Tag Archives: Mormonism

“If thou art sorrowful” – A homily on trials and tribulations

This is a homily I wrote for Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. It’s the first talk I ever wrote out beforehand (I usually just rely on a constellation of talking points and loose outlines the other times) and got a lot of great responses from it so I thought I’d share it with y’all.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Shultz.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Schulz.

Today’s scripture theme comes from Doctrine and Covenants 136:31, “My people must be tried in all things.” Section 136 is my third favorite section, next to 121 and 93, mostly because 136 is a very practical guide to every day life. It is also one of the few sections not given to us through Joseph Smith but through Brigham Young, on January 14, 1847, according to the section heading, at “the Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.” At this point in Church history, their beloved prophet Joseph Smith had been brutally assassinated along with his brother Hyrum, the Assistant President of the Church, by a bloodthirsty gang of thugs just two and a half years before this revelation was given. The previous year, persecution had become so intense that the Saints decided the most rational response was to evacuate an entire city and abandon a temple they had sacrificed so much for, a temple that was fully operational for less than three months. At the time of the revelation, a large body of the Church was camped out at Winter Quarters, where their diet consisted mainly of corn bread, salt bacon, a little milk, and occasional meat, usually from any game they could hunt nearby. There were little to no fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, known as “blackleg” during the time (which gets my vote for most terrifying disease name in the 1800s) was rampant, along with tuberculosis and malaria, all horrifying diseases. Hundreds died that winter (see Wikipedia, “Winter Quarters”). Trials and tribulations no doubt were forefront on the Saints’ minds, and it’s understandable to me if at that point some were thinking after hearing the revelation, “Tried in all the things? You’ve got to be kidding me. What did I sign up for?”

Thankfully, we live in very different times and circumstances, yet of all the problems, controversies, and public media battles and scandals, I would venture to guess that the most difficult question the modern-day Latter-day Saint must grapple with is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The doubt that many experience when grappling with this question stems not from disbelief, as some of the orthodoxy suspect, but from an intense belief in the goodness of God and a selfless love and compassion for all people, a love born from their faith in the promises of the gospel. You will never meet a mean-spirited, uncaring person ask this question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, unless that person believes himself to be a “good” person who was wronged.

Part of the anxiety we experience with this question comes from this cognitive dissonance, but much of it also comes from the fact we live in a society devoted to and obsessed with comfort. The existence and even any mention of death, disability, suffering, weakness, and helplessness makes us nervous and want to quickly change the subject or shush the speaker on the grounds that such topics are impolite to talk about — unless, of course, you’re trying to sell a new product. Our government, our economy, and our civic ideologies are based upon rugged individualism, maximized personal freedom to do as we choose, and the conceit that everything good that happens in life is a direct result of our own actions and only our actions with the opposite belief that everything bad that happens in others’ lives is a result of their own personal decisions. But the existence of pain, suffering, setbacks, trials, death, disease, and disability destroy our carefully constructed and clever contrivances. In the end, despite our diet plans, medical advances, scientific breakthroughs, and accumulated GDP, the death rate for humans remains stubbornly at 100%, and large portions of our economy are devoted to either trying to escape this sobering fact, or to forget about it through distractions and temporary indulgences.

Perhaps what makes this question so enduring in its difficulty is because many of the more philosophical answers ring as false or trite in our ears when we are in the midst of suffering and pain, especially when it’s ours. Unsurprisingly, trials and tribulations is one of the most popular topics in the scriptures because trials and tribulations refuse to become simply an abstract idea, no matter how hard our current society tries. While suffering and pain is often distributed disproportionately in our world, every human will experience some form of pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or otherwise. This truth — that everyone must feel pain — and, more importantly, the implications of this truth and what we do with this truth forms the foundational bedrock of almost every religion, faith, and philosophy, our religious faith included.

Our Church’s early history is well acquainted with suffering. Joseph Smith’s life could be described as a continuous stream of devastating personal tragedies punctuated with the occasional spiritual triumph. Our people have experienced historical persecution, have lost lives, property, and sacred places because of this persecution. The Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, deals with people “whose lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The first prophet-author Nephi, in the very first chapter, says he writes this record to “show unto [us] the tender mercies of the Lord [that] are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Nephi 1:20) and the final prophet-author Moroni urges the reader to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3), yet the contents in between these two statements seem anything but merciful. Nephi witnesses his extended family torn apart by jealousy and fear, becoming the basis of two warring nations. Moroni experiences the ultimate conclusion of this family rivalry as he sees his entire people slaughtered and he is left to eke out an existence wandering alone. Ancient scripture gives us plenty of instances where good people suffer and question out loud, culminating in God Himself being born into the world and experiencing first hand rejection and persecution and even torture and execution as the ancient Roman equivalent of a modern-day terrorist despite preaching a message of radical peace and love, an irony crowned by the ultimate irony that it was the leaders of the religion based upon Him who helped to betray Him.

It is easy for many of us born in amazing, unprecedented prosperity, comfort, and opportunity to forget that while we worship the God of Peace and the God of Love, we also worship the Abandoned God, the Forgotten God, the Rejected God, the Humiliated God, a God who experienced all of this and submitted Himself willingly to these experiences with explicit purpose to love us more fully. We believe in a God who weeps because of the hatred amongst His children. We believe in a God who cries out, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” We believe in a God who, when He appears in our own personal lives, does not come to us as a powerful person or a wealthy person but as a prisoner, as the poor, as the fatherless and the widow. We admire prophets who’ve begged the Lord to show himself, to stop hiding, to unstay his hand and listen to the cries of his people. Even “patient” Job declares (and if you actually read the Book of Job, you realize that he is anything but patient), “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak to the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity” (Job 7:11, 15-16).

All credits to Charles Schulz.

All credits to Charles Schulz.

The most poignant, memorable, and beloved passages of scripture, both ancient and modern, are passages in which the author questions, challenges, or downright begs God for relief, for comfort, for explanations. In these passages are often revealed the frailty of humanity and its reliance on God, but also revealed is God’s unlovable hand in both mercy and justice as well as power. Even for Jesus, one of his last words in His mortal ministry was the opening line of a psalm, a hymn and prayer, “O Lord, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, see also Psalms 22:1). Even silent acts, such as the woman who reaches out in hopes of brushing her fingertips against just the edges of divinity or the woman who, without words, bathes the Savior’s feet in her tears — these images and other similar stories etch the deepest grooves in our memories and our souls.

But what does this all have to do with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” At the end of the Book of Job, contrary to popular belief, one of Job’s friends actually does get the better of him. We usually hear the narrative with Job as the silent, eternally graceful and patient sufferer while his friends rail against him and accuse him of sin and tell him to curse God and die (only his wife says that). It is true that Eliphaz relies on simplistic, overly moralistic, “Gospel of Prosperity” heuristics to accuse Job of sin because bad things only happen to bad people. Bildad indulges in his Deistic Nihilism and the worthlessness of man. And Zophar spouts tone-deaf, Hallmark-esque, even nonsensical cliches that don’t even relate to Job’s situation at all! For those who have experienced suffering and received well-meaning advice from people, you may recognize some of these archetypes.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date. All credits to Charles Schultz.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date and prompted me to actually closely read the Book of Job, which is now my favorite Old Testament book. All credits to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown’s baseball playing theological seminary.

But Elihu, youngest of the bunch, finally tells Job, “Look, bro. You’ve spent this entire time justifying your own righteousness in the face of adversity, but you have spent little to no time sincerely justifying the goodness of God.” Elihu ignores the question that Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job discuss ad nauseum for over 30 chapters: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Instead, he says to Job, “You asked earlier in this conversation, ‘What’s the point of righteousness if you still have bad things happen to you?’ The answer is because righteousness blesses others (see Job 35:1-8, Job 22:2-3). God cannot be unjust, He cannot pervert justice, and He cannot be a respecter of persons. And if you have faith in this God, you stay righteous to the end not because it blesses you but because it blesses others. God will make up for the rest.”

To bring it all back, Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 tells us that “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” But only three verses before, the Lord tells us, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” But “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication that your soul may be joyful” (D&C 136:28-29), mirroring that beautiful one in The Book of Mormon, “men are that they might have joy.” Even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even because of it, we must seek out joy in the kindness of others and exercise kindness ourselves and therein see the righteousness of God.

Brothers and sisters, my faith in God is not knowledge or some secret truth I hold. Rather it is a faith born out of hope and desperation. In the face of seemingly infinite sorrow, pain, and suffering, I cling to the promises of the gospel because no other philosophy, economy, ideology, or theology has worked for me — and I’ve tried to find one that does. I have no other choice. Like the Apostle Peter, if the Lord asked me if I, too, shall go like the others, I have no brilliant logical defense or proof or even experienced some majestic, divine manifestation. All I can reply with is, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) — I hope. Because I have no other options.

It is my hope that in face of adversity, whether our own or others, we ignore our instinct to justify our own righteousness but instead justify and demonstrate the righteousness of God. This is not easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. But it is exactly what we signed up for according to our baptismal covenant, which, if it means anything to us, “commands us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). It is my hope that in face of pain and suffering, we can pull together as a ward family and as the family of humanity to find joy in kindness from others and showing kindness to those around us.

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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]
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[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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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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