Category Archives: Mormonism

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2: Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 was one of the summer movies this year I was most looking forward to. I hoped that I could catch it in its opening weekend, but other family members wanted to see it too, and coordinating schedules proved a challenge. But last night, we finally gathered at the cineplex. And we had a good time. It’s a surpassingly strange film, far more interesting in terms of its theology–I’m not kidding–than as the goofy comedy action movie it purports to be. But it’s entertaining; I’ll give it that.

Let’s start by talking about dramatic structure. Hollywood action movies follow the basic structure of late nineteenth century melodrama. All of them, without exception. Hero, heroine, comic sidekick, villains and their sidekicks, bad guys doing dastardly deeds, ultimately defeated by good guys, usually involving a fight, with awesome stunts. The plots are often rather baroque, with multiple subplots all racing towards a satisfying and exciting final confrontation. Still, there’s always a discernible hero, with a strong objective. Often it involves some kind of quest. The hero is trying to blow up the Death Star, or steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, or steal a magical orb from one bad guy, and using it to activate an ‘infinity stone,’ or something. That last bit was, as far as I can remember, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) quest in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In order to accomplish that, Quill assembles the team known as the Guardians of the Galaxy–Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (a raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree, voiced by Vin Diesel). Comic sidekicks, in other words. It was an amusing, but frankly pretty conventional superhero action movie plot.

This sequel is very different in structure. For most of the movie, Quill and his pals are just trying to stay alive. As the movie begins, they have been hired by a gold-skinned, genetically perfect species called The Sovereigns, to protect Anulex batteries from destruction. A massive beastie attacks; they fight it, and win. But Rocket, the scamp, steals some of the batteries they were hired to protect. So the Sovereigns come after them, and destroy their ship. So there’s no noble objective, no quest. They’re just trying to stay alive, because they’ve infuriated an entire civilization for no good reason.

In my review of the first Guardians movie, I compared it to Star Wars. That would make this one The Empire Strikes Back, and sure enough, we get a “Luke, I am your father.” moment. (It’s not anything like Empire in any other sense). The father, in this case, is Ego (Kurt Russell), who we earlier saw, in a flashback, with Peter’s Mom, looking absurdly like Kurt Russell, age twenty. (I don’t know how they did that, but it’s a very cool effect). But the Ego who shows up and declares himself has aged, and says he has been searching for Peter for years. And so, Ego takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his planet, leaving Rocket and Groot (now, baby Groot), behind to repair their badly damaged ship. Where they are captured by another group, the Ravagers, under the putative command of Yondu (Michael Rooker). They’re professional thieves, and Yondu essentially raised young Peter. But they’re on the outs from other Ravagers, who have rejected them because Yondu broke the Ravagers’ code, by selling children into slavery.

At this point, the movie gets very weird. We’re a third of the way in, and nothing like a plot has managed to reveal itself–no quest, no objective, other than just staying alive. And Ego is a generous and welcoming host, and his planet is beautiful, considering that he lives on it by himself, with one aid, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementiev). At which point, the movie becomes an exploration of the doctrine and theology of apotheosis.

Apotheosis: the process by which men become deified. Ego, turns out, is a God. He became a God over millions of years, during which time he constructed this planet to glorify, well, him. Peter’s his son, and Peter is divine. He has a share of Ego’s creative power. He can create worlds of his own, if he wants to. And he’s immortal. Human Mom, Divine Father. The music set it up beautifully. The songs are the best parts of this movie, as they were in the previous one, and as Ego’s ship descends to his planet, we hear George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

As a Mormon, I found this unexpected twist fascinating, because apotheosis is, sort of, a Mormon doctrine. “As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become.” Right. But the more Peter (and his friends) dig into it, the more we learn about Ego’s divine reign. He’s awful. He’s kind of a monster. Peter is not his Only Begotten–Ego’s fathered lots of children, who he then executed when he finds that they lack the divine spark that Peter has. Anyway, it looks like Ego’s kind of bored, and wants his divine son to hang around, for company. There’s also a bit of a ‘we can rule the universe’ vibe to it.

It turns out that his spark of divinity resides at the planet’s core, where it can be gotten to and blown up. Since Ego’s plan for ruling the universe involves mass slaughter, killing him seems like a good idea. He’s a God, and he’s immortal, but apparently, he can also be killed. So that becomes the big quest thing, the movie’s plot. But it comes very late in the movie. And has almost nothing to do with Peter, our protagonist, who does very little to accomplish it. Mostly, it’s pulled-off by Groot and Rocket, who escaped from the Ravagers (with help from Yondu, and also Gamora’s ferocious sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), who wants to kill Gamora, because of how their father pitted them against each other as children.

And that’s another theme of the movie, isn’t it? The abuse and murder of children. Yondu’s great sin, the thing that got him excommunicated as a Ravager, is his sale of children into slavery. He loved his adopted son, Peter, but Peter’s childhood was grim; a series of petty crimes. And, of course, that’s Ego’s great sin, too; the murder of his own children. Although almost nothing in the movie establishes Peter Quill as a Christ figure, he’s torn between two fathers; the brutality of Ego, his biological/divine father, and Yondu, the Dad who raised him, a Joseph the Carpenter figure.

So this is a movie about apotheosis, about men becoming Gods, about the most profound ideas of divinity, and divine responsibility, and the endless challenge of eternal life: boredom. Eternal life without eternal progression, really: the Mormon conception of hell. And it’s a movie about child abuse, about fathers abusing their children, and even murdering them.

And absolutely nothing in the tone of the movie, the approach of it, suggests either profundity or tragedy. It’s a clever, fun, post-modern comedy action flick, stylistically. Self-referential, with lots of jokes and deadpan insults splendidly delivered by Chris Pratt. Peter imagined, as a child, that Nightrider-era David Hasselhoff was his father, and sure enough, Hasselhoff himself gets a cameo. The Looking Glass hit, Brandy, is solemnly declared, by Ego, the greatest piece of music ever written. I love this exchange: “We’re friends!” “You’re not friends! You do nothing but fight!” “You’re right. We’re not friends. We’re a family!” (And, of course, the music’s perfect yet again: Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain). It’s a clever, funny, self-consciously self-referential movie, with jokes based on the characters, yes, but on ’70s and ’80s pop music, and other tropes drawn from superhero movies.

It’s an odd combination: theology, and post-modern jokiness. It’s too genial a movie to dislike. But what do we say about it? That it’s reaching for a profundity it doesn’t ever earn? That it’s fun but plotless, and let’s just ignore the theology stuff? Or this: that the Divine can be approached many ways, reverentially, yes, but also through jokes and fight scenes and goofiness? Ambitious failure? Or better, deeper, more interesting than it needs to be, given its origins as a summer superhero movie? And do we even have to choose?

Love is the purpose of life.

In Church yesterday, our former stake President spoke, a stake assignment, and he began by asking this: what is the purpose of life? What one word would we use to describe the purpose of life? And the word he chose was ‘joy.’ Men are that we might have joy, he said. It was a good answer I thought, for a talk in Church. We are, he said, meant to have joy, to experience joy, to fill our lives with joy. And it wasn’t difficult for him to find scriptures and General Authority quotations to support it. But ‘joy’ does seem to me, well, a trifle correlated. Like, it’s the official right answer to that question. I know too many people suffering from, among other ailments, depression. We don’t all get joyful lives. Lives full of worth, and dignity, yes. Not always happy lives.

‘Joy’ was certainly a better answer than ’42,’ that sublime Douglas Adams joke answer in Life, the Universe and Everything. Although I rather like the joke, because of this: Jackie Robinson’s jersey number was 42. From that, I might extrapolate this: the meaning of life is encompassed in the civil rights movement. The meaning of life is to treat all human beings with dignity and respect; the meaning of life is equality. That’s a good answer too. But it’s not quite right either.

Looking at the world, though, looking at Mother Earth and the creatures who inhabit it, a much truer answer comes to mind. The purpose of life is survival. That’s the biological imperative of all life; to carve out some niche, some corner of existence, and survive. My wife suggested another biological imperative; reproduction. But that seems inextricably linked to survival; we reproduce so our species can survive. So species survival becomes as crucial as individual survival; either way, the purpose of Life is to continue living. The purpose of Life, is Life.

But we’ve got that one sussed, we humans. We’re the most successful super-predators on earth. Other species may be stronger, faster, fiercer. Our claws aren’t weapons; our feet aren’t that fleet; our hands are comparatively weak. But we can shape the environment to our needs. That’s extraordinary. We don’t need to cower in trees anymore; we can cut trees down, and use them to build impenetrable fortresses. We have the leisure to contemplate questions like ‘what is the purpose of life,’ because we no longer are in danger. I live in Utah; mountains and deserts. Our biggest predators are probably mountain lions and wolves. Cats and dogs; we’ve domesticated them both to the point of absurdity. Fear of felines? Our cat is curled up on the sofa, sound asleep. That’s where he usually is. There is no sense whatsoever in which he’s a threat to me.

Nor is anything else. Bacteria, yes, and viruses. We cannot be killed by anything large, unless we behave with the most colossal stupidity. We can be killed by the tiniest of creatures. They’re what we fear, sometimes, when we’re feeling poorly. But mostly, we take survival for granted. That drives us in two directions. We can be killed by each other. It’s easy, but unprofitable, to worry needlessly about essentially non-existent threats. We worry ourselves sick about terrorism, a threat so infinitesimal it’s essentially a statistical rounding error. Or, we find ourselves feeling purposeless. What now, we think? Having won the fight for survival, what purpose comes next?

And if we’re Christians, the answer is something impossible, something nonsensical. Love God, and love your neighbor. God, who is invisible, who manifests Himself only indirectly; we’re urged to love Him. Commanded to, in fact. And then the really tough one. We’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. And who do we mean by our neighbors? Everyone.

The purpose of life, is to love. And maybe that leads to joy, or to salvation. But that’s what we’re meant to do, what we’re expected to do. And it’s essentially impossible. The Sermon on the Mount is built on paradoxes, on examples of behavior we could not possibly emulate, being imperfect.

And Jesus had to know that. He was born under hostile occupation. His people were despised and enslaved, and he was the poorest of his people. Nazareth was a tiny, unimportant, a backwater town in a backwater region. Did he know what it felt like to be struck across the face; did the requirement that we turn the other cheek come from personal experience? How do you love the people who have enslaved you? How do you love those who strike you, who compel you to carry their baggage a mile, who call you names and visit violence upon you? How do we love then?

I love my wife. I love my children. I love a few friends. I love other family members. That’s not always easy. And my love is hardly unequivocal. I get offended easily. I get my feelings hurt. But, yes, sometimes, I am able to truly love, I think. I hope. I pray. But a few years ago, someone I thought of as a friend hurt me badly. He damaged me, he lied about me, he tried deliberately to get me fired from a job I loved, and he advanced professionally as a reward. And I am required to forgive this person. I am required to love him. And I can’t do it. I’ve tried. The best I can do is a weak, milquetoast, anodyne expression of grudging charity. If I were driving in my car, and he stepped into the street, I probably wouldn’t run him down. But love him? Love him? It’s beyond me.

And what about people who are genuinely evil, rather than merely weak? As my wife and I discussed this, she asked if she was required to genuinely love Donald Trump? That should be simple enough; he hasn’t actively harmed me or her, and he’s clearly a damaged man. We ought to be able to find some compassion, at least. But I find it impossible to even consider. What about Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao? What about Hitler?

And yet, and yet. This is from George F. Richards, an LDS apostle back in the ’40s. It’s from October Conference, 1946.

I had a remarkable dream. I have seldom mentioned this to other people, but I do not know why I should not. I dreamed that I and a group of my own associates found ourselves in a courtyard where, around the outer edge of it, were German soldiers—and Fuhrer Adolph Hitler was there with his group, and they seemed to be sharpening their swords and cleaning their guns, and making preparations for a slaughter of some kind, or an execution. We knew not what, but, evidently we were the objects. But presently a circle was formed and this Fuhrer and his men were all within the circle, and my group and I were circled on the outside, and he was sitting on the inside of the circle with his back to the outside, and when we walked around and I got directly opposite to him, I stepped inside the circle and walked across to where he was sitting, and spoke to him in a manner something like this:

“I am your brother. You are my brother. In our heavenly home we lived together in love and peace. Why can we not so live here on the earth?” And it seemed to me that I felt in myself, welling up in my soul, a love for that man, and I could feel that he was having the same experience, and presently he arose, and we embraced each other and kissed each other, a kiss of affection.

I think the Lord gave me that dream. Why should I dream of this man, one of the greatest enemies of mankind, and one of the wickedest, but that the Lord should teach me that I must love my enemies, and I must love the wicked as well as the good?

Isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t that why the gospel exists, to lead us to that point? Isn’t that the purpose of life? To love, to forgive, to embrace, without reservation or complaint, all our brothers and sisters?

We’ve mastered survival. Now we have to do something impossible, extend ourselves unimaginably, genuinely love our brothers and sisters. We start with our children, and we love them, impossible little pills though they sometimes are. And we love our families. That’s practice; that’s the easy part. But eventually, we have to find it in our hearts genuinely to love. Everyone. All of mankind, all living creatures. All. Is it easy? No, it’s impossible. It cannot, cannot be done.

So we have to do it. And that’s God’s work and his Glory. To get us to the point where we rely on His miracle; the miracle of Love, the miracle of at-one-ment. Because He is Love. And His Love is equal, and it’s full, and it’s unrestrained.

The purpose of Life is Love. And it’s impossible. And it’s necessary. The gospel is built on paradox, and that’s okay. Only by doing what can’t be done can we fulfill our purpose. Best if we start now.

Doctrines Mormons no longer believe: plural marriage

Of all the doctrines once taught and believed and practiced by the Church, the most famous, the most well-known is surely polygamy. Though it’s been officially disavowed since 1890 (or, at least, since 1904), it’s often the only thing people outside our faith know about us. Certainly, when I served my mission in Norway in the 1970s, Mormon equaled polygamy in most folks minds. They’d hear “Mormon” and either purse their lips in disapproval, or laugh. Big Love ran 5 seasons on HBO, and Sister Wives, a popular reality TV series, has broadcast on TLC since 2010. Of course, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavows polygamy as practiced by fictionally on HBO, or in the highly mediated ‘reality’ of TLC, but in both shows, its practice is rooted in Mormon tradition, in the revelations of Joseph Smith. It’s not unfair to call their characters ‘Mormons.’

In the history of our Church, plural marriage went through a remarkable evolution. From the beginnings of the Church, polygamy was shrouded in secrecy, privately taught and (perhaps) clandestinely practiced. It then went public, and became the only thing people knew about us. It then went underground for awhile, until reemerging in subterranean enclaves. It was officially espoused, but also also officially condemned, though vestigial doctrinal remnants remain.

Joseph Smith certainly married multiple women (28? 31? 44?), as did others of the Twelve. Although officially denied, furtive polygamy was a shrouded part of Nauvoo culture.  The 1843 revelation on polygamy, canonized as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants wasn’t widely disseminated. Plus, there’s good old Emma. Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first wife, who, uh, wasn’t a fan. The proximate cause to Joseph Smith’s murder was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, and its one and only issue, which exposed the practice of polygamy.

Secrets get exposed; that’s their main reality. When it became clear that the martyred prophet had received a revelation on polygamy, it wasn’t long before the Church embraced it, fully and publicly. Though, to be sure, Brigham Young made sure he’d put a mountain range between him and the people who were trying to kill him first.

So, 1851-1890. Plural marriage becomes part of Mormon culture, part of Utah life, part of LDS doctrine. I want to reiterate: I’m not an historian. I’m a retired playwright with wifi. Many many people know way more about this than I do. But my Mom’s family came from polygamous stock; I’m proud of my history and heritage. My Mom descended from Stephen Markham and his fourth (I think) wife Mary. He’s my FPA (Famous Pioneer Ancestor). My wife’s family comes from another FPA, Peter Maughan. And we tease each other about it; who would have won a fight between them. In fact, both Markham and Maughan were early Utah settlers; it’s not at all unlikely that they might have known each other.

Larger point, though: plural marriage was officially sanctioned doctrine. There were many many many talks, from the pulpit at General Conference, by men of Apostolic rank or higher, including successive Presidents of the Church and thus prophets, seers, and revelators, who taught that a plurality of wives was central to the Great and Everlasting Covenant, and therefore necessary for exaltation. And that was what was taught, most specifically by Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, in a big, highly disputed revelation in 1886.

There were women, at the time, who supported it. And we have to remember the context; LDS polygamy flourished in the Victorian era. Not a good epoch for women. Kind of a horror show for women and marriage. Income inequality led to massive social dislocation, leading to widespread abject poverty, leading to exceptionally high rates of prostitution, exacerbated by an incredibly hypocritical sexual double standard. Victorian men cheated on their wives with impunity, and mostly without consequence, except for a burgeoning syphilis epidemic. At least LDS men, when they slept around, did so with women to whom they were married. For many, many women, polygamy may have been marginally better than the alternative. Some sister wives really did become close friends. Others regarded their co-wives as succubi. My grandmother once told me of two women she knew, sisters and co-wives, who, when one of them died, it may have been homicide. Frontier women had a workload that was, literally, lethal. At least plural marriage divided that workload up a little. That’s the best case I can make for The Practice.

I’m not going to get into the various court cases regarding polygamy, except to point out that the Church had a strong religious liberty case to make constitutionally. Also, again, there are lots of people who know more about this than I do. The argument against it (us) was, essentially, a legal brief for traditional marriage. Ponder that irony, but also consider this; Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto, in 1890, doesn’t read as terribly heartfelt. Utah wanted admission as a state, and the Church stood to lose its financial autonomy. We’d lost the legal battle; best to surrender with as good a grace as possible.

Meanwhile, clandestine polygamy continued. Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 Second Manifesto was probably intended to put the matter to rest. Two apostles were excommunicated, and although practitioners weren’t required to give up long-standing marriage arrangements, officially sanctioned polygamy finally did fade away.

Of course, there are still lots of people who still practice polygamy in Utah and surrounding states. Some of them seem more like insane criminals than like decent folks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-crazy, well-meaning, well-intended plural families around. I don’t know them well, but have engaged in dialogue, and let me tell you, they can quote John Taylor’s 1886 polygamy revelation at you until the cows come home.

But I’m not part of that circle. I’m an active, Church-attending, calling-accepting active LDS guy. And I don’t believe in polygamy, wouldn’t practice it if I was asked to, or even commanded to, and recoil from the notion that it might be reinstated.

My good friend and former student, Melissa Leilani Larson, wrote a play a few years ago called Pilot Program. About a contemporary husband and wife, active in the Church, who are asked by Church leaders to add another wife to their marriage. It’s a wonderful play, powerful and moving. And it filled my soul with sheer horror. What a nightmare. Our contemporary understanding of marriage would not, I think, comfortably sustain plurality. We believe in marriage based on two things; romantic love, and absolute equality. Those strike me as incompatible with polygamy. That was not true in the 19th century. It just wasn’t.

Of course, vestiges of polygamous doctrine remain. If a couple are sealed together in the temple, and he dies, she cannot remarry in the covenant. He can. And single women are ‘comforted’ with well-meaning bromides about how they’ll be eventually sealed to a worthy male. Cold comfort indeed.

So, no. I do not believe that polygamy’s coming back, and couldn’t be happier about that. I’m perfectly happy in my own marriage, thank you. What about our history, though? How do I reconcile it?

I don’t know. That’s where I come down: I don’t know. I do know lots of people, men and women, who believe that polygamy was never anything but a mistake. That Joseph Smith was not inspired, and that D&C 132 should be dropped from the canon of scripture. They believe this quietly, for the most part, but I do know people who think that way. It’s an attractive idea, that the single thorniest issue of our past was nothing aberrant.

But I don’t know. I’m troubled by our polygamous past, but also inspired by it, inspired by the real lives of extraordinary women (mostly women), who worked through heart-break and loneliness and despair to make their preposterous marriages work. I’m inspired by what little I know about Mary Curtis Markham, my ancestor. It’s hard to think that her life-long toil was in support of pure error. It’s equally hard to conceive of God requiring something that feels so entirely and comprehensively wrong. Commandment or ghastly mistake; it’s part of our history. And it’s not coming back. Let it go at that.

Mormon doctrines? Blood atonement.

Continuing this magical mystery tour of doctrines that were once believed by the LDS Church, and no longer are, I thought I ought to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m really not trying to destroy anyone’s faith. I just think that LDS doctrine is evolving, and mostly in healthy and productive ways. And I think there’s some value in charting doctrinal changes. Change is a human constant. Societies change, culture changes, ideas change. That’s why a central LDS doctrine is ‘continuing revelation.’ And sometimes, a theologically innovative Church gets it wrong.

In the old TV show, The West Wing, Toby Ziegler has a conversation with his rabbi about the death penalty.

You may say that this isn’t really what Mormons believe by continuing revelation. But I think it is, close enough. And especially when it comes to the idea of the death penalty. There may have been a time when it made sense to execute convicted murderers. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The constitutional standard prohibits ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments. And society’s standard for cruelty changes, and so does our understanding of what an ‘unusual’ punishment would be. The meanings of those words are ever shifting, like the meanings of all words, always. And the law can and should reflect that reality.

The doctrine I want to write about today is, blood atonement, is one the Church has genuinely repudiated. But it certainly was taught, by Brigham Young and others, especially during the Mormon Reformation period in the mid-1850s.  Let me reiterate; I am not an historian and I am not a theologian. I’m a playwright with wifi. I have no authority in these matters, and quite possibly don’t know what I’m talking about.

Here’s my best sense of things. At some point in the past, some Church leaders (including the President of the Church, from the pulpit, in General Conference), taught that Christ’s atonement may not actually be efficacious for some very serious sins, like murder and apostasy. Serious sinners could voluntarily ask to be executed, for the sake of their eternal souls. But Brigham’s rhetoric on the subject was over-the-top. And his oratory led to conspiracy-theory style accusations that Brigham Young sent out hit squads of Danites to murder apostates.

Here’s what Brigham Young actually said. It’s a long block quotation, and I edited it a bit for length; apologies:

Now take a person in this congregation . . . and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of exaltation that he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed, he will atone for that sin and be saved and exalted with the Gods. Is there a man or woman in this house but that will say “shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?”

Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant. He never told a man or woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never.

I can refer to where the Lord had to slay every soul of the Israelites that went out of Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua. He slew them by the hands of their enemies, by the plague, and by the sword, why? Because He loved them, and promised Abraham that He would save them. And He could save them upon no other principle, for they had forfeited their right to the land of Canaan by transgressing the law of God, and they could not have atoned for the sin if they had lived. But if they were slain, the Lord could bring them up in the resurrection, and give them the land of Canaan, and He could not do it on any other principle.

I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be), if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty. I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.

This is loving our neighbors as ourselves. If he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. . . . That is the way to love mankind.

Nobody talks like this anymore. Nobody anywhere, except the kookiest kooks in cuckoo-ville. Al Qaeda, maybe: Isis.

But this kind of rhetorical flourish was common in the 19th century. This talk of Brigham Young’s took place in 1857. The year before, 1856, John Brown was engaging in acts of violent terrorism in Kansas, and a US senator, Charles Sumner, was caned to within an inch of his life on the floor of the US Senate, by a fellow Senator, Preston Brooks. Within 3 years, the ferociously extreme language used by both sides in the slavery/abolition argument led to civil war. Here’s an example of that rhetoric: “Though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose.” And on and on.

Nineteenth century American society was violent and racist and sexist and . . . immoderate. We Americans were a muscular people, and we expressed ourselves vigorously. And the LDS church was theologically adventurous. I think it likely that Brigham Young genuinely believed that hundreds of sinners would welcome getting their throats slit, as an act of mercy. It goes without saying that essentially nobody thinks that anymore.

Were any apostate Mormons actually killed in this fashion? Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s book on the subject makes a case for it, and I don’t doubt that it’s possible. Quite possibly further research may validate claims of 19th century blood atonement homicides. I just don’t see what it has to do with Mormonism as it’s practiced today.

The Church today does not preach blood atonement, nor does it support the death penalty politically, nor does it require that the death penalty be administered via firing squad. Here is the official position of the Church:

In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives. However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.

This is as close as we’ll ever see to the Church repudiating public comments from a former President. Brigham Young engaged in ’emotional oratory.’ Boy, did he ever. And that’s really all that needs to be said. We don’t need to distort our theology to accommodate the publicly stated views of past leaders. We cannot, and shouldn’t try to correlate every syllable of the Journal of Discourses with current views. Brigham Young loved to engage in what we might call speculative theology. He floated ideas that probably made sense at the time, but which, in our time, our culture, seem pretty wacka-doodle.

Why can’t we just admit the obvious? Brigham Young’s views, if quoted accurately, can’t be reconciled with our understanding of Christian conduct.  To quote Toby Ziegler’s rabbi: “Maybe  his ideas reflected the best wisdom of his age. But it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard.”

 

Mormon doctrines? Birth control

My wife and I were talking the other day about how different Church was when we were younger, and especially, about doctrines and cultural practices that seem to have gone away. I suppose most religious traditions change in significant ways; there’s often, perhaps always doctrinal instability and cultural evolution. Probably, I just notice the Mormon case because that’s where I live, spiritually.

Anyway, I thought, over the next few days, that I would explore the changes I’ve noticed, and try to winkle out a reason for them. For those of you who read this blog, but who aren’t Mormons, I apologize. Maybe you’ve noticed similar changes in your own faith traditions? Anyway, as always, I have no authority to speak for or about the Church. I’m just a playwright with wifi; I claim no expertise in theology or cultural anthropology.

Anyway, the first major change we noticed, and the issue that led to this conversation has to do with birth control. We got married in 1980, and before then, when we were growing up and later when we were dating, the idea of using birth control was, if not entirely forbidden, at least strongly discouraged. The purpose of sex was, primarily, procreation. Artificially restricting the size of one’s family was considered incompatible with God’s will.

If you want to look for anti-birth control quotations from General Authorities, there are certainly plenty to choose from, including quotations from men I have looked up to and admired.  “In most cases the desire not to have children has its birth in vanity, passion and selfishness. . . All such efforts . . . befoul the pure fountains of life with the slime of indulgence and sensuality.” (David O. McKay, 1919) Or this: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, and those who refuse the responsibility of bringing them into the world and caring for them are usually prompted by selfish motives, and the result is that they suffer the penalty of selfishness throughout eternity.” George Albert Smith. Or this: “As to sex in marriage, the necessary treatise on that for Latter-day Saints can be written in two sentences: Remember the prime purpose of sex desire is to beget children. Sex gratification must be had at that hazard.” J. Rueben Clark. Or this: I have told tens of thousands of young folks that when they marry they should not wait for children until they have finished their schooling and financial desires. They should live together normally and let the children come.” Spencer W. Kimball.

This was the normal, everyday rhetoric of Church leaders when I was growing up. It was preached from the pulpit in Church. It was what we all believed. If you had asked me, back in the late seventies, whether my wife and I would practice birth control, I would certainly have said no. I honestly didn’t think about it much. I’m a guy; I wasn’t the one who would be getting pregnant. Still, this is what everyone believed and taught.

And then I met Annette. And we became engaged. And talked about our lives together, our goals, our plans, our intentions. And she didn’t have any better information than I had; we both thought birth control was against the rules, and we both felt pretty uncomfortable with that idea, for reasons neither of us could really articulate. We were Mormon kids; we weren’t comfortable talking about sex at all, let alone the specifics of pregnancy protection.

But we were in a student stake, and one of the counselors in the stake Presidency was an OB/GYN. And he gave a series of firesides on sexuality and birth control. And we had to go; the SP said we had to attend these firesides in order to be given a marriage temple recommend. Not that we wouldn’t have gone anyway; the seminars were, to two nice Mormon kids without a clue about human sexuality, spectacularly informative and interesting and invaluable.

Best of all, this counselor talked about birth control. He talked about the various kinds of birth control available, and gave us his best sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each. (This is what he said about abstinence: “it’s a form of birth control, and like all forms of birth control, it can have unpleasant side effects.”)

What he said in those firesides has become official Church policy. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rested solely with us. This was a decision we needed to make, mutually. This was something we needed to talk about and decide. It wasn’t anyone else’s business. Above all, this wasn’t something I got to decide, as the guy. And it was also not something I should just let her deal with. We needed to genuinely communicate. We needed to agree, completely and fully.

The policy today couldn’t be clearer. It’s official doctrine, right there on the Church website. Why the change? Why all this anti-birth control rhetoric, and then nothing. Because really isn’t something anyone talks about anymore. I couldn’t tell you when the last time was when I heard a talk on this subject in Church. It’s certainly never discussed in General Conference. Why?

I know it sounds absurd to say that it’s because the Church is becoming more feminist, or at least more open to feminist thinking. Surely, for most of you, that’s an absurd thing to say. But it’s nonetheless true, in a quiet, unacknowledged way. The Church is becoming more open to feminism, if only because society is growing much more open to women’s issues and the Church is part of society. Decisions about reproduction, about pregnancy and childbirth, these are women’s issues. And yes, there’s tremendous social pressure on young women to marry too soon, to have too many children too quickly, to put their health at risk so they can fulfill what they believe to be a commandment, to multiply and replenish the earth. I taught at BYU for twenty years; I saw it all the time. Mormon kids do marry too young; I think that’s absolutely true.

But things are changing, slowly and inexorably, and changing for the better. And the evolving stance on birth control is central to that change. And yes, Mormon culture is as annoyingly reliant on mansplaining and clueless patriarchy as any other conservative American subculture. But when I was first married, birth control was discouraged and now it’s no one’s business. That’s a good thing.

My Rudolf fiasco

We had our ward Christmas party last Friday, and I was part of the featured entertainment. I have this thing I do; a kind of fractured fairy tales thing, only for Christmas. I gather the kids up on stage, and sit in a comfy chair, and tell them a Christmas story. Only I mess it up. I’ve learned over the years that little kids love correcting a grown-up, so I pretend to be wholly incompetent. I’ll start by telling the story of the Grinch, say, only I’ll drag in everything from Goldilocks to Sleeping Beauty to Lord of the Rings. And every time the story goes off the rails, the kids are outraged. “No!” they cry. “That’s not how it goes!” And I course-correct, and a great time is had by all.

I’ve done this for years. I did it with my children when they were young, and their friends, and other kid relatives. I am, it seems, fairly good at feigning befuddlement.

I did it in our ward last year, and it went well. The kids were appropriately incensed by my, to them, astonishing inability to tell a simple Christmas story. One kid–maybe 5 or 6–came up to me in Church the next Sunday. “Boy,” he said, shaking his head. “You are the worst story-teller ever.” “I know,” I responded sadly. “I’m sorry. I’m just bad at it.” And he walked away, astonished, no doubt, that someone was fool enough to ask this poor sad sack to tell a Christmas story when it was clearly beyond him.

A couple of years ago, I was on the organizing committee for the Christmas party, and we decided to hire Santa to entertain the kids. Someone knew a professional Santa, a guy in the stake, and we brought him in, despite no one knowing his act. And I’m sorry to say it, but he was a big disappointment. He struck me as the kind of adult who thinks that what kids want is a strong moral lesson. Little kids do not want a strong moral lesson. Little kids want goofiness. And what’s wonderful about children is their exuberance, their energy, their imagination, their love for the truly silly. This Santa couldn’t even be bothered to plop kids on his lap and ask ’em what they wanted for Christmas. If I were Santa–and I’ve got the body type for it–I’d love that; treating each kid as special. But not this guy. I think it got in the way of his preachifying.

Anyway, I was looking forward to this year’s Christmas party. I decided beforehand that I would tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer. That way, they’d catch on immediately to the nature of the game. “No!” they’d shout. “Red-nosed reindeer! Rudolf has a red nose! Not a green one.” And we’d be off running.

I do very little preparation for this thing. I can generally keep track in my head of where we are in the story, and which other extraneous tales I’ve already dragged in. I have various stalling tactics I can use when I need to buy time. “Are you sure?” I’ll ask. “I thought Rudolf had a green nose. Green means go; red means stop. Rudolf is what makes Santa’s sleigh go.” And meantime, I’m trying to figure out how to work Little Red Riding Hood into it.

This year, though, the kids were prepped. They were loaded for bear. They’d clearly remembered the goofy Christmas story guy from last year. And they had no interest in playing. In particular, I blame a cabal of older kids, 8 or 9 years old, deeply cynical little post-modernists, who showed up to the Christmas party with a plan. “You want to deconstruct Christmas stories,” I imagine them saying. “Well, deconstruct this, sucka!”

So I go “I’m going to tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer.” And a few younger kids were suitably aggravated. “No!” they shouted on cue. But these older kids had the situation in hand. “Yeah,” they said, smirking. “Green-nosed reindeer. Sure. Let’s go with green.”

It didn’t matter where I went with it. They were ready for me. So I said “Let’s see. Santa’s reindeer were Dasher and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen, Comet and Cupid and Harry and Hermione.” And the kids went “Sure! Harry Potter’s a reindeer. Why not?” Yikes.

By the end of the story, Gandolf and Dumbledore were also on Santa’s sleigh, casting spells so Santa could get down particularly narrow chimneys. Cindy Lou Who and the Big Bad Wolf were working together to save Christmas, and Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs were huffing and puffing to get Santa’s sleigh some tailwind. I was tap dancing like Savion Glover, and the story was like Kafka channeling Tristan Tzara. Those kids! Those rotten kids! Derailing my story like that.

Who am I kidding? I had a ball. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but it was a ball. In the end, I brought things home, Santa’s sleigh made it through the fog, Rudolf was a hero, and Harry and Hermione, reindeer, got extra hay at the end of the night. I build an event on mis-told Christmas stories, and the kids did me one better, and turned the night into a pure story adventure. It was kind of a fiasco, but it was also fun, and the kids seemed to enjoy it, making this grown-up sweat. Darn ’em. I fully admit it; I met my match in this particular group of kids. And I couldn’t be prouder.

 

The Spirit of the Game: Movie review

The Spirit of the Game is an LDS film, a Mormon movie. I’m a Mormon, and a movie nut. So my initial inclination is to go easy on a film that is certainly well-intentioned. And it tells an interesting story. And Aaron Jakubenko, who stars in it, is very good, even though he can’t play basketball. There’s a lot to like here. The theater was half-full when I saw it (an early weekday matinee), so that’s encouraging. And it’s certainly not as bad as, say, The Home Teachers, which remains the flaming dragon’s breath of hell worst movie ever made, ever, by anyone.

On the other hand, The Spirit of the Game starts off not very good, and ends goshawful, and that also needs to be said. And if we want cinematic depictions of our faith and culture to improve, we do need to foster a candid critical culture. And sorry, gentle readers, but spoilers will abound. Advance apologies to everyone.

The Spirit of the Game is about the Mormon Yankees, an LDS missionary basketball team that was asked to teach the Australian national team hoops fundamentals in time for the 1956 Olympics. It focuses on one guy, DeLyle Condie (Jakubenko), an Idaho kid who, we’re told, is one of the stars of the University of Utah basketball team. He falls in love, gets engaged to a nice girl named Emily (Emilie Cocquerel)–the movie spends lots of time on that romance. And then she breaks his heart, dumps him for another dude. So Condie, rebounding, decides to go on a mission, and is sent to Australia.

Written and directed by J. D. Scott, it’s not really about basketball much, or the Olympics at all. Really, it’s about the power of male Mormon patriarchy. Every single major decision in the movie made by any character is preceded by an Inspiring Speech by a male authority figure. Or not, actually; Condie gets engaged precipitously, without permission from her father, or an Inspiring Speech from his father. That’s why the engagement fails.

When writing a screenplay, you have to decide that sorts of scenes to privilege. Obviously, a certain amount of screen time has to be given to basic exposition–who are these people, what do they want, why should we care? This movie gives immense amounts of screen time to Inspiring Speeches. It just stops dead in its tracks, and lets a male authority figure deliver an IS. At which point, Our Hero, Elder Condie (the least volitional protagonist in the history of film), is redirected. Except when its him giving the speeches.

So, he arrives in Australia, meets the mission President–Inspiring Speech. He meets considerable opposition–nobody’s interested, kids throw tomatoes at him. He gets discouraged, writes his Dad (Kevin Sorbo!). Inspiring Letter keeps him going. He’s offered the opportunity to help coach up the Aussie national team. But the mission President (Mark Mitchell), says no, in an Inspiring Speech full of appropriate bromides. Condie writes his father. And then, see, we get what passes for a plot twist. Condie wants to play basketball, but he’s stymied. But his father is also a male authority figure, and knows a higher one. So Dad writes President David O. McKay, who gives an Inspiring Speech to the rest of the First Presidency about the proselyting power of basketball, then orders the Mission President to let the boys play. And Condie becomes the coach of the Mormon Yankees. Which means he’s now a male authority figure, and authorized to give Inspiring Speeches too. Which he does, repeatedly. And so, finally, the movie half over, we get to seeing people play basketball.

And, oh my gosh, are they bad at it.

There are two basic approaches you can take when making a basketball movie. You can cast actors, and teach them how to play. Or you can take basketball players, and teach them how to act. Both can work. The greatest basketball movie of all time, Hoosiers, cast guys who could actually play basketball. White Men Can’t Jump took the other approach. They’re both good movies. Jakubenko is a good looking kid, and fairly athletic looking. I don’t doubt that he worked hard. But he has a high dribble, where he runs really fast kind of slapping at the ball, which bounces up around his chin. He dribbles like every kid on my son’s Junior Jazz team when he was six. And Condie’s supposed to be the point guard! Jakubenko can’t shoot, and never has to–they cut around him, use lots of hand-held camera, and basically fake the basketball sequences. (Condie does hit a couple of layups). He’ll shoot a jumper–and oh, that form!–and then they cut to a ball going in. And it’s called ‘the hoop’, people–at one point, they actually call it a ‘ring.’ I wanted to strangle someone.

I don’t mean to be unkind, but if you’re going to make a movie about basketball, let me gently suggest that you have someone on-set who actually knows something about basketball. One kid in the movie had a decent jump shot, and another kid could jump a little–they let him get all the rebounds. But mostly, during the basketball bits, I averted my eyes.

Sports movies always have to build to a Big Game climax, and this one is no exception. The movie kind of forgets about how the Mormon Yankees are supposed to be coaching the Aussie team, and lets them play in a pre-Olympics warm up tournament, a decision that requires another IS. And they’re really good, we’re told–able to hold their own against all the Olympic teams. The Big Game is against the nasty wasty French team. (The coach of the French team has a moustache, and twirls it, I’m totally not kidding). So that’s the big game–a nationally televised (in Australia) game between the Mormon Yankees and the thuggish French nationals. And, see, the French play dirty. And our virtuous boys can’t respond in kind, of course, as Condie reminds them in one of his Inspiring Speeches. They’re playing for God or something.

This is a major Spoiler, but I have to do this; at the end of the Big Game, this movie goes completely off the rails. Let me set it up for you. There are 9 guys on the Mormon Yankees team. That’s important–remember that number: 9. The game is very close, though how close we don’t know because the movie never shows us the score. Anyway, our guys are all wearing brave little dabs of makeup blood on their faces, to show how dirty the French are. There’s a collision between Condie and a French kid. Condie looks dazed. Time for a concussion protocol intervention, except, wait, this is 1956 and they didn’t worry about concussions. So Condie (who is also the team coach) may have to come out of the game. And the referee says “you’re down to three players, you’re going to have to forfeit.”

What? Are you kidding me? I sat there in the theater, absolutely dumb-founded. They have 9 guys on the team. They’re down to 3?!?!? How did that happen? How did (carry the 7, multiply by pi) 6 guys either foul out or get injured? We didn’t see anyone foul out. We didn’t see anyone get injured. What we see is Condie getting fouled, resulting in . . . someone else on his team getting disqualified? And the French team getting the ball out of bounds? Also, the ref (an Olympic referee) is talking forfeit? He doesn’t know the rules well enough to know that you are, actually allowed to play 3 on 5?

What happens is this: Condie shakes off his brain fog, gives an Inspiring Speech, and he and his pals do battle, 3 on 5. And for once, the movie gets the basketball a little right–the French, with a two man advantage, spread the floor and go backdoor for the game winning layup (though the final score remains a classified military secret). Condie hangs his head for a bit. But the Aussie crowd goes wild, standing O, cheering with enthusiasm, and then rushing the court to make appointments with the missionaries for discussions leading to mass baptisms. (I may have made that last bit up).

If that ending doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. (6 guys fouled out, that’s like 60 free throws–no wonder that the Frenchies won). I was reduced to sitting there in the movie theater going “What? What?” This is not how you should feel at the end of a feel-good sports movie.

I will say this about it: the cars all looked great. It used all these vintage ’50s cars, and they all looked terrific. And there’s a throwaway character, a little kid named Lindsay Gaze, who I assume was Andrew Gaze’s grandfather. And teenaged Bill Russell makes a brief appearance. (And why oh why do the opening credits run over footage from Texas Western beating Kentucky? In 1966?) So it had some nostalgia value for fans. (Also, I’m a Utah Jazz fan, and there are two Aussies on our squad this year).

Still. This. A story of a group of missionaries teaching the inept Australian basketball team how to play basketball is an inherently comedic one, isn’t it? Isn’t it hoops Cool Runnings? But instead, we get this exercise in patriarchal sanctimony. It’s not terrible. But it was unfortunate. That’s a good story. Hope someone tells it better some day.

The Mormon Artists’ Retreat

Cows. Paintings of cows. Long faced cows, staring out at us, forlornly. Cows, representing the artist’s own fractured family. There’s an artist who looks at fields, from the vantage point of a driver on a lonely highway, and sees subjects for wonderfully flat paintings. Painting after painting, sculpture after sculpture, LDS artists finding inspiration in images and vistas and subjects I would never so much as consider. And transforming them.

The Mormon Artists’ Retreat this year was held, as in the recent past, at Aspen Grove, right up by Sundance, back side of Timp. We moved from cabin to cabin, making new friends, embracing old ones. The culmination of the weekend was on Friday night, when we gathered together for Show and Tell. We heard musicians I hadn’t heard before (and bought their CDs!). We saw a power point of the painters and sculptors and photographers, and saw the world through their eyes. And basked in art. In new art, old art, fresh art, spoken art, written art, painted and carved and sculpted and sung and played and acted art.

I needed this. This time last year, I was coming off my second surgery of what would be three, getting ever sicker and feeling more hopeless. This time last year, I had no gigs, no prospects for gigs, no inspiration. Now, a year later, I have two play productions on the horizon, a paper to write for a conference, a blog to neglect. The Artists’ Retreat blew a breath of renewal. I came away refreshed, inspired. Also knackered, but in a good way.

Saturday morning, after breakfast, a guitarist, Ben Howington, got up on stage and started playing the guitar and singing; the Battle Hymn of the Republic, that fabulous old abolitionist anthem. And then a woman I don’t know, Melody, a jazz pianist, went up to the piano and joined in, and they played together, passing solos back and forth. And Sam Cardon adjusted a mic so we could hear her better. Sam Cardon, one of the most distinguished of Mormon composers, playing roadie. And we started singing, a full-throated shout of praise and thanksgiving and determination. “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!” Sing it.

And then we’d gather, and talk. And it occurred to me; I’ve been going to this for twenty years. And in the past, there’d be talk about The World, and the kind of Worldly Art we Mormons needed to shun, or transcend, or generally avoid. This year, that was gone; this year, the rhetoric was about seeing the World, recognizing its glory, building on the best. The relationship between The World and The Spirit is not one of opposition. It’s a conversation.

Let the conversation continue. My people are doing great work, and so are people, everyone, everywhere. Mine eyes have seen the glory! Hallelujah.

Happiness, and Mormonism

My wife and I went out to dinner recently with some old friends. And we caught each other up on our lives and the lives of our children. And we talked about the Church lessons we remembered from MIA. Our teachers were good people, earnest and kind, and I know they wanted nothing for us but the best. And, because we’re Mormons, what they talked about were ideals. Serve a full-time mission, marry in the temple, raise your children with family prayer and family home evening and family scripture study. That was the way to achieve happiness.

Think of General Conference. Even the most cursory search through recent Conference talks shows how central ideals are to Mormonism. Richard G. Scott: “Do the best you can while on earth to have an ideal family” (achieved by studying and applying the Proclamation on the Family). David O. McKay: “I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal family life.” Neil Anderson: “In this continuing spiritual commotion, the restored gospel will continue to carry the standard, the ideal.”

And we talked about that at dinner, my friends and I, how far actuality can stray from the ideal. My wife and I are happy together, and have been for 35 years, but our lives are hardly ideal. Though I’m still young enough that I should still be working, my health makes that impossible, vastly increasing the burden on her. There are surely people whose lives do fit a Church cultural ideal. But I don’t know very many. Mostly, I know people who are struggling. And I think of Sophocles, who had a favorite line that appears in many, if not most of his plays: “count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.” Pain, disappointment, heartache, sorrow are all constants of our lives here.

And they’re supposed to be. Our understanding of the plan of salvation–what we’re now supposed to call the ‘Plan of Happiness’–is that coming to earth would be difficult and painful and sorrowful. Listening to conference talks, it can seem as though we conceive of happiness with a paint-by-numbers literalism. Do these things, follow this path with exactness, and the result will be happiness. On the other hand, the story of Adam and Eve is, according to our own scripture, a metaphor for the necessity of agony and heartache and loss.

I don’t mean to suggest that Mormonism hasn’t come to grips with, for example, that horrific and lethal disease we call clinical depression. There have been many poignant talks on that grim subject in recent years. But too many friends and family members suffer from it for me to ignore it in any discussion of personal happiness. It doesn’t matter what gospel living boxes we check off. For some people, everyday life is agony. It’s not happy at all. And that doesn’t always end well. What depressed people need is help, lots of it, constant help and care and medical attention.

Mormonism is a religion of paradoxes. We believe in personal revelation; we also believe in revelation through prophets, operating within an organization. We believe in personal responsibility; we also have the strongest possible attachment to the importance of communities. We believe in salvation by grace; also the central importance of works. We believe in both sides of the justice/mercy paradox. But we still insist that there are rules to actual life, that doing certain things in a certain order will lead to earthly happiness. And that’s not always true.

And so when we hear sermons emphasizing ideals–ideal families, ideal commitments, ideal service, ideal lives–it can feel like we’re neglecting, you know, reality. I wish the advice we received were more practical, more rooted in reality. How do we keep from beating ourselves up when we don’t reach the ideal? How can we stop ourselves from spiraling downward into depression? How can we keep on keepin’ on, when times become difficult and burdens hard to bear? How can we forgive ourselves more, hold each other up, stop pretending everything’s great when its not?

Because, let’s face it, an insistence on ideals can be immensely damaging. We do get down on ourselves. We do feel inadequate, and inadequacy can depress. I have a relative, a wonderful young man, who recently suffered a professional setback. He’s absolutely distraught over it. He feels like a failure. He’s punishing himself, because he didn’t, he thinks, live up to the ideal of husband=provider.

I wish I could fold him in my arms and tell him that he doesn’t need to beat himself up, that he is loved and worthy of love, that we recognize the goodness of his heart, and his devotion to his children and his wife, that he isn’t a failure, or anything like it. But it doesn’t seem to help.

I’m a pretty happy person, I think. I love my family deeply, and we have a good time together, mostly. I’m happy because I met the right woman at the right time in my life. I’m happy because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life at an early age, and then got lucky professionally and was able to actually do it. I’m happy because the chemicals in my head are conducive to happiness. I do appreciate having a religious community I can call my own. That’s a lovely blessing. But I’m blessed in other ways too.

Rather than focus on ideals, shouldn’t we instead talk about getting by, muddling along, doing what we can? I wish our cultural conversation were more honest, more accurate, more forgiving. As a culture, we seem to be capable of navigating a whole map full of complicated terrains and ecosystems. We are a culture of contradictions; a religion of paradoxes. And some, we cope with nimbly, with grace and elegance. We’re all going to fall short of our ideals. But let’s keep trying. When we fall short, let’s not mourn having missed an ideal. But get up, brush ourselves off, keep trying. And know that there are many others in the same situation who can help.

Why I stay

On Friday, I spoke at Sunstone, on the subject ‘Why I stay.’ A number of you were kind enough to ask if you could read the talk. Here it is:

“First, a moment of candor: I am a Mormon, because I was raised in a Mormon family. I grew up going to Church every Sunday, attending Primary and MIA; when I turned 19, I went on a mission. I never seriously considered doing otherwise. Why did I stay? Because, growing up, it never occurred to me to not stay.

Had I not grown up LDS, I think it unlikely that I would have found the Church on my own. But I don’t regret my lifelong membership and activity. Which is also not to say that I haven’t been tempted, that I haven’t suffered moments of doubt and difficulty and heartsickness over retrograde policies and cultural cluelessness. We stay for legitimate reasons, I think. Those of our faith who leave have similarly legitimate reasons for it.

It was on my mission when I experienced my first moments of cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t just the authoritarian style of my mission leadership. I didn’t know any better; I thought mission rules were supposed to be arbitrary and harsh. And while the policy of racially determined priesthood exclusion nagged at my conscience, it just didn’t come up very often. I was, after all, serving in blonde-haired blue-eyed Norway.

No, that first ripple in my testimony came as the result of a talk, by a General Authority, at a mission conference.  Here’s why we weren’t baptizing; here’s what we should do about it. Why were Norwegians not responding to our message? Pride, the sinful pride of you missionaries, he said, and disobedience. (‘Balderdash,’ said the little voice in my head). He left us with more unnecessary and arbitrary rules to follow—blue-suits-only was one, forcing me to leave my perfectly serviceable brown suit in the closet—and he mandated a new door approach, which he promised would lead to much more mission success, as defined by more baptisms. The door approach was woefully ill-suited for the Norwegian culture, and frankly kind of Gestapo, enough so that I thought it was likely to get us arrested. I did try it for most of one day—I was a district leader, and felt I had to lead by example, until my companion begged me to stop. And we did nearly get arrested. And I had to face a dismaying reality—a General Authority had spoken, presumably by inspiration, misidentifying the difficulties we faced as a mission, and prescribing preposterous solutions. This was not supposed to happen.

Nor were his solutions instructively absurd, the blue suits a blood-on-the-lintels act of devotion. As time went on, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice that the missionaries who baptized were those most dismissive of this particular GA’s prescriptions, and most prone to call him by a particularly unkind but probably inevitable nickname. Strict obedience was, quite specifically, what didn’t work. And that gradual realization became increasingly devastating.

I’m not going to tell you the name of that General Authority. For many years, I wouldn’t listen to him speak in Conference. Of course, he wasn’t the only one whose talks I thought were best avoided. The wife of a former stake President once said ‘if you aren’t filled with the desire to throw your shoe at the TV during General Conference at least occasionally, you probably aren’t paying attention.’ For them, as well as for us, inspiration is, at best, intermittent.

Getting a revelation is exceptionally difficult. When I’m struggling for an answer to a prayer, I can literally spend hours pondering and praying and trying to listen. And I’m rarely certain that my prayers have been answered, and oftentimes, subsequent events will prove that I wasn’t inspired at all. Culture is a powerful force, and its whisperings can drown out the still small voice, even if we can tell the difference between them.

The brother in charge of our region was trying to come up with an answer to an intractable problem; the difficulty in preaching the Restoration to affluent western Europeans. Western American conservative culture tends to be authoritarian, and so he was led to an authoritarian answer. He was a cultural conservative, and spoke as one. It was wrong for me to have judged him, or to hold a grudge for so long. He was a good man, struggling to hear and respond to the Spirit. It took me a long time to gain that more charitable perspective.

And why did I seek that perspective? Because I did, over the course of two years service in Norway, also grow a testimony. Yes, I was disillusioned. But I began also to feel blessed.

What does that mean, to have a testimony? I want to use language with specificity and precision, and that means, perhaps, resisting culturally familiar, but imprecise usages and clichés. I do not ever say, for example, that “I know the Church is true.” Or “I know that the Book of Mormon is true.” I don’t know what those words mean. I don’t know what ‘true’ means in describing an organization. If I say ‘this book is true,’ I’m probably referring to Newton’s Principia, not Second Nephi.

What I can say is this; that through service to other people, total strangers in fact, I began to have thoughts and feelings that seemed to me to have been externally generated. I would speak to someone in my halting Norwegian, and suddenly be overcome with a rush of unanticipated eloquence. I would see a distant house late on a night wasted in fruitless tracting, and a thought would occur—don’t go home, don’t quit for the night. You need to get to that house now. And a door would open. Teaching a lesson, I would suddenly know that the doctrine we were teaching was irrelevant to this person’s life, and that I needed immediately to switch gears and talk about something else. And I would follow that impulse, and see a life transform.

To what then can I testify? To something quite limited, it seems to me, but also at least potentially liberating. I can testify that I felt, at times, influenced by a power outside myself, and that I continue to feel so influenced. But it also works; pragmatically, it genuinely gets the job done.

So, two things. I got home from my mission in June of 1977. The first movie I saw when I got home was Star Wars; it was also what I saw the next eight times I went to see a movie. Just for some historical context. But anyway, July, 1977, I got home from work one day and saw that the new Ensign had arrived. I leafed through it, and read a talk by President Kimball. A gospel vision of the arts. This paragraph blew me away.

For years, I have been waiting for someone to do justice . . . to the story of the Restoration . . . the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions . . . the transitions . . . the persecution days.

I did not know, at that point, what I wanted to do with my life. But that article hit me like, well, like Luke’s missile hitting the Death Star. In an instant, sitting on the sofa in my parents’ living room, I knew, who I was and who I was supposed to become and what I was supposed to do. I would be a playwright, and perhaps at times an essayist and novelist but mostly a playwright, and I would write, in part, about my own culture. Unsparingly, truthfully, compassionately, but with integrity; I would write about my people. Later, in college and in grad school, I would find models for my own writing—Ibsen and Chekhov, Tom Stoppard and Athol Fugard, and when I discovered Angels in America, the great Tony Kushner. But that moment, reading that Ensign article, that was what launched me. A revelation? A vision? Or just a flash of ambition? Whatever the source, wherever it came from, it began in single moment, and has lasted a lifetime.

The next moment of inspiration came in 1978. I was in a BYU choir, and we sang the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s magnificent piece, The Redeemer. I was a tall bass, and shared a riser with a tall blonde soprano. We chatted a bit during rehearsal breaks. At one point, she turned away, and I found myself looking at her, just the side of her lovely face, framed by her blonde hair.

It wasn’t love at first sight, not at all. We were both in choir again the next fall, and became friends. We liked a lot of the same books, we enjoyed the same music. Our relationship didn’t turn romantic for many months. But at that moment, sharing a riser, singing a piece of music we both loved, I knew, absolutely knew, that this person was going to be an important part of my life. She was a girl I shared a riser with; it’s entirely possible we would never have met again. But I knew, in my heart, that something beyond that choir and that music was going on. I didn’t think ‘that’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ Turns out, it was, and our marriage has become the centerpiece of the last thirty five years of my life. At the time, though, all I knew was that something significant was going to happen in my life involving this person. Marriage and four children? I had no idea. Still, something spoke to me.

Now, of course, you’re going to say, well, weird impulsive feelings happen all the time, without any religious meaning or context. People get inspired to pursue a career path, people meet and think ‘let’s keep this conversation going.’ Invoking gifts of the Spirit is not required to explain a common enough phenomenon. And that’s perfectly true. I interpret these two experiences as meaning something, but I know that something to be a Mormon cultural construct; The Spirit revealed my career path and the personal importance of the woman I would marry. That’s how I understand those experiences; other will say ‘career eureka moment and love at first sight.’

But that’s all right. In the D%C, we’re told that “in nothing does man offend God” more than when we “confess not his hand in all things.” That suggests to me that we’re not just justified but maybe sort of obligated to say ‘this was God speaking, this was inspiration, this was revealed.’ And that is what I believe today.

Annette and I married, we had four children, and I began teaching at BYU. And we had some joyful years, teaching theatre history and theory and playwriting, writing and directing and researching. And experiencing genuine moments of spiritual growth, transcendence, even. As well as moments of cognitive dissonance.

Is it just me, or did everything get weird in 2008? That’s my impression, at least. I’d write plays, and they’d be well received, and vigorously supported by the BYU administration. And then that stopped being true. A new University President was called, who knew not Joseph. More significantly, a new American President was elected. And, this is entirely my subjective impression of course, but it seems to me that conservatives went crazy.

I was too new at BYU and in Utah to understand or be much affected by the events of 1993, the brutal excommunications of the September Six. But my testimony has been buffeted by subsequent events, by further moments of cognitive dissonance. I am especially thinking of my LGBT friends and family members who feel, with justification, that there’s no legitimate place for them, that they will always be, at best, second-class citizens of the kingdom of heaven. And it breaks my heart.

People leave the Church because the pain of staying overpowers the desire to remain. Our brothers and sisters who leave, do so because they need to avoid continuing pain. A short answer to the question “why do I stay?” is because I haven’t been hurt enough to require that I leave.  The Church has never hurt me. BYU is another matter entirely. While I loved my twenty years on the BYU faculty, loved the students and colleagues and classes and plays, my time there ended badly, and hurtfully. But at that point, four years ago, I do believe that Heavenly Father saved me, mostly by making me really really sick. Time for more forgiveness, time for humility, and perhaps a more nuanced understanding. Those events certainly never drove me to want to leave. I stay because I think there’s good I can accomplish by staying.

There are times when we need to speak up, allow our voices to be heard. It is wrong, morally wrong, for BYU to expel good students who have, due to a crisis of conscience or faith, decided to leave the Church. That policy is indefensible, and incompatible with basic gospel principles of agency and accountability. The recent changes in the handbook regarding the children of LGBT families seems similarly uncharitable, unkind, and inconsistent with basic gospel principles, including the second Article of Faith. As I look back at the mission conference talk that so bothered me, it seems another example of practices borrowed from contemporary corporate culture, overriding the personal, individual touch favored by the Savior. And while I applaud the recent LDS.org essays on history and doctrine, the perspective they offer are not reflected in lesson manuals and other approved materials.

As the surreal 2016 election has unfolded in all its magnificent weirdness, it occurred to that in a sense, I am a Hillary Clinton Mormon. That is to say, I am fully aware that the organization to which I have given my lifelong allegiance is, in many ways, not all it should be. I know of its checkered history, especially on issues of race and LGBT rights. I know that it is only fitfully progressive. I think it unlikely that I would ever have become a Mormon if not raised to it. I probably would have become a Democrat, but I’d probably be leaning Jill Stein right now.

But Mormonism has become my home, just as the Democratic party has. I don’t believe in magical revolutionary solutions. I prefer to work within the organization, to do whatever good I can, to nudge things forward bit by bit, rather than hope for an improbable breakthrough.  That’s not to say that improbable breakthroughs can’t happen, as we all learned in 1978. But in the meantime, I do what I can, function where I am.

Meanwhile, I have a friend, a former stake President, who told me a few years ago about his awesome calling. Twice a week, doctors and nurses and other medical personnel provided free health care to anyone who needed it; his calling was to organize those events. All supplies were free of charge, including medications. I asked how many of the people who took advantage of this opportunity were undocumented immigrants. He said that his instructions were specific and clear; they weren’t ever to ask. And didn’t. He said they were also told that the press was discouraged from reporting on it. This wasn’t public relations, he said, it was pure compassion, Christianity at its finest. And therefore the best calling he’d had in a life of service.

So that’s also why I stay. Gene England, ultimately was right; the Church is as true as the gospel. And when we say ‘the Church,’ what do we mean? I don’t often think of the larger institutional Church. I mean my ward, the three to four hundred friends and neighbors with whom I so happily worship, every Sunday of my life. It does indeed take a village to raise a child, and I am forever grateful to the Primary workers and Young Men’s and Young Women’s Presidencies who have served so faithfully, who have befriended and loved my children. And I think of my own opportunities to stretch my compassion muscles and serve.

A month ago, I was very ill. I called my home teachers for a blessing. One of my home teachers is from Mexico, and speaks very limited English. But something, the Spirit, spoke, and said that brother should seal and bless, and that he should do so in the language he was comfortable with, Spanish. And he laid his hands upon my head, and I only understood a few words of what he said. But I felt it, an almost overpowering feeling of love and kindness, what I believe was a personal communication from my Heavenly Father. I was going to be okay. It was in his hands. He loved me, and knew how much longer He needed me here. In the meantime, be of good cheer. My eyes filled with tears, and I looked in the face of my good brother, and could see he’d felt the same thing I had. And I looked at my wife, my anchor and my joy, and I knew we were together for a reason, even if it’s not always clear what that reason might be. Love. Kindness. Service. Love.

And that is why I stay.