Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Pride Goeth and Thank Goodness for the Fall 

by Karen
I had one of those spiritual epiphanies last night--one of those "I'm so grateful this happened--but I wouldn't wish for it again" moments. See, I'm going through what I like to call "Drama Queen" time--when not just one dramatic hard thing happens, but multiple dramas happen simultaneously...infusing life with rich irony.

Last night I started really examining my life, and looking at it I realize that I've sort of forcibly been stripped of pride. Without going into details, in addition to currently experiencing some professional "upheavals," last night I was able to put some closure onto a personal "upheaval." Earlier, I had been joking to some friends that I feel a sort of reckless abandon and unusual feistiness these days--I don't care what people think of me, because I'm the gal with no pride. But sitting alone in the car, I realized that was true in a way. None of my feelings of worth are being superimposed on me by the world right now. But somehow, there is this quiet peace underlying my feistiness. I think I caught a glimpse of gospel Truth. Absent the selfish clamoring, absent praise from the world, absent the trappings that denote success, our spirits are eternal, the price of our sins has been paid, and we are loved.

For perhaps the first time I understood the potential damaging power of pride. It clouds our vision, preventing an eternal perspective. It interferes with our relationship with God, because it prevents us from understanding the magnitude of the gift of life, and the gift of potential eternal life. We can overlook the importance of the people in our lives, and of the gospel in our lives, if we are focused on the achievements in our lives.

I've read the Book of Mormon enough to know that I will probably experience this cycle again--and it's a lesson that I'll need to be reminded of my entire life. However, glimpsing some Truth and remembering that peace comes from God is the blessing I need right now--and I'm incredibly grateful for it.

Why You Should Live the Scout Motto 

by Mathew
Our ward meets in the building on 65th and Broadway that will soon have a temple on the top two floors. The rest of the building is also being renovated, the result of which is that, as Steve noted in a recent sacrament talk, we meet in a place that resembles a home depot. Perhaps it is because of our long suffering that this past Sunday Elder Eyring of the Council of the Twelve attended our ward--although he said he was merely in town to give interviews to the Economist and the Wall Street Journal (happy day--I already subscribe to both of them so I won't have to pay newsstand prices to see what he said :). He came to church apparently unannounced--a conclusion that I draw from the fact that I walked to church with two members who expected to be speaking in sacrament. In any case, I didn't know he was going to be there, but as Steve and I walked into opening exercises five minutes late, it was pretty obvious that there was someone new on the stand (we met in the chapel due to work being done in the usual room).

I would have been more excited than worried if I wasn't teaching. My hopes that I would not be leading a lesson in which an apostle would sit in were quickly dashed when the bishop announced that the high priests and the elders would be meeting jointly. Steve quickly, and with apparent glee, informed me that the high priests instructor was absent and I would be the man up front. The lesson topic, as you church attendees may recall, was sustaining those whom God has called to preside.

The rest of the story is largely anti-climactic. The discussion was unusually vigorous and thoughtful--several times I was reminded of the scene in Tom Sawyer when the judge attends Sunday school and everyone in the church is showing off. But that isn't really fair either, because I don't think that people were trying to make points, but were rather just inspired by having an apostle with us. I delivered my lesson as I had planned it--not without, I admit, some trepidation. If Elder Eyring thought I was teaching false doctrine, he was gracious enough not to correct me. In fact he didn't say anything the entire lesson until the quorum president invited him to say a few words at the close of the meeting.

My general impressions of Elder Eyring as an intelligent, humble person were confirmed. The experience was slightly stressful, but entirely delightful and one I will no doubt remember for a long time.

Monday, April 19, 2004

New webpoll! 

by NA
This one goes out to all my iron-rodder homies out there.

Update: I've since heard complaints that my options aren't any good, that the poll doesn't describe reality, etc., etc. All I can say is, if you want a job done right...

Friday, April 16, 2004

Bin Laden's "Truce" and the Book of Mormon 

by NA
The latest tape from the Al Queda leader brought to my mind (strangely enough) the Book of Mormon communications between the leader of the Gadianton band and the Nephites, in 3 Nephi 3. Bin Laden shares Giddianhi's boldness and his rhetorical strategies. Compare:

Giddianhi: "I hope that ye will deliver up your lands and your possessions, without the shedding of blood, that this my people may recover their rights and government, who have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government, and except ye do this, I will avenge their wrongs."

Bin Laden: "Security is a need for all humans, and we could not let you have a monopoly on it for yourselves. People who are aware would not let their politicians jeopardize their security... By describing us and our actions as terrorism, you are necessarily describing yourself and your actions. ... Our actions are reactions to your actions that destroy and kill our people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine."

Should we react like the Nephites did, by getting the hell out of the Middle East and fortifying ourselves? Remember that an interventionist option was brought before the Nephites, and rejected: "Now the people said... Pray unto the Lord, and let us go up upon the mountains and into the wilderness, that we may fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own lands. But Gidgiddoni saith unto them: The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands."

The Book of Mormon is an inconsistent text if we want to look to it to justify pacifism. However, on the point of extraterritorial intervention, it seems much more clear. Are we being delivered into the hands of these robbers, by foolishly rushing into lands not our own? Can our scriptures tell us anything about current U.S. military action?

*Update: Sure, this is a specious argument. But please tell me why. This is the blog equivalent of a dunk tank. I will tell commenters when they have successfully dunked me.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

"It is what you make it..." 

by Kristine
Aaaargh. We have, willy-nilly, stumbled onto one of my heretofore unidentified hot buttons! "The Church is what you make it."* If you are a woman who is not entirely content with the status quo, you will have heard this many, many times. I hear it most often from my brothers and my mother "Kristine, I don't know why you have to be so negative all the time; can't you just be grateful for the Church and work within your sphere of influence?" My mother's particularly ghastly version of the argument includes references to Holocaust victims who survived the concentration camps by being cheerful and trying to help others as much as they could.

Of course, the statement is true on its face, and as far as it goes. It is true that individuals have a choice as to how they will respond to circumstances, whether those circumstances are divinely willed, naturally occurring, or institutionally mandated. Natural disasters, acts of God, and institutional injustice have all served as fertile ground for individual nobility and heroism. However, applying this truism in an institutional context can be a particularly subtle and dangerous way to shoot the messenger. By placing all of the responsibility for growth and happiness within an institution on the individual, it is possible to conclude that the institution need never adjust its course or rectify its failures. Saying "the Church is what you make it" has as its subtext "shut up, quit complaining--the Church works just fine for me because I am virtuous and proactive; if it's not working for you, it must be because there is something wrong with you." Of course there are people who are chronically and groundlessly malcontent (I may be one of them!), but if we assume that anyone whom the shoe pinches fits into that category, we will undoubtedly miss opportunities for institutional growth and needed change. Worse yet, we may add to the pain of our brothers and sisters who are already suffering in large and small ways because of the imperfections of the earthly, divinely guided but oh-so-human Church.

*Although Jordan used this phrase in the comments on the last post, he was not deploying it in all of the ways that I have reacted to here. His use of the phrase was quite limited, and while I disagree that the Church does not bear responsibility for meeting people's needs (or trying to meet some of them), I'm not attacking Jordan's statements specifically. I would do that in the comments, if I felt the need.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

What Can Mormonism Offer to Young People 

by John H
Hi all,

I'm honored to have been invited by Steve Evans to guest blog now and then. I'm relatively new to the world of blogging, so forgive any gaffes on my part. By way of a brief introduction, I'm the managing editor of Sunstone magazine and the symposium coordinator. I'm also editor of Danish Apostle: The Diaries of Anthon H. Lund, coming this summer from Signature Books.

Compared to many in the world of independent Mormonism (ie, Sunstone, Dialogue, Mormon History Association, Association for Mormon Letters, etc.), I'm a relative youngster at 27. I am struck by how many of my friends are leaving Mormonism. It's as if there is no middle ground for young people right now. They're either in the Church - in without any questions, fears, doubts, concerns or worries. Or they're out - out without any interest in trying to hang on or in trying to find value in the faith of their parents. They aren't angry as they leave, so far as I can tell. There isn't a sense of "I've been lied to!" or anything close to it.

Rather, they seem bored stiff by Mormonism. And eventually, they seem to wake up one day and realize there really isn't any good reason (in their minds) to continue to put their trust in authority figures who tell them that Mormonism is God's Church. They've been told their whole life that it's a sin to not go to church, that it's a sin to drink or smoke, and that if they aren't part of Mormonism, there may not be salvation for them. Then, they realize their own personal experience doesn't bear these claims out, or that they have no reason to inherently trust the voices that have been telling them this. So they drift away.

My question is, does Mormonism have something to offer young people? By that I mean, does it have something to offer beyond the belief that it is God's church? In other words, if a young person isn't convinced that Mormonism is God's kingdom on earth, if they might be questioning or doubting, do they have any reason to stay?

By way of partly answering my own question, I believe Mormonism has much to offer people my own age. Faith is a very important component of life, and I worry that so many people seem to be losing it. But I believe there are certain things that need to happen before retention among young people will increase. First and foremost, we must begin to trust journeying more in the Church. As it is, if someone begins a journey of self-discovery or walks down a path where they question their beliefs, we see that as something to rescue them from, not something to encourage as part of life's learning process.

What else can be done? Am I alone in believing that young people leaving Mormonism has reached near-critical levels? What value can we offer young people in Mormonism in the here and now (rather than simply saying that if they endure to the end - which can be a gloomy outlook - they'll be with God in the next life)?

John Hatch

Inspiration in Hollywood? I'm aghast! 

by Karen
One year in law school I went home to Utah for spring break. Over the weekend I saw three movies. The Testaments at Temple Square, God's Army in the theater and The Mission on video. How did they stack up?

I've never been able to stomach a second viewing of The Testaments--that movie sets my teeth on edge. I'm always really uncomfortable with fictionalizing the scriptures, but doing it with cartoonish villains who are crushed by walls and that annoying monkey that refused to die was just sad and embarrassing. I know that I should have focused on the scenes with the Savior, but the feeling that I was watching live action Disney was phenomenally distracting. Final word? ugghh

God's Army was a good flick--started an interesting cultural phenomenon--but it's quality was somewhat tempered by the awful cheesy ending. I have it on video but hardly ever actually watch it. Over all? ehhh.

The Mission is now one of my favorite movies. I think that the story it tells about the power of unconditional love and the possibility for redemption is amazing, touching, and wonderfully executed. Not to mention the questions it raises about the morality of resistance. The performances are superb, and the visuals are exceptional. My verdict? Incredibly inspiring film.

So let's ignore, for a moment if possible, most of the insipid garbage that comes out of Hollywood. I'd like to know which *mainstream* movies you find inspiring and why.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Polygamy, Courtship, and Dating 

by Kaimi
Every once in a while, my wife Mardell and I get into a discussion of polygamy. We occasionally speculate about what would happen if the church officially began to practice polygamy again. (This assumes a lot of things, like anti-polygamy laws being struck down). Mardell has consistently stated that she would not like polygamy, but that if it had to be done, she thinks that she would be able to tolerate it. On reflection, I think that I could probably tolerate it as well. (It would certainly be really, really weird). But I also think that, despite that attitude of potential reluctant acceptance (which is, I think, widespread among members), reinstituting polygamy would never work. Here's why:

As noted, my hunch is that if I had to marry a sister-wife, we could find some sort of marital equilibrium. (Probably both women ganging up against me and making me do the dishes . . .). But what would be the strangest -- something I doubt that I could pull off -- would be the courting.

Modern marriage conventions are different from what folk did a hundred years ago. Even if I wanted another wife, I couldn't just go up to a brother in the ward and ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. Nowadays it requires dating and courtship -- going to dinner, holding hands, going to the movies, calling each other to chat, making out in the parking lot.

And that's the part that would be (1) incredibly weird and uncomfortable for me, and (2) almost certainly intolerable for Mardell. As much as she thinks she could tolerate having another wife, I am certain that she could not tolerate the idea of her husband out on the dating market, flirting with random single members, asking for their phone numbers, and potentially, eventually, marrying them.

And I think that this feeling is universal, or close to it. Many members are descendants of polygamists, and they may say to themselves "My great-grandma Edna did it, I could do it too." But it's not just marriage that would be involved -- it would necessitate dating, flirting, and courtship. And I just don't think many LDS women would go along with that. Plural marriage may look like what great-grandma Edna did, but married men hitting on cute singles looks like a run-of-the-mill tawdry affair.

And it seems to me that it is this shift in marriage and dating conventions that truly ensures that polygamy can never be reinstituted.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Where it listeth 

by Kristine
I hope you won't think it too boastful if I tell you that my little ward choir sounded AMAZING on Easter Sunday. They had worked hard, but we are beset with the usual woes of the ward choir: not enough people, untrained voices, a couple of really enthusiastic non-carriers-of-tunes, too many meetings scheduled to conflict with choir practice, etc. Saturday night I was thinking that one of the songs was going to be awful, two merely passable, and that only one of four pieces we were performing had a chance of being actually good. Our warm-up on Sunday morning did nothing to suggest that any revision of that assessment was in order.

And then they were just so good. I did not think or sense that angels were singing with the choir, or that they had been completely transformed; it was a miracle on a more ordinary scale. They suddenly remembered the things we practiced, they looked up for entrances and cut-offs, they did not sing Jeeee-sus with that awful spread-vowel balloon noise, they were in tune. They were just a little better than they really are. Although I don't understand the mechanism, I feel very clearly that there was divine intervention of some sort, the Spirit bringing things to remembrance, quickening minds, amplifying our meager offering. I have seen this happen often enough to believe that it is real, and not just the wishful thinking of an optimistic amateur choir director.

Still, I can't predict when it will happen. I've had choirs work hard on something well within the scope of their capabilities and had it sound just awful. I've worked with choirs to prepare for times when it really MATTERED for them to be good (funerals of musicians, for instance), and had them be just human and barely good enough. And then, times like yesterday, in a congregation where every last person with any aesthetic sense at all is already in the choir, and where there's a long tradition of, um, struggling choirs, and there's no reason I can see why the Spirit would have an interest in magnifying our talents, and there it was.

We Mormons tend to speak as though we understand how to work with the Spirit. Sometimes we make lists of the things one has to do to be worthy of His (Her? ask Janice Allred) companionship. One of the (very many) things that made me want to jump out of windows in the MTC was a couplet that everyone was very fond of while I was there, coined by some GA whose name I have, in my great mercy, blotted from memory: "the rules govern the Spirit, and the Spirit governs the work." I'm fine with the second half of that, but completely befuddled and infuriated by the first--as if humans could actually "govern" a member of the Godhead by obedience to some list of rules about when to go to bed and get up and how many pages of the Book of Mormon to read every day. One of the scriptures I used to quote at people in an attempt to make them stop saying "the rules govern the spirit" was John 3:8: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." I don't think that scripture unambiguously makes my point, but it does capture my sense that the Spirit is less containable than we want to think. In my own life, I don't have the sense that the companionship of the Spirit, or even momentary visits, are very directly contingent upon my "righteousness" at any given moment--I've been tackled by grace at times when I least deserve it, and left (apparently) alone at moments when I most needed and sought divine guidance. I just can't find a one-to-one correlation between my behavior and my access to the Spirit.

Is it just me?

Push My Buttons 

by NA
In a recent thread on T&S, Kaimi discussed the War on Pr0n. I immediately became very emotionally involved in the ideas, and found myself getting angry at people that disagreed with my rants. Our own Aaron Brown was surprised at my vitriol, and Wendy wisely realized that I could not be reasoned with. Soon I made a fool of myself, chasing after blog-trolls. What happened? Someone figured out how to push my buttons -- for strange, personal reasons, this topic gets me riled up beyond belief. It's very disconcerting, because I like to think that I'm detached and non-committal in most debates.

It's my theory that we all have our different hot button issues. In this church, you don't have to dig very deep to find someone's sore spot and press on it. Let me name a few old-time favorites: polygamy, male church hierarchy, "liberal mormons", and equating women with motherhood. What sore spot topics get your blood boiling? How do you keep a level head when someone brings them up? Please, disclose them all here for us to share!

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Apostles, Prophets and Personal Finance 

by Mathew
I think it is widely known among Mormons that, depending on which data set you look at, Utah has led the nation in bankruptcies for a few years. Even before Utah assumed the number one spot, our leaders talks about personal finance seemed to get more pointed–moving from general words about thrift and frugality to extended sermons and bits of specific advice. Some of that advice is contrary to what a financial planner would likely recommend–a fact not lost on the speakers themselves. In his October ‘98 address during the priesthood session President Hinckley had the following to say in a story referring to President Faust:

“He had a mortgage on his home drawing 4 percent interest. Many people would have told him he was foolish to pay off that mortgage when it carried so low a rate of interest. But the first opportunity he had to acquire some means, he and his wife determined they would pay off their mortgage. He has been free of debt since that day. That's why he wears a smile on his face, and that's why he whistles while he works.
I urge you, brethren, to look to the condition of your finances. I urge you to be modest in your expenditures; discipline yourselves in your purchases to avoid debt to the extent possible. Pay off debt as quickly as you can, and free yourselves from bondage.”

No doubt this advice is being taken literally by many of the faithful. I have family members who have taken money out of retirement accounts in order to make lump sum payments on their home. This is almost certainly a bad decision from a financial standpoint–yet I can’t imagine a clearer example of following the prophet

In his talk, Elder Wirthlin admiringly told the story of a man who vowed to pay off his debts instead of declaring bankruptcy. It was a great story and it reminded me again of some family members who did something similar. It took those family members well over the 10 years that a bankruptcy can legally remain on a credit report to pay back the money, but they considered it something close to a sacred obligation to honor their debts. Again, this was almost certainly a bad decision from a financial standpoint (although not as clearly as bad a decision as raiding the retirement accounts to pay down the mortgage).
think I’ve been pretty clear that I think some of the advice being given across the pulpit is not very good from a financial standpoint. At the macro level it seems even worse. To the extent they agree on anything, economists are pretty united in the belief that bankruptcies are useful tools governments can apply to encourage appropriate amounts of the type of risk taking necessary for wealth-creating entrepreneurial activity to thrive. If everyone treated their debts as an obligation to be honored at almost any cost, the nation and the world would be poorer (I understand that you could probably argue the converse–but I think it is a stupid argument and this post is already too long). Since only Mormons will give credence to Elder Wirthlin’s talk, we may end up poorer as a people if we follow his advice while the rest of the nation continues to engage in healthy entrepreneurial activity.

Looked at from a spiritual wellness perspective, however, I firmly believe that both President Hinckley and, to a lesser extent Elder Wirthlin, have taught true principles. I expect that the couple who raided their 401(k)s to make a lump sum payment on their home will be blessed for it, at the very least in the same way that President Faust was blessed–with the peace of mind knowing you are free of debt.

I personally take a net worth approach to my finances. I invest money every month, but I don’t pay down my student debt as fast as I otherwise could. Most of my loans are locked at a rate that is lower than historical rates of inflation and all of them are well under the 4% President Faust’s mortgage was at. In my rational mind, as long as my total net worth increases, it doesn’t matter to what account the money is applied. Using this approach it is likely that my net worth will actually be zero sooner than if I otherwise payed directly on my loans due to the fact that my fairly conservative investments will almost certainly have a greater rate of return than the interest payments I pay on my loans. Yet...there is a pebble in my shoe. Knowing that I owe a financial institution money–and that I will be making payments to that entity for the next 29 years and 7 months (my rational self says that I should extend the debt to the maximum amount of time possible) bothers me.

Likewise, I believe that in many, perhaps most, cases there is more satisfaction and honor in paying back one’s debts than seeking the protection of the courts. At the end of the day, material wealth is a poor substitute for lasting happiness.

I guess my conclusion is that the prophets and apostles aren’t in the financial advice business–they are in the spiritual guidance (what lifestyle managers might call “well being”) business and their advice ought to be seen and interpreted first and foremost in that light--and not as a guide to increasing your material wealth. Let’s hear it folks–what's your take on this new-found interest among our leaders in personal finance?

S*x, S*x, S*x .... (title modified for filters) 

by Aaron B
In a recent thread at Times and Seasons, BCC's own Kristine and Steve had an interesting interchange about excommunication and the September 6. Steve said:

"Only they know the totality of the circumstances surrounding what happened, so I'm hesitant to assign it all to their inquisitive natures.

Kristine replied:
"I have to say that you have just made a comment of the type I find most troublesome about this event: the well-we-don't-know-everything-about-it-there-must-be-more-to-the-story-than-what-the-protagonists-are-
telling-us-probably-there-were-other-sins-involved. It leads to people sort of darkly hinting that there must
be sins those people have committed that they haven't told the media about and speculating as to what those might be."

Ironically, I made a point similar to Steve's recently at Sons of Mosiah. However, I want to run with Kristine's thought here, and explore the nature of this "dark hinting."

While at BYU, a good friend of mine -- "Bob" -- completely apostasized from the Church. Bob had been a very stellar, spiritual missionary, but some time after returning home he became convinced that he could feel the spirit just as strongly by reading the Koran or Lao-Tzu as he could the Book or Mormon; this conviction quickly snowballed into Bob's reinterpretation of "spirituality" as a mere emotional/psychological phenomenon without any divine character. (There were some other intellectual issues involved, but I won't get into them). Suffice it say, Bob determined to withdraw his name from the records of the Church. He is now a hard-core atheist.

I brought up Bob's experience with my BYU bishop, who was someone I often turned to for good conversation. The Bishop listened to my telling of Bob's saga with a strange smirk on his face, and when I had finished, he asked me: "So... which commmandment is Bob breaking?" I was floored. I found this completely offensive. I knew Bob quite well, and I knew that his intellectual issues were real. After laying this all out for the Bishop, all he could do was insinuate that Bob's real problem was that he wasn't keeping the Law of Chastity? Please.

But this is not an isolated incident. As a BYU freshman, I took a Book of Mormon class from a very popular, charismatic religion professor. He once told the class about a student from years past who kept raising contentious questions and doubts about the lesson material. After several weeks of this, Brother X suddenly felt "prompted" in class to accuse the student of adultery. This promptly shut him up. (Subsequent events allegedly "bore out the truth" of the professor's allegations.) And of course, the "point" of this story registered with the students loud and clear: When someone is having "intellectual issues," they aren't really "intellectual issues" at all, but rather indications of sexual sin! (And let's not fail to acknowledge the precedent for this kind of episode. Joseph Smith once made a similar accusation against a brother in the early days of the Church.)

I have come to suspect that for many Church members, there's "no such thing as a REAL intellectual concern." Everything is ultimately reducible to S*X, S*X, S*X. This way of looking at doubt very conveniently innoculates a large swath of members from ever listening to arguments carefully. If we can get everyone thinking about s*x (gasp!) or some other grievous sin, we can prevent them from even giving any consideration to what Sister So-and-So is griping about. I am interested in whether others have observed this same phenomenon, and if so, what they make of it? Maybe I am exaggerating the problem? Or misinterpreting what it means?

Finally, I should mention how my Bishop responded when I objected to his reductionist interpretation of Bob's experience. He said: "Aaron, I've been a Bishop for a long time, and I've seen a lot of people struggle with intellectual concerns. In my experience, it usually comes out later that most of these people were using their concerns as a cover for sin or other LDS lifestyle issues that they had."

How can I argue with this? I've never been a Bishop, and my Bishop undoubtedly has had more experience in this area than I have. And I don't find it hard to believe that in a given case, an individual might use "intellectual qualms" as a cover for sexual sin. But at the same time, I find inappropriate the tendency to paint with this broad a brush and dismiss members' intellectual struggles without considering them on their own terms. Ultimately, to the extent we choose to describe doubters and "apostates" in this fashion, I wonder if this doesn't say more about us than it does about them.

Aaron B

Perpetually Blessed 

by Karen
I was reading the SL Tribune article yesterday on the passing of Sister Hinckley. The last paragraph read something like "In lieu of sending flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the church's Perpetual Education Fund." That struck a chord. We're all familiar with the custom of suggesting donations--usually a charity very close to the hearts of the family...the lung association for lung cancer victims, or the children's hospital for families whose children were treated there. The Prophet and his family chose the Perpetual Education Fund, and I was again reminded how much that program resonates with me.

We've been writing about prophecy and the role of a prophet or of the Prophet. That prompted some scripture study last night, and I came across the Bible Dictionary entry titled "prophet." The message was not centered on foretelling, rather on just telling. Inspired exhortation. Can we find a better example of inspired exhortation, of inspired leadership, than the Perpetual Education Fund?

1. We are an internationally minded people. For many of us, our mission service has cemented a love for another culture into our lives. Even those who didn't serve a foreign mission feel the pulse of the church and feel concern over our brothers and sisters who are faithful and yet struggling temporally. Previous to the institution of the PEF, I heard so many people wondering what they could do to help, and feeling that whatever help they gave was on such a small scale that while rewarding, it was also frustrating. More commonly, we wished to give, but didn't search for the means to do it.

2. The international church is growing at such a fast rate, particularly in poorer areas of the world. Educated, financially stable leaders are needed to fulfill lay-clergy responsibilities. The gospel helps create focused, goal-oriented individuals...but those same people are trapped in cycles of poverty. In a chuch devoted to consecrating extra to the good of the kingdom, some wealth redistribution seemed to be in order--but the mechanism had to be effective and (practically speaking) accepted.

3. We are history minded. Our own pasts and our families' pasts resonate with us. President Hinckley recognized the dynamic described above and found a way to tap into our own pioneer heritage, using our passion for our history to channel our love for our brothers and sisters. Inspired exhortation, and inspired leadership. I know that church members I'm acquainted with LOVE this program. I'm touched that the Prophet and his family love it as well.

Perhaps this is a month that we could be particularly focused on the PEF when making our offerings?

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Passing of Sister Hinckley 

by NA
As Times & Seasons has noted, the wife of Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley passed away yesterday afternoon. We add our condolences to the others already given across the bloggernacle, as well as our prayers for the Prophet.

Is the Prophet ever a "Prophet"? 

by Aaron B
(You think you know what this post is going to be about... Well, you're WRONG!!)

I was having lunch recently with Cameron, an LDS friend of mine, when I made a rather shocking confession to him. "Cameron," I said, "I am a prophet. I have the gift of prophecy." Cameron looked at me skeptically. "No really," I said. "I'll prove it to you. I'll make a prediction of some future event, and you'll see that it will come to pass." Cameron waited in breathless anticipation. "I predict ... that at some point within the next 10 seconds, someone will lift this teriyaki chicken bowl two feet above the table, hold it there for several seconds, and then lay it back to rest on the table again." Cameron seemed intrigued. I then promptly grabbed the chicken bowl, lifted it above our heads for a few moments, and then put it back down. "See, aren't you impressed?" I asked. "I predicted it would happen, and sure enough, it did." Cameron was underwhelmed. I asked him why. A discussion ensued, and Cameron provided the following explanation for why my predictive powers were not impressive: "You were the causal agent that made it happen! In order for your "prophecy" to be meaningful, it can't predict an occurrence that you yourself CAUSED. It has to predict something that you couldn't cause, but that happened nonetheless." I reluctantly agreed.

"Fine," I said. "But I have another prophecy for you, and it's one that you can't say I "caused" to happen." "O.K.," Cameron replied. "Prophesy away."

"I predict that sometime within the next 90 days, a suicide bomber will blow himself up in Israel. You just wait and see." "Oh, come on!" Cameron exclaimed. "That's not a prophecy!" "Why not?" I asked. "Assuming it happens, you can't dismiss it the same way you did my teriyaki bowl stunt. Surely you're not suggesting I'm going to call up Hamas and order a terrorist bombing personally!" Cameron and I discussed his concerns with my claim. In a nutshell, his conclusion was this: "Even if you're not the causal agent, for your "prophecy" to be impressive, it would have to predict something NON-OBVIOUS. Any reasonably informed person could predict an imminent terrorist bombing in Israel!" I grudgingly accepted his analysis.

So what did Cameron and I learn at lunch, boys and girls? We learned that for a "prophecy" to really count as a "prophecy," it must meet two criteria:

(1) It must predict a future event that is caused by something other than the prophesier himself; and
(2) It must be a relatively non-obvious prediction.

So where am I going with this? Well, we believe that "prophecy" is part of the Prophet's job description. Granted, it is not the only part of his job, nor even the primary one. (How many of you sat anxiously on the edge of your seats at General Conference, waiting for the Prophet's next big prediction?) But we like to believe that President Hinkley, and those that have preceeded him, at least occasionally engage in "prophecy." Thus, many of us feel the need to tell ourselves (and the occasional inquisitive or skeptical non-Member) that we have a repertoire of examples that illustrate the Prophet's impressive "prophetic record." (I have talked about this before on T&S, as did Kaimi in a recent posting there). But if you look at the examples that LDS members like to give of "prophecy," they are, by and large, fairly unimpressive. In fact, as I will now argue, they inevitably fail to meet the two criteria that Cameron and I discussed over lunch. Consider a few examples:

(a) "Brigham Young predicted the development and settlement of the Great Basin" -- This is just one of many similar claims invoked to illustrate early Mormon prophets' amazing powers. And admittedly, what Young and the early Saints accomplished in Utah was no small feat. But say all the good things about Young's accomplishment that you want -- that it showed his impressive leadership, his goal-setting, his determination, his follow-through, his charisma, his organizational skills.... it simply doesn't constitute an objectively impressive "prophecy" in the sense outlined above. Young's vocalized plan for the Utah territory may have been many things, but an uncanny fulfillment of "prophecy" was not one of them. (It was more impressive than my lifting the teriyaki bowl, to be sure, but it wasn't a qualitatively different phenomenon.) In short, this "prophecy" fails to meet Criterion #1.

(b) Joseph Smith's "Civil War Prophecy." -- We all know this one. Joseph Smith predicted that South Carolina would be the first state to leave the Union before the Civil War, several years before South Carolina actually did so. Sounds impressive ... until you realize that South Carolina had been threatening to secede for years, and any informed observer of American affairs could have made a similar prediction. As with my prediction of a terrorist bombing in Israel, Smith's prophecy fails to meet Criterion #2.

And then there are the claims that don't technically take the form of "prophecies," but amount to more or less the same thing:

(c) "The Word of Wisdom was ahead of its time" -- So goes the canard. But contrary to popular LDS belief, it turns out everybody and their dog in the early 19th Century thought the Word of Widsom's prohibited substances were bad for you, even if they couldn't give you a 20th Century medical explanation. Conceptualized as a "prophecy" (i.e. "Joseph Smith predicted modern medical conclusions before they happened"), this example also fails to meet Criterion #2.

I could probably come up with other examples, but hopefully you see the point. Much as many of us might like to think otherwise, there aren't a lot of "crystal ball" moments in LDS history.

So what am I saying? Should we all dismiss Mormon prophets as frauds, seeing that they've failed to live up to the hype? No. What I am suggesting is that maybe it's time to QUIT THE HYPE. Most of us don't think about or value President Hinkley's powers of prediction nearly as much as we do his moral guidance and his official capacity to speak for God. I think we can still believe that the Prophet is capable of prophetic foresight, without feeling the need to tout dubious and trumped up stories to wow our friends and neighbors.

Am I making any sense here? Perhaps I'm preaching to the converted, or at least to jaded Mormon intellectuals who don't need me to point out the obvious? Or am I missing, in my cynicism, some fabulous examples of historical Mormon prophecies that should fill any and all observers with amazement?

Aaron B

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

No, ma'am, that's not Relief Society 

by Kristine
Last night I took dinner to a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. I wish I could say that it was entirely my idea, but it was actually part of a massive service project organized by two lesbian moms of a child in my daughter's kindergarten class. (Apparently they didn't get the memo on the gay agenda!) Rachel's two boys have been driven to and from school every day, taken care of while she's at doctor's appointments and at the hospital for chemo, and fed yummy dinners brought by people from school 3 nights a week for the last two months. Rachel's mom has come to stay with them now, so the childcare issues are eased, but there was serious talk about raising enough money to hire a nanny for her, and I'm sure people really would have done it, if it had been needed. The dinner calendar is full for the next two months, and last week Rachel sent around a little note asking people to please not stop by with flowers for her and gifts for the boys anymore because their house is overflowing. All this among neo-hippie-pagan-Kerry-nah-more-like-KUCINICH-voting-gay-friendly-no-nukes-heathen Waldorf school parents.

I'm embarrassed to say that one of my first responses has been surprise. Somewhere, way deep down where the unexamined assumptions live, I really somehow believed that Mormons are the only ones who really understand service, who show up with casseroles at the drop of a hat, who build those tight-knit communities that drive us crazy and keep us sane.

Besides wishing that I'd been pregnant and on bedrest HERE instead of in surface-friendly but not terrifically helpful Mormon wards, I'm wondering how different some of the gloom-and-doom conference talks might be if more Mormons (especially Utah Mormons in the hierarchy) had real live experience with other-than-Mormon communities? How much of my generally optimistic outlook about the state of the world, the devotion of most families to their children, the goodness that is all around comes from always having lived in "the mission field," and, of necessity, having close friends who are not Mormon? If, even with that experience, I fall prey to provincial notions about why and how Mormons are better than everyone else, how should we--how should I--do better about reaching out to our neighbors and embracing what is virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy and of good report wherever we find it?

Word of Wisdom Vindicated! Again! 

by NA
This article in the NY Times (registration required, etc., etc.) discusses the dangers of caffeine intoxication, once again permitting us to rub the world's collective nose into our healthy, healthy lifestyle. I've tried not to rely on external scientfic data as an apologetic for the WoW: for every anti-tobacco study there's some science in favor of drinking alcoholic beverages. What's more, it sets up a dangerous pattern of obeying God's commandments only when the outcomes are laid bare for us, which in my mind negates the role of faith.

How important are these studies, in your mind? Does it change the way you approach the WoW at all? Should we even think about using this kind of stuff as missionary tools? Will Mormons reduce their hot cocoa-swilling, chocolate-munching lifestyles accordingly?

Monday, April 05, 2004

Post-G.C. Poll #1 

by NA
At Karen's request, G.C. post-game poll #1.


Paranoia will Destroy Ya' 

by steve cannon
I impressed myself. I listened to two and a half sessions of general conference. My favorite talk was by Pres. Hinkley He insisted that getting all paranoid about the current perils of the world is actually negative. Further, he explained that humans have always faced peril. Some of the other speakers must have been wishing they could revise the sections of their talks where they continued to refer to the downward spiral of the world. Applying Hinkley's advice will certainly improve your life. I've never seen a happy Mormon who obsessed about the evils of the world and I'd say fully a quarter of the Mormons I've known are in that paranoid group.

Of course, Mormonism does not have a lock on paranoid thought. The safety of religious thought attracts paranoids. And the General Authorities pretty agressively and consistently speak out against focusing on the end of the world. I only wish that message acted more effectively. It is depressing to continually hear that strident tone insisting itself in our church meetings and throughout the Mormon blogosphere. In addition, it's sad for those who fall victim to it. Mormon doctrine encourages optimism by insisting that we may become gods. The individual who insists on reminding us over and over that wickedness is increasing misses out on that.

I should be honest though. I don't really believe that there will be an apocalypse, so I'm not being brave by not being worried about it. I prefer the practical advice that helps lessen the force of our own private calamities. Overall, the financial advice in several talks stuck with me most. Two GAs spoke about staying out of debt and maintaining an adequate savings. One even mentioned keeping insurance. One mentioned the importance of saving up while you are doing well, since things don't always get better financially. Sounds like something I'd hear in an economics class. Something I can agree with whether God exists or not.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

G.C. play-by-play 

by NA
This thread is for comments or questions we may have as General Conference rolls on around us. Let me get the ball rolling: Elder Haight's comments, nostalgic and whimsical as they were, were still more interesting to me than Elder Oaks' Opus on the last days. Thoughts? Post 'em up!!

Friday, April 02, 2004

Let Sunshine Fill Your Soul 

by NA
This article in the NYTimes (registration required) details how Mormon women are less depressed than their gentile counterparts. Thanks to Sumer Thurston-Evans for finding it! The study, performed by a BYU sociologist, may indicate (in her words) "a reflection of the higher standards that are espoused'' by the Church. So all ye women-folk, are you less depressed because of your Church membership?

Oh, and yes, the study also found that Mormon women "do score lower on measures of self-esteem." I guess that's because we emphasize Faith, Knowledge, Choice and Accountability, Good Works and Integrity higher than Divine Nature and Individual Worth. My wife's remarks: "I'm feeling happy with my low self-esteem."

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Reasoning with your spouse 

by NA
Last night the wife and I got into a little tussle, as I tried patiently to explain to her the law of divine marriage. She was naturally a little upset that I'd already taken several spiritual wives, but I was shocked, and a little taken aback, that she was so unwilling to accept the restored gospel.

Anyone else out there have this problem? What do you do to preside righteously in your home in such a situation?

Harold Bloom and Me against the World 

by Kristine
Warning: what you are about to read may contain conservative content not suitable for all By Common Consent readers.

One of the most puzzling discussions I regularly have with other church members is about music. Because it's a topic I care about, and because I'm the ward music chairman, the choir director, the Sacrament Meeting chorister, the RS pianist, and (until recently) the Primary chorister, I tend to be the go-to gal on music in my ward.

The most recent variant of this conversation occurred a few weeks ago, when I told one of the young women that a song from "Saturday's Warrior" would not be an appropriate musical number for Sacrament Meeting. One of her parents was angered by my decision and suggested that I didn't have the right to exclude a musical number just because I didn't like it. I explained that, in fact, there are quite specific guidelines from the Handbook of Instructions about what music is appropriate, and that this song just didn't fit. We talked for a long time, but I don't think we understood each other any better at the end of the conversation.

The form of the argument is pretty common, but it always surprises me to have to have it at church (not to mention how odd it feels to be the one on the "conservative" side of the issue!). Basically, most Mormons (as far as I can tell) have completely bought the post-modern notion that aesthetic judgments are entirely matters of taste and social convention, even class oppression, and that what used to be called "high" culture is no more worthy of our attention than anything else. While Mormons may be concerned about the *content* of music, art, theater, or literature, and want it to be free of profanity, sex, and, to a lesser extent, violence, they are basically unconcerned with questions of form and artistic excellence. In fact, there's a decidedly populist flavor to many discussions of art among Mormons--one shouldn't need to learn about art to appreciate it; "don't know much about art, but I know what I like." The resistance to the abstract and "academic" strains of late 20th- and early 21st-century art and music has morphed into a rejection of anything that smacks of elitism.

I think this is a strange position for Mormons to take. We vehemently reject ethical relativism and wholeheartedly embrace the idea of Truth with a capital "T" as well as smaller truths that can be revealed to human beings because of their divine origin and destiny. We proclaim that we seek that which is "lovely, virtuous, or of good report, or praiseworthy." To me the belief that loveliness, virtue, or praiseworthiness are entirely matters of taste is antithetical to this project. It is also in decided contrast to the practice of Mormons in the early days of the church, and well into the 20th century, when there were strenuous efforts (art and music missionaries, Cultural Refinement lessons, performances by the Tabernacle Choir of the great Western choral literature, etc.) to educate members about the tradition of "high" art in Western civilization. Maybe the current de-emphasis of these things has to do with trying not to identify the church with American traditions, but I think it may be a far less conscious process than that, one in which Mormons have thoughtlessly assimilated some of the stupidest aspects of American postmodernism.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Homophobia as Self-Loathing 

by Aaron B
There is an idea in American culture – it pops up in all sorts of places – that extreme homophobia is often a sign of repressed homosexuality. The idea goes something like this: Certain men who have subscribed to cultural norms of hyper-masculinity discover, much to their chagrin, that they sometimes experience homoerotic feelings. This doesn’t fit into their carefully constructed self-image. It also conflicts with, say, their religious and societal upbringing, from which they learned that homosexuals are sissies or “not real men.” This discovery makes them angry. They have a personal crisis, colored by extreme self-loathing. How do they handle it? They lash out at those who appear to be overtly homosexual, or even just effeminate, as these people serve as reminders of what they “really are,” even though they don’t want to admit it. Thus, the reasoning goes, when you see a particularly virulent or nasty homophobe, it is fair to surmise that this person might really be a repressed homosexual.

The most obvious recent incarnation of this idea, in my mind, was the 1999 film "American Beauty." Chris Cooper plays a harsh, unforgiving military father who has a distant relationship with his wife and son, and who spends his time grumbling about “faggots” getting all in his face and watching old Ronald Reagan films. He begins to have paranoid suspicions (unfounded, as it turns out) that his neighbor, played by Kevin Spacey, is sexually involved with his teenage son, played by Wes Bentley. At the end of the film, just as you think Cooper is going to confront Spacey about this and become violent, he instead makes a homosexual pass at Spacey. Spacey politely rebuffs the advance, and Cooper becomes disoriented and confused. He then becomes enraged at what has happened, and in the last scene of the film, he returns to Spacey’s house, presumably consumed with self-hatred, and shoots Spacey in the back of the head.

(Other examples of this idea could be given. Think of the long-standing allegations of homosexuality and cross-dressing that plagued J. Edgar Hoover, as popularized by Oliver Stone’s film “JFK.”)

What I would like to know is … where does this idea come from? Furthermore, is there any truth to it? Off the top of my head, I have several theories:

(1) Maybe it’s really true. Maybe sexually-repressed homosexual homophobes are a real phenomenon. The theory, as I’ve laid it out above, doesn’t seem totally implausible. Certain gay friends I have known have articulated this idea to me, and hey, maybe they’re in a position to know.

(2) Then again, maybe it’s all bunk. Maybe it’s a tactic to scare homophobes into taking the sharp edges off their rhetoric. After all, if they don’t, maybe we’ll all start thinking they’re gay (gasp!).

(3) Maybe it’s just a story that homosexuals tell themselves to make themselves feel better, or to make sense of the irrational, over-the-top antipathy directed at them that they can’t otherwise understand. Only someone having a major sexual identity crisis, so the thinking would go, could possibly find the energy to loathe them so much.

I honestly have no firm position on this question. I have known some really homophobic Mormons in my life, and I have never understood where they find the energy to vent like they do, or why they give the gay issue such high priority in their hierarchy of complaints about the world. (By “really homophobic,” I mean REALLY, REALLY, REALLY homophobic. Nobody who has ever posted here or at T&S could possibly qualify). I’ll admit … sometimes it’s fun to imagine that they must be gay!

What do you all think?

Aaron B

P.S. If you don’t like this topic, feel free to turn this thread into an unfocused, gay-themed stream of consciousness outlet. Since I know there’s so much gay interest in the Mormon Blogosphere, and nowhere else to write about it ( :) ), BCC is here for you!


Liberty? Agency? You tell me 

by NA
Logan asked me, in response to some offhand comments on T&S, to talk more about "laws not getting in the way of agency." I responded (maybe a little too quickly) that "we can distinguish between the capacity to make choices (agency) and the extent to which laws punish our choices (liberty). I'd agree with you that laws can limit our liberty, but I probably wouldn't say the same for agency."

I wish I'd spoken a little more carefully, because the distinction here is important. Many LDS people speak of government intervention in various domains as "infringing on our free agency" or worse, as if it's similar to what Satan's plan would have been like. I wonder if this tendency could stem from an inability to distinguish between agency and liberty. Clearly, if we identify regulation or legislation with something that affects the subject matter of the War in Heaven, that would lead us to bristle at the thought of it. But God legislates and regulates our lives all the time -- commandments and laws are all over the place, including divine taxation, and yet we say we have our agency. So anyway, I think it's careless to interchange liberty and agency. Could the commingling of the concepts be a source of LDS predispositions for/against certain political parties?

Monday, March 29, 2004

No hanging chads! 

by NA
Our first ever BCC: Poll. Cast your votes now!


Sunday, March 28, 2004

Come, let us haggle together 

by Grimshizzle
Okay, imagine this scenario: the lesson is on the word of wisdom, and the teacher begins by reading the pertinent scriptures, then taking comments from the gallery. "I have a strong testimony of the Word of Wisdom," says one member, "but a beer or two in the evening really helps me unwind." A sister chimes in: "And red wine is actually good for your heart; I don't see the harm in having a glass with dinner." A general consensus emerges among the class that there are numerous circumstances in which it is okay--laudable, in fact--to break the Word of Wisdom. Curiously, the entire class seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that they have more or less rejected outright the entire point of the lesson.

Of course, this would be inconceivable in any ward I've ever lived in. But a few members of our current ward, bless their hearts, seems prone to this sort of thing, though not regarding anything so clearly yes-I-do/no-I-don't as the Word of Wisdom. Rather, this tendency emerges any time the subjects of service and charity come up. My wife came out of Relief Society absolutely fuming today, after a lesson on service surreptitiously became a lesson on self-service. The teacher started with the question "Why do we serve others?" Many answers that followed betrayed a kind of "market" approach to the gospel, one that boiled down every action to a transaction. The members who offered these ideas did not seem to notice how centered on self their answers were (because they didn't have me conveniently adding italics in the pertinent places): We serve because we get blessings, we serve because it helps us grow, etc. Finally, my deep-thinking but normally soft-spoken wife piped up and pointed out the obvious but overlooked: "I think God asks us serve because there are lots of his other children that he loves just as much as he loves us, and they need our help, and he wants them to get it." Nonetheless, as the class progressed, the comments continually seemed to emphasize the many things that legitimately limit the time and effort we spend helping others: family, work, keeping ones life "in order," etc., and hardly touched upon the merits of extending our service beyond the realm of the convenient. The same thing happened not long ago in a class I was in, when a discussion of King Benjamin's admonitions to give to the poor circumscribed a trajectory exactly opposite of that stated in the scriptural passages supposedly under consideration: the general consensus of the class, it seemed, was that one takes care of one's own, that charity takes a low position in one's budget, and that alms-giving encourages sloth.

This is particularly bothersome considering the fact that, regardless of the sharp downward pull my family's meager income exerts on the curve, our ward is, by and large, extremely well-off. Nonetheless, when the First Presidency extended a challenge to our stake a few years ago to raise funds for a special project, our ward came up shamefully short of its share, and many members even complained publicly to the Stake President (whose reputation as a bleeding heart liberal democrat perhaps lent the whole affair a "tax and spend" aura in their minds) for his audacity in asking them to donate. Sisters organizing a humanitarian service project, in which members were asked to purchase items for newborn kits for around $6, met similar resistance from some members.

I can't help but draw a connection between this mentality and dominant political attitudes. It's like the old joke (which I mentioned in a comment to something somewhere on another blog, so apologies for the repeat): When a democrat sees a half -glass of water, s/he says "That glass is half full." When a republican sees a half-glass of water, s/he says "Who the hell drank half my water?!" Some members ask me outright, as they might well ask you, how one can be LDS and be in the same political party as "the abortionists" and "the gays," etc. I have a much harder time reconciling the theme of selflessness that permeates the scriptures (ancient and modern) with the general sense of entitlement that characterizes the republican mentality.

Is it fair for me to extend this observation beyond matters of monetary resources? It seems to me that it is this same what's-in-it-for-me mentality that pervades spiritual discussions as well: good deeds are legal tender for blessings; people in need are a kind of divine commodity, an opportunity for furthering one's own progress; obedience means a contractual obligation on the part of Deity to return the favor. The concept of giving without the thought of something in return seems to go neglected by many members. God's own recursive formula for joy, in which his happiness depends on ours, and ours depends on passing it along, gets short shrift.

(I should mention that, thankfully, the cases above are counterbalanced by a number of ward members who give of their time and resources to a fault. There are certain members--and I wish I could say that I'm one of them--who show up at every move, take dinner after every baby born, volunteer first to step in someone's absence, send a load of newborn kits or school kits to Humanitarian Services every month, and generally give til it hurts. Service disrupts their lives, to the point that it is enmeshed with it--which, I suspect, is probably the point at which it registers with the heavens.)


Saturday, March 27, 2004


by Kristine
Steve, the photo's a nice touch--don't take it down because of what I'm about to say. But I have to say it took my breath away--as much as I know that the church is run by a male hierarchy, as much as my entire life has involved getting used to that reality, as much as I believe that these are good and kindly-intentioned men, it is still painful EVERY TIME to be confronted with visual proof of the total absence of women in decision-making in the church.

(I take it as a proof of God's sense of humor that I was created both so uppity and so thoroughly Mormon.)

Friday, March 26, 2004

Missionary Pamphlets 

by steve cannon
I have been thinking a lot about missionary work this past year. I truly believe that it would be good if I did more. The church is such a positive influence on my life even though my belief in the doctrines is often weak. I'd love for some of my good friends to try it. Trouble is, I find our typical missionary approaches to be less than interesting to my friends. They are certainly of no interest to me. I've often wondered what it would be like if we had the following missionary pamphlets:

1. The Finite God: He's your age and has to keep in line like you do
2. Heavenly Mother: The goddess is not wicca
3. Your Own World: Why it's not just for space colonists

I worry that we spend too much time trying to be acceptable to born-again Christians. From my limited contact with those folks, I just don't think they are going to like us no matter how we typeset our logo. What missionary pamphlets would you like to see?

Mormon Networking 

by Mathew
Mormons like to consider themselves a social people--and among themselves I think that is indisputably the case. Most of the people I know in NYC outside of work are Mormon. It seems it is now impossible for me to go anywhere in the world without running into someone I know at church. Last summer I visited Taipei and ran into someone I knew from Vienna.

Since most of my contacts come from within the church, it seems natural to look to church as not only a source of spiritual nourishment, but a place of professional advancement. You do business, after all, with the people you know. Yet there is something disagreeable for me (and I think for most people) thinking about your fellow church/ward members as a business network. Most of us like our religion pure and that means commerce free. We accept the fact that the church needs money to operate as a necessary evil, but don't believe in exploiting the church for material gain. Perhaps this is why so many people object to Mormon-themed businesses (another a topic for another post).

Most of our networking, like most networking in general, is done naturally. We probably all know of cases where someone moved into a ward specifically with the goal of landing clients or hobnobbing with the rich and powerful--but that is undoubtedly the exception.

There have been some steps taken to formalize what has always gone on informally. One of the primary purposes of professional organizations such as the J Reuben Clarke Society is networking.

Yesterday Dave argued that the church should stay out of politics--my question is whether commerce should stay out of church. Or should we take advantage of the opportunity to do business with one another--even overtly favor one another--rather than do business with "gentiles"? And is it wrong to seek out friendships with ward members based on a desire to increase a professional network?

I've thought some about this--and I'll post my thoughts after hearing what other people think.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

God and Public Policy 

by Aaron B
We who are LDS believe that the President of the Church is God’s official spokesman on the Earth. It is widely assumed that the Prophet may, at least on occasion, speak directly with God, face-to-face. There are, of course, 1001 arguments as to what the prophetic mantle really entails. We could spend countless hours debating de facto prophetic “infallibility,” whether and in what ways the prophet could ever “lead us astray,” the parameters for prophets having their own “opinions,” in what contexts prophets are or are not “acting as such,” etc. etc. etc. We could discuss the Proclamation and debate its “doctrinal” status with respect to gender and marriage, or Pres. Hinckley’s apparent endorsement of the Iraq War, and debate whether he was speaking only for himself, or for God Almighty. But wherever you all come down on these specific issues, one thing seems undeniable: There is a presumption in Mormonism that, at least some of the time, the Prophet is giving us insight into how God Himself feels about certain pressing issues. And I see no reason to reject the presumption just because the issue being addressed is arguably “political.”

Assuming this is correct, here is my question:
"To what extent does the Prophet’s involvement or LACK of involvement in a public policy dispute tell us something about GOD's interest in the outcome of that dispute?"

One possible answer is: “It doesn't. To the extent that the Church opposes legalizing same-sex marriage (for example), we need not conclude that God doesn't want gays and lesbians to have the legal right to marry. The Church's involvement is nothing more than an instantiation of the Prophet implementing his public policy “opinions” through the vehicle of the Church.”

However appealing to certain “Liberal Mormons” this answer might be, my guess is that most members of the Church won’t find it satisfactory. Rather, most believe that we DO learn something about God's will concerning the outcome of public policy disputes when the Prophet and/or Church get involved. We learn that God DOESN'T want gays to have the legal right to marry (once again, for example) and he probably wants us Saints to stand up and be counted among those who would defend the sanctity of traditional marriage.

If anything like this is correct, then it seems to me that we can infer quite a bit about God's political preferences by studying Mormon history. One of the first things we could note is that the Church doesn’t get directly involved in public policy disputes very often. Thus, we can conclude that an issue must meet some really high standard to merit God’s active involvement (via the Church). By looking at instances when the Church and/or Prophet have attempted to influence political outcomes (and taking note of instances where it/he has not) we can draw some pretty firm conclusions about God's priorities in the political arena.

Some conclusions:

1. God doesn't want the State to sanction gay and lesbian marriages.

2. God has a real problem with gambling casinos.

3. God didn't want the Equal Rights Amendment enacted into law.

4. God didn't particularly care one way or the other whether or not the slaves were freed in the 19th Century – at least not according to what he was saying (or not saying) to Brigham Young.

5. God certainly didn't think the Civil Rights movement in this country was important enough to lend any moral support to.

Other conclusions could probably be listed.

The Bottom Line: When I see the Church get involved in a public policy dispute, whether it be same-sex marriage or any other, I always ask the question: "Gee, why is this issue important enough to merit God’s interest and involvement, while these other issues were not." And though I concede that my own political interests and priorities may not be the same as God’s, I find it difficult to see how an issue like state recognition of same-sex marriage has such important "Gospel" implications, while the abolition of slavery or the support for equal treatment of all God’s children under the law did not.

Anyone care to enlighten me?

Aaron B


Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The Arm of Flesh 

by NA
Recently I’ve been reading and re-reading the piece of 2nd Nephi that people call Nephi’s Prayer or Nephi’s Psalm (2 Ne. 4:15-35). I began reading it as a part of regular scripture study, but I’ve been looking at it more closely as a personal narrative (Steve Cannon would appreciate it), and as a pattern to me of development and inner change. Nephi sorrows in his sins, then he remembers the Lord and his soul awakens, as he remembers “in whom [he has] trusted.” Nephi later says, “O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.”

The way Nephi repeats “arm of flesh,” and the way his internal process of change is linked to properly placing his trust in the Lord, makes me think carefully about what the Arm of Flesh represents.

You probably all know the common interpretations: the Arm of Flesh is the world, the security of armies or the comfort of western civilization. I’ve also heard that the Arm of Flesh can mean over-reliance on physical evidence, science or logical reasoning in matters of faith. We can view Arm of Flesh as a common trope for anything that seems to protect or comfort, but that has fundamental roots in the finite, limited world we live in. I like to think of things like our government infrastructure, our wealth or our university-acquired knowledge as forms of the Arm of Flesh.

Two lines of questions remain for me about where we should put our trust. First, how can mormons reduce reliance on the Arm of Flesh (esp. if it really refers to things like infrastructure, wealth or university-acquired knowledge)? Does “not trusting in the Arm of Flesh” mean not enjoying it while it lasts? Does the current Church emphasis on financial independence, secondary education and civic participation lessen, or enhance our reliance on the Arm of Flesh? Are we melding the Arm of Flesh into our worship?

The second line of questions is whether we can apply the idea of Arm of Flesh to cultural institutions within the Church. For example, I know a family who has refused to take jobs, etc. to support themselves, saying “the Lord will provide”. Or, often I value church because of my friends and the fun I have; is it trusting in the Arm of Flesh to value those relationships more than, say, taking the sacrament? Can over-relying on LDS pseudo-doctrine be the Arm of Flesh (like the infamous “tannic acid” justifications for the Word of Wisdom)?

Please help me work through these ideas. It seems like an important concept.

Please No, Not Utah 

by Karen
I was surfing on one of my favorite websites a couple of days ago, a snarky television commentary called www.televisionwithoutpity.com, and noticed a poll on the sidebar. Apparently filming of MTV's reality show "Real World" has recently shut down in Philadelphia due to union issues, and they are contemplating moving to a different city. The folks at TWoP were polling their readers to see which city readers thought should host the next Real World. One of several choices was Salt Lake City. I naturally voted for Salt Lake, because hey, I'm from Salt Lake, and I have hometown loyalty. Once I voted, I could see the results, and Salt Lake was far and away the leader. Twenty-one per cent at that point. I thought it was funny and moved on. I just went back and saw that Salt Lake is still ahead with twenty per cent of the votes. My reaction? Amusement combined with a gnawing feeling of dread. I've made a decision to post a public service announcement.

To all MTV big-wigs who read By Common Consent: Please don't pay attention to that poll on TWoP. It's very un-scientific. Very unreliable. Utah is boring. Please go away. Thank you.

To all other people who read By Common Consent: Whew. That was close. See, the second time I saw that poll the reality of a Salt Lake "Real World" hit me. I caught the vision. My hometown, object of both my love and annoyance, would be the butt of one great big joke. Hey look, the Real World kids can't get a drink anywhere. Hey look, the Real World kids are trying to have sex with Mormons, and it's not working. (Or worse yet, it is.) Hey, what's that smell? It's the lake?

I have complicated feelings about Salt Lake. I'm a Utah Gollum if you will, only with more hair and integrity. I'm annoyed by the politics; I'm annoyed by the insularity; I'm annoyed by the driving; I'm annoyed at the lack of ethnic food; at times I'm annoyed that it's peopled with blond Scandinavians who have been in-breeding for 150 years. But, I love that place. I love the mountains; I love the creepy old irrigation canals; I love that every kid takes piano lessons; I love the neighborhood games of kick-the-can in the summer; I love that people smile and say hi, even when they have no idea who you are (besides the possibility that you're a seventh cousin). I'm afraid the charms are too subtle for the outside world, who would stop at the "hey, this beer tastes watery" and miss the rest.

As one who feels a certain amount of kinship to those guerillas who kept Johnston's army at bay, I say to you MTV people, for both our sakes, please stay away--this is not your kind of town.

Chain of Command 

by Mathew
Yesterday's Wall Street Journal carried an article on its front page reporting on the confusion surrounding who ordered the nation's military on defcon 3 after the 9/11 attacks. A four star general says that he did it, but the Bush administration says that the president gave the order. Rather, they say something like no improper action was taken--although Bush has said in two speeches, both in backwater locations, that he gave the order. Reading between the lines of that carefully worded language and the places chosen for Bush to make the case that he gave the order; it seems likely that the general gave the order first. If this turns out to be the case, no doubt defenders of the president will argue that this was an exceptional case and no time for government boondoggle.

The church's chain of command goes all the way to God, and we are one of the few religions I know which claims modern prophetic direction. I have been taught, and believe, that God could appear to the prophet and have a chat with him if needed. The prophet-God link in the chain of command is one of the strongest sources of authority in the church--when major policy changes are enacted, it is always supposed by many members, that God must have spoken to the prophet about it directly. Joseph Smith was les than clear about who should take over after he was gone with the result that the church didn't have a head for 2 years after he was martyred. There were other attempts at usurping the top job after Brigham Young and John Taylor's deaths. My understanding is that the current means of succession wasn't definitely decided until well into the twentieth century.

The chain of command gets progressively weaker and less persuasive the lower you go. It's easier for most of us to accept the prophet's directives than our bishop's for a few reasons: First, we know our bishop personally and we don't think that a policy change in our ward is driven by a chat with God--although our doctrine teaches that we are all entitled to revelation regarding our stewardship and that must include heavenly visitations if needed. Second, it is easier for the prophets directives to be interpreted broadly, or, if that won't work, recognize that he is speaking broadly and put ourselves in the "exception" category. My question is whether there is a tendency among certain groups--say liberals and moderates, to usurp the chain of command. No doubt, everyone tends to think that they know best, but since moderates and liberals are a distinct minority in the church, policy and perhaps doctrine runs counter to what we think. Put another way, do we commandeer teachings about--oh, I don't know--gender and homosexuality. Is running in the van guard just a means of taking the church where we believe it needs to go--and is this the same of not only usurping local leadership, but prophetic leadership?


Monday, March 22, 2004

Pink Floyd meets Dorothy, and her little dog too!! 

by Aaron B
At a recent ward activity, I somehow got into a conversation with a member of my Elders’ Quorum, and his wife, about the alleged connection between “Dark Side of the Moon” and the “The Wizard of Oz.” For those of you unfamiliar with the juicy details, let me tantalize you…

Apparently, there is a bizarre synchronicity between the Pink Floyd song and the MGM classic film. If you play “The Wizard of Oz” with the volume turned down and start the Floyd song right after the third roar of the MGM lion, and you then sit back and observe what happens, you will notice all sorts of bizarre coincidences and connections between Dorothy’s shenanigans on-screen, and the pot-banging blaring out of your stereo (Nope – I’m not a Floyd fan). I won’t get into the details. (Go to www.rareexception.com/Garden/Floyd/Floyd.php if you’re interested in learning more).

Well, after explaining to me how this works (for this was news to me), the couple then related their own initiation into the dark underworld of Judy Garland movies. Apparently, they were first exposed to the awful phenomenon at a party a few years back when somebody popped the movie into the VCR and turned on the CD player. They immediately noticed the uncanny connection like a blow to the head. What’s worse, they then experienced a deep, dark, diabolical feeling of foreboding and dread, which I can only compare to Joseph Smith’s experience in the Sacred Grove, minus any heavenly interlopers. The conversation drew to a close with their fervent testimony that this was the creepiest, most demonic experience of their lives, and an admonition that I should NEVER try this at home!

Now, I’m not one to usually make fun of others’ spiritual (or unspiritual) experiences. (O.K., maybe I am, but not unless they’re told in testimony meeting! J ). But PUH- LEEEEZ!! I and another brother looked at each other knowingly, and we might as well have been telepaths: “We are DEFINITELY going to try this for ourselves before week’s end,” the brother thought to me. “Yes, I’ll go rent the video,” I responded with my eyes.

Friday night rolled around, and we had everything set up. I was waiting and hoping to be blown away. We started the film, and then the CD. (Drum roll please ……. )

How can I put this?… I was, shall we say, rather UNDERWHELMED. Not only were there no evil spirits, but I couldn’t even see the alleged coincidences. Yes, Toto does utter a bark, just as some other dog is doing likewise on the soundtrack. Big deal. It probably would have worked with "101 Dalmations," too. I paid $4.10 at Blockbuster Video for this??? I want a refund! (I have a theory as to what’s really going on with this alleged “synchronicity,” but that’s a story for another day…)

Obviously, I am not a believer in this hooey. But here is my question…. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there really is a bizarre relationship between Pink Floyd and Dorothy. So what? Why is this “evil”? If my fellow churchgoers’ interpretation of their experience were unique or anomalous, this wouldn’t be an interesting question. But I don’t think it was unique or anomalous; I can think back to all sorts of events or conversations in my life in which Satan, or the Devil, or the Adversary is blamed for incidents or goings-on that have no discernable “satanic” quality to them. If you think you’ve been personally possessed by Beelzebub, fine. I’m not here to disparage all run-ins with the supernatural. I just want to understand why every feeling of eebie-jeebies is met with the default explanation that Lucifer is somehow behind it all. Did we all get spooked by Bruce R. McConkie’s _Mormon Doctrine_ entry on “Ouija Boards” one too many times as children, and now we’re oversensitive? I don’t know.

Maybe some will feel that I’m making too much out of an isolated incident. But I don’t think it’s isolated, and I really am interested in understanding why Satan gets invoked when and where he does by so many LDS people. (I should note that the LDS couple I mentioned above are both young, intelligent, articulate professionals). Is there a systematic way of thinking about this question? Any thoughts?

Aaron B

P.S. Also feel free to share your own experiences with the alleged Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz connection, if you have any. If you don’t, go try this at home, and tell me if it works for you! (Maybe I just didn’t have eyes to see…. )


Sunday, March 21, 2004

(a) belonging to the emperor (b) embalmed (c) tame (d) sucking pigs (e) sirens (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs... 

by steve cannon
Today's Priesthood lesson promoted genealogy and vicarious ordinance work. The topic only provides two interesting topics for discussion (that I could think of). First, the mystical vicarious ordinances, which are powerful theological concepts and really only yield to purely religious reasoning; Second the creation and consumption of family history for its own sake, which yields to more secular analysis.

I. Vicarious work

First, vicarious work. I spent some time wondering what is the mechanism by which vicarious ordinances work. It turns out that Heber J. Grant correctly reduced that problem to just an extension of another big theological question -- the mechanism of the atonement. He says,

"The world asks, how can that be, that one can be baptized for another? But if we believe in the vicarious work of Christ, we must believe that one can do work for another, and that we also may become 'saviors upon Mount Zion.'"

True enough. That's a convincing argument. Once you've accepted the atonement, our own vicarious work seems very reasonable. That is particularly true given our view that humans can progress to be Gods. That still leaves the mystery of the mechanism of Christ's atonement. I'm never able to make much progress understanding how it works. Skousen's "A Personal Search for the Meaning of the Atonement" has the benefit of acknowledging the problem, but his solution no redeeming qualities. (I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I've read his boneheaded writing, but we all have our skeletons.) I find it useful to make it explicit that we have no idea why either kind of vicarious work is necessary or effective.

II. History

Part two is the real implications of "turning the hearts of the children to the fathers." To me, family history is the real modern heir of history in the sense of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things. That book, inspired by the classification of animals of my title (which Borges quotes from a fictional Chinese encyclopedia) explains the transition from the logical classifications of the eighteenth century to the functional classification of the nineteenth century. He treats three examples. 1. Language: general grammar to phonetics and syntax. 2. Natural History: classification of species to biology 3. Money: Analysis of wealth to economics. It's classic structuralism and postmodernism and social theory of the Continental kind.

I'm not a postmodernist because I believe that many things are not subjective -- particulary physics, biology and chemistry. But postmodernism certainly scores some direct hits when it comes to history, sociology, and economics. The history of wars and great men and a historical narrative thread (postmodernists call it meta-narrative) is unconvincing. First, it's difficult to create a theory of history that is useful, meaning it successfully predicts. For a dramatic example see the predictive failure of Hegel/Marx. And even if one of these predictive theories turns out to work, which one. Second, ignoring the experience of the average person leads to unethical rhetorical uses of history. For example, consider the historical justification for the recent Russian economic shock therapy and the state in which it's left Russians.

If family history were given value starting today, in a few hundred years we'd have a much better history. We'd focus on individuals. So in my mind family history is the new history. The great men and wars or history of ideas is just fuzzy background. It seems to me the church's focus on dates and heredity naturally expands to include stories and narrative and that that in turn changes the way we think about history for the better.


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