Sunday, June 28, 2009

Horrifying event

I had a post planned for today, in response to my D&C readings this week, but I can't post it now—it just seems too trivial. A few days ago, a member of the church Hugo and I have been attending for the past few years was arrested in connection with horrifying allegations of child sex abuse. It's been shocking, not only because of the monstrosity of the allegations but also because it's so completely unexpected. The congregation is reeling.

I need to be vague talking about all this for the sake of people's privacy. But I wanted to post here that I've been impressed with how the congregation's pastor is responding. Yesterday evening a meeting was held where members of the congregation were able to learn what can be appropriately disclosed at this time about what's happening to the alleged perpetrator and his family, and where people were able to talk about what they were feeling. It was raw and uncomfortable, but I thought that it exemplified well the principle, "Let one speak at a time and let all listen . . . that every one may have an equal privilege" (D&C 88:122). It also brought to my mind the call "to bear one another's burdens" and "to mourn with those who mourn" (Mosiah 18:8-9).

After the news broke, I spent time carefully discerning what I could honestly and meaningfully ask in prayer for each member of the family affected by these allegations: the alleged perpetrator, the alleged victim, other family members. That was very difficult.

We'll attend services later today. And I'm praying now for guidance about whether or not to commune. This church has always made clear that I'm welcome to do so, but I don't because I want to hold myself apart—to signal to myself and others that I don't really regard this church as my spiritual home; it's just the place where I've taken up residence in exile. But I'm feeling like this is not a time to be standing apart. A number of people in the congregation have gone out of their way to make clear to Hugo and me that they are concerned about us—about our continuing to feel welcome and trusted at this church; about the anti-gay rhetoric that's flaring up right now as conservative organizations and bloggers latch onto these allegations; about our physical safety, even. It feels graceless of me to keep standing at arm's length when people are being so generous—and emotionally open—about reaching out. And I don't like the feeling that I may be sending the message: What's happened to this community has happened to the rest of you, not to me; it's your problem, not my problem; I'm just here for my own benefit.

If I commune with this congregation, I will be communing with both the alleged perpetrator and the victim, which I feel ambivalent about for obvious reasons. I don't mean literally that the alleged perpetrator will be there at church: he's behind bars. But there's been no talk to suggest that this individual is not still regarded as part of this church community. People feel horrified and betrayed and enraged; but he's still being prayed for as "our brother." I'm impressed by that. The Mormon impulse, in my experience at least, would be to rush to make clear to the world that this person is no longer one of us. This church has chosen a more complicated road than that, a choice which may prove costly in terms of inviting hostility from observers. I trust that in doing so, they—we, I probably ought to say—are following Jesus.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Out of the best books

The readings for Lesson 23 in the D&C/Church history curriculum illustrate a point I made a few weeks ago—that Joseph Smith had an intellectual temperament: he wanted to expand his learning. At the same time, he was a Jacksonian anti-elitist; and in contemporary Mormonism that Jacksonian impulse, intensified by a fundamentalist-type reaction against modernism, has made "intellectual" a term of opprobium or at least suspicion in LDS circles. Hence this lesson has to include the verses about "being learned is good if you hearken to the counsels of God," and "ever learning, but never coming to a knowledge of the truth." Sentiments worthy of the Scopes monkey trial or Jehovah's Witnesses.

A few years ago, when I was teaching at the University of Utah, I hung in my carrel a framed placard bearing simply the words, "Seek learning by study." The words were from D&C 88:118, of course, though I didn't identify them as such. They spoke to me at a time in my life when I was laying claim to academia not just as a career but as a spiritual vocation. God enjoins human beings to seek learning by study, and as someone teaching in academia, I was helping people do that. I deliberately separated the injunction to seek learning by study from the following line "and also by faith," because during my time at BYU during the academic freedom controversy, I got tired of hearing that line quoted as if it said "but" instead of "and"—as if the point of the verse was to emphasize seeking learning by faith over seeking learning by study, or at least to caution that seeking learning by study is dangerous if it isn't held in check by faith. That's an anti-intellectual, anti-modernist reading of the verse, which I would argue is actually the opposite of where the verse, in context, is laying the accent: the point of the verse is to affirm the value of learning by study over against a notion that all you need is faith.

Anyway, for my post today, I feel moved to offer a list of what I think are some of "the best books" from which I've gained "words of wisdom" over the years, as 88:118 says.

The novels of Chaim Potok. He was drawn to write about characters who are passionately in love with their religious tradition but who are also in love with something that their coreligionists see as alien to the tradition. Potok's novels modelled for me an orientation toward Mormon tradition other than the cool detachment I might have followed instead, probably leading ultimately to separation. Reading his novels literally makes me thank God for sending art like this into the world.

Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I'm a little embarrassed to admit the attraction because it's an adolescent infatuation. But while I was at BYU, Nietzsche gave me a voice for saying "No!" to the pressure to conform and to keep my thinking within "safe" limits. He taught me that believing in eternal progress means accepting that I will eventually have to break with things I now think are true.

Lapine and Sondheim's Into the Woods. Again, a little embarrasing to say. But that musical introduced me to the possibilities of a postmodern morality—a morality based on the paradox that you're on your own in figuring out what's right and wrong, but at the same time you're never on your own because you're always embedded in networks of relationships. In philosophical terms, Into the Woods showed me it was possible to be an antifoundationalist without falling into a bottomless pit of nihilism. That was a realization that ran directly contrary to the common wisdom about postmodernism at BYU, but it was consistent with the testimony I gained during my mission.

Stanley Fish's There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing Too. More postmodernism. Where did I buy this book? BYU? The University of Utah? Probably the U. At a time when I was becoming self-consciously postmodern, and self-consciously in retreat from Mormonism, Fish taught me that in a certain sense, postmodernism's rejection of the kind of absolute truth I'd been raised on as a Mormon actually didn't make any practical difference at all. You still have commitments, and you still have to go about trying to make arguments in support of those commitments that will, hopefully, persuade others. That's been a key realization for me professionally and personally.

There are other authors I should mention, at least briefly. Isaac Bachevis Singer and Umberto Eco—both of whom I value, again, because of how they introduced me to postmodern intellectual moves ("antifoundationalist," at least, in Singer's case). Dante's Divine Comedy, which I fell in love with in the year or two before my mission, maybe because it gave me a symbolic world other than that of Mormonism in which I could dare to think through subversive questions I wasn't quite ready yet to confront within Mormonism. Ah, of course, I have to mention John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar. They taught me ways of reading scripture that were revisionist but not utterly dismissive.

Oh, and how could I forget! I have to mention the Jerusalem Bible I bought early in my mission from the little bookstore across the street from our apartment in La Romana. The commentary in that Bible showed me it was possible to incorporate historical scriptural criticism into a commitment to the text as the word of God. I resisted the attraction for a while, but finally I let myself follow my heart, and it's been a good relationship. That Bible was also my first introduction to Catholic social teaching, which became my model for identifying the social justice strains in Mormon scripture.

This is like a "thank you" speech at an awards show: eventually you have to stop, but you know you're forgetting someone you'll feel bad later for not having mentioned. Let's pray.


God of wisdom, Spirt of truth—

I give thanks for the books through which you have taught me wisdom over the years.
I give thanks for the joy I find in seeking learning by study.
I give thanks for the ways your Spirit has enlightened my mind and enlarged my soul.
I give thanks for the gifts and inspiration you have given to scholars, novelists, and other writers.
I give thanks for the seemingly chance encounters that have brought certain books into my life at moments when I was open to being influenced by them.

Help me give my students intellectual experiences that will open their minds and horizons as mine have been opened—or more precisely, in whatever way you know will be helpful for them.
Help me write a dissertation that will make a meaningful contribution to scholarship.
Guide my mother to books and other writings that will speak to her now in her need.

In Christ's name, amen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Prayer for Iran

God of all nations—

I feel moved to pray for the situation in Iran, but I don't know what to say.

The apocalypticist in me wants to pray: Bring this repressive regime down with blood and fire and smoke. Topple it, sweep away the ruins, and let a free democratic society flourish in its place.

But I know that's not the best way.

I want there to be peace in Iran. I don't want protesters beaten or killed or imprisoned or tortured. I want an end to the violent confrontations between police and protesters. I'd like a peaceful resolution to this crisis, though I pray that doesn't come about by the government beating protesters into submission.

I want there to be a credible tally of the votes. I want a more moderate government in power, but maybe that's not the right thing to pray for right now. Right now, there just needs to be a government with public credibility.

I want the protest movement to not splinter. Radical elements seem to have been emboldened to come forward, and that endangers the possibility of a unified, feasible dissent, in addition to giving the conservatives more reason to crack down ruthlessly instead of making concessions.

I want journalists to be able to get reliable information about what's happening. Don't let repression happen out of sight. But on the other hand, let the world have an accurate picture of what's going on, not just rumors.

Be with the journalists—and others—who are trying to let the world see what's happening.
Be with the protesters.
Be with the opposition party and its leadership.
Soften the hearts of the police.
Give a spirit of wisdom to the reigning authorities.
Inspire the leaders of other nations to know how to place appropriate pressure on the Iranian government.

Let peace prevail. Let human rights prevail. Let there be progress.

God is great.
In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Latter-day Satyagraha

A friend alerted me recently to the website called Latter-day Satyagraha ( The creator, a former LDS possibly on his/her way into the Community of Christ, is interested in Gandhi's teachings about non-violence, approached from a Mormon angle. S/he is also hosting a writing contest as a way of identifying a like-minded soul who would be interested in running a website integrating Mormon principles with Martin Luther King's teachings on non-violence.

I'm intrigued by the endeavor, so I wanted to help publicize it. Learn more about the writing contest at

A word of wisdom

What does it mean to call D&C 89 a "word of wisdom"? It means that D&C 89 is given as a recommendation, not a commandment. You've probably heard the chestnut about how what Moses brought down from Mount Sinai wasn't the 10 Recommendations. Well, D&C 89 is framed as a recommendation from God, not a commandment. We see the same distinction made in D&C 28:5, where Joseph tells Oliver that he's authorized to write "by wisdom" but not "by way of commandment." D&C 37:3 starts out telling the church that they have a "commandment" to gather to Ohio; but "commandment" in that context may just be a synonym for what today Latter-day Saints would call "a revelation" (there are other instances of the word being used that way), because immediately the text says it's "expedient" that the Saints should gather at Ohio and concludes: "Behold, here is wisdom, and let every man choose for himself." Apparently not enough Saints chose for themselves to move to Ohio, because in the next section (D&C 38), Joseph turns on the heat by explaining that they need to move to escape a conspiracy afoot to destroy them.

I'm intrigued to know why Joseph didn't issue D&C 89 as a commandment. I mean, he clearly didn't have qualms about making demands on his followers: move here, go on a mission there, fund this project, sign over all your property. Of course, the Saints weren't always willing to go along with what he wanted, and he knew that some commands—notably polygamy—had to be introduced secretly and selectively. But despite the precedents I just cited for other "recommendations not commandments" in the D&C, section 89 does stand out for how emphatically it says at the beginning: Now this is just a recommendation, but there are big promises for you if you keep it. Verse 3 intrigues and puzzles me—this business about being adapted to the weakest of the Saints. Is that the reason for making the Word of Wisdom a recommendation not a commandment—because Joseph anticipates some won't be able to give up alcohol or tobacco? His alcoholic father, for instance?

Anyway, whatever the reason, the Word of Wisdom doesn't "become a commandment" until after the Manifesto. And even then, the parts that become mandatory for being a member in good standing are just the prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea—later expanded to include drugs. ("Drugs are bad, mkay?") I immediately need to point out, though, that strictly speaking, only the prohibition on tobacco is explicit in the text. Coffee and tea are a long-standing interpretation of the ban on "hot drinks," though I have a hunch that if I dug around into 19th-century folk notions about health, I'd find that D&C 89 reflects an idea of the time that hot liquids in general are somehow bad for the system by virtue of being hot. And D&C 89 does not sweepingly prohibit alcohol—that's a Prohibition-era interpretation imposed on the text. What the text prohibits is hard liquor and wine, with the exception of the sacrament; but the text says that "mild" grain-based drinks are fine—e.g., beer.

Meanwhile, the contemporary description of the Word of Wisdom as a ban on alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea completely ignores the text's ban on eating meat except during winter and times of famine (i.e., when plants don't grow so meat is all you have). It also ignores the peculiar specifications that wheat is intended for people, corn for the ox, oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and the swine.

So what's going on here? We have a document that recommends, but pointedly does not command, a dietary regime that includes vegetarianism, abstinence from liquor and wine but not beer, abstinence from hot drinks, a statement that tobacco is intended only as medicine for bruises and animals [is it actually useful for that, or is this some kind of folk wisdom?], and an idiosyncratic catalogue of which grains are best for which animals. This odd little document—which looks more anachronistic than prescient when you understand it as more than a ban on tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine—is later converted from a recommendation into a commandment...except only certain portions of it are turned into a commandment. And the parts that are made a commandment are the parts that correspond to an existing social ethos about the impropriety of smoking and drinking, or—in the case of the ban on coffee and tea—that constitute a visible mark of distinction from the rest of society but one that will make the Saints seem quirky rather than radical. Making vegetarianism mandatory would have been more radical.

Two reactions to this:

First, I deeply regret the shift from recommendation to commandment. I regret it because it reflects the authoritarian, homogenizing impulses that drive LDS culture and polity. Imagine what a different kind of place the LDS Church would be if the Word of Wisdom were still a document that people were free to observe or not observe according to their best lights. What if the ban on smoking and drinking was regarded in the same spirit that the ban on meat is—as something people invoke to say, "Sure, of course, it's better for your health," but that no one would think to enforce in a temple recommend interview. What if the church were a place where some members practiced vegetarianism on the basis of the D&C's say-so, and even testified publicly to the benefits that came from doing so, but where it really was a matter of choice, and there was no stigma for people who didn't do it—just as there really isn't any stigma for people who don't read the Book of Mormon every day, or hold family scripture study regularly, or regularly attend the temple, or keep a year's supply of food storage, even though those practices come highly recommended. What if observing the Word of Wisdom were as much a matter of conscience in the Church as the amount you give for a fast offering?

And then imagine extending the principle further. What if Church lesson manuals were offered as useful but not mandatory resources? What if the law of tithing, or the law of chastity, were conceived as principles with promises given by wisdom but not by commandment or constraint?

There are sociologists who predict that a church that allowed that much freedom wouldn't appeal to the greatest "market share" of the population. Maybe—though whether or not something proves popular isn't really the issue from a theological perspective. The question is: What would an institution that allowed that much freedom do for individuals' spiritual well-being? It looks to my lights like it would require people to draw closer to the Spirit to make their own wise choices, and that looks to me like an eminently good thing.

That's my first reaction to the changing status of D&C 89: regret at the loss of autonomy for individual conscience. My second reaction is to point to the selective enforcement and reconceptualization of the Word of Wisdom as a hopeful precedent. It's an example of not taking the text literally. It's an example of adopting those aspects of the text that make sense and are moderate and reasonable by standards of your culture. That's the liberal religious impulse! Of course, there's a danger: the danger of not hearing the voice of God prompting you to be critical of the culture. But there are dangers in swallowing scriptural texts wholesale and standing off from the culture, too.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Apocalypse: What it boils down to

The theme for my readings this week, from the D&C/Church history curriculum, was the second coming and the disasters prophesied to precede it. My approach to the reading was to boil down all the gory detail to what it seems to me is the point of all this business about the moon turning to blood and people's eyes falling out of their sockets. So for my entry today, let me make a list of the phrases I underlined from the reading, where I sensed the Spirit was saying to me, "Here—here's what it's all about."

An end to evil

  • that wickedness shall not be upon the earth (29:9)
  • the wicked shall not stand (29:11)
  • abominations shall not reign (29:21)
  • the cup of mine indignation is full (29:17) Translation: God says, "Enough!"
  • Satan shall have no more place in people's hearts (45:55)
A new world order
  • there shall be a new heaven and a new earth (29:23)
  • all old things shall pass away, and all things shall become new (29:24)
  • the earth shall reel to and fro, and the heavens shall also shake (45:48) Translation: Everything will be shaken up.
  • all things shall be in commotion (88:91) Translation: The coming of the new order requires the upheaval of the old.
Christ's will be done
  • I shall come with power and great glory (34:7)
  • the promises which have been made will be fulfilled (45:35)
  • the Lord shall be in their midst, and his glory shall be upon them (45:59)
  • that my knowledge and glory may dwell upon all the earth (101:25)
  • the Lord shall reign over all flesh (133:25)
Retain hope!
  • I am with you until I come (34:11) Note: I've read passages along that line so often I don't blink at them; but when you think about it, that statement is profoundly paradoxical.
  • people's hearts shall fail them (45:26) Translation: People will feel like giving up hope.
  • be not troubled (45:35)
Vindication for the disempowered
  • they that have laughed shall see their folly (45:49)
  • the weak shall confound the wise (133:58)
  • my arm was not shortened that I could not redeem, neither my power to deliver (133:67)
Peace established
  • they shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another (45:69)
  • the enmity of all flesh shall cease (101:26)
A day of rejoicing
  • they shall come to Zion singing with songs of everlasting joy (45:71)
  • they shall be filled with songs of everlasting joy (133:33)
A day of enlightenment
  • prepare for the revelation which is to come (101:23)
  • the Lord shall reveal all things, hidden things which no one knew (101:32-33) Likening that to myself: So we'll finally learn why God gives some people a homosexual sexual orientation and where we fit in the great plan.
  • thou doest things they look not for (133:43) Translation: God does the unexpected.
Three more things I want to comment on:

First, I was grabbed by D&C 45:57, which says that those who are able to stand at the great day will be those who "have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide." That's the most important thing: follow the Spirit, follow your personal revelation.

Second, I don't really know yet what to make of it, but I was intrigued by the expression, "Go ye out to meet him" (133:19). I feel drawn to think more about what it means to translate that injunction into real-world action. What does it mean to "go out" to "meet" the coming Christ? My initial hunch is that it has to do with getting outside of myself, stepping out of my comfort zone... I need to think about this more.

Finally, after all the perversely satisfied and satisfying fantasies of cosmic calamity and demolition and your enemies' eyes falling out of their sockets (D&C 29:19—I loved that verse as a deacon for all the wrong reasons); after all that, or beyond all that, or buried underneath all that, what I think apocalypse is supposed to come down to is this:
Now the year of my redeemed is come;
and they shall mention the loving kindness of their Lord,
and all that he has bestowed upon them
according to his goodness,
and according to his loving kindness,
forever and ever.

In all their afflictions, he was afflicted.
And the angel of his presence saved them;
and in his love, and in his pity,
he redeemed, and bore them,
and he carried them all the days of old.
(D&C 133:52-53)