Sunday, February 28, 2010

D&C 58:26-28

An oft-quoted passage in a very free "retranslation."


Go. Do it.
Do not wait for orders.
Do not wait for approval.
Do not wait for the authorities to sign off on the project.
Do not wait for direction through the proper channels.
Just go.
Do what you are convinced
will be for a good cause.

Do you remember the parable of the talents?
I reward risk-taking.
I value individual initiative.
I gave you gifts.
I gave you a mind.
And I give you the freedom
to use them as seems best to you.

In a world full of need,
go find ways to do good.
Follow your heart.
Trust your instincts.
Apply your reason.
Use your judgment.

Don't worry too much about whether it's "the right thing."
Don't stress about whether "the right people" approve.
Don't let such worries paralyze you
or make you afraid to pursue your vision.
Stay attuned to my Spirit.
Keep before you the example of my Son.
Learn from experience.
And I am confident you will find ways
to be a blessing to others.

I’m happy to bounce ideas around with you.
Whenever you want to talk, my door is open.
But believe me—
the power is already in you.
So go strike out on your own.
The world desperately needs
creative, innovative experiments for good.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well, I regret it

In my last post I said I suspected I might regret having expressed so freely my ambivalent feelings about how to respond to church leaders' teachings and politics around homosexuality. It didn't take long. In a couple weeks, I'm scheduled to give a public lecture on Mormonism as part of a series on American religious history, and an LDS individual who saw that blog posting has raised concerns with some of the event's sponsors, fearing, I suppose, that I would use the forum to criticize the church.

I feel... well, ambivalent about the situation. I can certainly understand the individual's concern. What I do on this blog is not what I do in my professional capacity as a scholar. People who have seen me present or have read my work can attest that I favor a nonpartisan style of scholarship quite different from the more emphatically "committed" discourse you'll read here. I work hard to write against my own biases when I'm doing scholarship, in the hope that by stepping back from the usual partisan orientations, I can provide a helpful, analytical map of what's going on. In spiritual terms, I'm convinced that writing against my biases in that way is how I put my scholarship at the service of making new knowledge about a subject and thus of advancing light and knowledge (D&C 121:26).

At times that means actually writing against my own political interests as a Mormon insider. At the last Sunstone symposium, I was explaining this to someone, and he asked me if I worry that by going so much out of my way to be fair to positions I'm predisposed against (the apologetics of FARMS, for example), I may actually give them more credit than they're due. It's a significant critique—and precisely the opposite concern expressed by the individual who responded anxiously to my last post. I'd like to think that if people on both the left and right ends of the Mormon theological spectrum are worried my scholarship isn't going to serve their interests, that means I'm doing something right.

Then again (ambivalence, remember?), I certainly stand somewhere on the left end of the spectrum myself. I'd hoped that this blog—unlike my scholarship—could be a place where I think aloud through issues in a way that openly reflects my commitments as a very liberal Mormon who is very opposed to certain things the LDS Church teaches and does. But given the public nature of being a scholar, perhaps that kind of freely expressive public platform isn't something I can have.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I may regret this...

[UPDATE: And I did regret it. Read the follow-up.]

...but someone showed me this YouTube video earlier this week, and it's stuck with me. I'm feeling very ambivalent about this mode of protest (really? John-Charles, ambivalent about something?), but there's a joyousness to their defiance that I find attractive and infectious. If you don't want to be exposed to repetitions of the F-bomb and the finger, don't hit Play.

Let's charitably set aside the absurd hypocrisy of faulting others for being "hateful" as you joyfully belt out that you hate what they do and you hate their whole crew. (Homophobia is indeed detestable, but if you're going to one-up it morally, you need a different rhetoric.) What I like about the video is its playfulness. They're not screaming to heavy metal. They're not raging in the streets—not that there isn't a time and season for that. But they're also not wallowing in victimhood. They're responding to homophobia by flipping it the bird while they celebrate their lives. There's something healthy about that, I think.

The video reminds me of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, where Brother William and Jorge of Burgos are having their final intellectual face-off. In a move foreshadowing postmodern tropes of the 20th century, William champions laughter as a way to disrupt power. He tells the dour, self-righteous, murderous Jorge:
You are the Devil. . . . [T]he Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim . . . I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl's feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer.
I see something of that same spirit in the video.

In a few days, a vigil is going to be held at the Los Altos, California, stake center to mark the ten-year anniversary of Stuart Matis's suicide. It will be a somber affair. Reverential. Mournful. I've participated in events like this before. No doubt there will be quiet singing: "As I Have Loved You," "I Am a Child of God." Maybe "We Shall Overcome," though that's probably more political than the organizers seem to have in mind. I applaud Mormons for Marriage and the Foundation for Reconciliation for organizing the event, and while I have some quite serious qualms about a minority asking for "reconciliation" with a majority who have just stripped them of a civil right, I hope, as I'm sure the organizers do, that the event may touch some hearts and minds.

At the same time—here comes the inevitable ambivalence—there's a part of me that would like to see someone hurl buckets of blood at the Los Altos stake center. There's a part of me that would like to see a new kind of protest emerge where people wait in line to shake the hands of General Authorities and leave their palms sneared in henna or somesuch in token of the blood they have on their hands. (Anyone out there up to it? Troy?)

And then again, there's a part of me that would like to respond to the anti-gay teachings and politics of church leaders in a more playfully defiant way. To flip the bird to Dallin H. Oaks while singing a bouncy, "F-ck you very, very mu - u - u - u - uch." Or to at least to savor the mental image of Elder Oaks, or Elder Hafen, or Elder Packer, being paraded around naked in public with his face painted and feathers in his asshole. (Photoshop, anyone?)

I wonder: Whose asshole would Jesus stick feathers in? If you're offended by the question, let me ask you this: Do you find that image more or less offensive than the image of Jesus telling gay and lesbian Christians at the last day, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire" (D&C 29:28)?

Like I said, I may regret this post later. [Read the rest of the story.]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Somewhat dated

I read today that the First Presidency has approved a complete overhaul of the Ogden Temple exterior in part because they found its appearance "somewhat dated." I'm going to refrain from the usual cheap jokes about spaceships, inverted lollipops, and the like, because while I admit that the Ogden Temple is notably underwhelming in its downtown context, I have fond feelings for its twin, the Provo Temple, where I was endowed and which I attended pretty much weekly during my last two years at BYU. I felt vaguely robbed, actually, when they painted the Provo Temple steeple white a few years back: to borrow a line from The Birdcage, "Surely one wants a hint of color."

Anyway, after reading the announcement, I felt moved by a satirical spirit to suggest that in addition to the Ogden Temple exterior, there are some other "somewhat dated" things in the church the First Presidency might consider redesigning:
  • the male-only priesthood
  • seventeenth-century English in the scriptures
  • a pre-Darwinian cosmology
  • a nineteenth-century persecution complex
  • a sectarian insistence on being the one true church
  • homophobia/heterosexism
  • the persistent assumption that God willed the black priesthood/temple ban
  • all-white upper leadership in a majority Latina/o church

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I'm about to go to bed, but I should post something by way of observing Ash Wednesday. I attended an early morning service, "got ashed," knelt on a hardwood floor without support for considerably longer than I would have liked, and wondered if the Muslim style of prostration (head to the floor) would actually be more comfortable. Not the most deeply moving devotional experience, but then that's not the point.

Use the time you are given in this life
to do such deeds and accomplish such works
that on the day when your Heavenly Parents
throw open the door to welcome you home,
the three of you will rejoice together
in what you have done.
(Alma 34:32, freely rendered)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

District 9

So, okay, I'm feeling a little foolish to be writing about this, but I watched the sci-fi film District 9 this week. And it was very gripping. As a teenager I used to connect emotionally with things we'd be watching on TV, to the point where I would feel compelled to talk to the people on screen, which used to annoy my family. That's how I reacted to District 9. I assume the cinéma vérité style had a lot to do with that—it made everything feel more real.

Anyway, here's why I'm writing about watching District 9 as my weekly spiritual reflection. Part of what made the film so gripping was how callously violent the MNU security forces are, and the Nigerian gangsters, and the technicians in the secret lab where MNU is experimenting on aliens and where Wikus is taken to be tested and vivisected. As viewers, of course, we're intended to be repelled, and it worked marvelously on me. Because when Wikus is finally able to turn the tables on the various people who are threatening his life, I found myself rooting for him to be even more decisive and indiscriminate in his use of violence than he was. "Shoot them all, you idiot! Don't spare any—they'll come after you later!" "Don't just threaten to cut out that technician's eye—do it! He deserves it! Think what he was about to do to you!"

That's what's deeply, insidiously wrong about cinematic violence. It creates a moral universe where you feel it is just for the characters you identify with to use the same kinds and degrees of violence whose use or threatened use aroused your sense of injustice in the first place. And this isn't just Hollywood. You see the same perverse sense of justice in the texts we call scripture. An eye for an eye, right? Films like District 9 recreate the same legitimation of violence that drives apocalypticism, or visions of final judgment as God destroying the wicked. The hope driving these visions is that someday the righteous will be the ones with the biggest guns on their side; they will secure a monopoly on violence and will enjoy the moral satisfaction of seeing done to the the wicked what the wicked once did, or wanted to do, to them.

I entirely understand the appeal of this kind of moral vision. There are plenty of postings on this blog where I have vented my frustration and anger at certain powerful agencies by longing to see them at the receiving end of violent scriptural wo's to the wicked. But that is not the response to which Christ ultimately summons us.

If I evaluate the story of District 9 from a Christian perspective, then the most important moment is when Wikus forfeits his chance for salvation—his chance to escape MNU, his chance to have his genetic transformation reversed—in order to provide cover for Christopher Johnson as he and his son make their escape. That's the moment where Wikus really redeems himself and his humanity. There's a kind of partial redemption preceding that when he makes the decision not to flee when he has the chance, but to turn back and rescue Christopher Johnson with guns blazing. But from a Christian perspective, his most important moral decision is the moment when he becomes not the violent savior, but the self-sacrificing savior. A savior who, instead of blowing away his archenemy Koobus in a final showdown, is helpless when Koobus finally gets to him and survives only because the filmmakers bring in some aliens at the last minute to finish Koobus off (thus satisfying our violent cinematic sense of justice).

This may be reading too much into it, but I wondered if Wikus's transformation into an alien represented a kind of incarnation, making Wikus a Christ-like savior not only because of his self-sacrifice but also because of his total solidarity with— becoming one of—the aliens. I'd be surprised if the filmmakers intended that reading, but it's conceivable that those Christian concepts percolated into their work, having circulated for so long in the larger culture.

And since I'm feeling a little foolish for having written at such length about a science fiction film, I'll stop there. (Though considering how seriously I take the Book of Mormon, I'm not really sure why I should feel embarrassed about engaging so seriously with—ahem—another work of sci-fi/fantasy.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Moroni 7:48

A very free "retranslation."


Pray, sisters and brothers.
Pray with energy.
Think back to the most desperate prayer you ever prayed.
That is the intensity with which I urge you to pray now.

Pray for love.
Pray that God will fill you with love,
fill you to the brim and pouring down the sides.

Do you remember what Jesus said?
"This is how they will know you are my disciples:
if you love one another."
But the love that shows us to be Christ's true followers
is not an exercise in willpower,
a forced patience,
a mustering of tolerance,
a gritting of the teeth.
The love that makes us Christ's,
the love of Christ,
is a gift, a gift from God.

That is why I tell you: Pray.
Pray for the gift of love.
Pray that God will give you the amazing grace
to love as Christ loves—
as selflessly and recklessly and unstintingly.

Do you understand?
You are praying to be transformed.
You are praying to be remade into the very image of Christ.
You are praying to grow, like Christ, from grace to grace,
until you too have obtained the divine fullness,
the fullness of perfected love.
Then, when the day comes
that the veil is parted
and you stand face-to-face
with the Incarnation, the Perfected One,
you will find yourself looking at the mirror image
of what you yourself have become.

Love is the key.
So pray for it, sisters and brothers.
Pray for it harder than you have ever prayed before.
And let the fervor of that unceasing prayer
consume your life.