities where people can accuse you of sensationalist journalism. Tread carefully, and soberly. Above all, interview and talk to many Mormons about this subject, as viewpoints on polygamy vary wildly from member to member, just as one would expect if one brought up the history of slavery in America at a dinner party.

6. If you are not a Mormon, you are woefully ignorant about Mormonism

I have met many, many, many good people who are not Mormon. I have talked to a lot of them about Mormonism. Outside of one good friend who almost joined but decided ultimately in the end it was not for him, all of them had very little knowledge about Mormonism’s core beliefs and doctrines. America is well known for its religious illiteracy — multiply that by a large factor when it comes to Mormons.

Show humility when it comes to writing about our religion and when you talk to us. We like talking about ourselves and what we believe in; it is hardwired into our faith. Say you don’t know much about Mormonism, and we’ll fill in the rest. Everyone has their own opinion, so interview multiple Mormons. This may sound like hard work, but since you are getting paid for this piece you’re writing, don’t complain and just do it.

7. Just because everyone else around you is taking shortcuts doesn’t make it okay for you

It’s okay. We’re used to being the punching bag of American pop culture. Big Love upset us, especially its lack of respect for sacred Mormon traditions, but outside of (polite) angry letters, we won’t do much. The Book of Mormon musical sure makes us look like a bunch of (really really nice) dummies, and we’re used to that, too. So if you decide to take short cuts and write a terribly researched puff piece purporting to explain what Mormons believe and contribute to the general willful ignorance America exhibits concerning us, we’ve come to expect that, so it probably will not upset us that much.

However, understand that this lazy journalism contributes to the tense relationship American Mormons have with the rest of America. Prop 8 showed the rest of the country that while we may be a relatively small denomination, we have grown to such a size that we can wield disproportionately powerful regional influence. An honest, authentic, earnest dialogue needs to be opened up with the rest of America and Mormonism, if we are to learn to coexist peacefully next to each other without death threats, vandalism, and occasional clashes.

As the self-proclaimed, unofficial Fourth Branch of the Government, you, the Press, must engage journalism in a way beneficial to our burgeoning democracy. We are part of that democracy. If you wish to continue to misrepresent us, we will not do much to stop you. Honestly, we’re just glad you’ve stopped burning down our houses and chasing us out of the states we live in. We, for the most part, understand that this continual “bad” journalism is most likely a result of sloth and laziness, not out of any kind of malevolent agenda to slander us. But hopefully, sloth and an easy paycheck after a perfunctory skim of Wikipedia is not why you became a journalist. We do expect better, but perhaps we’re foolish to have such faith in you.

However, this blogger believes in you.

 

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Mormons dating heathens

I listen to a podcast called Catholic Stuff You Should Know (because I am a closet Catholic wannabe), and at the end of the podcast during their email section, a Catholic dating a Jewish girl asked, “Am I allowed to date outside the faith?”

I perked up to listen. Inter-religious dating and marriage is such a touchy subject in the LDS Church, so I wanted to hear the Catholic perspective. The answer they gave shocked me.

Absolutely, they said, absolutely you are allowed to date outside of the faith. You need to understand that God put this girl in your life for a reason, and you need to explore that reason, one of the hosts said. The other, about to become a priest in a few days, also said that they should seek out activities they can do together; for example, one cultural crossroad is reading the Old Testament together. Try to pray together to the best of your ability. Because Catholics see Jesus as a fulfillment of Judaism, there’s a lot of history and commonality together, so you should take advantage of the opportunity to explore Judaism and learn more about your own faith at the same time.

Of course, it’s all not unicorns and rainbows. They also told the young couple to really talk seriously about marriage and what they would do if they did tie the knot. What religion would they raise their future children in? Are they okay with the other not attending religious services with them? Understand, they warned, that there will eventually be divisive cultural issues between the two of you that you will have to work through if you want to be with this woman, but it can be done, if you work hard.

And lest you think these are a bunch of liberal hippy Catholics (they’re not), immediately, they root their advice in scripture. The first thing you need to do, one of them said, is read the story of Ruth.

This, I admit, shocked me quite a bit. Mormons are incredibly insular, and dating is no exception. We warn against dating outside of the faith, and that if you get married outside of the temple, woe, woe, woe be unto you! You will probably get boils and your husband will probably get leprosy, and don’t be surprised if your kids turn against you and try to raise up an army to overthrow your kingdom or something. Seriously, some of those warnings can be that dire.

Catholics want Catholics to marry each other, and they want Catholics to get married under the Catholic tradition, of course. Marriage for Catholics, just like for us, is an essential sacrament. On top of that, they don’t believe in second chances after this world, like we do with the spirit world. So why the liberal attitude?

If any religion were to be open to inter-religious dating, you would think it would be ours. We believe that one can receive essential sacraments after this life (that’s what half of the temple is all about). We believe that we believe in anything that is good, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy, even if it’s outside of the faith. So why are we so terrified of our kids dating outside of the faith?

I can think of two reasons.

The first reason, we can’t really help right now. We’re a small demographic. We just are. There are only 12 million of us in the world, in a world of 5 billion people. We literally make up 0.24% of the world. That’s not a lot. Because of this, we’re constantly in self-preservation mode — if we let too many of our numbers get diluted, we stand a good chance of disappearing forever.

The second one is a little more disappointing. We’re incredibly, totally, wholly insecure about our religion and beliefs. We don’t really believe in its power.

I had an experience on my mission that changed my life forever. I was talking to a colleague of mine about how I was afraid to talk to people about my faith because they might tear it apart. It’s a legitimate concern every missionary has, an existential terror we carry with us every time we knock on a door. He thought for a minute and asked, “Do you really believe that this can help people in their lives?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Then why are you scared?” he asked. “Truth is truth and beats lies and falsehood. Truth has the unique ability to stand on its own. If you really, honestly believe that it is true, then what are you really afraid of? If you really, honestly believe that it is true, then who can prove you wrong?”

I want to say that after this advice, any anxiety disappeared and I went on my merry way. Of course, not true. But it did make me think about why I was on a mission and what my role as a missionary was. Did I come out here because I was expected to, or do I really think the gospel can improve someone’s life?

I don’t think we really believe in what we say we believe in. We’re constantly afraid people will think we are weird — probably because we understand that we really are weird. We’re constantly afraid people will think we’re a cult — probably because at some fundamental level we feel like one sometimes. We’re constantly afraid people will think our church services are boring — probably because we are bored ourselves. We’re constantly afraid people will reject our gospel — probably because we reject it ourselves every day on a minute level that builds over time. I’m not saying we should be closed minded and cocky; that will definitely make less people join the Church. But do we really believe in what we believe in?

It’s the same reason why parents are terrified of letting their kids make decisions. They don’t really trust their children. I know that my parents trust me in some areas because they give me independence and leeway; but when it comes to areas in my life they don’t trust me in, they will open the sluices and unsolicited advice comes gushing out. I know that I will do that to my children, too, because it’s human nature.

Let’s take it back home to dating. We’re constantly talking about how strong our youth are. We talk about how our youth stand for right and morality, how they are so brave and honest and strong. We talk about how valiant they are. But when you look at the litany of rules and regulations we plaster our youth with, do we really believe in them?

LDS youth -- valiant, charitable, wonderful, strong, capable -- and ready to bolt and run away from the Church at a moment's notice. (Image via Church News)

These guys who run Catholic Stuff You Should Know are self-assured that Catholicism can enrich anyone’s life and will bring peace and happiness to those who follow its precepts. To them, they have no real reason to think that their Catholic inquirer will feel compelled to follow after his girlfriend’s “competing” faith; Catholicism already provides everything he needs. Why would he need more? Date outside the Church if you run into people you happen to fall in love with, they say. Be a good influence on others and allow others to be a good influence on you. No need to be reckless, they warn, but at the same time, there is no need to lock yourself up like a monk, ironic since between the two of us, they’re the ones with monks, and we’re the ones with strong youth and young adults we don’t really believe in.

This leads me to wonder sometimes. Are all of these rules and regulations really there to protect us and hedge up the law, or could they be symptoms of an overall dissatisfaction with our spirituality and a way to keep people firmly inside the tent so they can’t wander or run away? Do we really believe the gospel is powerful enough that anyone who encounters it should obviously see its power, or are we worried that we might be proven wrong someday by another system of thought that might provide more fulfillment than we  can?

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The Inconclusive Mormon Moment

Newsweek recently released their latest issue, their cover story focusing specifically on what they’ve dubbed “The Mormon Moment.” Mormons are in the media a lot today — two Mormons are front-runners for the Republican presidential candidate, and Mormons are replete in popular culture, from Big Love to Twilight to Brandon Sanderson. Despite all of our popularity, we’re still running into what the LA Times calls the “stained-glass ceiling” — despite our general initial acceptance into the broader American zeitgeist, we’re still getting strong resistance from other groups, namely other Christians (specifically Evangelicals, but who’s pointing fingers?).

Okay, so Mormons are having “a moment.” This much is true. However, the most interesting aspect of this whole “moment” is how ambivalent Mormons themselves are about all of this publicity we’re getting.

It’s been a dream for many Mormons to break into the limelight, to be accepted in the mainstream culture and not be viewed as weirdos or cultists or really bizarre polygamists living on fringe of civilization out in the deserts of Utah or something. Now, like the girl who has become popular overnight, some of us don’t like all of this attention, and acceptance isn’t what it used to be. My friend David, who blogs over at Catchy Title Goes Here, recently talked about some of the misgivings he has about the recent Newsweek press, specifically the compromises Mormons sometimes have to make to take the public sphere:

That phrase, “politicians first, Mormons second”, caught my eye. Now, I am not Mormon second to anything. That is who I am, that is what I believe. My faith shapes everything about who I am.

I found this especially interesting, since the “politicians first, Mormons second” phrase also caught my eye, but I found it somewhat refreshing. It’s one thing for a private citizen to devote him or herself to a religion, but for a public figure representing a constituency that is probably not majority Mormon, one must tread the path more carefully. For a Mormon to say, “I am a Mormon, but as a public servant, I know that I must represent those who are not,” shows that we understand that in a pluralistic society, we cannot just hope for (or enforce) everyone else to accept our ideals. It’s a sign to me that perhaps as a culture, we’ve become more cosmopolitan, or, dare I say, “worldly.”

Which is precisely the problem, David would retort. Would it profiteth a man if he gain the world and loseth his soul? Does this idea of Mormons inhabiting the public sphere but having to shed parts of who they are, does this not bother you? Maybe not, I would retort. Maybe, Mormonism is a constantly evolving religion that fits the times it inhabits. If we believe in modern revelation, don’t we also believe in changing according to our needs? David would probably retort once more that despite all of this, what we believe requires us to put all our chips in the pile no matter what the cards are, and a half-hearted Mormon willing to put his ideals aside in order to gain influence, power, prestige, recognition, or even acceptance in the world will do no real service to himself or his peers. Ah, I would retort, but doesn’t our mission to essentially “Mormonize” the world require us to interact with it, and maybe even make compromises? And so on, and so on, and so on.

This, I think, gets to the crux of the roiling ambivalence underneath the surface of Mormondom and its reaction to all of the publicity we’re getting lately. My friend Mychal once remarked that he felt Prop 8 (remember that?) was the beginning of a new age of Mormonism, one where once and for all, Mormons, once comfortable in the relative shadows of culture, had to make a public stand of whether or not they aligned themselves with the Prophet. At the time, I disagreed, but now I wonder if this is true.

It’s not just Prop 8 in general, but Prop 8 was the catalyst, the waking call to not only the nation but to us, that we had become a disproportionately influential minority. For the longest time, we were those really nice, but slightly weird, neighbors to America. Nobody cared about us because we didn’t threaten them. But suddenly, we were participating citizens, and not only that, we had power to influence state politics. A lot of hate was directed towards the Mormons, but this is not new; we’re used to this kind of stuff. Prop 8 felt different to a lot of members, precisely because like a robot who had suddenly become self-aware, we realized something that we had not realized before. We were relevant. Not only did we suddenly draw a lot of ire from others, but the Church underwent a type of cultural Peter Parker crisis — with great power comes great responsibilities. And what exactly were those responsibilities?

There’s an old saying that when you have two Jewish men arguing in a room, they come with three opinions. Mormons can be like that, too. Every Mormon has an opinion on what the Church should be. After Prop 8, and ever since then, Mormons have become self-aware to themselves. We realize we matter.

The question, then, is how do we matter? With this general emergence into the pop culture of the most powerful superpower in the world, the battle for Mormonism’s soul begins. What do we stand for? What do we represent? What do we use our influence for? The Sunday School answers just don’t cut it anymore in this complex position we find ourselves in. For good, all of us will say, we stand for good and we work for good. But what is good? Many enemies of the Church do not know or refuse to acknowledge the intense, often psychologically painful, debate many members of the Church had, from those hanging on the fringes all the way up to the zealous faithful, on whether or not this whole Prop 8 thing was the right thing to do. The very anguish the Church experienced as a collective whole belays how complex the idea of “good” is. There is going to be some serious soul searching, and, more than ever, Mormons will obsess over what our “legacy” should be, because we are finally leaving one behind.

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions on who we are and who we should be and what we should do and who we aren’t and who we shouldn’t be and what we shouldn’t do, let’s remember that even if some of us may appear secularly liberal (like me) and devoutly orthodox (like my friend David), in the end, we are all Mormons, and what ties us together is the unique heritage we inherit. What could be termed the “Mormon Experience” is a complex, almost contradictory stream of events grappling with a unique problem and working on a unique solution. Boundaries will be drawn, and some will be excluded while others are embraced, but I hope that as we work through this communal angst of who we really are, we can also keep a level head, an open mind, and a softened heart. And at the end of the day, I hope we can still meet together every week to break bread.

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Great Audiences

While visiting the famous Powell Bookstore in Portland, Oregon the other weekend, I saw a giant quote painted on one of their walls that stopped me dead in my tracks:

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”
– Walt Whitman

I have since then learned this is a fairly popular quote, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, and it flipped my thinking upside down and then spun it around a couple of times for good measure.

As Mormons, and especially as Mormon creators, there’s a lot of angst about whether or not there will ever be good art. If the next Great Mormon Artist writes the Great American Mormon Novel, and nobody reads it, did it ever make an impact? In fact, that’s the common complaint among Mormon artists — there already is good stuff out there, but nobody ever reads it/listens to it/looks at it.

The question I’ve struggled with now for the past few weeks is less whether or not I will create Great American Mormon Art — I figure I’ll do my best and if I succeed then that’s great and if I don’t, welp, at least I can be a good father and husband. The question I have struggled with now is, How do we tap into a community that has been accused of being insular, resistant to controversy or paradigm shifts in thinking, or even light constructive criticism, or even questioning of the happy bubble we’ve created around ourselves?

On the one hand, I believe, like others, that we are on the cusp of a great perfect storm of Mormon Art. I constantly tell my wife that I am excited, and I can think of no better time to live as a member of the Church.

On the other hand (and perhaps because of this other hand the one hand can exist), we stand at the precipice of a rapidly changing world, and we will have to redefine ourselves or swiftly become irrelevant. We face a great many challenges in the future, as a people, as a culture, and as a religious church. Mike S. on the blog Wheat and Tares writes about what could be seen as a chilling trend in our Church — that our growth is not only slowing down, it may actually be reversing. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our youth and especially our young single adults; it’s no surprise to many that we are hemorrhaging them, and that the programs we have in place are at best a temporary stop gap measure (and are debatable if they even work). We are baptizing like crazy in lesser developed countries, especially in Africa and South America — but we’re still lagging behind other Christian denominations, and our retention rate is abysmal, to say the least. The I’m A Mormon ad campaign is a (not so) quiet acknowledgment that we have a severe problem; not just an image problem, but a cultural problem.

In short, we’re having a pretty significant mini-existential crisis here. We are not sure how to define ourselves and reach out and relate to the young single adult generation. We cannot retain our newly baptized members easily. We try to promote an image of diversity through our ad campaigns, but our wards and branches rarely reflect such diversity. We become increasingly incapable of communicating with the world we live in, and many long-time members used to the Golden Age of Hinckley when everybody (we thought) absolutely adored us don’t want to deal with a shifting reality that we’re one of the most unpopular religious groups in America.

Enter artists, stage right.

The top-down approach is not working; the Church’s recent emphasis in ward councils during the Church Handbook of Instructions update shows that we now realize this. My brother sometimes gets frustrated that the prophet doesn’t use General Conference as a “bully pulpit” to whip Mormons in the right direction, but even if President Monson got up and said, “We need to accept all forms of diversity and stop judging,” which they already do on a regular basis, would this change the deeply rooted Church culture — especially in America — overnight, or even gradually? No, it wouldn’t.

Art, however, has an incredible ability to change society, to influence culture, and sway public (or Church) opinion. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So, this is the woman who started the War.” Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is widely acclaimed of bringing to light the horrible plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression during a time when the rest of the nation preferred to ignore it. And as a Mormon example, it is a little known fact that most of our modern Mormon theology derives from the works of James E. Talmage, notably Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, which though not traditional works of art, shows the tremendous power of the medium of print.

Like the children of Israel wandering in the Sinai, we are resistant to instruction, rebellious against chastisement — but we love a good yarn. The propensity and ability of Mormonism to assimilate mainstream American folklore and put a Mormon spin on it says as much. I believe that we already have a good deal of Great Audiences — but they aren’t what we think. They are the Mormon housewives living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps wondering, as the 1950s housewives did of yore, if there was more to life than this but afraid to question out loud. They are the Mormon young single adults, alienated and unable to connect with a religious institution that caters almost exclusively to the nuclear family, but still so very much in love with the restored gospel and the inspiring Mormon narratives. They are those who don’t fit in, who struggle to remain true to the religion they fell in love with and the God they worship and also the personalities deeply embedded in them and the quiet conscience that whispers in their heart that the “standard” Mormon cultural path is not for them.

And then there is the murky underbelly of Mormon history that has for so long been whitewashed by our unwillingness to face our own demons. The explosion of information over the Internet has now rendered our suppression ineffective and impotent. We, as artists, must steel our hearts and souls and put on the armor of God and face those demons head on, rushing in with our pens and brushes and musical instruments, and we must show others around us that it really is possible to question, to reason, and to learn from our dark patches of history, rather than run from them or simply ignore them.

But it is not just enough for us to write and paint and draw and script and photograph and sing and play about Mormonism. We must evangelize Mormon art. We must organize and distribute and reach out and encourage. We must take our copies of The Lonely Polygamist and start Mormon literature book groups. We must find talented Mormon musicians and blog about them. We must share good Mormon short stories on Facebook. We must find every medium and art form, from fine art to video games, to tell our stories. We must show the rest of the Church that, yes, we are faithful, and, yes, we are quirky and different, but more importantly, so are you. And that’s okay!

In time, I firmly believe our demand for challenging, faithful, thoughtful, good Mormon art will grow. As we share what is already there and build upon the foundation stone upon stone, more and more members will ask for it, because these stories we have to tell feed the soul; we often forget that the scriptures we love so dearly are not just simply a collection of sermons or a treatise on human behavior; they are stories that resonate deep within our imperfectly devout bones. They are stories of broken families, of desperate parents seeking to keep their children in the faith, of children learning to build off of their parents’ sacrifice and learn from their parents’ mistakes, of the hubris of pride and greed, of the power of love and service. They are deeply contradictory, sometimes controversial stories that puzzle and confuse us.

The Book of Mormon’s stories are our stories; the Bible’s stories are today’s stories, and we must seek out these Great Audiences and tell them, “Look at this good that I have found. These stories are Mormon stories. We are past the days of perfectly perky housewives with stacks of canned wheat and six children running around freely and happily while father works at his nine to five upper-middle class white collar job. These are stories of broken families, of the hubris of pride and greed, and the power of love and service. These are stories of trial and heartache, of the universal pains we experience which bind us together as Mormons and as humans and as children of  God. These are our stories.”

I now firmly believe that if anything is going to save this Church which has been promised to never be taken away from the Earth until the Second Coming, it will be art. It will be art that shows us a new, nuanced way of viewing our mythology and theology; it will be art which questions and prods, but also gently guides our Church from an age of polygamy and isolation, to an age of rapid expansion, and finally to our age today of globalization. It will be art that lovingly tells and re-tells the stories, that teaches the lessons, that takes eternal principles and wraps them in meaningful packaging, and that beckons to those who may feel alone and cut off from the Church to return once more and sup at the table of Christ. Like Nephi, we will echo the Savior’s cry to the world to “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.”

In our Church, we have the unique tradition of encouraging everyone to re-appropriate the Joseph Smith story for our own. Like the 14 year old farm boy, we must all go into our own Sacred Groves and pray to the Father for answers. We must all gain divine communication and open up a celestial channel. We must brand the story as our own personal story. We must all become Joseph Smiths. As artists, we must tell our own stories, and we must tell others’ stories as well. We seek all that is good within our tradition, and when we find that which is good in other traditions, we bring it under the umbrella of Mormonism, even if it means rearranging what we already have to make room for the newly discovered.

In a religious tradition that encourages and mandates such deeply intense and intimate personal relationships with the Divine, how could we possibly keep those stories to ourselves? And how can our starving souls not yearn for them?

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