Category Archives: Mormonism

A doctrine Mormons probably still believe in, but we never talk about

You’re a Mormon, right? What’s your tribal affiliation, your lineage? Ephraim, probably, right? It was on your patriarchal blessing? Ephraim?  Me? It’s not on mine. Though I’m probably just Ephraim too.

I served my mission in Norway, and spent most of it way up north. For much of my time there, I was the northernmost missionary in the world, because in our apartment, my bed was north of my companion’s. We were in Tromsó Norway, an island city about the same latitude north as the northernmost tip of Alaska. The gulf stream warms the west coast of Norway, making life there, with cities and seaports and such, plausible. Still, it got cold. We kept our shampoo in the fridge so it wouldn’t freeze. We were north. And I loved it; loved the Northern Lights, loved the northern dialect, loved the one night we had two meters of snowfall.

Inland from Tromsó, which is to say, away from the warming gulf stream, it’s essentially tundra; too horrifically cold really to support human life. Which means, of course, that human beings live there; thrive in that climate, in fact. The people who live up there are the Sami people, the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. You may know them as Lapplanders. They follow the reindeer herds on their snowmobiles, though really their main profession is fishing. I knew some Sami on my mission, and found their culture fascinating.

I had a companion, though, who found the Sami fascinating for an entirely other reason. He thought for sure they were the lost ten tribes. Makes sense, right? The lost ten tribes of Israel, went “north” after the Assyrians deported and scattered them. Okay, 2700 years ago; still, they went somewhere, and occasionally someone will give a talk about it, how they’re still a discrete people, with prophets and scriptures and a culture. In a cave maybe, under the earth’s surface. OR (and this was the possibility that got my companion all fired up) maybe they were an indigenous culture. Up north. Living by themselves. Speaking their own language, following their own customs.

As it happened, our little Tromsó congregation had a Sami member, a young woman in the nursing program at the U of Tromsó (Go Polar Bears!). She hadn’t been a member for very long, and my companion was all on fire for her to get her patriarchal blessing. He was sure her lineage was going to be ‘Naphtali’ or something.  Problem was, ‘getting a patriarchal blessing’ wasn’t easy. The only patriarch in Norway lived in Oslo, a bajillion miles away. She couldn’t afford to fly there, and there wasn’t a bus or train to Tromsó (there is now, but not back then). Sometimes, though, the patriarch would travel north to the city of Trondheim, which had a large and active branch. Northern members could arrange to meet him there. Getting from Tromsó to Trondheim required a two day boat trip, but my companion kept pestering our Sami member, telling her how great a patriarchal blessing was and how she really wouldn’t regret taking a week off work to get one. Finally he convinced her. She took the boat south, and came back to us all enthused. She’d loved her patriarchal blessing. The whole experience was totally worth it. It was a great spiritual blessing for her. She was so grateful.

What tribe was she from, asked my companion, finally. ‘Ephraim,’ she said. Why did he ask? He was crestfallen. She was Ephraim. Not, like, Dan or Asher or. . .  Issachar. Just . . .  Ephraim. Like everyone else.

When we Mormons are baptized into the Church, we’re also adopted into one of the tribes of Israel. That then becomes our lineage, and we become heirs to all the blessings promised to Abraham. So I was told, and so I was taught. But this is a doctrine we essentially never talk about. I suppose there’s the odd Sunday School lesson on the covenant of Abraham that gets into it a bit. But it’s essentially never mentioned from the pulpit. Certainly not in General Conference.

I think we don’t talk about it because it’s sort of a weirdly tribal doctrine anyway, feels anachronistic, has no real impact in our lives. And is maybe sort of borderline racist, or racialist? Doesn’t it feel like God likes some tribes more than others?

More than that, it doesn’t feel true anymore.  I’m not saying it isn’t true, I’m saying it doesn’t feel true. There’s a lot of ‘chosen people’ talk in the Bible, which makes sense. Gods are often worshipped tribally. Yahweh is our God, the God of our tribe, the God that protects us and watches over us and sends us rain allowing for bountiful harvests as long as we obey him. But how much of the Old Testament is about the Children of Israel hedging their bets, offering sacrifices to the Gods (or gods) of other tribal peoples in the region? And that’s a bad thing, and you really really shouldn’t do it, and if you don’t watch out Elijah will ask God, Yahweh, to smite the priests of Baal. Which He will totally do.

That’s not a message we need anymore. I suppose you could say that we worship idols of our own, cars and fancy houses and big bank accounts and stock portfolios and our favorite sports teams. And we shouldn’t and lessons saying so are still apropos. Our needs today, though, are not the needs of a tribal desert people, living hand to mouth, enemies everywhere, desperate to establish an identity, one good drought away from catastrophe. We’re rich. We also have astonishing technological capabilities. The brotherhood of man isn’t just a stirring rhetorical trope; we can instantly see and communicate with people anywhere in the world. We’re drowning in information. We need less tribalism, not more. We need to take care of the poor among us, mostly those in Asia and Africa. It actually makes sense to put everyone in Ephraim; we need to think that way now, as all members of a single race, the human race. Talks about ‘the House of Israel’ or ‘the Abrahamic covenant’ just don’t resonate anymore, nor should they. I’m not saying those are doctrines we should discard. I’m saying those are doctrines we have, de facto, discarded. And I don’t miss them, and think we’re better off without them. Right?

Nearly forty years ago, I got my patriarchal blessing. I loved it. I still reread it from time to time. I still find it inspirational. But it doesn’t mention my lineage. I could get that fixed easily enough, but I’ve never bothered, because I just flat don’t care.  I mean, it’s just Ephraim, right? Like everyone else’s. We’re all brothers and sisters, in other words. Yay for that.

 

Language, liberals and conservatives

This post is, frankly, poorly thought-through. I feel like I’m reaching for something here. But I have been thinking a lot about recent Supreme Court decisions, Obergefell v. Hodges and King v. Burwell, and the vitriolic responses to the two majority decisions. And the re-definition of marriage. And the age of the earth. And language. Please bear with me.

It seems possible to me that one of the differences between liberals and conservatives may have to do with issues of language.  Both sides use the same rhetorical devices; both sides love anecdotal evidence and slippery-slope arguments and straw men, though I do think conservatives like arguments from authority more than liberals do. But it’s more fundamental than that. What is language? How does it function? What do words mean? And so I ask myself this: is it possible that a defining characteristic of conservatism is the idea that there exists a one-to-one correlation between word and meaning, that words are fixed in their meaning, that a word or sentence or phrase means what it means, and not anything else? And that liberals understand language more fluidly?

Follow me here. In King v. Burwell, the plaintiffs insisted that a plain reading of a single sentence in the Affordable Care Act meant something specific. Here’s the ever-invaluable SCOTUSblog on the subject:

Seizing on language buried in the complex formula for calculating the subsidy amount, the plaintiffs argued that subsidies were available only for plans purchased on “an Exchange established by the State.

Justice Scalia’s dissent insisted that the word ‘State’ meant ‘state,’ one of the 50 states in the United States, not anything else. The majority’s interpretation of this passage, which made the the Secretary of Health and Human Services responsible for administering subsidies, led to Justice Scalia retorting “state means state. The Secretary of Heath and Human Services is not a state.” But as Nicholas Bagley of SCOTUSblog put it, the majority’s decision was “an enormous victory for common sense in statutory interpretation.” The point of the law was to make health care more widely available. The means to accomplish that was by using subsidies. So obviously Congress can’t have meant to provide subsidies only for people who purchased health insurance on a state exchange. Congress can’t have intended, for some odd reason, not to make them available to people who were insured through a federal exchange. In context, the phrase ‘established by the state’ has to have meant something other than ‘through a state exchange.’ ‘State’ can, for example, mean ‘nation.’ Justice Roberts’ decision quite properly chided Congress for ‘inartful drafting.’  But context matters. Unpacking the meaning of a phrase has to take into account many factors.

That’s exhibit A. On to marriage equality. One of the main objections to Obergefell by conservatives is that the Court majority (‘five unelected lawyers’) ended up ‘redefining marriage.’ And that’s certainly what it did. What I can’t figure out is why it matters. Marriage has been legally redefined many times, and usually for the better, in the direction of greater equality.

More to the point, though, is this: marriages are defined by married couples. My marriage is defined by many factors. We’ve been together for 34 years; we have long-standing habits and traditions which we rely on. We’re both pretty funny, and humor is an important part of our marriage. I like to cook more than she does. She’s more likely to think of ways to redecorate our home. I can think of a million other compromises that define who we are.

There’s a family down the street where the wife is an accomplished cyclist. They define their marriage, in part, by supporting her cycling career and the various races in which she participates. Another couple who used to live across the street, the husband played golf competitively. So that, in part, defined their marriage. His golfing had no effect whatever on my marriage, nor did it impact the cycling family’s marriage. My son and his wife define their marriage, in part, by trying new things all the time. Like, there was an airshow in their community; they went to see it. They attended a college hockey game. They went to a bluegrass festival. They like that; they enjoy being adventurous. I think that’s awesome. It also doesn’t have any effect on anyone but them.

Reading the ‘redefining marriage’ rhetoric, it sounds as though people believe that the word ‘marriage’ is only defined one way, and that defining it other ways will, I don’t know, open up some massive cosmic rift, destroying our society. Words have meaning, and words have power, but language is much more fluid than we tend to think.

Going on. Why do some Mormons believe that the earth is 6000 years old? Here’s why: Doctrine and Covenants, 77: 6-7:

Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence. Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed? A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.

Joseph Fielding Smith took this to mean that that earth is exactly 6000 years old, and that any understanding to the contrary was apostate. Elder Bruce R. McConkie thought so too. But nobody really thinks that anymore, I don’t think. I mean, even apologetic groups admit that the phrase ‘a thousand years’ could mean exactly 1000 years, or it could, and probably did, mean ‘a really really long time.’ Again, we see a situation where well known conservative advocates insist on a literal understanding of certain words or phrases. And liberals think language is more about context and shifting meanings.

A dictionary is not, you know, prescriptive. It has no force of law. It’s a monument to the state of the language in the era in which it was compiled. And the marvelous flexibility of English can be found in the inventiveness and imagination of its users. Word.

A reaction to Elder Packer’s death

Elder Boyd K. Packer of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve passed away on Friday. He was a man greatly revered by many many Mormons, not just because they were uplifted and inspired by his apostolic message, but because of acts of personal kindness he performed. I never met the man personally, but I have many friends who did, and they recall him with tremendous affection.

It’s important to remember that. Because Elder Packer was also one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Mormonism. He was certainly beloved, but it would be stretching the truth to say that he was universally beloved. I remember many years ago, my dear Grandmother, a lifelong, deeply faithful member of the Church, told me that if Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Twelve ever became President of the Church, that she would leave, she so detested him. In time, he did, and she didn’t, though sustaining him was teeth-grindingly difficult for her. By the same token, I know people who told me that their future membership in the Church depended on President Monson outliving Elder Packer. Since that has now happened, I suppose it means that I have friends who won’t be subjected to that particular trial of their faith. So that’s a relief.

What I want to do, and I hope it’s not too inappropriate, is to pass on some observations about Elder Packer that I’ve heard from friends over the years, neutral stories, to present, perhaps, a more nuanced view of the man. He was, I think it’s safe to say, neither hero nor villain. He was a staunch Mormon conservative; I am an equally committed Mormon liberal. I tried not to overreact to his, ahem, less temperate remarks, but I do admit to feeling wounded by him, at times.

But he was also a painter, an avid if somewhat untrained landscape artist. I have a friend, a very celebrated LDS painter, who painted with him. Elder Packer didn’t have any illusions about the quality of his work; he painted for his own pleasure. But, by golly, when he painted a horse, it darn well looked like a horse, and when he painted a tree, it looked like a tree. And his best work attempted to honor ordinary people who gave their lives to service; a laudable subject for any artist.

Elder Packer also loved to work in wood. He carved birds and other animals, then painted them; they looked amazingly lifelike. He carved a wooden Noah’s ark, full of carved miniature animals, mostly for his grandchildren. Here’s a link to some images of his work. I’ve seen the ark; a friend got permission to bring it to a gathering of Mormon artists. It’s beautifully done.

In one of his most famous (or notorious) talks, he addressed the subject of the Arts and the Spirit of the Lord. It’s not a talk I’m fond of, and that’s a shame, because I am an LDS artist, and I know the talk was intended to be inspirational. I regret that I didn’t find it so, and that’s not uniformly the case for talks by General Authorities on the subject of art; President Kimball’s talk A Gospel Vision for the Arts changed my life. I’m not, I hope, immune to being inspired.

Elder Packer’s talk, however, came at least from an informed perspective. He was an artist; he knew the struggles and difficulties we all face in trying to make art. My difficulty, however, was with the way his remarks insufficiently appreciated the subjective nature of art, the way in which different audiences respond to different works of art. I’ve seen works of LDS art that some of the audience found tremendously inspiring and that other members of the same audience disliked intensely, or even found offensive. It simply isn’t true that art is either ‘spiritual’ or ‘wordly.’ And I think it can be damaging to insist on that particular dualism.

But let that go. In this talk, Elder Packer talks about the work of a painter named C.C.A. Christensen. Here’s what he said:

I do not think Brother Christensen was a great painter, some would say not even a good one. I think his paintings are masterful. Why? Because the simple, reverent feeling he had for his spiritual heritage is captured in them.

I have since seen the Christensen paintings, and I agree with Elder Packer. There is a reverence to them, despite how ineptly they are, at times, drawn. In fact, my reaction to the exhibit of Christensen works was, if this is possible, a reverent giggle. I mean, some of the human figures were ill-proportioned, with one arm much longer than the other, and all the figures strike awkward poses, and in the Hill Cumorah painting, Joseph holds his arms close to his body, like a rabbit. But I also responded to the open sincerity of Christensen’s work. So Elder Packer and I had that in common.

Elder Packer was also an avid birder. I don’t know why people who follow that particular hobby call it ‘birding’ instead of ‘bird-watching,’ but they do, and Elder Packer was fond of it, and good at it. I’ve never birded, and have no interest in beginning that hobby, but I can certainly respect those who do. Birds are extraordinary creatures, and to want to follow them around, listen to their birdsong, haunt their habitats, strikes me as a worthy and fascinating pastime.

In short, Elder Packer was a nature lover, and I am not one; he was a fly fisher, and I have never once fly fished; he was a painter, and I can’t draw a stick figure that doesn’t look ridiculous; he was a work carver, something I’ve never once even tried, for fear of lopping off a finger. He served in the military, and I did not, he understood some scriptures literally which I understand metaphorically. And so on. But he was also a teacher, and so was I. He was an active and faithful Latter-day Saint, and so am I, I hope and believe. He was a conservative. I am a liberal. There were times his words inspired me, and I’m grateful for that. There were other times when his words infuriated me, and I’m grateful for that as well, as they helped me sharpen and clarify my thinking.

I’m amazed at how much I’m going to miss him. I’m also grateful that President Monson remains the President of the Church. Rest in eternal peace, Boyd Kenneth Packer. And thanks for your ministry.

 

The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.

In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.

After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.

And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.

But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.

Like this, from Wikipedia:

After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.

In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.

And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.

Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?

Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?

Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.

My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.

I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.

But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.

Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A biography, a review.

Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.

But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?

I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.

So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’

Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.

And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?

These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.

One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.

Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.

The most important doctrine in Mormonism, which everyone believes, and which is found nowhere in scripture

There’s a doctrine in Mormonism that I have heard invoked on multiple occasions in conversations and lessons and on-line discussions, but never once from the pulpit. It’s not found anywhere in scripture, nor in any presumed-authoritative book by a Church authority. And yet it’s immensely comforting and hopeful, and I have never once met any active member of the Church who doesn’t believe it.

It’s the doctrine of ‘God will sort all that out someday.’

One of the central doctrines of Mormonism is that of eternal families. We believe that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there,” in the afterlife. That suggests friendships, kinships, associations, organizations. We’ll all hang out together. And we’ll sing in choirs and debate issues and do good theatre, one presumes. (We’d better, or I’m gone.)

But to make it to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, you need to be sealed to someone. Married. And for some people, that’s all perfectly straightforward. My parents have been married for sixty years. They’ll stay married. Eternally. I’ll be sealed to them, as will my brothers. What ‘sealed to them’ means, I haven’t the vaguest notion. We’ll particularly  get to hang out? Eternity listening to my brother’s puns? Arguing politics with my Dad? We’ll see. But they’ll be together, and we’ll be with them. Somehow. That’s enough for us to get our heads around.

But so okay. Here’s a scenario: you’ve got a young woman, who is married in the temple to a serviceman just before he ships out. And six weeks later, he’s killed in combat. Seven months after that, she gives birth. The war ends, she meets a guy, and marries again. And her second husband raises her son, and is married to her for fifty-plus years. And he’s a good man, gentle and kind, a wonderful father, the only father her son has ever known. According to official Mormon doctrine, she’s still sealed to her first husband, and so is her born-in-the-covenant son. A father he never knew, a husband she barely remembers. That’s who she’s with, forever. The second husband, meanwhile, isn’t sealed to anyone. Officially, he’s a ‘ministering angel,’ whatever that means. Does that seem fair? Or just? Or what about the first husband, killed in battle before he had a chance to really experience much of his marriage. If she’s not sealed to him, does that seem fair, or right?

And whenever a story like that is told, the answer is the same. God will sort it all out. Don’t worry. God is infinitely merciful and infinitely just. When we know all the circumstances, we’ll realize that there is a solution that we hadn’t even considered, and it’ll all be fine.

That’s what we believe. That’s the doctrine we need. In situations that strike us as tremendously unfair, we think there’s another answer. God will figure something out.

It’s an essential doctrine, I think, because theology is very neat, and life is very messy. When we read about eternal marriage, we describe it as a kind of ideal. Ideally, a married couple will love each other all their days, live out their earthly probation in compassion and kindness, quickly repenting of all their (minor) sins and peccadillos, and happily pass on to a just reward, together. But that rarely happens in real life. People get divorced. People remarry. People fight, and bicker, and sin. Ooo, and even, sometimes, murder. (They always look at the spouse, first.)

Sometimes men marry (and are sealed to) several women. The Church today is strictly opposed to polygamy, but eternally speaking, we still practice it. A man can be sealed to multiple women, if a first wife passes away. And that really ticks some people off, and should. What does it mean when we say ‘we don’t practice plural marriage anymore’ (good!), except for temple sealings, where we kind of do?  And we recoil from plural marriage, most of us do, everything about it feels, well, icky and gross and weird and wrong. Utterly wrong. Completely wrong.

And what about marriages that don’t end, but sour over time. I know those situations as well, married couples who have stayed together out of habit, but who really can’t stand each other anymore. Also, you know, a sizeable percentage of temple marriages end in divorce, or, sorry, cancellation of temple sealings. Doesn’t that complicate all that eternal record-keeping?

We don’t worry about it. We figure God will come up with answers. And that we’ll find those answers satisfying.

And what about being sealed to our children? What if some of our children end up leaving the Church? What then? Are they still ‘sealed to us,’ whatever that means? I think that having celestial parents who pop down to the telestial kingdom to tell their kids how disappointed in them they are would be a special kind of hell.

So life is complicated. The gospel, on the other hand, is expressed in terms that make it sound pretty straightforward. So we need anwers, and the answer we come up with is ‘don’t worry about it. God will figure it out.

Except it also ties into a doctrine we do believe in and preach, the most powerful and profound doctrine in all of Christianity.  What bridges that gap, the chasm between who we are and who we wish we could be, the devastating void between our highest aspirations and our lowest failings? Grace. God’s grace, freely given. I want to be good. I want to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, forgive, and always, eternally, love everyone. I want to treat my brothers and sisters with love. I fall so short so much of the time. But God loves me. His grace enfolds me. It’s all going to be fair, and it’s going to be fine.

So finally, that’s the answer to our perplexing questions about the afterlife, about families and marriages and the terrible ways we make a mess of things, way too often. God will sort it all out. God’s grace, finally, will save us.

Freetown: Movie Review

Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.

But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.

Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.

And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.

It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.

But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children?  How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’

Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.

Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.

First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.

But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?

And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.

 

 

Pilot Program: Theatre Review

Melissa Leilani Larson’s Pilot Program, which closed this last weekend at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake, is a lovely play, especially in this beautifully acted, directed, and designed production. I say works like ‘beautifully’ and ‘lovely’ despite the fact that the play made me terrifically uncomfortable, and that at dinner afterwards, with my wife, my nephew and his husband and my son, the only two things we could talk about were what a beautiful play it was, and also how uncomfortable it made us.

I love that. I love how a piece of theatre can affect us like that. Ibsen’s A Doll House does that for me, leads to uncomfortable conversations about awkward subjects. A good play should burrow under our skin. It should itch and burn. It should raise more issues than it solves, it should force us to rethink previously held convictions. It should not let go of us afterwards. It’s been four days since I saw Pilot Program. I should have reviewed it earlier, but illness intervened. But I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Three characters, then. We start with Abby and Jake; a nice Mormon married couple. She’s an academic, he works in public relations. They have a good life together, a good marriage. Jake’s a good guy, kind and gentle, nonjudgmental, a supportive and loving spouse. (They were played by April and Mark Fossen, who are, as their last names suggest, likewise married). In addition to teaching and publishing, Abby blogs, and is our window into the world of the play. She addresses the audience directly–she blogs the play for us–and her insights are crucial.

And Abby and Jake have also found themselves unable to have children. And infertility haunts their marriage. Abby tells us that they’ve tried everything–in vitro, adoption–without success.

So: the set, a nice living room in a comfortable and nice-looking home. Abby addresses us; introduces the couple, as wives always do when a couple is asked to speak in Church. A light shift: time passing. And then Jake enters; in his suit; they’ve been somewhere, an event, an appointment. And they can’t even speak. The silence stretched forever: Abby holds herself like she’s been punched, bent over. He appears incapable of speech. Finally, the conversation begins. They’ve been to a meeting, with not just their Stake President, but with an Area Authority. They’ve been asked–called–to participate in a pilot program. They’ve been asked to add another wife to their marriage.

And so, I thought, he’ll be the one to decide, he’ll talk her into it, reluctantly, but in his capacity as patriarch, he’ll make the call. Accept the calling for both of them. And you think, all right, polygamy is certainly about patriarchy, male privilege; that’s where this play is going. And then it doesn’t go there. She’s had a feeling, a warmth, a whispering of the spirit. His inclination is to say ‘no.’ She says ‘yes.’ That was the first time tears came to my eyes, sitting quietly in the darkness.

But she wants to have a say in who the new wife will be, and as it happens, she knows who she wants. Her all-time favorite student, Heather (Susanna Florence Risser), now graduated and a close friend. She loves Heather; thinks of her as a sister, almost. And Heather is still active in the Church, younger than Abby, in her early thirties, a successful professional woman in her own right. One small problem: Heather lives in California, and they live in Salt Lake City. They’re going to have to ask her to move, to uproot her entire life. She’s going to have to ‘move to Utah,’ with everything that implies.

And they invite Heather to visit, and they have this amazingly awkward conversation with her, and Melissa Larson’s gift for comic dialogue gives the scene some lightness. And when finally they get around to it, Heather thinks they’re asking her to be a surrogate mother. And she’s totally fine with it. But that’s not what they’re asking. And of course, when they ask–when they propose–Heather’s reactions are initially what we might expect. She’s appalled, offended, angry. And then a change, and she shocks us, alone in the dark. ‘What if I were to say ‘yes,’ she says. She’s felt something too; she’s felt the Spirit, she thinks. That was the second time I cried.

I cried, because I could see how the rest of the play would unfold. Heather and Jake fall in love. Well, of course they do; they’re married. They work out a ‘marital schedule,’ as I suspect would be needed. He moves out of the bedroom he’s shared with Abby, into his own room, so that each wife can have her own space, her own privacy. And Heather becomes pregnant, and has a baby boy.

And Abby gets to be a child-caring sister-wife (a label she loathes). She gets to be Aunt Abby. And she . . . loses. Loses herself, her identity, Jake’s wife and life-partner, loses that essential intimate exclusivity. And Jake still loves her, still treats her with his usual kindness and attentiveness; of course he does. He’s a good man, a kind man, a good husband. To both his wives.

But we can see it, can’t we. See Abby fold inside herself. See Abby’s distanced misery take her over. We can, not just see her pain, but feel it, ache with her. We’re not remotely distanced, because she’s already allowed us inside her mind and soul; her blog. And there are no good answers for her, not because of the cruelty of the two people who love her most–they love her, both of them do, of course they do, and wouldn’t dream of being cruel. But little Thomas is Heather’s baby. And that changes things.

I don’t think the play has any kind of agenda. Like Larson’s best work, it’s a play about people, about human beings and their lives and choices and deeply rooted private pain. It’s a play that defies easy answers. It’s also, I think, the most stunningly powerful anti-polygamy play I’ve certainly ever seen. It’s a play that says polygamy equals Abby’s pain. And Abby will continue to retreat inside herself, inside her misery. Eventually, she will stop blogging. Because her blog equals life.

So what about the spirit? Both women, in this play, believe themselves to have received a spiritual confirmation of the rightness of this, after all. What did they feel? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that they haven’t actually felt the Spirit, but the stirrings of a essential biological imperative. But I can make just as good a case for the Spirit. I don’t know. I’m just as happy not knowing. That’s the place where the play bothers me the most, and that’s entirely a good thing.

One last thing: I consider Mark Fossen a good friend, and thought his performance was tremendous. What a challenge, playing a decent, ordinary, spiritual man. He was masterful in the role. I also consider Susanna Florence Risser a good friend; one of my favorite actresses, and a student I was proud to teach. Her performance was likewise terrific. But April Fossen was remarkable. Again, a friend, but being friends with her is a bit like being friends with Meryl Streep.

My goodness. What a play, what a production, what a searing examination of a part of Mormon history that most of us would really rather never think about. If you haven’t seen it, buy it; an ebook has been published. It’s just extraordinary.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.