Mormon Masculinity and Theological Blood Sport (Or, What We Mormon Girls Look For In the Boys We Date)
At this point in my life I happen to be pretty thoroughly acquainted with, and very fond of, two unrelated men able to recite myriads of scriptures and general-authority citations at the drop of a hat. Both are the uncontested theological authorities of their marriages; their wives might timidly pose questions or even more timidly offer their own ideas, often only to be ignored or shot down. When such men encounter one another, ritualized combat or mutual exhortation often ensue; either the combatants joust over some theological point or they join in denouncing the evangelicals, the secular world, or other unenlightened Mormons or Christians (to mention a few of the more popular targets). And as is so often the case in ritualized intellectual combat, the combatants often provoke one another into taking harder and harder stances, shoving softer, more moderate, and more considered, nuanced voices aside. We’ve all sat through a Sunday-school lesson or two that has followed this general outline.
I see no evidence that anything like a majority of Mormon men engage in this sort of thing, but it is an undeniably masculine behavior, one that more men engage in than women, and one constitutive of a certain masculine Mormon identity. Ambitious practitioners may immerse themselves in ancient languages and civilizations, religious history, or philosophy and learn to wield a whole array of scholarly apparatus. Some men learn to bash and to recount their bashing triumphs on their missions, and at the end of their lives, some are evidently still pontificating in high priests’.
Once in a while official anxieties are expressed about the tensions between the intellectual and the feminine (for example, Elder Faust’s 1999 counsel to women not to “lose your sweet femininity” in the pursuit of education). I have to wonder, first of all, if such anxieties aren’t based on an erroneous reduction of the intellectual to this very masculinized ritual combat, and second, if a certain kind of masculinity isn’t at least as incompatible with genuine intellectual inquiry as a certain kind of femininity is. Fluttering around apologizing for one’s very existence isn’t particularly conducive to careful thought, but at least feminine self-denigration implies a certain teachability, an advantage the corresponding masculine pose of self-important blather decidedly lacks.
Maybe the most serious problem with theological blood sport is that it treats the spiritual like any other abstract intellectual system, often severed from any implications for the practitioners’ actual lives. It’s gospel calculus in the sky, and sometimes the practitioners are hot on the trail of a wholly imaginary unified field theory. But whatever else the gospel is, it’s nothing until it lives in us. Its truest realm is ultimately the quotidian, the intimate, the routine–in short, the largely feminine world of domestic relationships and domestic labor, to which we as Christians are enjoined to bring the largely feminine virtues of humility, patience, mercy, and love. For all the evident anxiety about women’s roles and lives, I’ve sometimes wondered if the deeper crisis and Mormonism and other Christianities isn’t one of masculinity. I think, for example, of a Sunday school teacher who week after week assured the class, “Jesus Christ was a man’s man,” clearly because considered in terms of North American culture’s quite rigid norms, some of the things Jesus said, taught, and did might put his masculinity dangerously into question.
Blood-sport theologians sometimes deal with this breach between theory and practice by making the inevitable concession to an idealized femininity, that familiar spiritually pure and intellectually vacant woman, the sweet little supportive wife who makes and serves all the meals while her mission-president husband consults with the elders in his office, the sainted nursery worker who’s never batted an eye over limited geography theory but who lives the gospel more purely than any of us smart men. Or as a minor character observes archly in the movie Shadowlands, “Men have intellect, and women have…soul.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven, the blood-sporters assure us. But if so, they seemingly have little interest in devoting themselves to its perilously feminine ways–or, in some versions, as men they are spiritually incapable of such goodness, driven as they are by their own relentlessly masculine intellects to devour one another.
I’m very much in favor of careful abstract thought about religion as about everything else, and it’s encouraging to see it continue to flourish in all kinds of Mormon venues. But when it comes to the practice of our faith, to our very lives, it’s both necessary and profoundly insufficient. And just like any well-raised Mormon male blushing when affronted with evident cleavage, plunging necklines, and short tight skirts, I find myself embarrassed and dismayed by theological indecency and gratuitous intellectual display.
I am a Mormon girl. I was raised to expect modesty–including intellectual modesty–in the opposite sex.
- 17 January 2008