Gospel Math

For several years I have struggled mightily with the 10th commandment. Most of the others I can handle. The prime number commandments I’m especially good at, being a math major. Graven images hold little appeal (math majors aren’t artistic anyway), I try not to bow down much because it aggravates my recurrent sinusitis, my mom and dad are easy to please, and I’m too immature to commit anything that has the word adult in it.

But that 10th commandment is a pesky one. Because for a long time I’ve been especially covetous. Now it’s not what you might expect. I’m not really covetous of my neighbor. His house is nice, but it’s about like ours. Besides, he’s unmarried and has no manservant, maidservant or ox. He’s quite fit, but I’m not interested in his ass. So there’s not much for me to covet, except perhaps his riding lawnmower, but I would consider that more of a transgression than a sin. No, my problem is much more serious.

I am like the people of Babel, who built a tower because they coveted God’s power. Or Simon, who tried to pay Peter for the priesthood authority he coveted. You see, I have long sought for that which I could not obtain–a particular calling in the Church. I’ve wanted to be important, to be looked up to by dozens of adoring faces each week, to play a crucial role in the life of the ward each Sunday. Yes, I confess, I have coveted the position of Primary pianist.

Recently my years of lobbying finally paid off. The counselor called me in and blew out his cheeks in exasperation: “You win, we’re finally calling you as the Primary pianist.” I doubt he had ever seen an endzone dance after extending a calling, but what mine lacked in coordination was made up for in enthusiasm. Now, I attribute this success to righteous living, although my “accidentally” closing the keyboard cover on the former pianist’s hands may have had something to do with it. The Lord works in mysterious ways, you know. Who I am to question?

Anyway, it’s a great calling. You get to play fun songs, you’re protected from all those rambunctious kids by a big, solid piano, and, unlike the chorister, you don’t have to prepare much. And it’s safer than being the organist, since there are no organ pedals. I have a vivid memory of one sacrament meeting where my dad nodded off during the talks and stomped on the organ pedals. (I still treasure the look on his face.) No need to worry about that as Primary pianist. You also get to hear stuff like, “As many of the Genitals as repent…”, or “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely impossibles, prophets, imposters,…”, or “The Holy Ghost?! I’m scared of ghosts!” And that was just in my first two weeks!

But the best thing about the Primary relates to what I call the golden ratio of Church teachings. Let me digress a moment to provide a brief math lesson on the golden ratio. Two quantities are said to be in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one. Clear as mud? Thought so. Let me try to illustrate:

02-golden-ratio-mathgolden ratio formula

Now that we’ve got that straight, according to Wikipedia, many artists and architects have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio, believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing. It turns out the golden ratio equals approximately 1.6.

Now, unless you are well-versed in Church history and theology, you may be unaware that as an institution we have striven to follow the aesthetically pleasing golden ratio of acceptable to unacceptable teachings. So for every 1.6 acceptable teachings, we try to present 1 unacceptable teaching. When we are unable to achieve this as a worldwide Church, individual adaptation is practiced at the local level. As a rule of thumb, this means that for every 16 or so teachings on love, patience, compassion, and empathy, we try to include approximately 10 teachings on blind obedience, modesty policing, 1950’s gender roles, and exclusion of gays.

It turns out that churches that exceed this ratio of acceptable to unacceptable teachings either get translated (see Zion, City of) or else cause their congregants to lose interest (see Universalist, Unitarian). Churches with ratios less than 1.6 can be quite popular, with their us-versus-them tribalism and violent stirring of emotions. Remarkably, the Westboro Baptist Church is postulated to have a negative ratio, although how that would be possible I leave to the mathematicians and religious philosophers. (There is an urban legend that Fermat claimed a simple proof in the margin of his church newsletter, but no one has been able to complete the proof.) For obvious reasons we don’t want our ratio to slip too low, so the Church strives for the aesthetically pleasing 1.6 ratio.

But I digress. What’s great about Primary is that the ratio of acceptable to unacceptable teachings is through the roof. If “Follow the Prophet” were dropped from the Songbook and the hand gestures were dropped from “Book of Mormon Stories”, the ratio would probably exceed 10. Primary children are taught to love other people, be kind, tell the truth, accept differences, and listen to their parents. Great stuff!

The problem is, to reach the golden ratio for the Church as a whole, this means that other organizations must have a much lower ratio, you know, to balance it all out. Relief Society isn’t too bad, but Sunday school often approaches a ratio of 1. Now in High Priests’ group, according to my personal experience and understanding of calculus, the ratio of acceptable to unacceptable teachings approaches 0 as time approaches 60 minutes. But just as the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee, so we must respect the role of each organization in achieving the golden ratio.

But behind my cynicism and frivolity, I care deeply about the Church and find considerable value in what I experience within it. So the next time the Sunday school teacher or priesthood leader says something particularly cringe-worthy, I realize that I need to do the math and cut them some slack. As Mormons we have some pretty awesome teachings rounding out each group of 16. Maybe the job of moving some of the remaining 10 teachings into the acceptable column is not just for our leaders, but for me as well. No doubt my influence will be small, but I say (borrowing from my favorite children’s song not in the Primary Songbook), “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” Perhaps my little light can help the golden ratio begin to be replaced by the golden rule.


  1. I, too, covet this calling. And I really loved this post. I’m off to go smash some fingers and make some calls…

  2. When our primary pianist was released in a small ward, one of the counselors asked the kids to pray that we would get a new pianist. Pronounced “PEE-nist” and the “t” was mostly silent. And she kept saying it over and over again. The kids were dying. I was dying. One of my most favorite church memories. I loved Primary. If I could sit in sharing time all the time and never have to teach a class I would be happy as a clam.

  3. Awesome. I fondly remember my first few years as a primary pianist. Definitely some good years.
    Eventually, it was torture. I probably shouldn’t say why, though, and let you figure it out after a few years, if you are in that long. Good luck! Enjoy those adorable kids who you never have to reprimand or keep in line….you just get to watch how funny and cute kids can be.

  4. Ann, whenever I say the word “pianist”, I always pronounce it “pi A nist” for that very reason.

    Also, Primary pianist was my favorite calling. I did it for about four years, and loved it.

  5. This post and the comments almost make me want to learn to play the piano. In the meantime, I want to be Mike’s C.’s page turner. I’d like sharing that little bench with him while enjoying the Golden Ratio of primary. Now if we can just get me released from my other calling…

  6. Wow, liz, I’m feeling like a bad influence. But I suppose smashing fingers is better than smashing kneecaps. Just do it gently. In my book a sprain is as good as a break.

    Ann, that’s a hilarious story! It reminds me of the time many years ago when our stake president said to the congregation, “The children will now be dismissed to go to primary, while the adults will adjourn to the RS room to watch a strip film.” (This was back in the day when they still showed film strips.) On a separate note, one of our 3 year-old twins got a rash in a sensitive spot and said, “My peanuts are sore.”

    jks, is this the sort of thing where you could tell me but then you’d have to kill me?

    Lilian, that sounds good to me. I’ll start lobbying the bishopric, or perhaps threaten to smash their fingers.

  7. Mike, I’ll see your stake president story and raise you one of my own. In the days before they changed the initiatory in the temple we went to a stake temple night. The stake president stood up to greet us and told he had spent the day doing initiatories with Brother X and that he had “seen a side of him he’d never seen before” About 10% of us started shaking with stifled laughter. He looked out at the group with that bewildered expression we get when we realize we must have said something funny but have no idea what it was.

  8. KLC, I love it! That is so funny! That makes me think of two other stories. Neither is as good as that one, but both are a bit outrageous.

    We once had a high council speaker who got up and said, “I’ve been married for 27 years and I’ve always tried to be faithful to my wife.” Lilian and I kind of looked at each other, a bit puzzled. Then towards the end of his talk he repeated those same words. Did he try, or did he succeed? As Yoda would say, “There is no try. There is only do.”

    Another time we were in EQ discussing taking the Lord’s name in vain. A new convert said, “You mean we can never use the Lord’s name in vain? You mean none of you do that? Come on! Not even when you’re making love to your wife?!” 🙂

  9. I enjoyed the silliness, Mike! Maybe you should covet your neighbor’s ass…

    The more serious point I’m struggling with a bit. I think it isn’t just a numbers ratio of good teachings to bad ones – I think there are some kinds of bad teachings that can make the whole enterprise wrong and there are some kinds of good teachings that can make it possible to overlook all sorts of bad things.

    Just finished an interesting book, The Righteous Mind, that tries to get at why people have different ideas about what makes something morally right.
    I am thinking that this might be a way to understand why churches have teachings that feel good or bad to the participants.

  10. I love this, Mike. I too am the Primary pianist in my ward, and I adore the calling for precisely the same reasons you do.

    In my last ward I lobbied shamelessly to be Primary pianist and was at last rewarded. In my current ward the Primary president helped us move in, saw the piano, and snapped me right up. Desperation is the mother of inspiration.

    We just did a month of “Follow the Prophet” which I’m not crazy about, but as the Primary presidency pointed out to me, it does keep the restless eight-year-old boys on the back row of junior Primary engaged. But I always find it sad that we don’t sing so many of our own best songs. I’ve had to grit my teeth through two programs that featured “I Will Follow God’s Plan for Me”–as far as I can tell, the preteen girls’ version of “We believe our lives have meaning, purpose, and direction”–but we have yet to sing “Beautiful Savior” so much as once, and it might be the best song in the entire songbook. It’s sad that we’ve been so reduced to didactic correctness in our musical selections.

  11. I think that’s a great point, Adria. Good teachings seem unlikely to cancel out bad ones one-for-one, particularly when the Church teaches practical infallibility. Then it’s more like cheating on your spouse. Any number greater than zero is a problem.

  12. I used to be the primary pianist. One day the chorister asked me casually if I wanted to switch callings with her, and I said yes, sort of to humor her. To my surprise she went directly to the primary president and announced that we were trading. That was three years ago, and I’ve been the chorister ever since. Recently, I’ve tried to trade it away, but I’m not having any luck!

    No matter, I enjoy being in primary, and for just the reason you mention. Oh, and by the way, in my primary, we’ve dropped the hand signals to “Book of Mormon Stories” (at least the native-American-esque ones, we hold our hands like they’re a book, and make “waves” when the Nephites come across the sea), and the foolish man in the Wise Man and Foolish Man song has a different hand signal than the one I was taught growing up. I think it’s important to be progressive on these small matters. 😉

  13. Adria, I really appreciate your point. I think Ziff came up with a more colorful example, i.e., marital infidelity, but I sometimes think of the example of a terrible toothache. No matter how good the health of the rest of your body, the agony of the toothache may be too much for you to even consider the good health of everything else.

    Going back to the infidelity, certain bad things also can introduce the problem of losing trust in other things. If a church can do something that is this bad, then perhaps I question some of the motives of the other “seemingly” good things. Or vice-versa. Some tremendous spiritual experiences can cause people to give a church the benefit of the doubt for other “seemingly” bad things.

    I haven’t read the link you included yet, but I think involvement with the Church or any faith community or large organization is highly dependent on personal experience. I had some experiences with Mormonism that for me were so transcendent that I am loath to throw it all away, even though at times I despair with certain aspects of the Church. Yet other people have different experiences that lead them to a different calculus when deciding whether to affiliate or not (as you well know). But I think I’m finally growing, giving up my more rigid idea from the past that if someone doesn’t share my experiences then they must be doing something wrong, or at least different. We just all experience reality differently, and that clearly colors our sense of right and wrong. I know this sounds very obvious, but it’s taken me a while to get to this point.

    My last thought is that I am bugged by the calculus that some people within and without the Church use. Either, I must justify my choice of being in the Church by professing that it is all good, or I must justify my choice of leaving the Church by professing that it is all bad. I have always admired your nuanced approach. The Church is an organization that contains good and evil. We must weigh in some fashion how the balance tips for us, and then live according to that result.

  14. My last thought is that I am bugged by the calculus that some people within and without the Church use. Either, I must justify my choice of being in the Church by professing that it is all good, or I must justify my choice of leaving the Church by professing that it is all bad.

    Excellent point, Mike. I find this frustrating too.

  15. Felt the need to return and report – I got called as primary pianist! I’ve been in there for about a month, and I, too, can testify that it is The One True Calling in the church.

  16. Wow, congratulations Liz! Did you have to do any finger smashing? I agree, it is a great calling. I am just bad enough that my adrenaline is always flowing since I’m always on the edge of messing up, especially when I’m sight reading. I’m definitely more wide awake at church now. Hope you enjoy it!


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