Category Archives: Mormonism

Pinewood Derby

I don’t follow auto racing, but I did enjoy Kyle Busch’s appearance on Colbert last night. He’d just won something called the Sprint Cup, which somehow involves driving a car really fast–I don’t entirely understand it. But he seemed like a bright and agreeable young man. And then Colbert challenged him to an auto race, involving Pinewood Derby cars. And I felt a little tug of nostalgia.

I say this without pride, but I do believe that I was the worst Pinewood Derby father in the storied history of that competition. Pinewood Derby, you see, is something Cub Scouts do with their Dads. It involves Dad and Cub carving a race car out of soft pine, painting it, and then getting together with all the other Cub Scouts and their Dads and racing the cars against each other. A Pinewood Derby track is just a straight track downhill; you perch your cars on the top, a lever releases both cars simultaneously, and at the bottom, judges watch carefully to see who won. Perfectly simple.


So when my oldest son, Kai, was old enough for Cub Scouts, this was an activity that was much anticipated, talked up by Cub leaders and wildly excited little boys. I knew about it, of course; I’d been a Cub Scout, after all. I don’t remember if we did Pinewood Derby or not, but I had friends in school; I wasn’t a complete ignoramus. So when my son brought home a car building kit, my initial response was that this was going to be fun. A father/son activity; educational and enjoyable. Build a car together. It didn’t seem all that challenging.

To turn a block of pinewood into a race car requires, of course, tools, and the ability to use them effectively. That leaves me out.  I can’t build anything, or repair anything. As a Boy Scout I did earn Home Repairs merit badge, because my Dad (who has mad carpentry skills), figured (correctly) that home ownership was likely to be in my future, and that I should know how to do some basic repairs. He was also the counselor, and apparently, I replaced enough light bulbs (my one skill) to get the badge. And that merit badge has served me well. Just yesterday, a stair rail broke, and I knew exactly what to do. I Googled ‘handymen-Provo’ and found a guy who knows how to fix stair railings, and watched with great interest as he did a thoroughly professional job of it. That’s my attitude towards carpentry; I think it’s good for the economy to pay people to do it for me.

But, boy, was that not true of the other Cub Scout Dads in my son’s pack. They didn’t just cut the wood so it looked vaguely automobilish. They used lathes and mitre boxes and power sanders. Their process involved all sorts of even more exotic tools, which they owned and knew how to use. They had copies of the official Pinewood Derby rules, and knew, to within a micron, what the cars weight limits were. They melted lead, and poured it into cunningly prepared recesses in the chassis of their cars. And their boys helped, presumably, in processes involving happy, involved hours of father/son interaction. They built wind tunnels in their basements, and experimented with variously aerodynamic car shapes.

Me, I was just trying to keep the wheels to stay on. That’s harder than it sounds. And my poor son sat patiently, making suggestions and pitching in. We did have a good time painting the darn thing. It looked menacing, I’ll tell you. We did a bunch of coats of paint. Our car looked . . . amateurish, but hey, we did all the work ourselves. Building the car was frustrating, to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have any tools, and wouldn’t have known how to use them if I did have some. Basically, we used a rather dull kitchen knife. Good thing pine’s a soft wood.

So, anyway, came time for the Pinewood Derby. And I desperately hoped that Kai wouldn’t be embarrassed. I hoped we wouldn’t finish last every race. I hoped our car would at least look kinda cool. I hoped Kai, at least, would have a positive experience, or at least remember it afterwards with some fondness.

We finished last in every race. In fact, we never once made it to the bottom of the track. Basic gravity should have allowed us to at least finish, but the wheels kept falling off. It wasn’t just that all the other cars looked faster than ours, they even looked cooler. In fact, all the cars were seriously badass looking, except for ours. And then they ran, so smoothly, so beautifully, so darned fast.  It was a pathetic, humiliating morning. And afterwards, Kai was busy comforting me. That’s how awful it was; my eight-year-old son kept patting me on the back, telling me not to cry.

And the other Dads. Oh, my gosh, the other Dads. If they’d been jerks about it, if they’d crowed, or bragged, or laughed, or mocked, I would have understood. It would have been more satisfying, because I would have had people for which I could have worked up a good healthy hatred. But no; their reaction was much much worse than that. They were kind. They were compassionate. They made numerous helpful suggestions. They took pity on us. They offered to fix the wheels, until it was discovered that it was against the rules. They honestly couldn’t have been nicer.

(And when they weren’t being nice to me, they were busy comparing notes. What was the optimum molten lead placement? Could I see your air tunnel? Was acrylic-based paint more aerodynamic than water-based? Jerks).

And so, that Sunday, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to Church. All those other Dads, all of them Elders, all of them members of my quorum. I knew that if I went, they’d keep on being nice about it. They’d make reference to it in Priesthood, and would derive a gospel lesson from it; ‘the Parable of the slightly slower Pinewood Derby Car, and also poor Brother Samuelsen’s.’ Kai would have to deal with it too, the good-natured ribbing from the boys in his Sunday School class. Kai was, even then, an extraordinarily mellow and kind-hearted guy, and I knew he’d find the humor in the experience quickly enough. That was all we needed, after all; to laugh it off. But I wasn’t capable of it. Not that first Sunday. Not a chance.

Nor the next Sunday either. Too soon.

Nor the next Sunday, as it happened. The whole thing still rankled. And I remained filled with indignation. I mean, how dare they? The nerve of it, them being all friendly and helpful and kind! Outrageous!

And then the fourth Sunday, I realized that I was being an idiot, that it didn’t matter, and that I needed to get my sorry butt to Church. (It’s possible that my wife may have helped me reach that realization). And so I went, and of course all the guys in the quorum couldn’t have been nicer. They assumed I’d had the flu or something, and were glad to see me again. And I realized that they really were nice guys. Just better with their hands than I was.

Still, it’s hard to even think about Cub Scouts or Pinewood Derby, or the prospect of building things. Even today, assembling things gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m just not good at construction, and that’s okay; I have other strengths. There are people who are good with their hands, who will do it, for cash. And that’s okay.

See, my problem with Pinewood Derby wasn’t that I suck at carpentry. It’s that I was poor. If only we could have purchased a race car. . . .




The Zen of hospitals

I’ve been ill.

And being ill, placing one’s life in the hands of medical professionals, subjecting oneself to medical tests and invasive procedures and the routines and protocols of a modern American hospital can be a humiliating and abasing experience. It certainly leads to self-absorption, a preoccupation with me me me, a focus on what body parts hurt and how much and whether the pain is worse today than it was yesterday. You have the time and leisure to indulge in almost comical amounts of self-pity. You tend to whine a lot, frankly. You know you don’t look attractive, and you don’t feel much obligation to behave attractively. You feel rotten, and don’t much care who knows it.

If I am a Christian (and I certainly try to be one), I need to strive to be a Christian even when feeling crummy. That gets tricky because Christianity is essentially other-directed–do unto others. As a Christian, I remained obliged to look for opportunities for service. Can be hard, when you’re weak as a kitten, and almost wholly dependent. Which is why, as a basic hospital-spiritual-survival strategy, I found my mind turning more and more to the teachings of the Buddha, and to the Four Noble Truths, bearing in mind that my acquaintance with Buddhism is almost hilariously shallow and my understanding of it preposterously limited. I have done a little reading; that’s all. A little meditation. But if the basic orientation of Buddhism is that worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfying, well, try checking into your local hospital.

I am not, by the way, going to make the usual gibes about how inedible hospital food is, how uncomfortable the beds, or how bossy the nurses. In fact, the biggest surprise was to discover that hospital food (at least as provided in Utah Valley Hospital), has suddenly and shockingly become delicious. I was provided a substantial menu, with dozens of tasty choices, which I ordered via room service. The food was fresh, well prepared, beautifully seasoned. Ordering meals became the highlight of each day. I thought my hospital bed was remarkably comfy (aside from not being able to move around much, because I was hooked into so many tubes and gadgets), and I thought the staff were all, without exception, kind and thoughtful.

It’s just the routines that get to you. The hourly checking of vital signs. The beeping of the IV drip, and all the other noisy implements of healing. The DVT-prevention squeezy stocking things on your legs 24-7. The constant need by the staff to draw blood, to measure urine output, to dispense various meds at maddening intervals. The infuriating infrequency of doctors’ visits, and the excruciating pace at which medical information is dispensed. A hospital stay can come to feel like a relentless assault on your dignity and autonomy. And even though all those nice people are actually engaged in a project you actually do support (keeping you alive), it’s so easy to become peevish and resentful.

What you feel, in fact, is dukkha. The physical and mental suffering associated with aging, illness and death. But, and this is crucial, Buddha taught that we grow only when we accept dukkha, and grow beyond it.

So. There was one morning when I’d had a particularly tough night’s sleep, and hadn’t managed to keep the previous night’s dinner down. I was hungry, and I was cranky. And the nurse came in and suggested that I order breakfast. It took around 45 minutes for meals to arrive, and there was a medication she wanted me to take in about 30 minutes. And it was important that I not eat until after I’d had that med. So the timing seemed propitious, and so I ordered. One breakfast menu item was for french toast, which looked tasty; it also looked mild enough for my poor stomach. So I made the call. That was the routine; this one medication, followed by a yummy breakfast.

My room door was ajar; I could hear what was going on in the nurses’ station. And suddenly, I heard a man start yelling. From pain, frustration, fear? I will never know. He went on and on. He screamed, over and over. My breakfast arrived. It sat on my table. The man kept yelling. I knew that the nurse didn’t want me to eat until she’d given me my medication. I knew why she hadn’t come; I could hear this poor guy. And resent him, because I was really getting hungry, and the food smelled delicious. And still, the man yelled.

So: major annoyance and anger. Where was my nurse? Where was my pill? I wanted to eat, darn it! French toast! With syrup! What’s up with this jerk, yelling his fool head off? I wanted my doggone breakfast! I wanted it NOW. That’s how you get in hospitals.

I thought: ‘dukkha.’ So I closed my eyes. I thought about what a perfect opportunity this was to exercise muscles, like ‘humor’ and ‘patience,’ that are too seldom used. I closed my eyes. I don’t want to say that I began meditating, exactly, or that I was praying; not really. Sort of a combination of both. Just trying to clear my mind, trying to focus on this poor man, clearly in deep distress, and the poor nursing staff desperately trying to help him. I ignored my cooling breakfast; I ignored the room clock. I crossed my hands across my chest and I just tried to get my head right with God, frankly. Let the time pass; let the moment linger. And I started to count my blessings.

Yes, I thought, I’m ill. But I have good doctors, a diagnosis, a prognosis, a course of treatment. I’m going to get better–conditionally better, to be sure, but better enough to continue to do the things I love, maybe even make myself a little useful.  I am married, I thought, to a wonderful, strong, smart, funny, kind-hearted woman. I thought about her, my wife, and how much I treasured her love. I remembered when we were dating. I remembered good times we’d shared. I began to think of my children, each of them individually, and how grateful I was to have these smart, funny, clever, decent, good people in my life. I focused on each child in turn; I thought about great experiences I’d had with each one as they grew into adulthood. I thought about students I had taught, and how much I had learned from them, and how inspired I’d always been by their wonderful questing minds.

An hour and twenty five minutes after my breakfast arrived, my poor, harried nurse came in with my pills, full of apologies, which I waved off. I asked about the distressed man I’d heard; was there anything I could do to help? She said they had it covered. Another nurse came in, and had to take my vitals; another had to draw some blood. And then, finally, I was able to enjoy my breakfast. And it turned out that cold french toast (washed down with brackish milk) tasted just fine. I enjoyed that breakfast immensely.

The First Noble Truth of Buddism, is, of course, dukkha; dissatisfaction. But the Fourth Noble Truth is the possibility of liberation from dukkha, through correct conduct and meditation. (And yes, I know, I’m a bumbling neophyte). Still, to that tiniest of degrees, I found a way to reconcile my paltry and inadequate understanding of a religion I have barely studied with my own faith, one I so falteringly practice. And I found some measure of peace, some tranquility.

And this: while I was in the hospital, I was visited by two men in my ward, young family men, fathers of small children. One was my home teacher; the other, his neighbor. And they visited me, and gave me a blessing, a blessing of peace and healing. And what was so remarkable about that extraordinary act of kindness was that it wasn’t remarkable at all. It’s just what we do, we Mormons. And that sustained me, that blessing, and its efficacy, and their faith and humble beneficence. And that, in turn, helped me through the Crisis of the Late Breakfast. It put my querulous selfishness into a truer perspective.

I was mostly just an inert lump in a hospital bed, waiting for medications to reverse a deadly infection, waiting for a miracle; a quotidian miracle to be sure, the miracle of modern medical science. Still, I needed a miracle, and I got one, a miracle called ‘antibiotics.’ I also needed strength, and faith, and patience, and still do. And I’m grateful, endlessly grateful, for my time in the hospital, for words of prophetic counsel, from Buddha and from my ward. All truth is helpful, all principles of truth are blessings. And God’s hand steers the helm.



Why I don’t think we’re in the Last Days

Wars and rumors of wars. Nation against nation. Famines, pestilences, earthquakes. Iniquity abounding, love waxing cold. False prophets, false Christs. Matthew 24 is terrifying. And there has never been a time in human history when decent, thoughtful people haven’t read Jesus’ great sermon on the abomination of desolation, looked at their world, their time, their society, and nodded their heads sadly. And thought, ‘yep. Now. Us. Right now.’

And thought as well, with the Revelator, “Even so, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”

Except that we also know it already happened. Matthew 24 is a private sermon, Jesus to his disciples, warning them of events they would see in their lifetime. It happened. The references to this Abomination of Desolation are generally thought, by most Bible scholars, to have prophesied the invasion of Palestine by the Roman Emperor Titus, in 70 CE. There are many other theories of course, but in context, it’s clear enough: he’s saying ‘you guys living in Judea, horrible things are going to happen. Flee to the mountains.’

Of course, prophesies can have multiple applications, and multiple fulfillments. It’s likewise true, though, that some parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally and specifically (‘love thy enemies’) and other parts of the Bible are likely meant more metaphorically (Noah’s Ark, for example: not a literal event, but a general reminder: ‘when natural disasters occur, God still loves you’). I don’t know which category the Last Days fit in. As a Mormon, I’m a Latter-day Saint; not a Last Days Saint. We’re here, now, two millennia after Christ’s ministry. A latter time. Not necessarily in the End of Days.

And certainly our day is a time filled with war, with violence, terrible tragedies and violence and hatred and rage. Absolutely true. Always been true. But consider these facts.

In the 1981, the best estimates were that 51 percent of the people of the world lived in deep poverty. In 2015, the best estimate is that 20 percent of the world is in abject poverty. Hugh Evans of the Global Poverty Project believes that it will be possible to end world-wide poverty by 2030, through sustainable development.  Of course, that’s an insane goal. It may also be achievable.

Smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, has been eradicated. Guinea worm disease afflicted 3.5 million people, in 21 countries, in 1986. Last year, there were 126 cases world-wide. Malaria remains a terrible scourge, but incidences have been cut in half, and are declining, due to the wide-spread dissemination of mosquito nets, an effort that is on-going. Diseases that once killed millions have been essentially eliminated.

Of course war remains the great enemy of mankind. And certainly there are many vicious wars being fought in the world today, But a smaller percentage of the earth’s population dies violently today than at any other time in the history of mankind. Last Days prophecies, found in both Old and New Testaments, come from the same tortured corner of the globe where unrest and violence most seem to prevail today. That can lead us to overreact to current events a bit. But wars and rumors of wars? They exist today, certainly. So have they always done.

We always like to compare the difficulties and problems of our epoch with rosy-colored projections of how much better things supposedly were in the past. (Better for everyone? Better for women? For racial minorities? For our gay brothers and sisters?)  But I ask this: in what possible sense is the world today so very wicked? Yes, war is terrible, no question, and the technology of our day has sadly, managed to perfect the savage art of killing people in large numbers. But there are at least fewer wars, than ever before in history. Women have rights never previously contemplated, and race-hatred is surely greatly diminished. Violent crimes occur, but with much less frequency than ever in history, and we see, to our astonishment, unimaginable advances in transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture. Fewer children starve, fewer suffer from abuse, fewer are forced into labor, than ever before. Of course, we have a long way to go before we can say we have eradicated poverty, despair, disease and violence, but can’t you see how unimaginably far we’ve come?

I do not claim to be a prophet, or anything like one. No one knows the hour or the day. I would add this: no one knows how literally we’re to understand scriptures referring to the destruction of the Last Days. But at the very least, the Biblical use of the word ‘soon’ has come to mean, ‘at least 2000 years, and probably a lot longer.’ Is it possible that the millennium is something we’re supposed to make happen, that peace on earth is something we’re supposed to work towards, with hope and faith and determination? Is it possible that the Second Coming refers to an attitude, an approach, a mindset we’re supposed to internalize, love for our enemies as well as our friends, a general sense of forgiveness and cooperation? Is it possible that we’re supposed to make it happen?

And if there is a literal Second Coming, isn’t peaceful cooperation the thing we want to be caught doing when He comes?

Julie Rowe: what’s the harm?

Yesterday, I wrote about Julie Rowe, the woman who claims to have seen visions persuading her that we live in the End of Days. I’m afraid that my post was, uh, skeptical of her claims. I have received a lot of responses to that post–most agree with me, a few do not. That’s fine. There is one type of response, however, that I think is worth responding to.  It goes like this: what does it matter? Let’s suppose she got it wrong. Let’s suppose that the destruction of the Last Days does not begin this September 28. So what? People may have been motivated to add to their personal preparation supplies. That’s all to the good. She’s a nice lady; who has she harmed?What’s the big deal?

Well, to begin with, let’s talk about this matter of people stocking up on emergency supplies. With these kinds of apocalyptic announcements comes a sense of urgency, possibly even a sense of panic and fear. Isn’t it possible that people, driven by desperation might spend a whole lot of money they don’t have and can’t afford? Are people maxing out credit cards, blowing through savings, even taking out second mortgages? I’ve heard of each of these things. I remember during a previous scare a good friend telling me that he was cashing in all his savings bonds, money he had set aside for college for his kids. It didn’t matter, because his kids were just teenagers and in the Last Days, nobody was going to college, that was certain. Buy supplies, by all means. Budget for it, look for bargains, take your time. Don’t panic-buy. And yet, that is precisely what some people are doing, according to friends at Emergency Essentials.

I didn’t mention this in my last post, but according to Julie Rowe, America’s currency is going to be rendered worthless. We should stock up on gold, which will retain value in a barter economy. I don’t know what to say about that; it’s also a popular Glen Beck trope, I know. But it’s the worst kind of nonsense. Gold is just another commodity, priced the way all commodities are priced, according to the immutable laws of supply and demand. It has no inherent value. To say ‘we’ll be fine if our economy collapses, because we’ll have lots of gold stockpiled’ really only makes sense if we assume that the people with all the food and water will be dentists, in need of a metal to use in fillings. The idea that gold will always be of value is just magical thinking at its worst. The idea that a whole bunch of people will waste their time and money investing in gold is quite frightening.

Of course, Julie Rowe also urges people to buy guns. Just what we need, even more firearms in circulation. Add panic and fear and desperation, and I see a potentially combustible mix.

In addition, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how dangerous I find Julie Rowe’s claim that the 2008 election was stolen. Again, she offers no evidence for it; she saw it in a vision. This isn’t just dangerous because it isn’t true, and didn’t happen. There is literally no evidence suggesting that the election was stolen, and several hundred thousands of pieces of evidence proving that it didn’t happen. (Every exit poll, every election machine in America). This assertion feeds the worst kind of conspiracy theories. It de-legitimizes the election of the sitting President of the United States.

I understand that conservatives don’t like President Obama. I didn’t like President Bush. It’s as American as apple pie to disagree, on partisan grounds, with the policies of the President. But when President Bush was in the White House, post-9/11, some liberals began to circulate the conspiracy theory that the buildings of the World Trade Center had not collapsed because they were hit by jetliners, but that they were destroyed by explosives smuggled into the buildings by members of the Bush administration. Essentially, some liberals accused President Bush of having murdered thousands of Americans on 9/11. I spoke out against that accusation at the time, and have continued to so repeatedly. That kind of thinking genuinely does endanger our democracy.

By the same token, the notion that President Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, that he is secretly in league with Muslim terrorists, that he is an evil and designing man deliberately trying to destroy America, all the conspiracy theories regarding his Presidency, they’re equally pernicious, equally dangerous, equally damaging to American democracy.

Disagree with his policies. That’s fine. Argue with all the eloquence you can muster for different, in your mind better policies. Go wild. But don’t question the legitimacy of his Presidency. That way leads nowhere constructive. We will never solve our nation’s problems until we can agree on this central notion: that our political opponents are patriotic men and women, with whom we disagree on matters of policy. Period.

When asked to do so by the Church, Julie Rowe has disavowed any claims to prophetic status. That is to her credit. I’ve heard that she’s a very nice lady. I don’t doubt it. In my previous post, I suggested that she might be a charlatan; I withdraw that accusation. But I do not believe in her visions, I don’t think anything special’s going to happen within the next couple of weeks. I don’t even doubt that she had a near-death experience, and that she believes herself to have had visions. But she saw things that aren’t true. Make of that what you will.



Julie Rowe

This week, I have been listening to Julie Rowe’s first two interviews on the Mills Crenshaw radio show, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Julie Rowe, for those of you don’t know her, is a Mormon woman from Tucson who had a near-death experience in 2004. As part of that experience, she says she met a guardian angel, John, who let her read from the Book of Life, leading to a series of visions about the Earth’s past, present, and future. In other words, she claims to have seen the End of Days. It’s going to start soon. Specifically, it’s going to start on September 28. And this prophecy has been a boon for the good folks at Emergency Essentials, let me tell you, who are doing a brisk business of late.

I had never heard of Mills Crenshaw prior to listening to these interviews on Youtube. He’s apparently a Utah conservative radio talk show host of some renown. Listening to his interview with Rowe, the word I would use to describe him is ‘credulous.’ (Also ‘unhurried’; the two interviews each lasted two hours, and there are four more hours worth on Youtube). He accepts her visions uncritically. And why wouldn’t he? Everything she says fits with a certain conservative Mormon world-view.

Rowe has gotten a lot of notoriety because of her Last Days prophecies, but listening to her radio interviews, those prophesies are in fact a very small part of her message. Mostly, she talks about seeing, well, the characters and narratives of the Bible and Book of Mormon. She describes encounters with Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses. She sees the construction of the Ark and the Tower of Babel. While she’s at it, she name-drops Columbus and George Washington. Every one of these personages is described with a kind of fan-girl enthusiasm. Adam is ‘so great.’ It’s like that for everyone; they’re all great men, all powerful leaders. We never hear a physical description of anyone, until she gushes about Jesus’ beautiful blue eyes. A middle-eastern semitic Jew with blue eyes? But she’s insistent on the point, and Mills Crenshaw never once expresses the tiniest skepticism.

Finally, though, we do get to our day, now, and that’s where her message moves from LDS-cultural conservative to full-on wingnut. She insists that the 2008 election was stolen. So was 2012. We have a wicked and designing man, intent on destroying America, in the White House. And it’s likely the next election will bring someone even more evil. And that’s where we’re going to see foreign troops invading America unopposed. And we’ll all have to gather. To Missouri, presumably, though Independence and Jackson County are already pretty heavily populated.

The heavens will let loose and the powers of darkness will rage. There will be natural disasters on a massive scale unlike anything the earth has experienced before.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, plagues, droughts, famines, pestilence and all manner of disasters will be upon the earth in such a deep and broadened scale that mankind cannot even imagine what it will be like.The world as we know it will cease to exist.

She describes international catastrophes as well. She has seen a nuclear weapon launched from Syria. And Iran. And the destruction of the Dome of the Rock. No wonder folks are stocking up on water, buying foodstuffs, survival gear, gold, and of course, guns.

Look, my tone’s probably given away my lack of enthusiasm for Julie Rowe and her message. One difficulty is that she doesn’t really talk about any of these catastrophes in any detail. Her narrative is interrupted by this frequent coyness: ‘I’ve seen that, but I’ve been instructed not to tell people much detail.’ I couldn’t help but notice that the details she’s unable to provide tend to coincide with testable facts. To give just one example, she insists that President Obama rigged the election of 2008. Well, all right, how exactly did he rig it? What specifically was done? Her inevitable reply ‘I do know that. I’ve seen it in a vision. But I’ve been forbidden to share it.’

Here’s the thing. If, say, Mills Crenshaw were to say ‘I think Barack Obama stole the election in 2008,’ well fine. We could ask what his evidence is, we could research that evidence, we could fact-check his assertions. But that’s not possible with Julie Rowe, of course, because it’s not her idea, not her opinion, not a conclusion she reasoned her way to; it came to her in a vision. This is important because, the notion that a national election was stolen recently is exactly the kind of opinion that we experienced political science types tend to call ‘wackadoodle.’

There simply aren’t any facts to support that particular conclusion. So, you know, we basically know she’s wrong on that one. As for all the rest of it, we do have one testable hypothesis. She claims that seriously bad things are going to happen in the world beginning September 28. That’s eleven days from now. Of course, it’s always possible that, coincidentally, a tsunami or something might hit in a week and a half. Boy, won’t skeptics like me look stupid then!

But I’ll chance it.

Sadly, there really are only two possible ways of understanding Julie Rowe, both of them unkind and uncharitable. She might be a charlatan, a fraud. Or she might be sincerely deluded. She might just be nuts. On that point, we have no real basis for judgment; we don’t have enough evidence to support either theory.

I suppose it’s also possible that she’s right. If so, we’ll find out soon enough.

Just watch me

I know it’s well-intentioned. I know that people are trying to be kind, trying to offer counsel based on life experience, trying to provide a more mature adult perspective. And there’s truth in it. Not all dreams are realistic. But there’s a message our young people, and especially our young women, in Mormon culture and also in American culture, are being taught. It’s a message of limitation. It’s a message of can’t, a message of don’t try. It’s a message that says that your dreams aren’t achievable. It goes like this: ‘you have to be realistic. It’s going to be impossible to balance what you want to achieve against the realities of family life. You can’t have it all. It isn’t possible. No matter how hard you work, no matter how smart you are, no matter how disciplined, you probably cannot do all the things you want to do.’

You want to be a cardiologist. You probably won’t be able to. You want to move to Los Angeles, and act professionally. That’s not a responsible, reasonable dream. You want to go to graduate school, get a PhD, make a scholarly contribution. That’s probably not realistic. You want to go to law school, get a job in a law firm, sue big corporations, argue cases in the highest courts. That’s not likely to come true. Why are you majoring in construction management? That’s not really a good major for a girl. Switch to something more sensible.

You can’t do it. You can’t balance marriage and career that way. You can’t spare the time, the many years of professional training and preparation required to succeed in that field the way you want to. You can’t do it.

And more and more, young LDS women I know are responding to that advice, that kindly intended, so reasonable, so rational advice. And here’s what I hear them saying:

Just watch me.

If you can’t help me, then at least get out of my way. I can too do this. And you can’t stop me. Nothing can. Nothing will. Just. Watch. Me.

And also, by the way, some encouragement would be nice. Not that I need it.

I taught at the university level for over twenty years. And while I certainly don’t claim to have had a lot to do with it, I look back over the young women I had the great privilege of teaching. And they’re doing it. They’re doing what our culture has tried to tell them they shouldn’t even try. They are achieving.

I have a friend, a former student, who is in medical school–in fact, I know several doctors and doctors-to-be. One’s an oncologist: one is currently in a cardiology residency. Young women who are going to change the world. I know a whole bunch of lawyers. Smart, capable, hard working young women who have no interest in a culture of limitation. I just got a wonderful Facebook message from an actress who I once worked with in a show. She’s at Harvard, getting her PhD. She’s a brilliant young woman, with a joyful, positive, optimistic confidence in her own ability to write and research and change the way we understand the world. I know several young actresses, women who have carved out successful careers in what I think is probably the most difficult profession in America. They’re not movie stars, but they’re able to support themselves, they’re always working, they’re accepting professional challenges, and they’re succeeding.

And yes, I know a young woman who is majoring in construction management. She’s generally the only woman in her classes. And she’s excelling in her program. She knows exactly what she wants to do with her life, and she’s going to make it. I can also say that her parents support her goals one hundred percent. I can say that with confidence, because I’m one of them.

This is the future of Mormonism. This is where we are, and where we are going. And more and more, equality is going to be part of it, because these young women, these remarkable and motivated young women, simply won’t settle for anything else.

And what about the young men of Mormonism? Well, they’re going to have to keep up. They’re going to have to bring it. The women of Mormonism are simply not going to be interested in second-rate, or second-best. I’m honestly a bit more concerned about the guys, to be honest, because our culture coddles them, a bit, and they haven’t had to fight as hard for support.

But the women. Man, the young women of Mormon culture amaze me. Let’s stop trying to hold them back. Let’s stop well-meaning messages of limitation-acceptance. Tell these women that they can’t, that they won’t, that they never will. And listen to the response.

Just watch me.



Once I was a Beehive: Movie Review

Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.

The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.

Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.

Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.

Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.

In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.

And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.

There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.

And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.

I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.

That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.

(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).

There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.

I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.

Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.

Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.


Lord Baden-Powell and sexuality

In 1908, General Robert Baden-Powell, later elevated to Lord Baden-Powell, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War, founded an organization he called The Boy Scout Association. That same year, he published Scouting for Boys, a guide to safely camping outdoors, and the first iteration of what would become the Boy Scout Manual. The year previously, Baden-Powell had tried out his ideas for what he hoped would become a national organization to promote wholesome, enjoyable outdoors activities for young men, by taking twenty boys to Brownsea Island and having the first Scout Camp. Two years later, an American businessman named W. D. Boyce discovered the British organization, and decided to start an American version. There’s a lot of mythology regarding the histories of both Baden-Powell and Boyce, but the basic facts are clear enough; Baden-Powell is the founder of Scouting, and Boyce the father of American Scouting.

Baden-Powell was, by all accounts, a charismatic leader, a ripping good storyteller, and a kind-hearted and gentle teacher. It’s quite possible that he was also a closeted homosexual. There have been several biographies of Baden-Powell, most of them hagiographic, intended for boys. Tim Jeal’s 1990 biography, The Boy-Man: The biography of Lord Baden-Powell is superb; meticulously researched, judicious in its conclusions, engagingly written. Jeal concludes that Baden-Powell was also gay. Two earlier biographies had reached similar conclusions. Evidence for this conclusion is entirely circumstantial. Baden-Powell came from a generation where homosexuality was considered a grave moral defect, deeply shameful and immoral. He almost certainly never acted on his feelings.

But consider the evidence, circumstantial though it is. He was a deeply sensitive and artistically talented boy, who played with dolls, but avoided girls at all costs. As an artist, his favorite subjects were attractive young men. In the army, he acted in a number of amateur theatricals, always playing women’s roles. Pretty young women sent him into a state of anxiety, which his friends all teased him for, and his closest emotional attachment was to a young man named Kenneth McLaren, a friendship which nearly ended when McLaren married, and finally did end when Baden-Powell married. In 1912, Baden-Powell, aged 55, met Olave Soames; she was 23. They married, but Baden-Powell was crippled by terrible, psychosomatic headaches every time they went to bed together. Eventually, he had to leave their shared bedroom, and sleep in an army cot elsewhere in their home.

I do not mean to suggest that his marriage with Olave was unhappy, nor was it childless; they had three children, a son and two daughters. Olave was his steadfast companion in running both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, the equivalent girls’ organization he founded in 1912. Nor did he seem to be a particularly unhappy man; Scouting became his life, and he was a beloved figure among British boys.

Jeal’s biography (which I whole-heartedly recommend), also deals judiciously with the one genuinely dark rumor about Baden-Powell; that his politics were essentially fascist, and that he supported the Nazis in the Second World War. What’s true is that Baden-Powell was both conservative and politically naive, and reflexively patriotic, and that he distrusted communism. It’s certainly true that an early Scout badge included a swastika. But that was well before that particular symbol had been appropriated by the Nazis. He was, finally, a former military officer who valued discipline, and wanted his Boy Scouts to conduct themselves in an orderly, restrained manner. The evidence does not, however, suggest that he was a fascist.

And here’s what Jeal concludes about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality; it drove him.  His accomplishments are startling; something drove him to achieve. He was an honorable and brave soldier, a genuine war hero, a man who devoted his life to working with children, and a charming and funny raconteur. Jeal quotes at length Baden-Powell’s final letter to his beloved Scouts; I think it captures him beautifully:

I have had a most happy life, and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and to enjoy life. . . One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong when you are a boy, so that you can be useful and enjoy yourself when you are a man. . . . but the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try to leave this world a little better than how you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy feeling . . . that you have not wasted your time, but have done your best. “Be prepared” to live happy, and to die happy.

So what does any of this mean in relation to the current controversy regarding Scouting and gay leaders? I would say that it doesn’t mean anything. If, as seems likely, the founder of Scouting was gay, it did not impact the importance or value of the organization to any degree whatsoever. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Kenneth McLaren? We don’t know, we will likely never know, and it does not matter.
Lord Baden-Powell was a wonderful man, who devoted his life to improving the lives of boys and girls world-wide. He was also a fine writer and painter, and a genuine war hero. That’s how we should think of him, because it’s the only aspect of his life that matters. And if today, a similarly gentle, decent and talented man, who also happened to be gay, were to be named Scoutmaster of a troop in the Boy Scouts of America (or for that matter, the Boy Scouts Association in England, or any of the Scouting organizations active internationally), the result would be, not just benign, but actively positive. Children would learn valuable skills, and have a lot of fun doing it. Period. And, in time, that someone else could say, like Baden-Powell, ‘I have had a most happy life, and I want you to have a happy life too.’ That’s the good Scouting can do. Irregardless of the orientation of the volunteer leaders that make it great.


The Boy Scouts and the Church

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on gay volunteer Scout leaders. The LDS Church, a major Boy Scout sponsor, responded with this statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.

I don’t understand any part of this. First of all, I do not understand the scheduling issue. Granted, Church leaders were on vacation, but surely they could have taken a day or two off to attend a meeting. We’re talking, after all, about the main youth organization for LDS boys living in the States. You couldn’t make a conference phone call; you couldn’t skype?

More to the point, though, what possible objection could there be to having gay Scout leaders? The policy change allows local councils to allow local units to choose its own leaders. If the Church didn’t want any gay Scoutmasters in LDS-sponsored troops, the new policy accommodates that stance.

Let me see if I can unpack it a little. I suppose that there may be some lingering fear over Scout leaders being pedophiles. But gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than left-handed people are likely to commit arson. There simply isn’t any link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This issue has been carefully studied, and the research is clear. The idea that a gay scoutmaster might molest the boys in his troop is a prejudice without foundation.

(Of course, the BSA is quite appropriately concerned about actual instances of pedophilia. That’s why Scouting has instituted policies and protocols to prevent it, as have other youth organizations. Pedophiles are attracted to children–constant vigilance must be exercised. But that’s not relevant to this policy change.)

No, the Church’s concerns have, I believe, two other, very different causes. The first is that having openly gay Scout leaders might create the impression that homosexuality is not morally wrong. The Scout Oath requires Scouts and Scouters to be ‘morally straight.’ The presence of openly gay leaders could presumably complicate that message.

Break that down. I assume that straight, married Scoutmasters are sexually active. As a Boy Scout, that was never something I ever ever thought about. If that notion had popped into my thirteen year-old head, my reaction would have been ‘ewww.’ Straight, unmarried Scoutmasters may well also have been sexually active; if so, it was never any of my business. Married, gay Scoutmasters are likely also sexually active, but they’re not engaged in anything most people would recognize as a sin; they’re married. Unmarried gay Scoutmasters? Absolutely none of mine, or anyone else’s, business.

The difficulty is that the Church does not recognize gay marriage as morally valid, and therefore believes that even married gay people, if they’re sexually active, are doing something morally wrong; violating the law of chastity. The Church does not want to complicate the issue of gay marriage in the minds of teenaged boys. Even if LDS-sponsored troops all have straight, married Scoutmasters, those troops camp with other troops, in various councils and jamborees and camps and activities. I was the Program Director for two Boy Scout camps 30 or so years ago. Let’s suppose that an LDS-sponsored troop camps next to a troop with a gay Scoutmaster. Those kids are going to interact. I think the Church worries about a conversation in which kid A says ‘wow, your Scoutmaster is really cool’ and kid B says ‘yeah. He’s gay, and he’s awesome.’ And kid A suffers some kind of cognitive dissonance. ‘He’s a great Scoutmaster. But, wait, he’s gay? Huh.’

In fact, ‘morally straight’ is something each individual decides for himself. As Program Director, I remember we had a waterfront director named John; can’t remember his last name. He was terrific; a wonderful swimming teacher, a real outdoorsman, great with kids. His girlfriend would drive him to camp each week, and drop him off. Sometimes she would spend the night. It never bothered anyone, nor should it have. This was in the early ’80s, when I suppose someone could have made a big deal about John not being ‘morally straight.’ He was, obviously, cohabitating with his girlfriend. And many of the troops we served at our camp had minister/Scoutmasters. In Southern Indiana. Nobody raised any kind of fuss, ever, at all. John was a brilliant Scout leader, and that was all that mattered.

Still. The Church has its concerns. But I think there’s another factor involved.

The Church has always embraced Scouting. And that’s great; Scouting is a wonderful program. But in fact, Scouting and the Church have always been something of an awkward fit. Scouting is really a program for kids aged 11-16. Sixteen year olds are encouraged to join an Explorer post. Explorer posts are meant to specialize: in Engineering, High Adventure, Law Enforcement, Health Careers. The idea is that 16 year olds are more independent, more mobile, and interested in interacting with other boys with shared interests. When I was 16, the other kids in our ward were all pressured to find a specialty we all were interested in, and form a post together. But the only thing we all liked was playing basketball, and basketball was not one of the possibilities.

The Church mentioned starting their own youth program for boys, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. After all, the Boy Scouts is the youth organization for American LDS kids. Other nations have different programs. It makes sense to take the best ideas from all over the world, and create a uniquely tailored program for our kids. My guess is that plans have been made to do just that.

At the same time, I can’t help it; part of me is filled with dismay. I am an Eagle Scout; worked as a Scout leader, served on the staff of Scout Camps. I loved Scouting. And the reason is simple; Scouting was fun.

Scouting is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. I know that Scouting is supposed to teach values and skills and leadership traits and self-reliance, and I suppose all that does happen, some. But that was never the focus. We had a blast. We built signal towers and cooked on open stoves, and started fires and ran around and got in trouble and played mumblety-peg with knives and hiked hard trails, and played hockey on frozen lakes. I will never forget, until the day I die, a game of Capture the Flag we played, on a four mile course, the flags on two hilltops, a creek demarking the boundary between territories. Summer of 1971. I am old and sick and fat and can’t do most of that anymore, but I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.

I hope my fears are unfounded. Just know that tensions between the Church and the Boy Scouts has been building for years. And I desperately hope the Boy Scouts survive. It’s a terrific organization for kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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