Sunday, April 22, 2012

Oh No Ross and Carrie

By way of Mr. Deity (one of my secret vices), I recently learned about a podcast series called "Oh No Ross and Carrie," whose co-hosts took the missionary discussions and were baptized into the LDS Church for the purposes of investigating Mormon claims from their position as rationalist skeptics. The podcast describes itself as "the show where we don’t just report on spirituality, fringe science and the paranormal (from a scientific, evidence-based standpoint), but dive right in by joining religions, attending spiritual events, undergoing 'alternative' treatments, partaking in paranormal investigations, and more."

There are two Mormon-themed podcasts, each about an hour long, which you can access here: Part 1, Part 2. Listening to Ross and Carrie's account from the vantage point of a returned missionary, I ached for the missionaries, who sound as if they were thrilled to find people who engaged with their message so seriously, who were happy to show up to church, and--joy of joys!--accepted a baptismal commitment with very little pushing. (Podcaster Carrie records her end of the phone conversation in which she calls the elders to say that she and Ross would like to set a baptismal date. What she and Ross don't know is how much elated hugging and grateful praying occurred in the missionaries' apartment as soon as they got off the phone.)

Ross and Carrie maintain that they were mostly honest with the missionaries and other LDS authorities they engaged with, short of announcing that they were investigating the church for the purpose of doing a skeptical podcast about the experience. (They maintain, though, that they would have come clean about that if asked.) Not unexpectedly, the skeptics aren't very impressed with the evidence the missionaries offer them to support LDS claims. On this matter, my liberalism makes me ambivalent. On the one hand, I too am not moved by orthodox LDS apologetics (of which the missionaries offer an unsophisticated version anyway). On the other hand, as a religious liberal I would find it very tiring to engage with Ross and Carrie's hard-core Enlightenment rationalism: I'd end up rubbing my temples a lot and saying, "You guys are missing the point here." They lack the poetic sensibilities that would allow them to appreciate myth and ritual as sources of meaning-making. And they're not as self-critical as they think they are when it comes to recognizing their own unfounded beliefs: they could benefit from a healthy dose of postmodern antifoundationalism. (Example: They refer in the podcast to evolution as a proven truth. Ehhhh... I'm prepared, for political reasons, to take my stand with evolutionists over against creationists, but I'm too much a historicist by training to elevate evolutionary theory to the status of an article of faith.)

Ross and Carrie's ability to pass a baptismal interview while acknowledging that they have only a "mustard seed's" amount of faith in Mormonism and are, in fact, still waiting for spiritual confirmation is a sign of what's wrong with the LDS Church's missionary system. Someone should have intervened at some point in that process and said: "You know, you're rushing into a commitment that you really shouldn't make until you feel greater certainty that this is what God wants you to do. Let's hold off on baptism until you've spent more time studying, and praying, and attending church, and engaging with the members, and seeing how you still feel several months from now about becoming members of this faith community." The reason no one intervened that way is that the system craves conversions for the sake of impressive statistics. And yet the people at the helm can't seem to get it into their MBA-trained heads that rushing people into baptism is a big reason why the church's retention rates are such a joke.

The most painful moment in the podcast for me was an exchange Carrie described having with one of the missionaries at a meeting a week or so after their baptism (if I recall the time frame correctly). At the meeting, Ross and Carrie fessed up about the podcast and announced that they hadn't experienced the empirical evidence--i.e., the spiritual confirmation--they'd been waiting for. "Elder Johnson" (not his real name, apparently), a greenie who had been so nervous at their first meetings that he had been physically trembling, gave an impassioned speech in which he said that he too had shared many of the doubts Ross and Carrie had expressed, but that he was staking his faith on the church because (this is my paraphrase of Carrie's paraphrase) the doctrine of the Atonement allowed him to confront the existence of evil and suffering in the world. According to Carrie, he gave as an example the fact that in Los Angeles, even the air you breathe is terrible for you. Belief in the Atonement is how he goes on having faith in the possibility of something better.

Carrie and Ross understood this speech as an example of how religions teach you to see the world as more problematic than it really is in order to sell you their solution. They explained to podcast listeners that back when they had been involved in religion (they both seem to have had evangelical backgrounds, judging from what they said), they too had seen the world as a terrible place--but once they were liberated from religion, they realized the world wasn't so bad. Yes, well, perhaps it doesn't look so bad from your social location, my dear pampered fellow middle-class probably college-educated white Americans. I'm with Elder Johnson on this one, and I'm impressed that at age 19 (I'm assuming) he's developed a faith that has that much of an existential core to it. I'm impressed, too, that he found his voice and was able to bear witness to that testimony.  I hope he felt edified and strengthened by this encounter, because he should have been.

I find myself feeling more hostile to the podcasters at the end of writing this post then I did when I started out.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Last night, Hugo and I attended the Easter vigil at a church in downtown Cincinnati. This morning, I attended the Easter service of a Community of Christ congregation.

At Community of Christ, they used a confessional liturgy based on a passage from 2 Nephi 2. When I went on my mission, part of that same passage appeared as my favorite scripture on the plaque they put up for me in my ward meetinghouse back at home. I liked it because it affirmed a doctrine of divine grace--this was just before Stephen Robinson popularized the concept.
How important it is to make these things known to the inhabitants of the earth:
that no flesh can dwell in the presence of God
except through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the holy Messiah,
who lays down his life, in the way of all flesh,
then takes it up again by the power of the Spirit,
so that he may bring about the resurrection of the dead.

Being himself the first to rise--
the firstfruits to God--
he will make intercession for the whole human family.
And because of his intercession,
all people will come to God,
to stand in God's presence
and be judged in truth and holiness.

(2 Nephi 2:8-10)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

A beautiful full moon--white last night, yellow this morning.

Through the day, I wore under my clothes a crucifix that was given to me by a Catholic friend back in Utah in 1997, as I was leaving for what I think of as my "second mission" to the Dominican Republic.

I led the first-Friday service of contemplative song and prayer this evening. These were the scripture readings I prepared.


PSALM 22 (selections)

Where are you, God?
Why have you abandoned me?
Again and again, I cry out to you—
but you do not answer.

Everyone mocks me.
They make faces and pretend to be concerned.
“Look to God,” they say. “He will help you.
He cares so much about you!”

I have been poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like melted wax.
My mouth is parched with thirst.
I lie in the dust, waiting to die.
The dogs are closing in.

A gang of ruffians surrounds me.
They stare and gloat.
I am so starved, they can see the bones under my skin.
They seize my hands and feet.
They strip me of my clothes
and cast lots to decide who keeps what.

Come help me, God!
Save me from the sword!
Save me from the dogs!


HEBREWS 4:14-16

My friends, let us not lose faith!
For we have a great high priest,
Jesus, God’s Begotten,
who has passed through the veil of heaven
to plead on our behalf.

He is not a stern priest,
aloof or unsympathetic to our struggles.
On the contrary—
for though Jesus was without sin,
yet in every respect
he experienced our human weakness.

Therefore, let us approach God boldly,
so that we may receive mercy
and grace
to assist us in time of need.


JOHN 19:16-30 (selections)

They took Jesus,
and made him carry his cross
to what is called the Place of the Skull.
There they crucified him,
along with two others.

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus,
they took his clothes
and divided them up among themselves.

Standing near Jesus’ cross
were his mother,
his mother’s sister,
Mary, whose husband was Clopas,
and Mary Magdalene.

When Jesus saw his mother
and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her,
he said to his mother,
“There is your son.”
Then he said to the disciple,
“There is your mother.”
And from that hour, the disciple took her into his home.

After this, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”
A jar full of sour wine was standing there.
They put a sponge dipped in the wine on a branch
and held it up to his mouth.

When Jesus had received the wine,
he said, “It is finished.”
Then his head fell forward
and he died.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday

I attended a Maundy Thursday liturgy this evening, which left me feeling homesick for the Advocate, the community we worshiped with when we lived in North Carolina. For Maundy Thursday, the Advocate met in a lodge at a church camp outside town for a Mediterranean-style dinner and "table Eucharist" (meaning the priest blessed bread and wine there at our tables to use for communion). As part of the service, we washed one another's feet. Then, at the end, the crucifix was wrapped in black, the tables were stripped, everything was cleared away in silence; then we gathered on the porch in the dark to sing "Stay with me" (a song taken from Jesus' words to his sleepy disciples in Gethsemane), to read Psalm 22, and then to disperse.

The service I attended tonight was a simple in-the-church kind of liturgy, which couldn't begin to provide the same kind of conviviality and drama. I was disappointed, though, that they didn't wash feet. On the other hand, there was a moving, and surprising, rite afterward: after folks had helped to strip the altars for Good Friday, they gathered outside the church, where there's a garden where people's ashes are interred. There they scattered crushed communion wafers over the ground and poured out the remaining communion wine. I thought: It's a libation for the ancestors. And then I realized: They're offering communion to the ancestors; they're sharing their communion service with the ancestors.


The Maundy Thursday service centers on the reading from the Gospel of John where Jesus washes the disciples' feet as an example of how they should serve one another as he has served them. This morning I was looking for an equivalent passage in the D&C--"thus you should serve one another," "whoever would be greatest must be servant of all," etc.--to post to this blog in observance of the day. I thought I would find it at the end of D&C 88, where the rite of washing of feet is described. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the D&C says nothing about service in its discussion of the washing of feet.

We do get this in D&C 50:26--
He that is ordained of God and sent forth,
the same is appointed to be the greatest,
notwithstanding he is the least
and the servant of all.
Joseph Smith has the point of Jesus' teaching completely backwards. For Joseph, the emphasis is on being the greatest--on being "possessor of all things," having "all things . . . subject unto [you], both in heaven and on the earth" (v. 27). It's dismaying, but it makes sense: for Joseph, the gospel is about empowerment, authority, exaltation, deification. Whatever truth there is in that vision--and I believe there's truth in it; those themes are part of what I prize about Mormon tradition--that vision is liable to losing sight of the crucial gospel themes of servanthood, of emulating a God who steps down from high station, who empties himself on behalf of others.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Jana Riess on the City Creek Mall

This is a prophetic voice:
The LDS Church has spent approximately $1.5 billion on the nation’s largest retail project of recent memory. Interestingly, the $1.5 billion figure is just over the $1.3 billion figure that the LDS Church has spent in humanitarian aid since the international Humanitarian Fund began in 1985. And by coincidence, 1.3 billion is also the figure released this month about the number of people around the world who qualify as living in “extreme poverty”—a statistic that has improved sharply over the last decade, but that is still around a sixth of the world’s population.

Given those facts, spending a billion and a half dollars on a den of luxury consumption is a moral failure. It just is. A more modest, scaled-down plan to revitalize Salt Lake’s once-thriving downtown would have been enough. The rest is vanity, calculated to impress. It is palpably ironic that the mall contains a luxury store called True Religion jeans (opening Summer 2012). Whatever else it may be, this mall is not true religion.
Read the rest of Jana's essay at Flunking Sainthood.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

4/1/1992 - First day in Guaricano

This post is part of what's meant to be a monthly series (though it's turned into more of a bimonthly series) in which I commemorate my mission, 20 years ago, by "looking back" at where I served and "checking in" on what's happening in those places now.

Twenty years ago today, I was being transferred from my first proselyting area, in La Romana, to a barrio on the north edge of Santo Domingo called variously Guaricano or Los Guaricanos. It was located beyond what I understood to be a city dump, though in retrospect I don't know if the dump might have been more spontaneous than planned, out where cane fields begin. For the most part, it was a squatters' town, although the government was just starting to build "multis" in the north part of town--apartment buildings for poor people displaced by an ecological disaster in another squatters' community elsewhere in the capital. When I was there, only one road had been paved. Neighborhood juntas were still in the process of naming streets and numbering houses. There were no phones. Running water was very limited; those who could afford to (like us missionaries) had cisterns in their homes which were filled by trucks from the capital; people who had cisterns typically sold water to their neighbors (but we missionaries didn't do that). Officially, there was no electricity, but neighborhood juntas would pool money together to buy transformers--this was my understanding of what was happening, at least--and then people would plug themselves in for what became free (because unbilled) but extremely unreliable power (frequent blackouts).

Guaricano was my favorite proselyting area. It was a newly opened area; I was part of the first missionary companionship to live and work there. The living conditions were the most primitive I experienced until a few years after my LDS mission, when I returned to the Dominican Republic with a Catholic organization to do education work out in the countryside. I loved it. When I lived there, it felt like a community just beginning to get organized, full of possibility.

At the end of my mission, I drove out to Guaricano with my parents. It looked more drab than I had remembered. When I returned to the Dominican Republic four years later with the Catholic program, I made a couple of return visits to Guaricano. I was shocked: in just a few years, it had turned from a rural-feeling community into an urban slum. I discovered it had a bad reputation for crime. The missionaries who worked in Guaricano no longer lived there--they commuted in and out each day--because their house had gotten broken into one night, and the mission president decided the area was too unsafe for them to live there.

During my first return visit of 1997, I went looking for the house where I had lived. It had been a one-floor cement house adjacent to an empty plot where bean trees grew (their branches reaching into our window). Our neighbors' houses were wood or block. The street was unpaved, and in the rainy season it turned into a clay so thick you couldn't even push your bicycle through it because the clay would clog up the brakes so badly the wheels wouldn't turn. In 1997, the place was so transformed, I just stood in the middle of the street and laughed in shock. Our one-story house was now two; it was surrounded by one- or two-story cement houses; the empty plot was gone, along with all the vegetation, with no sign it had ever been there; and the street had been paved in such a way that the front door of the house was now several steps below street level.

I know I don't really have a right to be nostalgic about "the old Guaricano" since I don't have to live there. I have no right to any "say" in what life in Guaricano should be like--that's for its inhabitants to decide. But seeing Guaricano get transformed so dramatically, so quickly, left me feeling like I was watching this monstrous, uncontrollable force called "development" at work. The results have not been all good, and I'm not sure I would say (if I had a say) that the results have even been good on balance.

I should scan some photos for next month to show what Guaricano looked like twenty years ago.

Here's a map of Santo Domingo, showing Guaricano in relation to the other places in the capital where I worked.

1. Gazcue and the colonial zone. This is where the mission home and office were located. I mapped this part of the city in an earlier post. The dot indicates the LDS temple, which was built after my mission.

2. Guaricano.
3. La Milagrosa, a.k.a. Los Minas.
4. Espaillat.
5. Alma Rosa.

I'll write about areas 3-5 later in the series.

Here's a satellite image of Guaricano.

The highlighted trail shows the route followed by the video below. This is the same route we missionaries used to get in and out of Guaricano (by bus or motorcycle taxi) when we needed to go into the capital for meetings or P-day.

1. The house where we missionaries lived.

2. The office of FEDOPO. This was the first place where we held church meetings and where I taught English for weekly community service. I'm not sure how to describe FEDOPO, exactly. I should talk about in a later post. It stands for Dominican Federation of Popular Organizations. It was an organization dedicated to grassroots community development, basically; their ideology was leftist, but they were happy to cultivate a working relationship with American Mormons.

3. The house we rented for church when we had grown enough to justify moving out of the borrowed space at FEDOPO.

4. When I returned to Guaricano in 1997, church had been moved to a house here, at the entrance to town, basically. I attended fast and testimony there once. None of the people I'd baptized--that is, none of the pioneers of the congregation--were still active, or even remembered. That's five years later, mind you.

5. A Pentecostal church whose pastor helped us get settled in Guaricano in exchange for supplies for a school the church operated.

6. A clinic operated by nuns, who moved into Guaricano, along with a permanently assigned priest, around the same time we did. The house they rented for their clinic was one we had considered for church. I got to know the priest, who had his office in the same house. More on that in a future post.

And now, to finish today's post, a YouTube video that shows Guaricano as it looks today. The creator of the video seems to be a Dominican evangelical. He's taking a taxi into Guaricano from the capital. (In my day, there were no car taxis that served Guaricano, only shuttle buses, school buses, or motorcycles.) I can recognize the route he's taking, but the town has been transformed--many more houses and tall buildings than there used to be, more traffic, and more paved roads.