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Thursday, September 30, 2004

At last.... Return of the Polls! 

by NA
oh yeah!



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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Why I Love Sunstone 

by Kristine
The other day, over at that other blog, Sunstone was getting its quarterly flogging. I've reread my responses on that thread, and it strikes me that I was not my usual cool-as-a-cucumber (ha!) self. I'm irrationally defensive of Sunstone and Dialogue and Exponent II and all of those independent Mormon publications that some people think are soooo two decades ago. The reason is simple, really: Sunstone saved my life.

I grew up in a family that, while open to more questions than some LDS families, was essentially quite conservative. Yes, the bishop might have some wacky ideas (he was my dad, after all!), or the Primary teacher might have gotten a couple of historical details wrong, but that was no reason to rock the boat. It was fun to read more books about Mormonism than anybody, and to occasionally feel smug in one's superior knowledge, but we did not Question Authority or do anything else that might have been suggested by 60s bumper stickers. If I had a nickel for every Family Home Evening lesson on obedience...

After I graduated from college, I decided to go on a mission. I felt very strongly directed to go, and I'm not one who usually gets more than suggestions in answer to prayers, so I went, even though I wanted to go to graduate school instead. To make a long, private story short and semi-public, my mission was the worst two months of my life. I learned first-hand, and in very painful ways, that leaders make mistakes, that sometimes a bureaucracy is just a bureaucracy, and that it is possible for individuals to slip between the cogs of the institutional machinery and have their spirits crushed. When I got home, I was as lost as I've ever been--the cozy world of inspired church leaders and their wise counsel felt lost to me; a world without the church (which would also mean without my family, most of my friends, etc.) seemed uninhabitable. I took 200 sleeping pills.

Fortunately (I think), somebody noticed me passed out in my car and got me to a hospital. Even more fortunately, I spent some time recuperating in my great aunt Elizabeth's guest room, which had bookshelves lined with old issues of Sunstone and Dialogue. I spent days and days reading about how people had grappled with the same questions I had, how they had made peace (and not) with questions of institutional authority, priesthood, and revelation. I got to know people who seemed more like me than many of the people I knew in the wards where I'd lived; I realized that I was not so painfully unique after all. I learned that the church is not a monolithic, unchanging edifice, but that it is built and rebuilt with human hands and human minds trying hard to discern God's will (with varying success). I had sort of understood that on an intellectual, theoretical level, but when I needed it translated to an emotional and personal level, I *really* needed to read "Pillars of My Faith" and Gene England's essays and a reexamination of the seagull story (don't ask me why that one mattered--it really did somehow!). Slowly, I started to believe that there could be a recognizably Mormon world that had room for me in it.

It's not so much that Sunstone and Dialogue and Exponent II are needed to perform such dramatic therapeutic function very often; I hope they're not! But in a church with no "Reform" or "Conservative" or "Renewal" or even "Protestant" branches to speak of, and a church divided by geography so that true fellowship occurs mostly by fortunate accidents of residence, we need some connections for people who feel themselves, for whatever reasons, on the margins. We need a place for scholars (and wannabes) whose work asks uncorrelatable questions to publish their work and have it challenged by people who won't immediately and exclusively challenge their faithfulness instead of their data and their conclusions. We need a place for people who are working their way out of the church to find comfort and solace so that they can eventually leave Mormonism without bitterness.
Does it get repetitive sometimes? Of course--what else could be expected in a church which is by its nature so slow to change (and populated by humans, whose nature seems *never* to change much!)? Does every piece pass scholarly muster? Of course not! But then again, neither does every piece in _Social Text_ (wink if you're old enough to get the joke). Is the Sunstone/Dialogue/Exponent II crowd smug and self-congratulatory at times? Of course--everybody wants to be in the in-crowd sometimes, and crow about it. Yes, the crowing is a little shallow and adolescent, but sometimes we all have to let our inner 7th-grader out for air, right?

Like Nate, I'd love to see Mormon Studies grow, and be peer-reviewed and respectable. I'd like there to be something new and exotic in every issue. I'd like there to be new questions and exhilarating new methodologies. I would like the 3 people on the planet who are smarter than Nate Oman to write regularly so he can be served too. But I'm just dumb enough not to mind reading some things over and over, in slightly different voices--Mormonism is (among other things) a community of belief and ideas and it can exist only in the form of flawed mortals trying to connect their own puny ideas with something bigger. Sometimes the so-called intellectuals (and even the real ones) look just as goofy trying to do that as the deacons bearing their testimonies for the first time and trying really hard to keep their voices from cracking. What's not to love about that?!
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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

One little girl, her two dads, and whether that’s such a bad thing 

by Grimshizzle
[Cross-posted at OT]

The topic of Same-Sex Marriage has bounced around the bloggernacle so much it has taken on a universally-recognized acronym. The topic of gay adoption has received much less attention, and, as far as I know, has elicited little (or no?) specific ecclesiastical counsel (unless one counts Sheri Dew’s controversial speech, which was delivered after her tenure in the Relief Society General Presidency – and which, incidentally, was recently removed from the Meridian website.) I don’t have any eloquent doctrinal arguments or child-welfare statistics to posit, but I do have a story to share, one that I think speaks for itself.

Two little girls, whom I will call Tuyen and Xuan, were both taken into an orphanage in Vietnam shortly after birth. The staff cared for them as best they could, given their limited resources, hygiene was substandard and the babies often slept side-by-side, several to a crib. Around the time of the girls’ first birthday an adoption agency brought a group of several prospective parents to the orphanage. It was a diverse bunch: a single, middle-aged woman, first-time adopters, couples wishing to expand their families. Also included in the group were a devout young Mormon couple (whom I know personally, and who allowed me to post this) and a gay couple. Tuyen went with the Mormon couple, and was later sealed to them in the D.C. temple; Xuan left the orphanage with her two new dads.

Before heading back to the states, however, it took the parents a couple of weeks to submit the health and governmental forms and receive all the bureaucratic approvals required to complete the adoption, so while they waited for forms to be processed the adoptive parents and their new children did lots of sightseeing. Tuyen’s mom and Xuan’s dads turned out to be naturally inclined towards group organization, and took charge of the sightseeing itinerary and shopping trips (it’s a terrible stereotype, I know, the shopaholic woman and the gay guys telling each other how fabulous their purchases are, etc., but that’s how it happened). The Mormons and the gay men became fast friends during the trip, and the friendship continued after they returned to their respective homes. Even though they live several hours apart, the two families still visit each other on occasion to celebrate their girls’ birthdays, their adoption anniversary, and American and Vietnamese holidays.

While I find that friendship in and of itself quite heartwarming (and believe me, I get a lot of mileage out of it when friends or associates categorically accuse Mormons of homophobia), other circumstances lend this story even more poignancy. Shortly after Xuan and Tuyen left Vietnam for America with their new parents, the U.S. government discontinued allowing adoptions from Vietnam. This prohibition remains in place today, largely because of bureaucratic inertia on both sides, and there are no signs of progress. This has created a grave situation for orphanages in Vietnam, as their meager operating budgets relied on adoption fees; the orphanage where Xuan and Tuyen lived has fallen into disrepair and is in desperate need of financial aid. More somber still is the future that the little girls in the orphanage face today if the adoption ban continues as they become children and eventually adolescents; if you follow the news, you probably have an idea of the bleak prospects for an orphaned teenaged girl in Vietnam. I shudder to think, but these are the questions that this situation begs: what if the gay couple hadn’t gone to Vietnam and adopted? What if Tuyen had gone home with the Mormon couple but her friend Xuan had been left behind in the orphanage as the adoption ban had taken effect, and had stayed there as she approached adolescence? Regardless of what you might think about gay adoption as a political issue –and I’m talking about an actual situation and an actual person, so it’s not really a political issue anyway–are there any grounds on which to argue that this happy, healthy little girl would have been better off if her dads hadn’t been able to adopt her?

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Monday, September 27, 2004

I love the gospel but hate going to church 

by Unknown
There I said it. I finally admitted it. It has been 6 weeks or so since I've been to church. I'm in a new ward somewhere. So I don't have a calling and dread going to a brand new ward where I don't know anyone. The questions alone: 'And who are you?' "Are you married?" "Where are you from?" "where did you serve a mission?" "And what brought you to New York?"

It's not just going to a new ward, I've always hated going to church. When I was a little kid it was 5 hours of torture (we lived and hour away), of course children find it boring. But I didn't grow out of that, as an adult I also find myself counting the minutes until I can escape the crowded rooms with fluorescent flashing lights, screaming kids, the smiling and shaking hands. My favorite part of church is singing the hymns. I've been an adult now for 10 years, I use the term 'adult' loosely, meaning I was no longer a minor. But whenever I don't have a calling that forces me to be at church I always stop going. I set the alarm every Saturday night but turn it off Sunday morning, promising to go next week.

I never think of myself as an 'inactive' but I've ended up on that list a few times. The first happened in college when the missionaries started coming to visit me. Just to hang out. It took awhile before I figured out they were trying to re-activate me, actually it was the day they took me out for ice cream and paid. I knew it should have happened the other way around. Then last year the branch president paid me a home visit and asked what it would take to get me back to church. I told him I needed a calling, so he gave me one.

When I begin gliding into an inactive phase, my spirituality drops. If I start swearing then I know I've been away too long. And everything in my life feels more difficult during these periods and my mood drops. Without fail, whenever I find myself thinking that everything is going wrong, I remember I haven't been to church in a few weeks or months. So I drag myself back and once my attendance resumes, life gets easier and happier. I've now hit the point where I'm swearing and everything is falling apart. Time to go back to church. Yuck.

I love the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have a strong testimony. I keep most of the commandments. But the most difficult one for me is gathering together oft at meetings. Why is that? That seems very wrong. Is it just me or does going to church stink? I know I need it, but does it have to be so painful? And so early in the morning? I do have agoraphobia and extreme difficulty waking up in the mornings which adds to my abhorrance, but that's not the whole of it. I know I should suck it up, stop complaining and get my rear-end back to church. But does anyone else out there feel the same way I do? Is there something we can do to make church less painful? There must be something I could do to make it better for myself at least, any suggestions?

Jen J

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Walking in Sacred Spaces 

by John H
I returned late last night from the John Whitmer Historical Association meeting in Omaha, Nebraska (the RLDS equivalent of the Mormon History Association). It was a great conference and I always enjoy driving along the Mormon trail, looking out at the Platte River and imagining the columns of Saints making their way to their new home in the west. Meetings with our RLDS (now Community of Christ) counterparts make it difficult not to compare and see the distinctions between us. I'll confess, the differences don't always fall in the Rocky Mountain Saints' favor.

At the MHA meeting in Kirtland two years ago, we walked through the sites owned by the Community of Christ, notably the Kirtland Temple, and were greeted by professional historians willing to answer all of our questions. They were knowledgeable and knew the history of the sites well. When we walked through the LDS-owned sites, we were greeted by young sister missionaries who repeated the same brief stories about the rooms and buildings for each group, and then bore the same testimony - word for word - at the end of each room. At the end of one tour, we asked the kind Korean sister who'd been giving the tour a question or two. She did her best to explain to us that she didn't know English, and that she had memorized her tour spiel and testimony. I find no fault with this dear, faithful Korean sister doing her best in the assignment she was given. But I was stunned that the Church wouldn't bother to provide historians, or even just a volunteer who spoke English, to staff these sites while MHA attendees, the vast majority of which are already Church members, tried to learn more about the buildings and grounds.

This time around, at John Whitmer, two other distinctions were very obvious. First, as we discussed the history of the early restoration and our common heritage, I noticed the lack of tension in the room and among the members. History was not used as a way to convert people to the Church or build faith; nor was it used to tear down or attack the Church. History simply was. When Klaus Hansen spoke of his journey writing the history of the Council of Fifty, he made some very matter-of-fact comments about difficulties with LDS Church archives, particularly with General Authority G. Homer Durham and his well-known tight grip on the archives. Hansen didn't make the comments critically, but he didn't present it as a positive development; it was just what happened. No one shifted uncomfortably in their seats, or stormed out offended that someone would dare say something not perfectly faithful about a Church leader.

I couldn't help but think there's something to not tying so much of our faith into our history. It's a difficult thing in Mormonism, but it can be done. The historian of the Community of Christ can speak of Joseph Smith and his legacy without having to defend the prophet every five minutes. He can talk of Joseph's polyandrous marriages to ten women without having to stop and assume an apologetic perspective for what he's saying. Community of Christ historians treat Mormon history much the way American historians treat American history: They admire the men and women they write about, and you can see the fondness they feel as they speak. But they don't have a crisis of identity or patriotism when they write about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson as slave owners. They write it because it's true, so far as the evidence explains. Robert Dallek wrote of John F. Kennedy admiringly, but didn't wonder if he could still like Kennedy when he wrote about his affairs with multiple women. This is the Community of Christ approach to history, and I wonder if we could learn from it.

Finally, the greatest distinction between the two movements comes whenever I hear Grant McMurray, president of the Community of Christ, speak. He approaches faith and history with the question of what they can do to help be good people today. While I think the LDS Church does the same, often we are slaves to our history, insisting that things be done a certain way because that's how they've always been done. When you believe your past comes from God, it makes it tough to change the present, no matter how necessary.

President McMurray's closing address Sunday morning was a masterpiece. He talked of going to the Nauvoo Temple to the open-house and walking through. He recalled being given booties (no, not that kind of booty!) to put over his shoes. He said he was not offended at this request, and completely understood it. But it did give him cause to pause and think about the divergent ways the two movements view sacred space. He humorously talked of Rocky Mountain Mormons standing in awe at a truck stop in the middle of Nebraska because Brigham Young may have walked there. He said that if you were to ask Community of Christ members what their most important sacred spaces are, most would respond that the campgrounds, where they went on youth camps, are sacred to them. This is where they ruminated over their faith with friends, where they experienced things that forever contributed to their faith journey. President McMurray pointed out that the youth stayed up past curfew, sneaking around to visit other youth. Minds would wander during the testimony meetings and church meetings, and young pranks would be pulled when serious minds ought to be prevailing.

But it is precisely because of these human foibles that makes the space sacred, because our humaness is mixed with spirituality, President McMurray insisted. He told of attending literally hundreds of meetings about the construction of the RLDS temple in Independence, where lengthy discussions would go on and on about what's appropriate for the temple, and what should be allowed in different rooms, particularly the Sanctuary. A few months after the temple was built and dedicated, the youth had their first meeting. In the sanctuary, a large, inflated globe of the world (picture a beach ball) was symbolically passed around, showing that the youth are the future of the world. It took about two seconds before the ball was being batted around, as if the youth were at a baseball game. This went on while each hand tried to touch the ball. Was President McMurray shocked or outraged? No; this is what makes sacred spaces sacred. Our humanity, trying to become better, is what creates the sacred. A building is not sacred simply because we deem it as such. It is sacred because of what we experience there, and what it does to help build our faith. President McMurray closed by asking us to remove the booties from our shoes, and plant our very human feet on sacred ground.

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Friday, September 24, 2004

Embellishing Spiritual Experiences 

by Aaron B
It was the late 1980s. Las Vegas, Nevada. The Church had just completed construction of the Las Vegas Temple. I was in highschool at the time, and the leadership of my Southern California ward decided to plan a youth field trip to the Open House. I have various random, but vivid, memories from the trip: Flirting via CB-radio with the occupants of a minivan on the ride up, heckling a prostitute and her John at our motel, being handed anti-Mormon literature outside the temple, etc. Most vivid of all, however, are my memories of walking through the Celestial Room. Although I’d been inside a temple before (to do baptisms for the dead), I’d never visited an actual Celestial Room, and I thought it was pretty impressive. No, I didn’t have an overwhelming spiritual experience that changed my life, but I did think it was an amazing, spiritual place, and I was quite taken aback by its beauty. I also made a point of looking around at all the other people walking through the room, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, to gauge their reactions. It seemed that most found the experience similarly impressive, and there was very little conversation, except in hushed tones.

The following Sunday was Fast and Testimony Meeting in my home ward, and the Bishop announced that the bulk of the hour would be set aside for the youth to talk about their experiences on the recent temple trip. I didn’t go up to the pulpit myself, but several other youth did, including a Young Woman named “Jenny.” Through flowing tears, Jenny shared in vivid detail her thoughts and feelings as she walked through the holy building. The climax of her narrative took place in the Celestial Room, where Jenny said she was totally overcome by the Spirit. She apparently found the experience so moving that she cried profusely while walking through the room. Then, at one point, she looked around to gauge the reactions of others in the room, Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

“Brothers and Sisters,” Jenny exclaimed. “When I looked around me, I suddenly realized that everyone else in that room was also crying along with me! Everybody! Even the non-Members were brought to tears! Let me assure you that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!”

Jenny closed by bearing her testimony, and sat down. All in all, hers was a very moving performance. Her testimony seemed heartfelt, and was rhetorically effective in conveying the meaning and spiritual intensity that she wanted to convey. I have no doubt that she was sincere in her recounting of the experience, and really related the event just as she remembered it. But unfortunately, much of what she said was completely false

For you see, I was standing only a few feet behind Jenny the entire walk through the temple. The entire time that Jenny was in the Celestial Room, I was standing right behind her. And Brothers and Sisters, let me assure you that NOBODY in that room was crying…. O.K., I can’t really say “nobody” … maybe somebody was. I didn’t scour the room for evidence of tears. But I didn’t notice a single person crying in the Celestial Room the entire time I was there, and since I was consciously observing the faces around me, it’s virtually impossible that I would have missed something that obvious.

Was Jenny lying? Was she intentionally exaggerating to spice up her narrative? Possibly, but I really don’t think so. I really believe that she believed that everyone in that room had been crying. Everyone. That’s what her memory of the event was. So that’s what she shared with the congregation the following Sunday.

I probably wouldn’t even remember this incident, but for what happened next… After the meeting came to a close, I was approached by my 12-year old cousin, Darcy. Darcy knew that I had gone to the Open House, and she assumed (correctly) that I had been in the Celestial Room at the same time as Jenny. Darcy was a very emotionally effusive person, and she knew me to be exactly the opposite: a stoic, unemotional robot. So she made the following statement to me: “Aaron, that’s soooo neat that you got to go to the Temple! And that’s soooo sweet that you were crying in the Celestial Room! I mean, you don’t ever get emotional like that!” Darcy then walked away before I could respond. I stood there a bit mystified by her strange comment. Then I remembered what Jenny had said, and realized why Darcy had jumped to the conclusion she did about my alleged sobbing.

At the time, I was simply irritated with Darcy. “Oh great,” I said to myself. “Now Darcy’s going to go falsely tell everybody in the family that I’m a “crier.” Just what I need!” However, as the years have passed, and I’ve looked back on that incident, it’s taken on a new significance for me: An entire congregation had been informed about an amazing spiritual experience had by one of its members. Certain of the details of that experience were crucial in giving it a quality worth remembering and possibly recounting. There was no obvious reason for the listeners to doubt the details of the story. Surely some in the congregation would reference this event to others, including the details about mass weeping brought on by the Spirit, just as Darcy did. And those details were totally and utterly false.

We have had recent discussions on the reliability of historical accounts of spiritual or visionary experiences in Mormon history. And as the critical historian turns his eye to the past, there are various questions he might ask: What is the evidence that Incident X, Vision Y or Transfiguration Z really occurred? Did the actual witnesses of the alleged event record their experiences? Or were they merely recorded second-hand by non-witnesses many years later? If the actual witnesses did record their experiences, did they do so immediately, or only decades later, after their memories have had time to evolve into something other than what they used to be? If the actual witnesses didn’t record certain notable details of their experiences, why not? What do their omissions suggest about the reliability of the traditional versions of these events?

These are all good questions. But I have an even more fundamental one: If a sincere, first-hand participant in a spiritual experience can get the basic facts of her moving experience so terribly wrong less than one week after having it, how reliable is anybody’s testimony regarding their spiritual experiences?

Aaron B

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Faith Without Economic Growth is Dead 

by Mathew
I recently spent a few weeks in the hinterlands of Utah where I found myself admiring again the Mormon pioneers, many of whom not only crossed the plains but then left the relatively verdant Salt Lake Valley to settle what even today looks like forsaken desert. As I drove through those dusty towns in Southern Utah I wondered what beliefs inspired them enough to leave everything they had ever known and walk into such an uninviting place. My appreciation grew still further, when, after four days of camping, Gigi told me she was sick of looking at red rocks and asked to go back to Salt Lake. This in turn led me to think of a study I read recently which found that there is a positive association between belief in heaven or hell and economic growth which can be found at this link: http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/barro/papers/Religion_and_Economic_Growth.pdf

The authors of the study hypothesize that religion affects economic outcomes by fostering religious beliefs that then influence individual traits such as thrift, work ethic, honesty and openness to strangers and that belief in heaven or hell affects these traits by creating rewards and punishments. Interestingly, measured in economic terms, belief in hell appears to motivate more than belief in heaven–and professed belief in God alone (w/ no concept of heaven or hell attached) motivates people little or none. Or, as the authors of the study put it "professed belief in God may signify little about the religious convictions that motivate economic performance".

My gut tells me that the pioneers were motivated more by a belief in heaven than a belief in hell. The Mormon concept of hell, after all, is more comforting than that associated with most Christian religions I am familiar with. And all of the stories and anecdotes I have heard over the years suggest that the pioneers were very focused on building the kingdom of God–both on this earth and the next. It seems to me that we (or perhaps just I?) are much less focused on that concept that we used to be. We mention it from time to time, but the absence of a collective struggle to build an empire in largely unsettled territory means that the kingdom of God has shifted from the tangible to the ethereal. I consider the temple, however, as one place where we continue to focus on building the kingdom and engage in a collective work that may not benefit us personally but contributes to the kingdom as a whole.

A few other unrelated but interesting points–the study mentioned above also found that economic activity suffered when people attended church–labeling beliefs as the output of the religious sector which can affect economic growth and church attendance as the inputs of the religious sector which consume economic performance. A quick google search confirms that T&S and Brayden King scooped this study some months ago–Jim Falconer briefly blogged about it on T&S back in Feb and Brayden wrote about it in Jan.

Considering all of the variables the authors’ of this study where to trying to control for, I take their results with a grain of salt, but I think that heaven and hell are certainly powerful motivators for those who truly believe in them and it seems certain that the actions motivated by those beliefs would have some economic effect. To take another example, I’ve read theories that trade stagnated during the middle ages in part because of European societies’ taboos against usury and the profit motive.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Interpreting Spiritual Experiences 

by John H
In 1877, shortly after the dedication of the St. George Temple, Wilford Woodruff reported what would become one of the most beloved stories in Mormonism. He described a visitation by the Founding Fathers of America, who demanded to know why their temple work had not been performed in the Endowment House. After the experience, Woodruff quickly had the work performed for these Brethren and their wives, including such luminaries as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Although this story has been repeated often to encourage Latter-day Saints to attend the temple and perform work for the deceased, I believe it has far more important implications and teachings. It turns out, of the people that appeared in vision, almost all had their temple work performed prior to their visit to Woodruff. George Washington in fact, had been baptized no fewer than three times. Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and others had their work performed by John Bernheisel in the Endowment House - the same Endowment House that the visitors insisted had not been utilized in their behalf. Why would these spirit beings maintain that their work needed to be done, when in fact it had already been performed (in some cases more than once)?

This experience, like so many others, can tell us something about the difficulty in interpreting our spiritual experiences. At the outset, I think it’s important to note that there is no reason to believe Wilford Woodruff was lying about his experience. It seems clear that, at the very least, he believed something had happened. He did go on to baptize these brethren and their wives - something he probably wouldn’t have done had he not been somehow prompted or inspired to do so. My friend Brian Stuy, who researched this topic and published his findings in the Journal of Mormon History, theorizes that Woodruff saw no difference between his dreams and actual visions, and perhaps Woodruff's dream became a vision with various retellings.

How do we know we interpret our spiritual experiences correctly? They are immediately filtered through the lens which we view the world, making it hard to keep them pure. We all know someone who prays and receives an answer that the Book of Mormon is true, and the next thing we know, they’ve interpreted that to mean they must vote a straight-Republican ticket, attend BYU, don CTR jewelry, and pray in restaurants. But such extremes aren't the only examples. What about a friend of mine who had a powerful spiritual experience while holding a document penned by Joseph Smith, only to later learn it was a Hofmann forgery? If we experience the divine when reading the Book of Mormon, does it really mean it's true, or does it simply mean we're in the right place at the right time?

Is Woodruff’s experience a cautionary tale - warning us to be careful in reading too much into our encounters with the divine? Or is it a lesson about finding value in all things, regardless of the accuracy or truth of how we deconstruct our spirituality? Or is it something else entirely?

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Sunday, September 19, 2004

I Broke an Unwritten Mormon Rule....Credibility Possibly Shot Forever 

by Karen
I have to say, I'm approaching the Sabbath with a bitter- sweet kind of feeling. Tomorrow I'm getting released from being the gospel doctrine teacher. I always pictured myself as the "smile and agree to serve" kind of gal....no matter if it was nursery, homemaking, or ward librarian. But when I got called into chat with the first counselor a couple of weeks ago, he told me that they had another calling in mind for me and what did I think about being released from teaching gospel doctrine. I started crying. Yep. Right there in the coat closet we were meeting in. I sort of plastered on a fake smile and said "I'm happy to serve wherever I'm needed" and made a beeline for the bathroom where the sobbing started in earnest. Let's just say I'm embarrassed. About the whole crying in the bathroom thing....oh and crying in the car in the parking lot, oh, and the choking up when talking with the person who I'm now replacing in my new calling. I'm even more embarrassed that this episode has resulted in the entire bishopric looking at me with soft, kind eyes and patting my arm whenever we talk.

So I needed to figure out why I was being such a big baby--because clearly this behavior cannot continue. And I have thought of a few reasons, but the ultimate one is that I love teaching gospel doctrine. It is the most spiritually fulfilling calling I've ever had. I love being the one that waits for the inspiration to pick out the topics that need to be discussed. I love presenting ideas in an unusual way and seeing people get excited in Sunday School. I love being forced to systematically study the scriptures. I love that I've taught for long enough that themes have started to emerge. Like every once in a while we have a "symbolism is fun" lesson, or a "scriptures as literature" lesson, and the class really digs it. I love that even though I'm naturally shy, I've been forced to get to know large numbers of people in my calling. Mostly, I love that I've had a spiritual renaissance that tracks with my teaching gospel doctrine ever since I graduated from law school. (A particularly tumultuous few years for me spiritually...) Finally, I'm currently going through some of the most seriously difficult few months I've ever faced in my life, and I love having the familiarity of a calling that I am comfortable and confident in.

Which is probably why I'm being released--comfort and confidence are not necessarily the adjectives related to spiritual growth. Apparently, I've had this calling longer than anyone else in the ward has had his/her calling, including the bishop. I don't think we get passes from necessary change just because we're happy where we are, or just because we think we need continuity, or just because we cry in front of people in power. So tomorrow will be bitter, because I'm being released, then teaching my last lesson. But also tomorrow will be sweet, because I'm being trusted to do something else. And sweet because I'm taking with me all my spiritual growth from the past few years. And sweet, because I'm not leaving the gospel behind, I'm just reapplying it. Kind of like mascara after a good cry...




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Friday, September 17, 2004

Too Much To Do 

by Kristine
I have too much to do. At the end of every day, I collapse into bed with a list of things left undone churning through my head. It's hard to pray, hard to sleep without this list intruding. It's even worse since I've had children, and my list of important things to do rattles around in my brain all day before I can even check off one item after the creatures are asleep. I've tried to explain the panic this induces to my husband: imagine that you went to your office and your boss came in and started piling urgent tasks on your desk, any one of which would take a day's work to complete, then she tied your hands behind your back, unplugged your phone and computer, dumped your files on the floor for good measure, and said "ok, get to work."

But this sense of too much to do, it seems to me, is pervasive--everyone feels too busy, out of control. We buy calendars and PDAs and Franklin Planners, hoping that somehow, writing down the oppressive lists of things to do, places to go, people who need us will somehow untie that knot of dread in our stomachs. As far as I can tell, these talismans are useless--they may push the panic out into the edges of our consciousness, but they don't meaningfully reduce the conflict between ambition and time.

I wonder what we are to learn from this conflict. After all, if we are truly eternal creatures, the pressure of time will eventually cease. And yet it is such a dominant feature of our earthly lives that I can't imagine we aren't supposed to take some lesson from it into the eternities with us.

I wonder...
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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Translated Correctly 

by NA
There's an excellent article over at McSweeney's, addressing errors in one person's Bible. I have similar errors in my own Bible.

Hey, while I'm thinking of errors, what does it mean to say that a book is the "word of God"? Do mormons have a consistent approach to defining that catchphrase? Just curious, because it seems to mean a lot more to some religions (i.e., Islam, So. Baptists) than to ours...

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Monday, September 13, 2004

I thought it was Dynamite! 

by Karen
So I went to Napoleon Dynamite with a friend last night. For the uninitiated, it's an independent film made by several BYU grads. They entered it into Sundance, where it was apparently wildly popular. A movie studio bought it, and now it is being slowly rolled out on the limited release model. It's been in D.C. for a couple of months now, and is still gaining momentum. (Full house Saturday night.)

The plot you ask? Well, imagine your most misanthropic stage of adolescence--add in a red 'fro, a permanent slack-jawed look, moon-boots, living in Preston Idaho, a dysfunctional family, and a strange love of tater-tots, and voila, our protaganist Napoleon. I didn't really explain the plot, because there isn't much of one. It's mainly a series of vignettes, all leading up to a school election and the funniest dance scene you've ever seen in the movies....really. There are no overt Mormon references, but lots of markers: asking your date to the dance through elaborate passive schemes, modest prom dresses, boondoggle at scout camp, your mother forcing you to date the loser kid, future farmers of America, really big bangs way after they went out of style, and the fabulously colorful substitute swearing--gooooosh! frickin'! iiidiot!

I've seen the movie twice. The first time, a month or so ago, I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in a movie. This time I took a friend who grew up in the Northeast. I had admittedly talked up the movie a little too much, and the audience was full of teenagers, who had obviously seen the movie several times, and were laughing in advance of the jokes. But really, my friend didn't get it. This is a person with a highly developed, and wonderfully subversive sense of humor. She thought that perhaps the humor was from the clever manipulation of cultural references that she wasn't familiar with. Ultimately, we figured out that she just found the movie depressing, and it seemed mean to laugh at the characters--dampening the humor of it.

Which makes me wonder, is "stereotyping" humor only funny if you are skewering your own culture, and is the audience then limited to members of that culture? Am I cold-hearted and unChristian for howling with laughter at the rural Mormons? Am I really cold-hearted and unChristian because I needed someone else to point out to me that it was kinda sad? The thing is, I still think the film is brilliant, but in true Mormon fashion, wonder if I should feel guilty about it.....



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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

On Senior Missions 

by Dave
"The LDS Church is nearly 1,000 couple missionaries short despite the church's efforts to recruit more volunteers." So states a BYU NewsNet article, summarizing a recent report they say was posted at LDS.org, although I couldn't find it there. The article says there are "2,110 senior couples" presently serving, with a need for "3,093 couples" at the present time. Well, if they are short nearly 1,000 couples, they are actually short nearly 2,000 couple missionaries, but let's ignore BYU NewsNet's mistake and focus on the problem here: What's the problem with the senior couples? Is retirement getting a little too cozy these days?

Frankly, I would have thought there was a surplus of senior missionaries out there. It seems like everyone I know has parents or grandparents serving or just returning from a mission of one sort or another. Perhaps some of those seemingly faithful senior couples who claim to be serving a mission on Temple Square three nights a week are actually just sneaking over to Wendover for a little action. Or maybe some Mormons are simply embarrassed to admit their parents or grandparents are kicking back and enjoying retirement like gentile hedonists instead of signing up for the best 18 months of their life, so they pretend their parents are faithfully serving a mission somewhere.

I've seen the blue sheet they post on the bulletin board at church and many of the missionary positions offered to seniors (they get to choose their call!!) actually sound fairly interesting. So seriously, what's the problem? Here are a few tentative ideas: (1) Seniors are just worn out from years of church and temple service. (2) After 50 or 60 years, seniors have learned to resist peer pressure and manipulation by guilt and just say "no" (or "we'll think about it") when their Bishop floats the idea. (3) Civil and political unrest around the world makes prudent seniors hesitant to travel abroad. Would you want to live in Khazakstan or Rwanda for the next two years? (4) Big screen TVs, along with 100-channel cable. (5) Too many temples (yes, we overbuilt) are depleting the pool of available seniors by diverting them to never-ending rounds of temple service.

If you have a better explanation, please share it. Or, if you want to have a little fun with Grandpa, call him up, direct him and his browser to Bcc, and have him leave his own comment about his experience or lack thereof as a senior missionary. And just in case anyone should actually do this, I'll quickly extend a warm Bloggernacle welcome to any pioneering Senior Bloggers who come here to visit. Just click on the underlined orange "Comment" link below and start typing.
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Abraham and Isaac 

by John H
If you haven't noticed from my posts, there are many issues which I haven't thought about in great detail or depth, but that I like to pontificate about anyway. One such issue is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in the book of Genesis.

I'm no scriptorian or scholar of any kind of the Old Testament. So my hope is that some will be able to shed a positive light on what strikes me as an appalling story - at least the way it is used in the Church. Given that much is made of Abraham's tremendous love of Isaac, I assume the story is one of the importance of submitting to God's will and being obedient. The obvious allusion to the sacrifice of Christ is also present. Yet this particular story carries some very unpleasant baggage with it about the nature of God and what he might ask us to do.

For my part, I picture the story in today's time and world, and any attempt to make it personal leaves me sick. If any parent attempted to sacrifice their child by claiming God told them to do it, would any of us have any doubt that they were nuts? Would any of us hesitate to contact the proper authorities if a relative, friend, or neighbor mentioned they needed to sacrifice their child? Can any of us imagine raising a knife to our own children, ready to cut their throats or stab their hearts? Such an image is fairly graphic, but I think if we embrace a literal interpretation of these scriptures, we should be aware of precisely what such a sacrifice entails.

Certainly there are better ways to teach us about the importance of obedience, submission to God's will, and the importance of the Savior's atonement. I can't fathom feeling too kindly towards anyone or anything that demanded I kill my own child. How would one worship God in confidence after such an event? If God is our parent, shouldn't he of all people understand? Can you imagine telling your own child to get ready to kill a beloved pet or possession, only to say "Just kidding! - I just wanted to test you" at the last minute?

I have yet to find much that is positive in the story. I love the words of Clifton Jolley at the Sunstone symposium in Dallas: "There's only one answer a parent should ever give when asked to kill a child - N0! You respond to the request by saying, 'You're God; give him cancer, and his mother and I will take care of him before he dies.'"

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Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Convention from BCC's Own Intrepid Roving Reporter 

by Karen
Yes, the one and only true Mormon blog managed to sneak a correspondent into the RNC this past week. Yours truly spent a couple of memorable days sitting in Madison Square Garden, with press credentials around my neck, smiling politely and thinking..."whatever you do, don't let anyone know you're a Democrat." I was planning on filing blow by blow descriptions of the Convention, but didn't quite manage to become cyber-enabled in New York. (Thus explaining one reason that I'm a fake reporter instead of a real reporter). So, you'll have to settle for my end of the week overall impressions.

1. I'm apparently easily star struck. Here's a list of people that I stared at from an embarressingly close distance: Don King, Peter Jennings, Brooks and Dunn, Some Christian Rock Band with Really Really Hot Guys (not their actual name), Sarah Evans, Larry King, George H.W. Bush, Anderson Cooper, some guy from ABC news with a fake tan, and the very best.....Triumph the Comic Insult Dog WHO WAS FILMING RIGHT BEHIND MY CHAIR!!!! Oh, and Zell Miller, which leads me to point number two....

2. Zell Miller scared me. Not the Republicans though, they loved him. Which scared me too. Here's the story. I finagled (read, "politely asked for") a floor pass, pushed my way to the front of the floor to watch Sarah Evans up close, and then Zell Miller started talking, so I decided to stay. And then people started shrieking like banshees all around me, and pressing in closer, and I started feeling really claustrophobic.....which probably heightened my sense of fear. But really, just his talk kind of scared me. I wanted to shout out logical phrases (like: "none of this makes sense unless you can prove a connection between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, which you can't!") refuting his reactionary rant, but that sure didn't seem wise. So I just made my way back to the press section wishing that I had taken at least one other Democrat in my travel group--someone that could share my wide-eyed look of trepidation. Who knew that Chris Matthews would soon be my wide-eyed ally, lending some credibility to my fear....

3. Old people who are Republicans dress up in really funny hats, and you can laugh at them behind their backs, and even take their pictures, and they like it!

4. The audience reacted very differently to Cheney and Bush. Cheney was just another speaker. Didn't register nearly as much applause as his new buddy Zell. At some points, I think the audience was just being polite in it's reaction to Cheney. Bush, on the other hand, was a rock star-- surrounded by screaming masses of old ladies in funny hats--audience chanting and waving signs as cued by the young Republicans sitting behind the stage. They LOVED his self deprecating jokes, they LOVED his smirky disses on Kerry, and they LOVED when he talked like the commander in chief. Here is something they didn't love though, about either Bush or Cheney: domestic policy. Cheney got in about two lines. I think education and health care. Barely a smattering of polite applause. Bush hit it a little more. Again, even for the Elvis of the Republican party, barely polite applause. The Republicans were not interested in domestic policy. Nothing nada. They are counting on the traditional strength of the Republican Party--national security--and are, I suppose, hoping that people don't dig too deeply into the logic or morality of this administration's choices. Whether this means that the Democrats should concentrate on pointing out the rash and ultimately harmful security actions of this administration, or whether they should concentrate on the economy and domestic issues, I don't know. But it was loud and clear what the Republicans were relying on, to the exclusion of any other issues.

5. If I wanted to rip off my dress and reveal my "pink slip" underneath (clever clever) while shouting anti-Bush slogans, I too could have been carted off by two amazingly buff security guards like the woman in the section next to me. But it didn't so much seem worth it.

6. The convention was surprisingly negative. I heard a pundit say that they counted a TOTAL of five references to President Bush in the entire Democratic Convention. In Cheney's speech alone, there were dozens. And many of the other speeches had the same tone. They were clearly winding up for a dirty campaign, and the audience LOVED IT. I think we're in for a very long 60 days.

7. Mitt Romney was a disappointment--much to my surprise. He was by far, and I think to his credit, the most polite of the "bash Kerry" speakers. But, there was no fire, no electricity, no inspiration. If he was hoping to use this as his entrance into the national Republican limelight, I think it was a failure.

8. As Jen mentioned, there were policemen everywhere. But rather than seeming menacing, they were pretty much just hanging out. A couple of them cat-called my roommate and I. Which was tres amusant. I never felt threatened, though. Although, I imagine this had something to do with the fact that I was wearing press credentials, and walking in the midst of the Republican crowd. The only problem I ever had was after my friend and I went down to the Media Welcome Center to grab some dinner. We had left our picture i.d.'s up under our chairs in the arena. The security guards didn't want to let us back in. It quickly became clear to me that they were worried that we were protestors with slogans written on our underwear, and for a brief moment I was worried I was going to have to undress in the middle of a metal detector line to prove that rather than a protestor I was just a nice Mormon girl--thereby bringing to life a recurring nightmare I've had since junior high. Fortunately, some sweet smiles and polite assurances that we were not protestors eventually got us back into the Convention. All in all it taught me valuable lesson. Next time I pretend to be a reporter, I shouldn't expect to get free food out of it.

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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Honor Code Skits? 

by Dave
Late August is when freshmen at semester schools move to campus and start learning what campus life is all about. At BYU, a fair percentage of campus life seems to be centered around the Honor Code these days, as reflected in this Deseret News story about Honor Code skits performed during Orientation Week. My recollection of how the system worked a few years ago was that if you didn't drink beer or coffee, sleep with your girl friend, steal from the Bookstore, or get caught cheating, you were more or less safe. Seems like rules have proliferated.

This strikes me as odd, since the increasing size of the applicant pool and more stringent admission screening (seminary attendance, a searching Bishop's interview, etc.) arguably delivers an increasingly well-behaved and religiously dedicated group of LDS students to BYU each Fall. So what exactly is behind the increasing emphasis on the Honor Code? Is it the looming presence of a GA as BYU President? Is it that more religiously dedicated students means an increased demand for detailed rules? I'm curious to know what motivates the ever-increasing emphasis on the Honor Code and how it is perceived by the average BYU student (off the record, as opposed to as quoted in the Daily Universe).
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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

At last, BCC Reigns Supreme!!! 

by Aaron B
It's finally happened. After whipping up a nefarious, Gadianton-like scheme to bring down the Behemoth of the Bloggernacle, Steve E. and I were able to take down the website of those intellectual upstarts with smashing success! In case you haven't noticed, that other blog no longer works. You can no longer make comments there. At last, BCC will finally be able to fulfill its destiny, step up to the plate, and humbly assume its role as that #1 most trafficked site in the Bloggernacle. Which is how it should be.

Consider the demise of T&S as a metaphor for its intellectual bankruptcy, generally.

So with that out of the way, I would like to announce that we the BCC pantheon -- good Mormon "liberals" that we are -- will be shortly announcing a Bloggernacle-wide "Speech Code" which we will use to enforce our heterodoxy with an iron fist. If you want BCC to link to you, you'll have to toe the line, folks. All must comply. Resistance is futile.

Aaron B

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Fear and Loathing in New York City 

by Unknown
It's frightening. Walking around Manhattan has become scary. There are groups of police on every corner in Midtown. Subway entrances are blocked (hope there aren't any fires), some streets are closed off so pedestrians can't even cross them. People are afraid and confused. Look at the view here.

Most Americans probably aren't getting the 'real' news about what is happening so I want to share some links and info. More than 900 protestors were arrested on Tuesday. Check out Union Square arrest photos here. Metro buses have been turned into police vans to cart people away. Police are photographing ALL the protestors. Isn't that illegal? I believe the ACLU is working on it but of course it'll all be over by the time anything happens in the courts. Photos of police arrests and civil rights monitors at the library here. Can you spot the undercover biker cops here? (Hint: scroll down a few photos.) Read about this photo-blogger's illegal arrest here. Another blogger tells her story of escaping arrest after 3 hours detention on the street here. She is more sympathetic with the police and blames the big guns for the arrests.

The blogosphere has a lot of eyewitness stories and photos of events both in and out of the RNC. For a good list of links check out The Gothamist.

Our president's sole claim to success is his protection of our nation from terror, so why is he generating so much terror here? I imagine Osama laughing at the arrests of protesting, patriotic American citizens.

Jen J
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