Apr 22

Oh Say, What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism through a Black Feminist Epistemology

My husband Rebelhair and I often talk about the things that make up the culture of Mormondom – its idiosyncrasies, its cultural quirks, its bedrock beliefs and non-negotiable narratives, and especially the processes by which it navigates and establishes its biggest truth claims. We’ve spoken frequently about the concept of truth in Mormonism – not just what Mormonism’s particular truth claims are, but how one arrives at them, and how one both frames and holds onto them, given the inherently shifting nature of continuing revelation.

In other words, we like to talk about the idea of a Mormon epistemology, or the ways that Mormon culture produces and frames knowledge: How do we come to know things? What are our frameworks for establishing theological and doctrinal truths?

We often discuss how, unlike older religious systems, we don’t have an established systematic theology; there aren’t yet agreed-upon hermeneutical frameworks through which we establish what our leaders teach. Instead, it’s far more common for leaders to make a truth claim or suggest a principle, and for the Mormon faithful to find other things in our teachings that seem to make that truth claim make sense. This works well if our leaders are teaching culturally well-established truths or non-controversial ideas. If a leader teaches that we mustn’t abandon our children, for example, we can easily find scriptural accounts and a multiplicity of conference talks about loving one another. But if a leader makes a less intuitive remark, as when Elder Oaks recently stated that the Church neither “seeks for” nor “gives” apologies and that the word “apology” does not appear in the scriptures, many are left a bit bemused. Yes, it’s apparently factually correct, but there are many elements of Mormon teaching, including our most basic teachings of repentance, that advocate for humility and asking forgiveness of others. How is that not an apology, regardless of whether the word is used? Understanding what Elder Oaks was getting at in that moment, and even understanding if such a remark should be taken at face value or if it was more tongue-in-cheek, requires a great deal of familiarity with Mormon systems of knowing (and even then leaves some scratching their heads).

All of this leads up to a question that we’ve batted around throughout our courtship and now newly married life: How can one describe Mormon ways of knowing? Is there a traceable Mormon epistemology; a consistent Mormon system of knowledge production that links together its myriad truth claims in a comprehensible manner?

The other day Rebelhair turned to me and casually mentioned, “You know, I actually think that there are some models of knowledge production that come out of black feminism that are remarkably similar to and could explain Mormon epistemologies.” You can imagine my intrigue. This essay, courtesy of Rebelhair, is the result of that conversation.

Continue reading

Mar 04

Two Thoughts From an Ordained Woman

I play the piano for a small Methodist congregation on Sunday mornings. They meet in one of the oldest Methodist churches in the South, a small, lovely brick building in a sleepy old town. It is not large enough to house a pipe organ. The pastor, who interviewed, auditioned, and ultimately hired me, is a young, 40-something woman, recently ordained. She and her husband – he sits in the pews with their three children every Sunday – are fugitives from a much stricter Baptist tradition.

I took the job for purely practical reasons; I needed a form of income that was not too time consuming but would enable me to help support my family while writing my dissertation. Yet, increasingly as time passes, I find myself surprised at my weekly reactions – emotional, intellectual, and spiritual – to the experience of having a woman preside. Her sermons bring up ideas that refuse to leave my mind, and everywhere in her speech are inclusive metaphors of female experience. Although, of course, some of the basic teachings and traditions of Methodism are distinct from Mormonism – the examples below will make that obvious – the parallels are striking enough that, while listening to her, I feel I am beginning to develop a vision of what real female leadership from ordained women would look like in an LDS setting. Here are two examples from sermons that have remained with me: Continue reading

Dec 11

Comparative Polygamy

I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Cairo when a man came up to me. He commented on what I was wearing, suggesting that I wear red more often.

I was used to this. Egyptian culture, unlike the culture that I grew up in, encourages men to have opinions about things like the colors that women wear. Men will accompany their wives to makeup counters, and even go alone to department stores to purchase high-end cosmetics and perfume for their wives, mothers, and sisters.

We fell into conversation. His English was excellent. As we spoke, he mentioned Islam and asked if I was married. I was used to this, too. Muslim men in Cairo – even married Muslim men – would often approach single women and flirt with or proposition them. A common line was “I should take you as my second wife.” It was always a bit jarring to me, as an American woman, to have men approach me in an obviously lusty, flirtatious way when they were already married. But this particular man in the lobby had not yet married. He was planning on working a few more years before he did so. Continue reading

Dec 04

On Faith Transitions and Rejecting the Binary

Ever since the new essays dealing with more complex bits of Mormon history appeared on lds.org, almost daily I encounter facebook statuses and posts in private groups of people reeling, overwhelmed and disoriented, unsure of what to do. These are good people, people who have devoted their lives and their talents and their faith to the Church, many of them deeply orthodox. Their statuses are, for me, an unsettling echo of the statuses of many of my more liberal and progressive Mormon friends last summer when Kate Kelly and John Dehlin were facing Church discipline. It seems it’s been a hard year for Mormons of most stripes.

For a while I didn’t look too closely at the statuses. They reminded me of the numbness and shock I felt, over a decade ago before social media existed, when I pored over books in the Harold B. Lee library shortly after taking out my endowments as a younger, pre-mission-age single woman at BYU. I didn’t know then where to turn, whom to talk to. When I did bring up the information I found in those books to close friends and family – secret “spiritual wivery” and polyandry, blood atonement, racist pronouncements said over the pulpit in the name of the Lord – even the least dogmatic immediately told me not to worry about it or not to read it. My protestations that I wasn’t reading anti-Mormon materials but historical documents and books written by LDS scholars fell on deaf ears, and, even more unnerved, I realized that this was not something I could talk about with any of my LDS friends. It was many, many years before I did. My faith transition was achingly alone.

And so, when John Dehlin issues a request, as he frequently does, for people to offer their advice and stories for how they handle their own faith transitions, I find myself wondering what advice I or any one of us can give. Continue reading

Jun 23

For Kate

“Excommunication in our church is akin to spiritual death. The life-saving ordinances you have participated in like baptism, confirmation, and temple sealing are moot.  In effect, you are being forcibly evicted from your forever family.

Given the gravity of the situation, I feel like being invited to a council of this sort is akin to being invited to my own funeral.  Reading stories like this one in the New York Times are like reading my own obituary.” – Kate Kelly

 

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise women at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. Continue reading

Mar 21

Where is the Female Sacred Space?

Two months ago I had a once in a lifetime experience: I was invited to an Emirati wedding. In a vast, glittering ballroom, chandeliers festooned and arches bedecked with streaming garlands of real flowers, I sat with nearly six hundred Emirati women eating an eight-course gourmet meal, waited on by servants robed in white with gold sashes. As is common in the UAE, the wedding guests were dressed to the nines – full professional makeup, elaborate waist-length hair extensions, and high-end sequined designer gowns with plunging necklines paired with improbably spindly six-inch heels. Arab pop blasted from the speakers, and the female members of the bride’s and groom’s families stood in turn. They danced traditional dances together in front of the seated crowd, ululating and graceful in their glamorous gowns, wending their way up and down the center of the room in a processional toward the bridal bower. No photography was allowed – no cameras whatsoever were permitted in that room. I sat, my brain rapidly stultified by the rich food and blaring music, trying to create a mental video of the glamour and the dancing, trying to make sure I did not miss too many details of this extraordinary night.

And then, at the stroke of midnight, the groom came (looking pale and nervous), escorted by the broadly grinning male members of the bride’s family. And all of the sequins, all of the elaborately coiffed hair of the numerous guests, disappeared in moments under long frothy black abayas and headscarves, leaving only portions of the women’s faces, their henna tattooed hands, and their designer heels showing.** Only the bride, in that room filled with hundreds and hundreds of women, could be seen in her gorgeous gown by her husband-to-be. Only the bride’s immediate male relatives could even enter into the ballroom where the bride was seated, uncovered, surrounded by her vast network of family and friends. (Even the groom’s male relatives were forbidden entrance, and this despite the fact that all of the women other than the bride had covered themselves before any of the select few male relatives had entered.) They had entered into a sacred, private female space. Continue reading

Jan 16

The Problem of Women and Church Courts

CW: discussion of violence and sexual assault

Midway through my mission, I was transferred into an area and took over teaching the new member discussions to a recent convert, a young single mother with one child. The father of her baby was an immigrant who had married a local in order to get citizenship; he had never slept with the woman he married or even lived in the same house with her, but he had to maintain his “marriage” on paper in order to stay in the country. Because of this, he could not marry our recent convert, the mother of his child. This situation was, sadly, quite common.

Shortly after she was baptized, he came over to her apartment uninvited, drunk, and raving, and slapped her around. I do not know what he was angry about, but she showed me the bruises on her body. Later that night, they slept together. Continue reading

Nov 19

Five Percenters and Mormons? Dissonance, Embodiment, and Faith

Towards the end of my mission, I was assigned a companion who was of mixed-race heritage (her father was African American, her mother white). (I am of stereotypical Mormon pioneer stock, a mix of the UK, Scandinavia, and a couple of Cherokees from over a century back. I looked remarkably white, and remarkably American, in the Latin American country where I served.) This companion, on the other hand, looked very like many of the people who lived where we served, and her physical appearance opened doors. For the first time on my mission, I was not asked with suspicion about race and the church. Also for the first time, both investigators and members talked openly in front of me about the complexities of being a racial minority in a church led primarily by white American men.

I think I’m probably similar to many people who are too young to remember the priesthood ban. Not only had I literally never heard any of the folk stories (à la the infamous Prof. Bott scandal of last year) about the reasons for the ban, but I was 18 by the time I learned that prominent LDS leaders had once spoken out against miscegenation, and that some people had described black people as “fence-sitters” in the pre-existence – both of which sounded so crazy to me that I paid no attention. I grew up going to church with family friends of various races and ethnicities. My very first babysitting job was for a family in the ward, good friends of my parents, whose family included a white mom and a black dad. No one ever said anything about it – no one ever talked about race at all. My father had served a Spanish-speaking mission and would often talk to and translate for local immigrants from different countries in Latin America. When I heard about the priesthood ban, it was always a story with a happy, faith-promoting ending: people described the feeling of joy they experienced when it was finally lifted. I say all of this to illustrate my profound ignorance of the ban and its implications. In my mind, before my mission, it was a historical blip; a deviation; an embarrassing product of its time that was corrected in due course. My mission challenged this view. Continue reading

Sep 13

On Love

When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded:

… Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 22:37-40, KJV)

“Law” and “prophets” are specific references in this context: the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is called the Tanakh in Jewish tradition, an acronym for Torah (roughly “teaching” or “law”), Nevi’im (“prophets”), and K’tuvim (“writings”). The Torah is the first five books of Moses or Pentateuch; the Nevi’im the books that were eventually named after the prophets who (according to tradition) wrote them (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Haggai); and the K’tuvim are the Chronicles and poetic works like the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Although the Old Testament as we know it today wasn’t compiled until after the time of Christ – many scholars date the redaction and final closure of the OT canon to the first or second century after Jesus – the Torah and the Nevi’im, the law and the prophets, were pretty well established by Jesus’ time. He was saying, then, that the entirety of the Old Testament as he knew it – the sum of religion – lies in these two simple dicta: love God, and love each other.

And he was citing scripture as he said it. The injunction to love God is in the text of the ten commandments, and the requirement to love each other is repeated in various iterations in Leviticus: Continue reading

Jul 09

The Word of Wisdom as a Cultural Marker

Anthropologists have long scratched their heads at the organizational logic underpinning kashrut, the rules and regulations surrounding the proscription, prescription, and preparation of foods in Judaism, also called “kosher laws.” Why are only animals that both chew cud and have cloven hooves permissible? Why only fish that have both scales and fins, thereby eliminating species like catfish, sharks, and all shellfish? Why are locusts okay to eat while nearly every other species of insect is forbidden?

Various arguments have been put forth, one of the most common being that of basic health. At the time when the Torah was being codified, so the reasoning goes, parasites like trichinosis were very common, vaccines didn’t exist, and, in the absence of thermometers, it was difficult to determine if meat had reached the requisite temperature to be safe for consumption when cooked over an open flame. Others argue that it was about differentiation. The Law of Moses generally contains a constant proscription on types of mixing: no linen and wool should be woven together (Deut 22:11); two different crops should not be sown in the same field (Lev 19:19); a kid should not be cooked in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21); and the Israelites should not intermingle with the Canaanites and others. Even the word “holy,” repeated many times in the first five books of Moses, is based on the Semitic root q-d-sh, whose meanings include separation, differentiation, and designation for a specific purpose (see, e.g., Lev 19:2, “…Be ye holy, for I the Lord God am holy.”) Separation and categorization, this line of thought suggests, were the driving forces behind kashrut. Continue reading

Jun 15

On Judging

I first heard this story during my Jewish Studies coursework. I keep poking around trying to find the original since more than ten years have passed since that first hearing, but I have been unsuccessful. So here is the story, reconstructed from class notes and filtered through a decade of forgetfulness:

Once, shortly after the Second Temple was destroyed, a famous Rabbi told his students that he would be making the long journey from Yavne to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet with an important Gentile woman. His students loved him and could not bear to part with him, so they insisted upon accompanying him on the journey. Continue reading

Jun 12

On Questioning

In Rabbinic tradition, Noah is considered the lesser – if not the least – of the Patriarchs. Unlike fathers Abraham and Jacob, Noah did not argue with God. When faced with God’s declaration of the impending destruction of all life through the Flood, Noah was obedient and preached to the people, warning them of the imminence of God’s wrath. But he did not, like Abraham when contemplating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, attempt to persuade God to forgo such a drastic, horrific plan.

For the rabbis, then, part of righteousness comes from dialogue with God. Noah was righteous, yes. But the better part of valor – the proof of the truly great – is in challenging God; in wrestling like Jacob and the angel until we may claim our blessing (Genesis 32:24-32). Although we are to be obedient, we are not to be unquestioning. On the contrary, God wishes us to respond. No human question could upset the Divine; it is questions that bring us closer to Him. Continue reading

Jun 09

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful for My Mission: 5

You can find the earlier posts in this series here, here, here, and here.

5) The Elders

I have no younger brothers. On my mission I came to feel a sense of siblingdom with a lot of the Elders in my different zones and districts – a feeling of occasional exasperation mixed with tenderness and deep affection, what I imagine I would feel toward my younger brothers if I had them. I loved those guys.

I served in the Provo MTC alongside an Elder from California. He and I were in each other’s district there and again after we moved to a smaller MTC in Latin America for our Spanish language training. Then, after we arrived at our mission country, we happened to be placed in the same district again. I will try to be careful in how much detail I give in this story because it is his and not mine.

Continue reading

Apr 24

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful for My Mission: 4

You can find the earlier posts in this series here, here, and here.

4) Class Awareness

I served with one native-speaking companion, a fiery, fascinating woman from Nicaragua. Not only was she a native speaker, but she was also an exceptionally educated person. Often when we were out talking with people in the streets they would stop her and ask her to rephrase things, telling her that her Spanish was too high-brow for them. And she spoke nary a lick of English, so living with her was a sink-or-swim course in Spanish fluency for me. (I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to basically serve as a Spanish finishing school for so many Americans coming to the country with shaky MTC-Spanish. The Mission President very judiciously gave her a new companion nearly every transfer period so that as many English-speaking sisters as possible could benefit from her expertise.) Continue reading

Apr 21

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful for My Mission: 3

You can find the earlier posts in this series here and here.

3) The Interviews

Every six weeks on my mission, the missionaries would have a one-on-one interview with the Mission President. Interviews were one of the only times that companionships were separated. These interviews were not particularly long – they would typically last anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour. Their purpose was simple: the MP was checking in with the missionaries, and giving them an opportunity to ask questions, discuss any issues had in companionships, etc. They were not scripted, and no topic was an absolute requirement for review.

I liked my MP, and I liked him a lot. On a personal level. He was sincere, reflective, and a deeply thoughtful man. I also liked his wife, largely for the same reasons. I respected them. He would often make comments to me about how he disagreed with our culture of quasi-hero worship of the General Authorities, since they are men serving in a calling, susceptible to weakness like any other man.

Once in a Zone Conference (also a meeting that took place every six weeks) he opened up the floor to questions on doctrine or practice, encouraging the missionaries to ask anything they wished. One of the Elders from my district – a guy that I also really liked and stayed friends with after the mission – asked “What would happen if we used a cross on our church?” The MP replied, “It would still be the Lord’s Church, but with a cross on top.” Like I say, I really liked this man. Continue reading

Apr 15

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful for My Mission: 2

You can find the earlier post in this series here.

2) The Mother’s Day Lesson

My last companion was relatively new to her mission. The child of a recently widowed mother with several teenagers at home, one of her biggest worries as a missionary was that her mom would need her back home and she would be powerless to help.

One day, shortly before Mother’s Day, she received a letter from home filled with good news after a long interval of anxiety-inducing silence. Her mom and family were doing remarkably well. Things were as smooth and happy as they had been since her father passed away. After reading the letter she brightened visibly, and remained noticeably relieved and relaxed for some time afterward. And, since she had been asked to give the lesson at District Meeting that week, she chose to speak on mothers. It was a simple, brief lesson, consisting mostly of her expressions of gratitude for the sacrifices her mother had made for her. Neither then nor ever did she tell the other missionaries in our district that her father had died. Continue reading

Apr 13

Top Ten Reasons I’m Grateful for my Mission: 1

 This is the first post in a series on reasons I’m grateful for my mission.

1) The Stories

As a missionary, I often felt like I was playing the part of an extra in the movies of other people’s lives. I felt I was mostly there to watch and listen; to hear their stories.

Yet, as I lived through the months and met new people day after day, I found meaning in my role. There is inherent value in being observer and confidante, in acknowledging the realities of the worlds of others – worth in serving as witness to their pain.

I left filled to the brim with human stories. Here is one: Continue reading

Feb 19

If You Only Understood!

A few years ago, a friend of mine from Israel came to church with me. He was curious about Mormonism, and he happened to come on – you guessed it – a Fast Sunday. I prepared him ahead of time for the likelihood of congregants offering unusual personal stories from the pulpit, thinking that by doing so I was covering most of my bases. It ended up being a pleasant enough meeting, mostly filled with streams of little kids getting up and being cute in front of the microphone. I felt a certain amount of relief heading into Sunday School for the second hour.

This was a large, well-attended ward in Utah County. The Sunday School was packed, and it was clear from the lack of a set time for visitor introductions that few visitors came. No one knew there was a non-Mormon in their midst. And then the Sunday School teacher, an older gentleman, began to talk about the Holy Land and the Last Days. Continue reading

Feb 10

Questions From and For Our Readers: Feminism and Serving a Mission

A few days ago one of our readers, a 20-year-old college student and feminist who is considering serving a mission, sent in some questions about feminism and missionary service. With her permission I’m posting them here for you, our excellent readers, to weigh in on:

  1. Did you know you were feminist/ have feminist beliefs before the mission?
  2. Were you aware of the apparent disjoint between those views and the teachings of the church? If so, how did that impact your decision to go on a mission? Continue reading