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.

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.

 

 

Can a Mormon be a liberal?

Can an active, practicing Mormon also be a political liberal? Yes.

In today’s Deseret News, Professor Ralph Hancock, from BYU, asked and answered this question. Though he’s a conservative, Professor Hancock likewise answered the question in the affirmative. Mormons can be liberals, liberals can be Mormons. We Mormons tend not to be liberals, but as I’ve written before, that’s probably more a matter of geography than ideology. Utah’s very Mormon, very Western, and very conservative. But Wyoming and Montana are not Mormon states, and are also very conservative. They’re all western states, and westerners tend to vote Republican, often for reasons having to do with land-use issues unrelated to religion.  I’m a Utahn, a practicing and believing Latter-day Saint, and a committed liberal. I don’t see those positions as being remotely incompatible. On the contrary; I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon.

Say what? Yep. As a Mormon, I believe that the Book of Mormon is holy scripture. And in the Book of Mormon, evil is consistently identified with a lack of charity, with a failure to care for the poor and needy. Greedy selfishness was the sin of the Gadianton robbers, for example, the über villains of the last half of the Book of Mormon. It was the primary reason the Nephites fell.  A haughty unwillingness to succor the poor is even the primary sin of Sodom (Ezekial 16: 49-50), and not sexual sin, as is commonly supposed.  Above all, I believe in the great sermon by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, found in Mosiah chapters 2-4. Benjamin says clearly that even suggesting that poor people are poor because of bad choices they’ve made in their lives is sinful (Mosiah 4: 17-21). We’re all of us beggars before God.

Professor Hancock, of course, disagrees that programs in which a central government attempts to alleviate poverty are what the Book of Mormon is talking about:

Where I disagree with my Mormon liberal colleague is in his rather capacious confidence that a federally driven police of welfare aid and income redistribution is an effective means of lifting up the disadvantaged. Davis observes that a root meaning of the word “liberal” is “generous,” and since generosity is a Christian virtue, a more liberal welfare state is more generous and more Christian.

I leave it to readers to scrutinize each step in this logic; I simply note that Christian charity seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification. It addresses the body by addressing the soul.

I would respond as follows. First of all, a Christian charity that ‘seeks the good of the whole person,’ is a Christian charity that extends from the premise that faults in ‘the whole person’ are what have left him/her poor. That’s pretty much exactly the kind of attitude that King Benjamin proscribes. Poor people tend not to be much interested in ‘moral and spiritual edification.’  They want to become less poor. If they have to listen to well-meaning platitudes along the way, fine, but mostly they want help. Paternalistic head patting has no place in policies alleviating poverty.

Let me be specific. I believe that what the vast majority of poor people really want is a job and a paycheck. So first and foremost, I support raising the minimum wage, making it possible for a hard working person to support his/her family. If a single parent wants a job, I support providing child care assistance. I support, short term, subsidizing housing, and for families struggling to make ends meet, food stamps as a temporary aid program. If a person struggles with a drug addiction, I think we’d be better off seeing his/her problems as a matter of public health, not criminality. And, of course, I think all citizens, of whatever country, have an absolute right to access to quality health care, preferably in a government-administered single-payer system. And I think that the richest country in the history of the world can and should do more to fight poverty internationally.  Too many children go to bed hungry throughout the world. We can help, and should.

None of this is remotely incompatible with the values of the Restored Gospel. The notion that the scriptures preach private charity only, that the scriptures are anti-government is preposterous, ideological and naive.

Professor Hancock also decries what he calls “extreme lifestyle liberalism,” which he calls ‘amoral.’  We liberals, he says, embrace such extremes as gay marriage and abortion-on-demand, which in his view come from viewing people not as moral agents, but as products of their environments.

Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, in the sense that courts continue to find bans on gay marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. My guess is that by this time next year, all fifty states will be performing same sex marriages. To favor expanding the blessings of marriage to all our brothers and sisters does not logically follow the proposition that human beings are products of our environments. On the contrary, it comes from viewing all people as moral agents, as citizens and therefore equals. But it’s an issue that’s soon to become moot anyway.

So once again, it comes down to abortion. And the disagreement between liberals, such as myself, and conservatives, like Professor Hancock, on abortion, arises from a natural and inevitable disagreement over natural law, over the rights pertaining to all citizens. A fetus grows inside a human body, in a womb especially (and miraculously) intended for that task. A woman has the right to make the most basic decisions regarding her own body. A fetus, however, might become a human being, with all the rights of personhood.  So how do we balance those rights? Where does the right of the fetus to possibly become a person outweigh the rights of the woman to decide what will happen within her own body?  Especially given the uncontestable reality that not all fetuses survive to term. Women’s bodies spontaneously and naturally abort far more fetuses than are artifically aborted medically.  A baby is an infinitely precious and wonderful gift.  A gift from God, I believe. But it’s naive and foolish to not admit that carrying a baby to term can have a serious physical impact on the body of the woman giving birth.

Nobody cheers an elective abortion. That decision is, I believe, never made lightly and rarely made irresponsibly. I remain convinced by President Clinton’s formulation, that elective abortion should be safe, rare, and legal.

But if we want to limit the number of elective abortions performed annually, let’s do it with compassion and kindness. Let’s help with job training, education, health care, child care, to give single moms a better chance to succeed.  Let’s help.  Let’s make adoption easier, cheaper, more frequent. And let’s see if we can join together in toning down the rhetoric of abortion. It’s not murder–certainly not in LDS theology, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy. Can we mourn abortion more than we condemn it?

So, yes, I’m a liberal and I’m a Mormon. I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon and I’m a Mormon because I’m a liberal.  And those positions aren’t remotely incompatible.

 

16 Stones: Movie Review

Set in the volatile world of Missouri in 1838, 16 Stones follows three LDS twenty-somethings on their quest to find the sixteen stones touched by the finger of Jehovah, as described in Ether, chapter three in the Book of Mormon. They think that if they can find those stones, it will definitively prove the Book of Mormon (and by extension, the LDS faith) true, and that the Missouri mobs attacking Mormon settlements will therefore stop the violence.

That’s not the silliest premise I’ve ever seen for a movie. The notion that our Founding Fathers put a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or the idea of an archeologist digging around for the Ark of the Covenant, so he can use it to defeat Hitler, both strike me as sillier. But National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark are fun. They’re entertaining because they don’t either of them take themselves very seriously, and because they feature rollicking action sequences and plenty of humor. 16 Stones, on the other hand, is painfully, excruciatingly earnest. Earnestness isn’t a bad thing. It’s not, however, very aesthetically enjoyable.

I just suggested that the premise of the movie is ‘silly,’ when a better word perhaps should have been ‘naive.’  I can see some LDS audiences enjoying the movie, and finding it faith-affirming.  That was not my reaction to it. I found that I had plenty of leisure and brain-space to pick it apart.  And so I did.

The movie begins in Far West Missouri, in 1838. But it doesn’t exist in any actual historical Missouri, but in the Missouri of Mormon myth-making, in which the Saints were innocent and gentle, and the Missourians a scruffy and vicious bunch of thugs, with yellow teeth. (The bad guys in this film had uniformly ugly teeth). James Delford (Mason Davis) is an LDS blacksmith, chastely half-pursuing a romance with Elaine (Aubrey Reynolds), whose brother Thomas (Ben Isaacs), James’ best friend, is expected home shortly from his mission. A Missouri attack, however, results in James’ mother being shot in the back and killed, and James is distraught and angry. At first, he wants to hunt down his mother’s killer, but Joseph Smith (Brad Johnson) talks him out of it. Instead, James decides to go on his search for the 16 stones of the film’s title. And Thomas and Elaine agree to go with him.

What follows is not so much a plot as a string of increasingly preposterous coincidences. Thomas, on his mission, met an Indian who told him of his tribe’s mythology, involving ‘turtle boats’ crossing the ocean. This strikes James as suitably Jaredite-ish, and the Indian, Kitchi (Rog Benally), even gives them a handy map to follow. (I’m not kidding, the Indian character’s name is ‘Kitschy’).  The map leads them to some metallic plates, inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters. They can’t, of course, read ancient Hebrew, but they rescue a Jesuit Priest (Andy Jones), who is being beaten up by Missourians, and who can read Hebrew, and who leads them towards their next clue. And so on. Meanwhile, they’re apparently supposed to be traipsing their way across Missouri, to just outside Chillicothe, Ohio, then back to Indiana, then back home to Missouri again, all on foot, Missourians having stolen their horses.  That’s a heck of a walk, honestly. In real life, their trek would take months. But our heroes stroll along unhurriedly, and manage the whole trip without experiencing so much as a change in seasons.

They are pursued all the while by two more Missouri scalawags, played by Jarrod Phillips and Allan Groves. Although these villains were portrayed as a couple of bumbling idiots, they are also heavily armed, and greedy, and apparently much better at tracking than Our Heroes are at noticing they’re being tracked.

And this leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Isaacs, Davis and Reynolds, the three leads, do a nice job with their badly under-written heroic roles. Davis is asked to play James as alternatively stalwart and doubting, and he handles both well, though he never does quite manage to turn those contradictions into a fully-realized dramatic character. Reynolds fares better, giving Elaine a courageous edge to balance her character’s doubts and insecurities. Isaacs is an energetic and appealing film presence, despite his character being given the least to do of the three of them.

But the poor actors forced to play bad guys in the film (and their numbers are legion) are uniformly dreadful, painting every Missouri bounder as both ferocious and dumb. The result was not just a film without nuance, it was a film that depicted most of its dramatic characters as subhuman. I do not see how this accords with my understanding art as an expression of the gospel. Art embraces our common humanity. It treats all human beings, even ones who embrace violence, as our brothers and sisters. When a narrative reduces all humanity to black and white, good and evil, then that narrative itself embraces falseness.  That’s okay in an action movie, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But the earnestness of this film urges us to take it very seriously indeed. Which, for me, turned out not to be possible.

This is because of the amateur clumsiness on display. The movie never could seem to keep straight who had guns or how many of them, let alone nuances like what sorts of guns the characters might plausibly have owned in 1838, or how likely those guns might be to misfire. At one point, Elaine casually lets her canteen (the one canteen owned by the three of them) dribble water onto a rock, despite it being the only drinking water available for three people on a long cross-country hike. The water on the rock ended up revealing an important plot point, but I was honestly more concerned with dying-of-thirst issues at that point, and I rather think they would have been too. Plus, it was never clear to me what these characters intended to eat on their journey. They certainly weren’t carrying much food, nor had they money to purchase any.  Aside from one early pork-and-beans dinner (cooked, of course, by Elaine; why else would you bring a woman along?), I don’t think they bother with food at all the whole movie.

Of course, they end up finding the stones. And then James is persuaded by Joseph Smith not to show them to anyone. You can’t prove the gospel true, Joseph sagely tells him. Faith doesn’t work that way. And it turns out the point of the whole journey was to teach James a Valuable Life Lesson. Not Proving the Gospel True.

Fair enough. But that’s actually the point of the entire movie. The whole reason for making the movie is to not just to bear testimony, but to Prove the Gospel True. The movie asserts as matters of provable fact that Indians had legends of turtle boats, that they wrote on metallic plates, that they worshipped a pre-Christian Jesus, that they wrote in ancient Hebrew. Plus, of course, that there really were stones that glowed.  That it’s all literally, provably, factually true.

But as a believing, practicing Mormon, I found every assertion of the movie unconvincing.  The reason is context. I find arguments made in good movies more persuasive than arguments made in bad ones. I don’t actually find faith difficult to maintain, but I do find naivete unsustainable. And so I tended to consign 16 Stones to a brand new category–“movies sort of like National Treasure, but nowhere near as fun.”  I did not find the sincere expressions of testimony made by these characters risible. I cannot say that about the film in which they appeared.