Imagining a progressive Mormonism

I attended a terrific lecture last night. It was the Eugene England annual lecture, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at UVU. The speaker was Robert Rees, who teaches religious studies at Berkeley. I’ve admired his writing for years, and we became acquainted at Sunstone recently. Anyway, his talk will surely be available on-line soon, and I’ll link to it when it appears. Meanwhile, I don’t want to paraphrase, and did not, in any event, take notes.

To briefly summarize, though, he spoke of Latter-day Saints imagining a future in which our culture and our community is more open to progressive ideas, and he suggested a few ways in which that could happen. Mormons, for example, join other Christian communities in our belief that we humans have an important stewardship over the earth. Politically, climate change is a divisive issue, a partisan issue. But if we discuss the issue in terms of stewardship and not ‘environmentalism’ (a dirty word in some quarters), perhaps we can find common ground, especially as the frightening reality of climate change becomes increasingly apparent. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Latter-day Saints unite around stewardship and conservation efforts, and join with both political and Christian evangelical environmentalists in seeking solutions. When we read in the 10th Article of Faith that ‘We believe . . . that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory,’ it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s something we’re supposed to make happen, not just something we wait for.

I found myself moved and inspired by Rees’ great lecture and his vision. Again, I don’t particularly want to paraphrase his remarks. But I do want to join him in imagining, to the extent that we can imagine it, a future progressive Mormonism.

I imagine a world in which we stop paying lip service to female equality, and actually take concrete steps to make it happen. I imagine a world in which we reject, as unworthy, a vestigial sexual double standard. I imagine a world in which we embrace a non-judgmental model for modesty, one related to self-respect and self-confidence, and not shame or finger-pointing. I imagine a world in which our language about gender no longer reflects unreflective patriarchy. I imagine a world in which we embrace Mormonism’s unique theological stance with both genders represented as Deities.

I imagine a world in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are genuinely embraced, in Christian fellowship, and in which the standard of sexual morality required of straight Latter-day Saints applies equally to our gay family members.

I imagine a world in which income inequality is decried from the pulpit as unworthy the Body of Christ. I imagine a world in which all Latter-day Saints lift each other, in which poverty is seen as the human tragedy it genuinely is all over the world. I imagine a world in which no child goes to bed hungry. I imagine a world in which all children are safe from violence, despair, squalor and hatred, and in which all children, and all adults, have access to state-of-the-art health care.

I imagine a world in which the artificial construct we call racial difference no longer divides us, no longer holds some of us back, no longer turns our discourse harsh and ugly and violent.

I imagine a world full of laughter. I imagine a world in which teasing is allowed. I imagine a world which embraces the preposterous absurdity of human ambition, human pretension, human arrogance and human self-absorption, and finds joy in our unique apprehension of foolishness.

I imagine a world in which we Latter-day Saints continue to confront, honestly and openly, the most troubling aspects of our history, in a spirit of forgiveness and Christian charity. I imagine a world in which our fondest hope for those of our faith who leave us is that they find peace and acceptance within some other faith community, while we continue to offer them fellowship and love, kindly and without judgment.

I imagine a world in which we are, all of us, free. Free to reason, to search for truth, to , to disagree civilly, to discover and grow and learn. I imagine a world in which knowledge and truth and reason replace prejudice and acrimony.

And I don’t imagine a world in which lions lie down with lambs of their own accord, in which peace reigns only because Jesus has returned, in which cataclysm leads to spectacle, leading to millennium. I imagine a world in which we make peace happen. I imagine a world in which we forgive and love and care and rejoice together because we decided to embrace that paradisiacal future, together, willingly and joyfully.

That’s the world I imagine. I don’t expect I’ll live to see it. I won’t mind, if I can see the rawest beginnings of it starting to take shape.

We look around us and we see progressive accomplishment and regressive backlash, over and over, in a pattern described in the Book of Mormon. That tale ended tragically. Ours doesn’t need to. Let’s embrace a better future, together, as brothers and sisters should. Let’s make it happen. Let’s build our own cities of Enoch, in our homes, in our wards, in our communities.

Let the great work commence.

 

 

Emperor and Galilean

Last Friday, I was invited to Hillcrest High School, in Draper, to see the North American premiere of Ben Power’s translation/version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I had a terrific time, and thought the production was imaginatively staged and beautifully realized.

Emperor and Galilean is surely the most obscure and seldom staged of Ibsen’s plays, even more infrequently performed even than his early Viking melodramas, like The Warrior’s Barrow or The Vikings at Helgeland, which are fun enough that Norwegian theatres still produce them from time to time. As it happens, though, I have seen a previous production of E and G, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, in 1989. That production was nine and a half hours long (not seven and a half, as I may have told people mistakenly), which points to the main reason that the play isn’t done very often–it’s very very long–ten acts altogether. Actually, it’s two five-act plays; Julian the Apostate, and The Emperor Julian, but I can’t imagine anyone doing either play alone. They tell one continuous story, and neither play would be thematically or narratively satisfying separately.

E and G tells the story of Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor of Rome for just two years, otherwise known as Julian the Apostate, because of his attempt to reject Christianity as the state religion, and return Roman worship to neo-Platonist paganism. In a battle against the Persian empire at Samara, Julian was killed; according to one source, by a Christian soldier in his own army. Ibsen has him killed by Agathon, Julian’s best friend from his early years as a Christian.

I had to read the play in grad school, and ended up falling in love with it. The usual reading of the play is that Ibsen, following Nietzsche, was arguing for a synthesis between the sensuousness of paganism and the spirituality of Christianity. If that’s indeed the point of the play, I have to say that that synthesis certainly doesn’t work very well–Julian’s attempt to create it lead to civil war, and to his own destruction. Plus, there’s no evidence that Ibsen even read, let alone cared about Nietzsche. Plus, I couldn’t possibly care less about a synthesis between pagan sensuousness and Christian spirituality. If those are indeed the main philosophical concerns of the play, then I wouldn’t be alone in considering it a play that has well deserved its obscurity.

I don’t think that’s what it’s about, though, and I don’t think those themes were given much expression in production. As the play continuously reminds us, it’s a play about the choice between Emperor and Galilean, about balancing the needs of the state and the demands of leading a Christ-like life. And it’s a play that shows, unmistakably, how state power corrupts and corrodes religion. As one parent said at the talk-back session following the play, ‘it’s a play about the First Amendment. It’s showing how badly we need it.’ Amen, brother.

When we see the play today, in 2015, we see a fanatical megomaniac who causes untold destruction by his vicious insistence on his own personal ideology. We’ve had our fill of those characters in my lifetime, have we not? I see the imposition of a state religion, any state religion, Christian or pagan, leading to war and violence and death. I see a huge, unnecessary, religious war fought in southern Iraq, by an army also intent of destroying the religious center of Persia/Iran. We see a play about issues that still resonate. We see, in Julian, a figure that we know all too well, and we see how damaging his charismatic fanaticism can become.

Ibsen builds the play around Julian and his three best friends–Agathon, Peter and Gregory, plus his pagan mystic guru Maximus. As the play begins, Agathon is proud of the fact that he has managed to lead a pogrom against local pagans, killing a whole lot of them. His fanaticism remains unabated, and eventually, he kills his apostate friend. Peter’s Christianity finds expression in fellowship and loyalty–he’s the one friend to stick with Julian no matter what, even after he grows appalled by Julian’s excesses. Gregory leaves Constantinople and founds his own religious community, which is eventually destroyed by Julian’s men. Gregory is really the one genuine Christian we meet in the play, and he is martyred for his devotion. Maximus, meanwhile, is about four/fifths a flattering fraud, but he does seem to have real visions, and those visions have consequences. Julian is told that he will complete the work of two great World Spirits; men who changed the world, advancing civilization. The first two are Cain and Judas Iscariot. I’m not sure that’s a parade I want to head up, but Julian eats it up. And that vision devours everyone else, in time.

Ibsen loved guys like Maximus; he loved creating fatuous blustering pompous jerks–Torvald, in A Doll House, Manders in Ghosts. We often take Ibsen too seriously–there’s a savage satirical wit in Ibsen that it can be easy to miss, especially in British English translations of his works. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to play Maximus as comic relief. It would certainly fit nicely with the rest of the Ibsen oeuvre.

Anyway, Hillcrest’s production was imaginative, energetic, lively and theatrically spectacular, with lots of smoke effects and projections and timely-falling set pieces. David Chamberlain was terrific in the huge role of Julian, and I also loved Carter Walker, Steven Hooley and Russell Carpenter as Gregory, Agathon and Peter, respectively. Of all the other supporting characters, I was particularly taken with Skyler Harmon, who played the conniving Ursulus, the Emperor Constantius’ fixer and right hand woman.

Above all, kudos of Joshua Long, the director of the production. Long has clearly created a tremendous high school drama program there at Hillcrest, with massive parental support. Watching the show, I estimated a cast size of around 90, but counting the names in the program, there were closer to 120. That’s a lot of costumes to build; how many moms were enlisted in that effort? Refreshments were sold during the show’s two intermissions, and again I saw supportive parents working for the success of the show. Long told me afterwards that he had tremendous support as well from his principal and administration; good for everyone involved. Those kids, in that cast, will never forget this experience as long as they live. They were involved in a fantastic undertaking, a very much neglected masterpiece given new life on stage. I can’t imagine anything cooler.

 

Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things: Book Review

Some years ago, an evangelical friend who had gotten into the world of LDS filmmaking was telling me how much she liked the movie The Home Teachers. Since I thought The Home Teachers was the flaming dragon’s mouth of hell worst movie ever made ever, I asked how on earth she could have liked it. ‘You Mormons can laugh at yourselves,’ she responded. ‘I think that’s awesome!’ Which, come to think of it, it is. Think of James Arrington’s Farley Family plays, for example, or Pat Bagley’s cartoons, or the glory years of the late lamented Sugar Beet. Or the self-deprecatory wit of some of our General Authorities. We really do seem to enjoy laughing at ourselves, and that’s a good and healthy thing.

Which brings me to my good pal Janiel Miller’s delightful new book, Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things. Janiel’s an actress, a singer, a Mom and a life-long active Mormon. I just directed her in Much Ado about Zombies. When I told her that I was casting her as zombie-virus disease-vector, she said that I had fulfilled one of her life’s ambitions. In fact, her role was small, but you could see audiences looking forward to her every appearance, she made so much of it.  She became the cast den mother, and our resident humorist. And we had a great time with the show.

What I enjoyed most about her book is how perfectly it captures her voice. She approaches every subject sideways, a little off-center. She goofs around with language, and culture. It’s smart without being smart-ass. It’s a book about tone. Genial, always positive, endlessly enchanted by everything absurd about our culture, the book feels like a lunch with my old friend and her wonderful husband Bruce and my amazing wife,  sitting in Cravings Bistro, eating their mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich (can cuisine get more Mormon than that?) conversationally goofing around. Without ever being angry, or vicious, or disrespectful, never for a second remotely mean-spirited, Janiel takes our culture on with affection and insight. I got the book, dipped my toe in, then set it aside for a few days. It took me awhile to get into it, and then I imagined Janiel reading it aloud, and it came to life for me, and once I figure that out, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a read more. My daughter caught me reading it, and asked why my lips were moving. I hadn’t realized they were. But it’s that kind of book, a read-aloud. Even if you’re alone.

The book starts with a kind of lexicon of Mormonish terminology. Some examples:

Bishop: a man who spends a century over the course of five years herding his flock towards the celestial pen, whilst his wife and kids post ‘missing persons’ bulletins with his picture on them all over town.

Cultural Hall: a vast chamber into which ward members overflow for sacrament meetings, listen to inspirational speakers, and partake of nourishment–all beneath the benevolent gaze of a pair of basketball hoops.

Eagle Scout Project: a program where the mother of a scout earns her Eagle badge by forcing helping her son through each of his merit badges, then dragging him downtown to replant all the bulbs around the city’s trees.

Missionary Farewells: we don’t have them. *snort*

Polygamy: sooo. This. We don’t do this anymore. We did it before. Now we don’t. Anybody who still does this ain’t us, a’ight? I mean, even stalwart pioneer-type dudes were smart enough to eventually realize that having fourteen PMS-y women under one roof made them about as safe as a bucket of KFC Extra-Crispy at the Donner party, and would eventually result in fourteen merry widows.

Terrestrial Kingdom: Second Degree of Glory. The ‘middle child’ of the Three Kingdoms. Not quite good enough, not quite bad enough. Like American Idol runners-up, but with more bling.

 

But I’m making it sound too straightforward. Most of the lexiconographical entries include asides, anecdotes, clarifications, funny, barely-relevant-but-probably-true stories. Janiel takes a scattershot approach to her comedy, reflecting a magnificently random mind. That’s the charm of the book. Plus the fact that she generally gets us right. And truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but truth is always the basis for funny.

Like the recipes. After the lexicon, we have recipes. For Funeral Potatoes and Green Jello salad; authentic Mormonicana. And I mean, come on. I always use frozen hash browns for my funeral potatoes, thank you very much, and crushed corn chex on top, not panko bread crumbs. (Seriously, panko bread crumbs? Way too highbrow for the World’s Greatest Comfort Food). Also, onion powder is optional for the best Utah fry sauce. Really, all you need is ketchup and mayo, though I understand Burger Supreme seasons theirs with BBQ sauce.

Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the last section of the book was the most delightful; just stories. And that’s when the book gets a little more real, a little more vulnerable. I mean, it’s still funny. She can’t help but be funny. But we get that little bit more truth. It’s where Janiel moves from straight-up Erma Bombeck to later, more reflective Erma Bombeck, with a strong flavor of Jean Kerr. Maybe a little Molly Ivins. Good stuff, though, and moving.

I think I know Janiel well enough to know that she won’t be insulted when I call this the perfect bathroom book. In fact, though, I did not read it in the bathroom. I mostly enjoyed it in my office, waiting for my computer to download the latest I-tunes update, or for files to backup. It’s a book that made annoying mandatory downtime pretty fun. I started to look forward to computer hassles, honestly, so that I could get back to reading Janiel’s book. It was that much fun.

So, seriously, buy this and read it. It’s a lark, a wheeze, a ball. And also wise and smart and real. And if you’re not a Mormon, but want to learn more about us, read this. Do not see The Home Teachers. It’s really bad. And this is really really good.

Super Bowl XLIX: A Night of Poor Decisions

At my Super Bowl party last night, the room erupted four times. I mean, erupted, anguished/delighted/horrified shouts of ‘nooooooo!’ We’re generally a sedate bunch, my family and my best friend Wayne; we’re not emotionally volatile, generally speaking. Four times, we went nuts. And only one of those outbursts had anything to do with football.

Here’s how we watch the Super Bowl: we mute the TV during the actual football parts, then turn up the sound for the commercials and the half-time show. Only two of us, me and Wayne, actually like football all that much. My son, Tucker, likes sports, but American football is his least favorite (big soccer fan, though). Other family members are there for the conversation (hence the muting), the commercials, and the theatrical spectacle at half-time.

So when I say ‘we watched The Super Bowl,’ I don’t mean ‘a football game,’ but an entire televisual experience. And when you count the commercials, the evening was almost spectacularly ill-conceived. The themes of the night were dead-or-endangered children, terrible parenting, bad family dynamics, and false religion. Misguided patriotism and patriarchy.  It was a night of bad decisions. The half-time show, quite literally, jumped the shark. And the evening culminated in the worst play call in the history of professional football.

For starters, there was this:

Seriously? Are you kidding me? It’s the Superbowl, for freak’s sake. We’re watching it, on TV, with our families. We don’t want, or need, to see a commercial about a cute kid getting crushed by a TV set. (Unless he drowned in a bathtub. The commercial raises that possibility too).

I get that they’re promoting, not insuring your kid (you know, so you can afford to bury him, because that’s going to be your priority), but their child-safety website. But do they really think that the parents of America are indifferent to the well-being of their kids? And that what we need is a website to give us more things to be paranoid about?

A Superbowl commercial about, say, the dangers of your kid getting a concussion if he plays youth football, that might have seemed sort of borderline appropriate. But Nationwide needs to take whoever in Marketing thought this commercial was a good idea, and kindly, gently, show him the door. You’re Nationwide. You sell insurance. This commercial makes us hate you and your product. You spent 4.5 million dollars to make us hate you.

But that wasn’t all. No indeed. Not by a long-shot:

Okay, it’s a Nissan commercial, and it’s about a race car driver, and he’s trying to be a good Dad, but he’s gone a lot, and what he does for a living essentially terrifies his wife, but his kid wants to follow in Daddy’s footsteps, so at the end, he and Dad get into the family Nissan together. Happy ending.Yay, Nissan. And race car driving.

Except the song in the commercial is Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle.’ Which is a song, specifically and explicitly, about being a terrible father. I mean, it’s not subtle. It’s an emotionally manipulative song about a Dad neglecting his kid. I’m a Dad, and every time I hear that song I feel horrible about what a bad Dad I am. And I’m not, I think, a bad Dad at all. Which is why I loathe that song. So that’s the message of the song: ‘Buy a Nissan, suck as a parent.’ Again, it’s a song THAT MAKES US HATE YOU. Which strikes me as perhaps not great advertising. (And it’s ninety seconds long. At a cost of 4.5 million per 30 second spot. Multiply 4.5 by 3, and you’ve got . . . uh, carry the 7, uh, a very large amount of money! To make us hate you! Why?)

Later in the evening, there was a ‘tortoise and hare’ commercial for Lexus cars, in which the tortoise wins by driving a Lexus. The previous commercials had been so horrific, I was honestly surprised when the Lexus didn’t squish the bunny. So those are just swell commercials. But it’s not enough for a commercial to make us hate the product being advertised. It’s quite another thing to make a commercial that makes us hate ourselves:

We’re watching this commercial, remember, during the Super Bowl. We’re having a Super Bowl party. I look over at our family room coffee table; I see nachos, dip, three kinds of cookies, M&Ms, a yummie peanut butter brownie trifle. We’re Americans; we know perfectly well we’re fat, and that we’re fat because we eat garbage. Like, for example, we do at Super Bowl parties. Which we’re at. And where we just now saw an ad for Carl’s Jr. So, all you chubbos, you morbidly obese disgusting pigs. Eat yourself into a stupor, then collapse face first on your sofa. We’re Weightwatchers. We care.

But don’t worry. The Super Bowl didn’t just have secular answers to life’s problems. No, there are spiritual solutions available as well. For one thing, the Scientologists ran a commercial, ’cause, see, their faith is both ‘spiritual’ but also ‘scientific.’ I’m persuaded: sign me up.

But there’s also McDonald’s, abandoning the pursuit of filthy lucre, and paying for your oh-so-healthy food (see previous rant) with Troo Luv:

But, no. That’s just love. And while McDonald’s is convinced, like the Beatles, that love is all we need, something still is lacking. What we really need is a genuine spiritual panacea, a way to end cyber-bullying and hyper-partisanship and bring the whole planet together, once and for all. What’s needed, in short, is for someone to dump a Coke into a computer server.

Of course, the Super Bowl, America’s one universally recognized religious holiday, promotes all sorts of religious values. Like cars. Buy the right car: find eternal bliss. We had cars recommended by old people, cars driven by para-athletes, cars driven by Lindsay Lohan, cars infused with viagra, and for true ‘Murricans, trucks, which, apparently, women find the drivers of particularly sexy.

Beer also bestows us with magical powers. It enables horses to defend their doggie friends from wolves, for example. It turns guys into Pac Man. This must be because of its Beechwood aging. Candy, on the other hand, is bad for you. Skittles can give you freakishly muscular arms, while Snickers can turn mild-mannered Brady family members into Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

Ah, the mixed messages. They weren’t all bad. I liked the odd-ball ones; the commercial from Always about empowering young girls, the Loctite Glue commercial, the commercial that came out, strongly and without equivocation, against that national scourge, toenail fungus. Mostly, though, it was a bad year for SB commercials. Terrific football game, awful commercials.

And then Katy Perry came in, singing “Roar” and riding a puppet lion (first appearance of a Lion in a Super Bowl! Sorry, Detroit. . . .). And she was at her effervescent, cartoon-y best. I did think it was odd to have Lenny Kravitz join her for, of all songs, “I kissed a girl” (a song that’s so much less transgressive when sung by a dude). And when you’re Katy Perry, with that thin voice and general dance clumpiness, it’s risky to share the stage with a performer as on-fire as Missy Elliott. But Katy is generous that way, and frankly, I think she’s a doll. I didn’t even mind that she had girls in bathing suits dancing with sharks. I thought her whole set was pop fizziness incarnate; great fun. I could go on and on about the aesthetics of excessiveness; mostly, though, I just enjoyed.

Then back to the football game, and more bad decision-making. Twenty seconds left, second down at the one-foot line, Seattle has Marshawn Lynch, the best short-yardage running back in all of football on their team, with one time-out left in case he didn’t make it. (In fact, on the play before, Lynch darn near did score, and would have except for a brilliant play by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, which the announcers completely missed). Instead, Seahawks offensive coordinator went with a slant pass to their fifth best receiver. Which an unheralded rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler intercepted, to seal the unlikely Patriots win. A night of bad decisions, ending with an inexcusably terrible play call.

Next year, the Super Bowl will be designated 50. Just that: 50, not L–no more Roman numerals, ever, apparently. I’ve seen, I think, 46 of them. Last night, my family teased me for my overuse of the word ‘orgy.’ The commercials were ‘an orgy of idiocy,’ that kind of thing. But ‘orgy’ works, and not just because of the Romanized numbering. The whole thing’s overblown, overdone, self-indulgent. Katy Perry is too scrubbed-clean to inspire words like ‘orgy,’ but no one can say her half-time show erred on the side of tasteful restraint. The hyper-patriotism, the jets overhead, the fireworks, the obligatory pre-game songs (“America the Beautiful” PLUS the “Star-Spangled Banner” (well-sung, this year, by Adele Dazeem), PLUS the big Carrie Underwood diva number). PLUS a big deal ceremonial for the coin toss. And when it was over, we got Kurt Warner carrying in the Lombarbi trophy like a religious icon, reverently, solemnly; touched, adoringly, by teary-eyed Patriots, with portentous music, like high Mass at Notre Dame. (Better make that St. Peter’s). And then the trophy was handed to Roger Goodell, to present to Robert Kraft. Like, nothing’s official until it’s blessed by rich old white guys. (Who spent this last week sniping at each other, and now had to be freezingly polite: comedy enough).

There’s just nothing funnier on earth than the Super Bowl. Bad taste, bad commerce, bad religion, all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing is funnier.

 

 

The Church, LGBT discrimination, and religious freedom

Yesterday, the Church held a press conference, in which three apostles (Elders Oaks, Holland and Christofferson) talked about LGBT discrimination, and the Church’s support for laws outlawing it, and about religious freedom issues. Here’s the link to the Church’s website and the article about it.

The national response to this press conference tended to stress the support for laws outlawing discrimination against LGBT people. In many cases (the Huffington PostNew York Times) the national media questioned the sincerity of the Church’s position. ‘Religious freedom’ is, of course a polarizing issue, part of the liberal/conservative cultural wars.

The press conference and press release were a call for balance. The lds.org article stressed ‘fairness for all,’ balancing the need to protect LGBT individuals from being fired or evicted because of their sexual orientation, while also allowing for the free exercise of religion. Here are the four main principles outlined on the Church’s website:

  • We claim for everyone the God-given and Constitutional right to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience, without harming the health or safety of others.
  • We acknowledge that the same freedom of conscience must apply to men and women everywhere to follow the religious faith of their choice, or none at all if they so choose.
  • We believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with differing values.
  • We reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances or differences in gender or sexual orientation.”

In addition, in the press conference, Elder Christofferson, when asked about members of the Church who disagreed with the Church’s stance on gay marriage, said that disagreement was allowed, as long as people didn’t publicly advocate for their views.

It seems to me that there are several possible responses to this event and statement. Here are a few that I’ve read on Facebook:

Political/Pragmatic: This was a press conference essentially aimed at one person, Greg Hughes, the new Speaker of the Utah House. There is an anti-discrimination bill before the Utah House. It’s co-sponsored by Jim Dubakis, a Democrat, and Steve Urquhart, a Republican. It’s stalled in committee. It’s possible that this otherwise unnecessary press conference was aimed at Greg Hughes, in an attempt to dislodge that bill, which Hughes has made clear that he does not regard as a legislative priority.

The ‘religious liberty’ is not, perhaps, quite so serious or important. Elder Oaks (a fine legal scholar, to be sure) is worried about attacks on First Amendment religious freedoms, but most of the examples of religious liberty infringements cited in the press conference involved acts by private individuals, not particularly susceptible to legislative redress. Hughes himself is quoted as saying that he personally opposes discriminating against gays, and supports, in broad principle, a bill outlawing it. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but he said something like, ‘if you want to rent apartments to people, but don’t want to rent to gay couples, then maybe you ought to find a different line of work.’

Yay for Civility: There have been public statements issued by Ordain Women and by Mormons Building Bridges, applauding the Church’s desire for civil dialogue about these issues, and also applauding the Church’s support for legislation outlawing discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. I have heard from many people informally who have described this press conference and statement as ‘baby steps forward.’ Again, the assumption is that supporting anti-discrimination legislation here is what really matters; the religious liberty argument matters less, because discrimination against religious people is already covered by the First Amendment.

Cynical/Snarky: At the same time, there is a sense in which the Church’s stance, as outlined above, could be described as follows. 1) we oppose discrimination against LGBT people. 2) but people have to be allowed to follow their religious beliefs, even if 3) their beliefs require them to discriminate. 4) as, for example, us. 5) so there. It’s the ‘we oppose burning witches, unless your religion requires that you burn witches, which ours does, so we’re burning some witches tomorrow’ argument. Personally, I deplore the tone of some of these sorts of responses, while finding others of them pretty darned funny.  I think, for example, that it’s helpful to call for civil dialogue on these issues (or on any issues, frankly: civility should always be a core value), and helpful to hear an apostle say that it’s okay for church members to personally support gay marriage. But to excommunicate members (or fire or harass BYU faculty members) over this issue might strike some people as, well, uncivil.

Where’s the apology?: Certainly, it’s not difficult to find instances where General Authorities in the past have used, let’s say, unfortunately strong language to describe LGBT people. The word Elder Oaks used was ‘unhelpful.’ So should the Church apologize for that? And Elder Oaks said no. The Church doesn’t issue apologies for past ‘unhelpful’ comments by its leaders.

Here’s one way to understand this. Let us suppose that, at some point, the Church decided that previous statements by Church leaders suggesting that the priesthood exclusion policy was the just consequence for pre-mortal disobedience (the fence-sitters folk doctrine) were wrong, were mistaken. Let’s further suppose that the Church issued a strong statement condemning that particular folk doctrine, and declared it incompatible with Church teachings. A central doctrine of the restoration is continuing revelation. We believe that our leaders are ordained of God to receive revelation, and that when they speak from the pulpit in General Conference, we should regard those communications as particularly inspired. Well, wouldn’t a repudiation and apology seem to contradict the doctrine of continuing revelation? Couldn’t that shake the faith of a whole lot of people? Isn’t this a case where the cure may be worse than the disease?

Those aren’t considerations that the Brethren can take lightly. And that’s why the word choice by Elder Oaks–‘unhelpful’–may be the closest we’ll get to a repudiation/apology for past homophobia. (And it doesn’t quite seem fair to blame leaders of the Church in the deep past for holding to the views of their time and place and culture).

What do I think? I think there’s some truth to all these responses. But I tend to be an incrementalist. I think that passing a good anti-discrimination bill would be great. One divide tends to be over the issue of religious liberty. Is there genuinely a pattern of courts and lawmakers discriminating against people trying to practice their religion? I don’t think a half dozen isolated anecdotes make for strong or compelling evidence. But then, I’m also not a conservative, and understand that my friends on the right may well understand this issue differently than I do.

Two funerals

Over the past week, I had the privilege of attending two remarkably similar funerals, both celebrating the lives of remarkable, strong women. The first funeral was that of Betty Ann Green Mason, my wife’s mother. The second was that of Grete Margaret Leed Johnson, the mother of my best friend. Although I don’t believe they ever met, Betty Mason and Grete Johnson had a great deal in common. Both worked as bookkeepers, supporting their husbands while they were in college. Both husbands were scientists. My mother-in-law had five children, and Sister Johnson had six. Both women were active members of the LDS church, and both held many important callings in the Church. And both would have listed their profession as ‘homemaker.’ That label carries with it certain less-than-positive cultural assumptions, which in both cases would have been entirely inaccurate; they were both intelligent, strong, forceful, well-read and well-educated women, who made the decision to dedicate their lives to their families, husbands, children. Both women loved music, both became fine musicians, and both were asked to learn how to play the piano (and eventually, the organ), in wards where no one of the requisite skill resided. Both women loved a good joke, and both were voracious readers. And they both loved chocolate. My mother-in-law, in fact, asked that Sees chocolates be available for anyone who attended the funeral. She said she thought it might increase the turnout.

But both funerals were very well attended, and in both cases, extraordinary sermons were delivered by the children of the deceased. And both funerals included quite extraordinary amounts of affectionate laughter. I laughed until it hurt at my mother-in-law’s funeral. A few days later, I laughed again at the loving family stories Grete Johnson’s children shared with us. In neither case, though, was the laughter mocking or cruel or off-putting. We laughed until it hurt, because we hurt. We laughed out of love, because of the human foibles of strong women we adored. We laughed, in addition to shedding tears.

Laughter can bring people together, or it can push people apart. Humor can express genuine affection, but it can also dismiss, cruelly, people on the margins of any culture. But what I find remarkable about Mormon funerals is the degree to which they’re characterized by healthy, inclusive, joyful laughter. We mourn, to be sure. But we also honor the deceased by remembering experiences we shared together. Grete’s youngest son, Richard, told a story about a time when he and his mother, on their way to a youth conference in Chicago, took a wrong turn, and found themselves in what seemed to him an exceedingly dangerous neighborhood. He was imagining their car’s location marked by yellow crime scene tape, and homicide detectives wondering about the identity of these two victims. Meanwhile, his Mom was busy looking at a city map. Then she looked over at him, grinned, and said ‘isn’t this fun?’ I remember that woman too. I spent many Sundays and vacation days at her home, growing up, as her son, Wayne, and I hung out. I remember how welcome I was always made to feel. I remember her strength and courage. I also remember dreading the times when she would join family games of Clue. She was the kind of woman who played board games to win. No ‘losing on purpose to the kids’ nonsense for her! I certainly never could beat her. At anything.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, her son, Shawn, emptied her purse at the pulpit, and used the items therein to discuss different aspects of his Mom’s life. The first three were all chocolate. But then he read letters her children had written to her, and the sage advice she’d offered. The fact that the letters were quite bogus didn’t diminish their impact; it was a lovely, funny, loving talk. And Shawn insisted that he was her favorite child, admitting, however, that all his siblings thought they were the favorites. (And then the Bishop, presiding and not missing a beat, identified himself as her favorite bishop!)

I’ve attended many Mormon funerals in my day, and they always share certain similarities. One is humor; affectionate, kind, family stories with a funny twist. Another is an overall sense of faith. The idea that we’ll see our loved ones again, and that they’re going to see their own family members, long deceased and beyond the veil, is just assumed. We don’t have to really preach it much. Instead we just testify. But it’s not–how to say this?–defensive in any way. It can feel that way sometimes in some funerals, that scriptures are offered by the minister–who may not even know the deceased all that well– not to reassure or comfort, but to assert. But in Mormon funerals, the talks are often–usually–given by family members. There’s no sense of a possible angel-winged, psalm-singing heaven. It’s more personal. Betty went home to Maughan, her beloved husband. She’ll see him. Grete Johnson went home to the beach, in Denmark, where her husband proposed. To wait for him to join her.

We celebrate the love we shared, the family ties, the funny stories. And we do so in utmost confidence.  We’re not really saying goodbye. More like ‘see ya later.’  And there’s music and prayers, and then a really good luncheon.

Yes, after the funeral, the local ward serves a luncheon for the bereaved families, and the food served is pretty well de rigeur: ham, a salad, and funeral potatoes. Yes, funeral potatoes are always served at Mormon funerals, and though I’ve heard them mocked as one of the tackier manifestations of Mormon culture, I think they’re darned tasty. I mean, the main ingredients are potatoes, cheese and sour cream–what’s not to like? But no two funeral potato recipes are the same, and that’s also pretty Mormon; we do all serve the same food, but always with a uniquely personal twist. (I make mine with frozen hashbrowns, store-bought, and cream of chicken soup, and always add green onions). The potatoes are probably really unhealthy, but they’re comforting, and delicious, and that’s also a Mormon thing; we privilege yumminess over nutrition, and then count on us all not smoking to pull us through.

But the luncheon is also the time for sharing memories, a time for wonderful conversations. At Grete Johnson’s funeral, we remembered a time when she went with my Mom to see the bishop, walked into his office, and said ‘this ward does not have a Cub Scout program for the boys, and it needs one.’ The bishop (who was also Grete’s husband) promptly called the two of them to start one. They had no idea how to do that, but that never stopped them; it doesn’t usually stop strong Mormon women, who are championship quality improvisers. And I still remember how much fun our Cub Scout activities were. At Betty’s funeral, a number of people remembered her homemade lemon ice cream. (I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong; it’s amazing).  For years, while her husband was the High Priests’ Group Leader, they had an annual ice cream social at her home. Then he was released from his calling. But the ice cream socials continued for years. She hosted them because . . .  I guess basically because it was her recipe, and nothing else would do. (And while that story was being told, we all ate . . . lemon ice cream. As delicious as ever).

I love Mormon funerals, and am privileged to have been able to attend two remarkable ones over the past four days. Two strong Mormon women have returned home to their Father, and also to their Dads. Two mourning families shared laughter and tears and food and conversation. Two wonderful lives were celebrated. Even death can be a blessing.

The Rapture, and Left Behind: a sort of movie review

I do not believe in space aliens. I have, however, seen many many entertaining movies based on the premise that space aliens exist. I do not believe in vampires, or in werewolves, or in zombies. But I’m a big fan of movies about vampires, werewolves and zombies. And so, though I do not believe in the Rapture, I ought to be able to enjoy a movie based on that particular end-of-times premise. What gets tricky is seeing a movie that appears to take its own fictional premise really really seriously, a movie made from the perspective that a space alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse–or the Rapture–is something that’s going to happen, probably pretty soon, and that there are specific things we need to be doing about it. That’s when your movie viewing experience moves from ‘enjoyable’ to ‘trapped in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness and an Amway salesman’ levels of embarrassment and unpleasantness.

The first Left Behind movie, based on the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LeHaye novels, was made in 2000, and starred Kirk Cameron. It cost $4 million to make, and made its nut, barely, but my guess is sold a butt-load of DVDs. This one cost $16 million and stars Nicolas Cage. It’s made back its investment; who knows about ancillaries. But seen simply as a sci-fi mystery/adventure film, it’s not half bad, honestly. Cage’s performance is creditable, and the other two leads were quite good. I saw it in our local dollar theater, and felt like I got my money’s worth. But, of course, the point wasn’t just to make an entertaining movie, was it?

Okay, briefly, Nic Cage is Ray, an airline pilot, flying New York Kennedy to London Heathrow, and planning on some hanky-panky with a hot blonde flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan). His marriage has gone sour due to his wife (Lea Thompson, of Back to the Future fame) who has converted to evangelical Christianity. Their college age daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is similarly put off by Mom’s preachiness, but is aware of Hattie, and pretty ticked at dear-old-Dad as well. She meets at the airport (and rescues from a super preachy Christian woman) a TV reporter, Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who is also on Dad’s flight.

So mid-flight, the Rapture hits. A bunch of passengers just disappear, leaving behind their neatly folded clothing, watches, jewelry (apparently, we’re all naked in heaven), and including all children everywhere. Ray’s co-pilot and one flight attendant also vanish. Understandably, everyone freaks out. Back in New York, people freak out even worse, and Chloe’s car is hit by an out-of-control, suddenly pilot-less Cessna, so she has to walk home from Kennedy, dodging looters all the way. Another pilot-less plane clips Ray’s plane, and now he’s got to try to land a crippled plane, out of fuel, with Kennedy airport in complete chaos and no air traffic control, apparently. But Chloe’s phone has a ‘find-abandoned-highway’ app, and her cell works just opportunely enough to get the plane down safely.

Okay, so that’s the plot. Meanwhile, of course, Ray and Chloe and Buck and Hattie are all trying separately to figure out what-the-heck, and are able to explain to the audience just what the Rapture’s about, without ever using the word Rapture. The world’s gone all wicked, and all that Matthew 24, Joel, Daniel, Revelation, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse scary stuff is about to go down. So 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18: God will rapture his Elect the heck out of here to heaven, and also rapture all kids everywhere. So He can protect them all from the Last Days destruction and death.

And of course, the Rapture is mostly about airplanes. Pilot-less airplanes. Not sure why, but it does strike a chord–we’re all a little freaked out by airplanes, after all, the flying of which really does basically feel more like magic than physics.

But, here’s the thing. I have no problem encompassing in my theology the idea of a God that allows, for His own inscrutable purposes, crashing airplanes. I have a problem, however, with a God that crashes them Himself. I just don’t believe in it. And of course ‘Rapture’ is a contested term in contemporary Christian discourse. Some denominations believe that ‘rapture’ simply means the general resurrection of the dead, after the tribulations described in various scriptures. Others, though, think it’s going to happen before all those tribulations, as in this movie.

What do Mormons believe? I don’t have the faintest idea. We basically never talk about it. Certainly we never, and I mean never, use the word ‘rapture,’ not in either of its Christian senses.  Do we get caught up to heaven to meet Jesus? I’m pretty sure that no LDS General Authority has talked about anything like this in my lifetime. It maybe gets whispered about in Sunday School. There’s some ‘people caught up from fields’ iconography. I don’t know if this is a Mormon belief. I do know that I, a Mormon, do not believe in it.

Whenever I travel, if I have some time to kill, I go looking for bookstores. I remember with great fondness a Christian bookstore in Monroe Louisiana, where I went browsing once. It featured two very popular sections: Left Behind, with books and DVDs and posters. The only display equal in size was the Dale Earnhardt table. Best of all was a very popular poster combining both themes: Dale Earnhardt being Raptured out of his smashed up #3 car. So the Rapture’s a big deal in some parts of this great nation of ours, is my point. Almost as big a deal as NASCAR, it would seem. The Rapture is central, I think, to a lot of Christian preachifying.

But for evangelical Christians, it makes sense. Some Christian denominations do divide the world into two categories: Christians, who are saved, who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, and people who are not saved, people who may well be decent, good people (Buck and Chloe are what we would call ‘good people’ in the movie), but who do not believe in Jesus, or at least not enough.  And nothing could point that up more starkly than a world-wide event in which all the Christians are instantly zapped away to heaven, leaving everyone else to cope with the aftermath. It fits a certain evangelical world-view.

And that’s a world-view that Mormons do not share, not really. Joseph Smith did away entirely with the Christian heresy of geographic salvation. We believe that everyone can be baptized, that even people who have died can posthumously accept Jesus, and gain eternal life. We do tend to divide the world into Mormons and non-Mormons (and even Mormons into ‘active’ and ‘less active’), but we really do believe that works matter. A good guy, like Buck in this movie, would be in line to be saved. There’s a Muslim character in the movie, one of the passengers on the plane, who is the one genuinely and consistently compassionate character in the film. The evangelical worldview is that he’s ‘left behind.’ Mormons wouldn’t agree.

So it makes sense to me that the Rapture would be central to evangelical preaching, and that it wouldn’t be something Mormons ever ever talk about, and is probably something at least some of us don’t believe in. Again, I certainly don’t believe in it. And I wish I could say that it made for an interesting movie.

But it didn’t. Ultimately, the movie falls apart, because we sympathize with the wrong people.  The fact is, we only meet two Christians in the early scenes of the movie, only two people who are established as real characters, and who get subsequenly Raptured. One is the annoying woman who pesters Buck in the airport about his (supposed) agnosticism in the face of a tsunami he’d covered. The other is Lea Thompson’s character, Chloe’s Mom, a woman, we’re told, who is such a fanatic that she’s systematically alienated her entire family. They’re our role models? That’s what we’re supposed to strive for, so we don’t get Left Behind? Sorry, but no. I’d rather stay behind and dodge falling airplanes. We come to genuinely care about the people in Ray’s plane, good, but freaked out folks who try their best to comfort each other and whose survival is what the movie is about.  We like Ray, we like Buck, we like Chloe. If they’re what gets Left Behind, count me in.

The true meaning of Christmas

To all pastors, ministers, priests, bishops and elders, of whatever Christian denomination:

I’m asking you, please: do not denounce, decry, disparage, lament, condemn, attack or rail against the commercialization of Christmas. Do not complain about Black Friday, or Christmas advertising. Christmas excess and Christmas commerce can make for tempting subjects for sermonizing. Resist that temptation.

During the Christmas season, people are subjected to tremendous cultural pressure to buy lots of stuff for their friends and loved ones. Merchants plan on this. They base sales projections, bonuses, advertising budgets, work schedules around it. Many small businesses rely on the Christmas season for their very survival.

If people don’t buy things during the holiday season, it could destroy the economy. In a destroyed economy, human suffering increases ten-fold. The poor are hammered. Even in a diminished or weakened economy, people suffer, people are harmed. Homelessness increases. Starvation can result. I say this with some confidence: Jesus does not want for any of that to happen.

Commerce is not evil. Commerce is good. People buying and other people selling; all are positive, good activities. A robust commercial season increases employment, allows more people to support themselves and their families. Encourage people to shop, to spend. As robustly as their budgets will allow.

I am a Mormon. The LDS Church recently invested in the building of a new, downtown, Salt Lake City shopping mall. I know some people criticized this. I didn’t, and don’t. That investment spurred economic growth. It rejuvenated the downtown. It led to the creation of businesses, to new jobs.  It allowed people who had been unemployed to find employment.

We’re urged, at Christmas, to contemplate the True Meaning of Christmas. Indeed, we should do precisely that. We should give to local food banks and homeless shelters. We should increase our charitable giving; of course we should. And we should remember that the Christmas narrative involved the giving of gifts, really expensive ones, which undoubtedly came in handy for Joseph and Mary, poor young people from Nazareth, a tiny, impoverished village.

You say that Christmas advertising is tacky. The key words at Christmas are “Peace,” “Love” and “Joy”. Peace and love don’t lend themselves to ads, but ‘joy’ sure does. And so we see ads describing ‘the Joy of Fleece,” “the Joy of Chocolate,” “the Joy of Earthen Bakeware.” To describe Christmas ads as ‘tacky’ is to make an aesthetic, not a moral judgment. If tackiness moves product, then tackiness is likewise a social good, and should be applauded. Snicker, but buy.

Can Christmas shopping be overdone? Of course it can be. Anything good can be. Should we put ourselves massively in debt for expensive gifts? Certainly not. That doesn’t mean we should neglect dear old Aunt Mildred, or leave out our daughter’s step-kids. Be generous. Remember Scrooge, who discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and did what? Bought gifts for people!

And children! Christmas is about the birth of a Child, and it’s the holiday most beloved by children. And certainly a lot of Christmas advertising is aimed at kids, and certainly the toys aren’t always of the highest quality. But kids love opening presents. Is there anything inherently un-Christian about making children happy, even if only for a moment? I say no. Brave the lines at Toys R Us! Shop for your kids, all the kids in your life!  It’s good for the economy, and believe me, we want the economy to prosper. Because kids are the first ones hurt when it doesn’t.

Every year, we hear it. “The commercialization of Christmas.” Or sermons attacking Santa. Thank heavens no one pays the least attention. Have a Merry Christmas! Buy stuff! Lots of it!  Celebrate this holiday season! Shop!

A theology of fear

Sunday was our stake conference. For those of you who are not Mormons, we worship every Sunday in a ‘ward,’ a group of 400-600 people. Wards are part of larger units, called ‘stakes’, a group of 8-10 wards; the guy who runs the stake is the Stake President. (The metaphor is that of a people gathered in tent, with stakes holding it together). Once a year, all the people in the stake get together for a big meeting, held in the stake center. And sometimes, occasionally, General Authorities of the Church come down and speak at stake conference.

This Sunday, we had the exceedingly rare experience of having, not just a General Authority, but an Apostle, Elder David Bednar speak to us.  This is very rare, and the stake center was crammed full.

Elder Bednar’s talk was outstanding. He talked about fear. As he pointed out, fear is generally described as something to be overcome. It’s a negative emotion, something that gets in the way of faith. Elder Bednar used as an example the story in Matthew 14, when Jesus walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are on a boat (presumably Peter’s fishing boat), and a storm starts up. Jesus approaches the boat, walking on the water, and says to them, “Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid.” And Peter, ever impulsive, asks if he can join him. But when he starts walking towards Jesus, he’s overcome by fear, and begins sinking, and says “Lord, save me!” and Jesus catches him by the hand and says “oh, ye of little faith, why didst thou fear?”

Elder Bednar made several cogent points about this story. First, it appears that fear is, in this instance, the opposite of faith. Peter is able to walk, miraculously, on the water, because he has faith. But, understandably, his faith falters. He essentially says to Jesus ‘the surface tension of water is insufficient to bear the concentrated weight of a two hundred pound human. I’m going to sink.’ But he has just experienced another miracle, the feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves and fishes. He should know that Jesus had the power to supercede natural law somehow. If he had had faith, he could have performed miracles. Like walk on water.

So looking to Jesus is the essence of faith; looking to Jesus is what gives us courage, enabling us to overcome fear. Courage and faith are therefore linked. Although Elder Bednar didn’t say this explicitly, I would add that love seems similarly linked to faith and to courage.

Today is veteran’s day. I have not served in the military, and have never experienced combat. I know people who have. I can only imagine what they went through, my imagination aided, in my case, by movies. Think, for example, of Saving Private Ryan, and its depiction of the Normandy beach invasion by Allied forces. We see soldiers on boats ready to storm that beach, and we see and hear guns firing, bullets whistling past them, the impact sounds as men are hit. After watching that movie, I thought to myself, “I do not believe that I would be able to get out of that boat. I believe that I am too cowardly to do so.” But those men did get out of the boats, and did race up that beach firing their weapons, and did win that battle. That’s an extraordinary thing. And I feel chastened by their courage. I’m in awe of it. No doubt, for some, that courage came from their own religious convictions; they ‘looked to Jesus,’ as Elder Bednar suggested. For more of them, though, I think they thought of their families. I think they were driven by love. Which I also believe to be a gift from God.

But let’s talk about fear. There is another usage of the word ‘fear’ in scripture. It’s sometimes used as a positive thing: ‘the fear of God.’ It’s rather an archaic usage; we mostly use it nowadays as a colloquial expression meaning ‘a boss is going to crack down on underlings.’  As in “look at our sales figures for August. We’re having a meeting and I’m going to put the fear of God into our sales staff.”  But as Elder Bednar pointed out, that’s not really how the scriptures use the phrase. In Acts, for example, Cornelius the centurion is described as a man who “feared God with all his house, and gave alms to the people, and prayed always.” ‘Fearing God’ seems to refer, in this case, to a general piety and charitableness. Fearing God means to hold God in awe and reverence.  Not really be afraid of him.

A parent who wants his/her children to fear him/her, and beats them, is, let’s face it, a horrible parent. There’s certainly an Old Testament sense of ‘fearing God’ that strikes me as atavistic. We should obey God because if we don’t, He might zap us, send horrible floods or earthquakes or diseases. If we assume that terrible weather events are the sorts of things that God is personally responsible for, then it makes sense to fear Him, just as it makes sense, when hiking in the woods, to fear bears or wolves or poisonous snakes. But I’d rather not liken God to a wolf. That sense of ‘fear’ suggests an interesting theological question, does it not? Is God in charge of, say, weather? When a hurricane devastates a coastal region, or when a tsunami wipes out a beachfront community, is that something God sent? Does God do that, send terrible tribulations? If so, does He send them as a response to unrighteousness? Do we believe that a town destroyed by an earthquake had it coming?

There does seem to me to be a lot of scriptural support for the notion that ‘natural disasters’ are actually supernatural; that severe destructive weather events are in fact sent by God as a punishment for wickedness–Sodom and Gomorrah, Zerahemla.  And it’s the kind of thing you do hear from time to time in Sunday School: “those people had it coming.” At the same time, when a Pat Robertson or other prominent right wing evangelical goes on the air to say “this hurricane was God’s punishment for allowing gay marriage” or something like that, most people respond with disgust and laughter. That kind of sentiment is no longer  acceptable in contemporary society, and rightfully so. We believe in, and worship, a God of love. And one of the ways the LDS church has distinguished itself in our day is in the area of disaster relief. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, the Church is on the scene with supplies–food, blankets, potable water, shelter. So, what, when God punishes people for their wickedness, we jump right in and try to make things better for the people being thus punished? Really?

I don’t think we believe that anymore. I don’t think we believe that God uses bad weather to punish wicked people. I certainly don’t believe in it; some Mormons may disagree with me. But I dislike the theological implications of that. A second possibility is even more appalling to me; the idea that God is in fact in charge of weather, but just lashes out randomly, out of, perhaps, a kind of divine Pique. That’s the God of predestination, is it not? A God that just picks some people to save, leaving the rest to roast forever? That was the mainstream theology of early nineteenth century America, which means it was the theology specifically condemned in the First Vision, was it not?

No, what I believe theologically is that our life here on earth is a testing ground, and that part of the test of mortality is dealing with random, arbitrary disasters. Weather happens. God set it up to happen, but I’m not convinced He directs it, particularly. I don’t think health setbacks are meant to teach us anything, for example. I think we just get sick sometimes. Certainly, we’re meant to deal with illness with courage and resolve; that is part of our test.  And maybe we learn something along the way. But I don’t think we’re supposed to go through life afraid that if we say the wrong thing God’s going to zap us with lightning. I think lightning just . . . strikes.

And yes, I believe that fear, and the courageous overcoming of fear are absolutely crucial to the testing of mortality. I think that we look to God for faith, and we pray in faith, not because we’re afraid of horrible things happening to us if we don’t, but just because. Out of love. Out of devotion. Out of gratitude. Not because we hope for a reward afterwards, because good things and bad things happen to us, here, randomly, without being deserved or earned either way. But we can always choose. And the right choice, the best choice, is always the most courageous choice.

There is another way in which ‘fear of God’ can function theologically, although this wasn’t one mentioned by or in any sense referred to by Elder Bednar in his excellent address. We can be afraid of each other. We can be afraid, not of God, but of ‘god.’ Not the God who loves us, who created a beautiful, terrible earth for our mortal final exam, but the ‘god’ made up of popular opinion, the ‘god’ of mainstream prosperous white American culture, the ‘god’ that whispers and gossips and points ‘his’ crabbed and arthritic finger at our everyday foibles and missteps. And who forbids, not sin, but life. Who mutters under ‘his’ breath imprecations against (this is crucial) courageous, principled acts of rebellion born of conscience. Not the God of the Tree of Life, but the ‘gods’ staring down at us from the various spacious and specious buildings of our oh-so-active imaginations.

Samuel Beckett, in the greatest play of the twentieth century, had a word for that ‘god.’ He called it ‘godot,’ a french diminutive. And his ‘godot’ is a ‘god’ that we fear, and wait for, and he never, ever, shows up.  ‘He’ doesn’t have to. As long as we never leave, as long as we stay put, as long as we spend our days testing the branches of our trees to ensure they’ll hold the weight of a hanging rope, ‘his’ purposes are amply fulfilled.

Because, you see, Peter and the disciples did have one more thing to be afraid of. Not just the storm and the sea and the fear of drowning. Read Matthew 14 carefully. All the miracles described there, the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the water came immediately on the heels of an act of state-sponsored violence. John the Baptist had run afoul of the tetrarch, Herod, and his step-daughter Herodias. And Herod had John murdered. It was right after that horrid event that everyone freaked out and ran to the wilderness, five thousand strong, desperate for answers, for comfort, for reassurance. For courage. It was then that Jesus fed them. It was then that Jesus defied a storm.

Because what Jesus understood was that godot is a coward, and like many cowards, a bully, violent and weak. And there’s really only one way to sidestep godot. It involves a storm on a lake, and a boat, tossed and turned. It involves a blessing, and bread and fishes, and a terrified people fed.

Short term, godot won. John was beheaded; Jesus scourged and crucified. And Gandhi and Dr. King; likewise murdered. But courage overcomes fear, faith is stronger than death itself. Ordinary young men, huddled in a boat outside Normandy, drove themselves, through love, towards heroism. No one remembers cowards, except as cowards. We ‘fear’ (honor, worship, sustain) God by loving our brothers and sisters. And love leads to faith and faith to courage.  And even amidst danger, we can be of good cheer. We must, in fact, overcome fear. That’s the real test, and one so many of us (Mormons, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Atheists) pass every day of our lives. By being, not just human, but the best humans we can manage to be, the most courageous, the most daring, the most audacious. Artists and artisans, merchants and beggars. Be courageous. Be strong. Be of good cheer.

 

Popular music and Mormonism, or, a mistake religion teachers make

I see on the intertubes that BYU’s religion department is revising its curriculum. For once, this is a subject I know something about. I used to teach religion classes at BYU. I was what they call an adjunct professor, which is to say, a professor of something else, who taught the occasional religion class as part of his load.

Let me quickly add that I loved it. I loved everything about it. I assigned a paper, on the theory that college classes should always require a paper, and I even loved reading (and grading) all those papers. I taught the Book of Mormon a couple of times, but mostly I taught the Doctrine and Covenants. What I loved most of all was teaching kids from all over campus. I loved my theatre students, but it was a nice change of pace to occasionally teach, you know, people majoring in something else; biology, history, statistics, whatever.  When I was in grad school, I also taught early morning seminary, and loved that too. I also graduated from BYU many moons ago.  So I come from an informed perspective.  I’ve taught religion classes, and I’ve taken them. So free of charge, I offer this advice for BYU and anyone else teaching seminary or institute or anything like that.

Do not diss the music kids like. In fact, leave pop culture alone.

There’s always that temptation. You want to get into it. Rock and roll will destroy your soul. Disco=Inferno.  Hip hop’s from the devil. Dubstep will lead you astray. Solemn books are published, with titles like Pop Music and Morality or Arm the Children, warning us of the dangers of letting our children listen to the soul-destroying music their friends all like. There are even well-intentioned talks by General Authorities about ‘worldly art’ or ‘worldly values’ or just general worldliness, which means ‘music that’s bad for you.’

Baloney. There’s no such thing as music that’s bad for you.

The simple fact is that old people never like the music young people like, and that’s been true since Ogg and the Logpounders discovered what could be done with bone flutes. Or since Brahms first heard the music of Franz Liszt. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outraged (and delighted) Paris audiences. Or Elvis debuted on Ed Sullivan. And in every case, that infernal new music wasn’t just unpleasing to the ear, it was constructed as dangerous, morally questionable, leading young people astray.

When I was in high school, I remember our seminary teacher giving a lesson on The Dangers of Popular Music, and he specified Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung as particularly dangerous, especially soul-destroying. I loved that album. I had listened to it many times. Listening to Teacher go on and on about it, my reaction was not ‘gosh, maybe I’d better rethink how much I like this music.’ No, my reaction was ‘this guy’s an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’  Later this same teacher, to set an example, brought his record collection to class, and told us he was going to get rid of all these ‘questionable’ albums. I remember asking him if, instead of throwing it all away, he’d just give it to us, so we could make up our own minds.  He said that seemed fair (a major Seminary Teacher concession, and tactically questionable). I scored some great albums from his pile, including, I remember, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes.  Great album.

One of the biggies was Jesus Christ Superstar. This was the very definition of Music We Shouldn’t Listen To, which meant it was an album I had to own and which I listened to many many many times. I didn’t think it was sacrilegious or blasphemous at all. I thought it was redemptive. I thought it helped me feel The Spirit. I thought that because it did help me feel the Spirit.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t make exactly the same error when I became a Seminary teacher. The exact same spirit of anti-art fanaticism swept over me too, and I found myself condemning the music of Aerosmith. I made just as big an idiot of myself, and I know I alienated one of the kids in the class, who loved Aerosmith and decided, on the spot, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was wrong. He was right. Aerosmith rocks.

Isn’t it true that some music does invite the Spirit and other kinds of music repel the Spirit? Maybe, to some degree, that’s true. Maybe Bach is more inherently spiritual than Berlioz (though to me it’s easier to feel close to God listening to the Symphonie Fantastique than the Well-tempered Clavier, for example). But . . . here’s one of the most ‘spiritual’ pieces of music I know. Mark Abernathy singing Come Come Ye Saints, playing guitar. i love this rendition. It feels, I don’t know, authentic, like William Clayton singing it around a buffalo chip campfire somewhere in Nebraska. I compare it to the Tabernacle Choir version. I love choral music, and it’s great too. Given a choice, though, if I need a spiritual boost, I’ll go straight to the guy with the guitar.

Or here. The Stones, singing Gimme Shelter. Or this song, Dylan singing Shelter From the Storm. (Isn’t that what we crave from religion? Shelter?) Or maybe this? (What’s prayer, but a jam session with God? Think rap can’t be spiritual? Try this.

Art is subjective. Art that speaks to my soul may not speak to yours. The Spirit is also subjective. I respond to spiritual stimuli that you may not perceive. There’s no such thing as ‘spiritual music,’ except to me, except to you.

Recently, directing a play, we needed a dance number. I’m no choreographer, so I hired one, and a cast member recommended that we use a Katy Perry dubstep remix. I don’t like dubstep music. I’m old. I think it’s just a lot of noise. But watching our cast learn the dubstep dance music, I was transformed. It was terrific, so sassy, so much attitude, so joyful. Young people celebrating how great it is to be here, on Earth, to have bodies, to move. I realized how wrong I’d been. It’s now my favorite thing in the show. And theologically expressive.

Art speaks to the soul. Art bears testimony. God works with all of us, as we are, where we are. And if one of my brothers or sisters is inspired by art that I don’t get, and I make a big deal of it, that’s my bad.