When I was a freshling at BYU, I lived in a Heritage Halls apartment with five other girls. Then, as now, I had little interest in attending social events with hordes of people. The dorm held a variety of such events, and I did my best to steer clear of them. One event which I particularly remember was a dance in which your roommates selected a date for you. I told my roommates I had no interest in attending, and planned to spend the weekend back at my parents’ house doing other activities. I was standing in the hall one afternoon when I overheard them talking about me in the kitchen, trying to figure out if I really didn’t want to go, or if it was merely an act, and they should override my expressed wishes and find me a date. Read More
Okay, this title is somewhat misleading, as rather than being a helpful list of spiritual practices that actually work—which is something I’m still trying to figure out—it’s an attempt to start a conversation about the subject. I’d love to hear people’s ideas and experiences about what’s worked for them. I find that I love the idea of spiritual practice in theory (and my therapist, of all people, is constantly telling me I need to incorporate more of it into my life), but I run into a lot of obstacles. (In my case, the challenge is often How to Be Spiritual When You’re Neurotic, but I’m interested in how people have addressed other issues as well.) Read More
Like many people I know, I was quite dismayed by the House’s recent passage of the abominable American Health Care Act, which seems to most fundamentally be about giving the rich a giant tax cut with the horrific side effect of making access to health care far more difficult for poor Americans in particular. (Don’t miss Michael Austin’s thoughts on this at BCC.) This one hits close to home—I was one of those who was uninsurable prior to Obamacare, due to having had the audacity to get treated for depression. I still remember the rejection letter I got from a health insurance company telling me that if I could manage to be symptom-free for seven years, they would maybe reconsider. The delicate question of how I was supposed to achieve the enviable status of being symptom-free for seven years with no insurance to pay for treatment was of course not addressed. I remember asking around about what to do, and people telling me that I should have just lied on the application and not mentioned the mental health care I’d gotten, especially given that it was paid for out-of-pocket; no one will ever know, they said. But possibly more out of neurotic paranoia that I would get found out than commitment to honesty, that didn’t feel like a real option to me, so I made my way forward with no insurance. I was lucky in that I was young and physically healthy, and yet every time I thought something be wrong with me, I would be sick with anxiety that it would turn out to be something serious and I would have no way to pay for treatment. Read More
I went to have a chat the other day with the rector of the local Episcopal church where I’ve been attending services, mostly just because I am manically talkative right now and always looking for a new victim to process my religious journey with. Fortunately, he turned out to be a skilled listener. And something that really impressed me came early on, after I told him my basic background (namely that I was a super conflicted Mormon who’d been recently dabbling in all things Episcopal and loving it). He easily could have used that as a launching point to do a sales pitch for the Episcopal tradition, or plunged into a narrative of Mormonism as an oppressive tradition from which I needed to escape. But instead, rather my to my surprise, the first thing he asked was, “what do you like about Mormonism?” As a lifelong Mormon I am perhaps overly alert to potential proselytizing, and the thought may have crossed my mind that this could be a trick question, part of “building a relationship of trust” or “establishing common ground” so that then you can later pounce and get the person to convert. But as the conversation continued, it was clear that nothing of the sort was happening. He genuinely wanted to learn more about Mormonism (he didn’t know much), and in particular my experience of it. He didn’t have an agenda for me; he just wanted to hear about my spiritual journey. It’s an absolute delight to talk to someone with that attitude.
Anyway, the conversation got me thinking about what I do like about Mormonism, and inspired me to dig out a post I started years ago on the topic and expand it. Here are some of the things I came up with:
First of all, I want to say that from my observations as a childless woman, being an aunt is nothing like being a mother. Yes, if you’re lucky you get to interact with the kids a lot, and you adore them beyond all reason, and sometimes they drive you crazy. But you just don’t have the same level of responsibility for them. Crucially, you have the luxury of being able to return them to their parents and flee to a child-free wilderness if it gets to be too much. From what I’ve seen, motherhood is a bone-deep thing and you are never really off duty. (Even when you’re sleeping. In fact, certainly not when you’re sleeping if your children come and get into bed with you.)
I start with that because I don’t buy that in being an aunt, I’m “learning to be a mother” or expressing my intrinsic motherhood (along the lines of “all women are mothers”). Nah. Not really. But, that said, being an aunt is one of the most fun things in my life, and I’d like to think that aunts (and uncles, too), while they don’t replicate actual parenthood and are rather a thing of their own, can contribute some good things to everyone: the kids, their parents, and the aunt herself. Read More
I think I got the term “space doctrine” from our family’s long-suffering home teacher (imagine the patience of a man who would faithfully home teach a family like mine for literally decades), who once in response to a rather wacky lesson being taught, put his head on the pew in front of him and said, “once they get into space doctrine, it’s all over.”
Anyway, these are some of the more, ummm, exciting things I’ve heard over the years.
Many years ago, I wrote about my experience of depression: “I often feel a profound hunger for language, for something that will honestly speak to the realities of my experience. But it is not easy to find words that speak to this hunger. I sometimes go to bookstores or libraries and hunt with a sense that I am falling off a cliff and I need words, I desperately need them, and I can’t find them anywhere.” I often reflected on this passage in Amos:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and not find it.'”1
- Amos 8:11-12 [↩]
I’ve been thinking recently about some of the wild theological controversies in Christian history, such as the inclusion of the word filioque in the Nicene Creed (having to do with whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son), which was one of the dividing lines between East and West; the Reformation debate over justification by faith alone; and the meaning of the Eucharist: transubstantiation, or just a symbol? (I recently read about how during a particular historical period in England when anti-Catholic sentiment carried the day, you could be outright imprisoned for elevating the Host.) And I’ve been thinking also about Mormon disputations with other Christians, focused on issues like the nature of God and salvation by grace, as well more internal Mormon controversies over matters such caffeinated drinks, Book of Mormon historicity, and of course all kinds of questions related to gender and sexual orientation.
Those who are deemed on the wrong side of these debates might get the label “heretic.” Bruce R. McConkie famously spoke of “seven deadly heresies”: the doctrine that God is progressing, the theory of evolution, the idea that temple marriage guarantees exaltation, the notion that you can get a “second chance” in the next life, the idea of progression between kingdoms, the infamous Adam-God doctrine, and the teaching that you have to be perfect to be saved. While I might actually believe in some of McConkie’s particular heresies, or at least be open to them, I’m thinking that there are nonetheless certain teachings that I’ve heard regularly which I think are deeply destructive—in my view, much more so than not having the “right” view of the Trinity/Godhead, or even of Book of Mormon historicity. So here’s my list of my own “seven deadly heresies”: Read More
The metaphor of a “crush” to describe my newfound love for the Episcopal tradition is really quite apt. I’m smitten. I’m infatuated. I’m giddy and excited, and I even find myself feeling almost guilty at times for being so happy about this when so many terrible things are happening right now in the country and in the world. But it’s spring! And the sun is shining, and the flowers are blooming! And I get to go to church! Oh, so much church. On Palm Sunday a friend asked which of the Holy Week services I was planning to attend, and I said oh, all of them, and she laughed. But I can’t get seem to get enough. (For one thing, I think I’m absolutely famished for good liturgy, in a way that I didn’t even realize.) And just being at church, just being in the building, makes me ridiculously happy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this about Mormon church, not just because it’s beaten me down a lot over the years, but also because I suspect that it’s hard to have a period of falling in love with a tradition in which you’ve been immersed since you were born, and is never going to be new and exciting in the same way. Yep, this is a crush for sure. Read More
As someone who’s been raising questions about LDS teachings and practices pretty much since my Primary days, I find that one of the most infuriating responses to people’s concerns is something along the lines of, “you just don’t understand,” whether the gospel generally or the specific principle being discussed. Because if you did understand, it seems to be assumed, you would cheerfully accept it, no more questions needed thank you very much. In years of feminist discussions, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been told that women who are discontent “just don’t understand” the true, eternal nature of patriarchy; or the meaning of divine gender roles; or the many opportunities the church gives to women. When people try to clear up complicated issues by producing a slew of GA quotes that purportedly explain everything, I find myself at a real loss as to how to best respond. Read More
Holy Week kicks off! I’ve been excited for this ever since I found myself not just doing drive-by visits to the Episcopal church, but attending regularly. I’ve dipped in and out of different Holy Week events in the past, but I’ve never gone to all of them. This is actually my first time attending a Palm Sunday service.
We meet in the courtyard outside the chapel, and they distribute palms as we enter. We hold them up as they read the opening liturgy outside. They have a choir with handbells, and the music is just gorgeous. We slowly process into the building. Most of the service is taken up with a reading of the Passion narrative. They’ve assigned different people in the congregation to voice the different characters, which really brings it to life. (I’m amused to note that one of the rectors is playing both Judas and Pilate.) Since that’s the focus, there isn’t a sermon, although they do have Communion. (I’m coming to realize that Episcopalians pretty much do the Eucharist whenever possible.) They don’t read the Resurrection part of the text, of course, since it’s not Easter yet, so the service ends on a rather serious note. The congregation leaves in silence; unlike regular Sundays, the rectors don’t stand near the doors afterward and shake hands with people. But I leave on a real high nonetheless, excited for the coming week. Read More
One of the movies produced by the church that I actually rather enjoy is Nora’s Christmas Gift, partly because even though it has its cheesy moments, I like Nora, who is funny and real. But I also appreciate its message, which is one that resonates with me. Nora has to cope with life circumstances that I think most of us would find quite challenging, as age and declining health put her in a position where she finds herself more dependent on others. She has to cope with the unsettling shift from being the person who organized things and offered help to others to being the person in need of help. She quite understandably resents the situation and resists the help. But at the end of the movie, it occurs to her that learning to accept what others offer her—and ultimately what God offers her—is what Christmas is ultimately about: “let earth receive her King,” she says, with a dawning recognition that is it up to her to allow grace to affect her life. Read More
In his writings, the great reformer Martin Luther, who turned the theological world of the sixteenth century upside down, returned again and again to a very basic problem: how do you believe in the atonement, or grace, or the saving work of Christ, on a personal level? How do you really take in that those things apply to not just humanity in general, and more to the point, not to some category of “good people,” but to a sinner like yourself? “I have often experienced,” he wrote, “and still do every day, how difficult it is to believe, especially amid struggles of conscience, that Christ was given, not for the holy, righteous, and deserving, or for those who were His friends, but for the godless, sinful, and undeserving, for those who were His enemies, who deserved the wrath of God and eternal death.”1 Luther noted that when he found himself consumed by the forces of sin, it was nearly impossible to turn to Christ for rescue and forgiveness. He attributed this at least partly to the work of the devil, whose voice constantly whispered in his ear, reminded him of his unworthiness, and informed him that Christ would surely damn him. He described his experience of being frightened of Christ: “even at the mention of the name of Christ,” he recounted, “I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that He was a judge.”2 Luther also observed the inexorable and unforgiving logic of the conscience: “You have sinned; therefore God is angry with you. If He is angry, He will kill you and damn you eternally.” He went on to even suggest that as a result, “many who cannot endure the wrath and judgment of God commit suicide by hanging or drowning.”3
The only way to quiet these condemning voices is, of course, to throw yourself utterly on the mercy of the Savior. But Luther was well aware that this is much easier said than done. To turn to Christ, to look for grace, while being assailed by the forces of judgment and condemnation, he observed, was enormously challenging: “to do this in the midst of struggle is the hardest thing there is. I am speaking from experience, for I am acquainted with the devil’s craftiness . . .”4
Selections from Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic Books, 2000).
“Christians call them the Triduum Sacrum, the three most sacred days of all time when time is truly told. The fist, Maundy Thursday, is so called because that night, the night before he was betrayed, Jesus gave the command, the mandatum, that we should love one another . . . The second day is the Friday we so oddly call ‘good.’ And the third day, the great Vigil of Resurrection Conquest. Do not rush to the conquest. Stay a while with this day. Let your heart be broken by the unspeakably bad of this Friday we call good . . . let your present moment stay with this day. Stay a while in the eclipse of the light, stay a while with the conquered One. There is time enough for Easter.” (1-2)
“Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves . . . The beginning of wisdom is to come to our senses and know that fearful truth about ourselves, that we have wandered and wasted our days in a distant country far from home.” (4) Read More
Many, many years ago, after an extended argument on a ZD thread in which people complained about the contentious turn that a particular discussion had taken, a commenter opined that this was nothing, and we should visit a particular male-dominated blog known for endless debate to see what “real robust challenge” looked like. I was annoyed, of course, by the subtext that the (often female) participants at ZD couldn’t handle “real” debate. But the question I really wanted to ask (but didn’t, because the conversation was going nowhere fast), was something like this: what exactly constitutes “real robust challenge?” Which of the following is more challenging, I wondered at the time: to not back down in the face of vehement intellectual disagreement and participate at length in the back-and-forth of an endless comment thread in which no one changes their mind a whit—or to make an effort to actually listen to and understand what someone is saying, even and especially if it’s not an easy thing for you to hear and perhaps makes you a bit uncomfortable? Which of those involves more risk? Which of these requires more strength? I will certainly concede that it takes a certain amount of confidence and skill to hold one’s own in an intense debate, and I think those are worthwhile attributes. But I wouldn’t mistake them for strength. I think we’re all familiar with blog participants who never ever back down, never walk away, and always have to have the last word. They can be a nightmare if you’re trying to engage in any kind of comment management or moderation, because such people will cheerfully hijack a thread with their very strong opinions about basically everything and drive it as fast as possible toward the nearest cliff. This actually hasn’t happened in a long time, especially as our blog has slowed down over the years, but in the old days when I would load ZD and see that over half of the recent comments were from the same person (and that person was not one of the ZD permabloggers), my heart would just sink, because there are certain participants who will never just let a discussion go. I have to wonder whether they would see doing so as a sign of weakness. Read More
I’m somewhat wary of secrets. Yes, I absolutely think there is a time and a place for keeping confidences, and I’m very much a supporter of private information staying generally private (like not having your entire web history auctioned off by your internet service provider to the highest bidder. But I digress). I’m not entirely on board with the trend in our contemporary culture to leak anything that can be leaked; given my history of willingness to criticize the church, you might be surprised to learn that I actually have some serious reservations about the recent MormonLeaks phenomenon.
Still, secrets are tricky beasts. Sometimes they’re necessary, no doubt about it. But I don’t like how they can place excessive burdens on people who get stuck with more knowledge than they can handle on their own, but who can’t ask for support because the knowledge is secret. I don’t like how they can create dividing lines between people, separating out those “in the know” as a privileged group. I don’t like how they can create a toxic atmosphere in communities (think, polygamy under Joseph Smith), or in families (such as when a parent selects one child and share their secrets with them but not with anyone else, and the dynamics get weird fast). Read More
The first time I ever went to see a therapist, I was 18 years old and a freshling at BYU. I’d finally gotten up the nerve to admit to my bishop that I was suicidally depressed, and he referred me to the university counseling center. I’d never been in therapy before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Unfortunately, it turned out to be kind of a disaster from the very beginning. The person who did the intake asked me about my suicide plans. When I hesitantly told him what I was thinking of doing, he said dismissively, “oh that would never work.” I was seriously burned by that brief interaction; years and years later, therapists would plead with me to share the specific details of my suicidal thinking and I would remain reticent, not wanting to re-live the shame of being told that my plans (and by extension, me) were not worth taking seriously. Read More
In 1960, a thinker by the name of Valerie Saiving wrote an influential article which is often considered the beginning of modern feminist theology, critiquing traditional models of sin which were centered around pride. Since such perspectives considered pride or excessive self-assertion to be the most basic sin, they understood the process of overcoming sin as necessarily involving a move toward greater selflessness. Love was defined in such approaches as being “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.”1 Saiving raised the objection that these models ignored some basic differences in the self-development of women and men, and arose from an essentially masculine perspective. The crucial point that these formulations overlooked, she argued, is that there is danger in the other direction as well, as it turns out that too much selflessness, far from producing someone in an idealized and virtuous state, leads to the development of a kind of “chameleon-like creature who responds to others but has no personal identity of his [or her] own.”2 Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable. Read More
Like most kids born into the church, I was baptized at the age of eight. I turned 42 earlier this year. (Tangential sign that you are getting at least middle-aged: I actually had to stop and check the year and subtract to verify my current age. But yes, it’s 42.) That means I have a solid 34 years of membership in the LDS church. I was by no means consistently active for all those years. My first foray out of Mormonism happened about thirty seconds after I finished my last class at BYU, and was no longer required to have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That time around, I left for a good year and a half. But looking back, “left” is a very strong word for what I did. I mean, I quit going to church every week (though I’d still drop by for special occasions). But I still did stuff like praying and reading my scriptures, and even (such are the contradictions of life) attending an Institute class for a while. And given that I was living in Provo, with five Mormon roommates, I was still pretty immersed in the whole thing. In a stroke of good fortune, I got to take a night class on Mormon literature from Eugene England, who had found refuge at UVU at that point, and I loved it. It was an environment where there was room for real questions; I found there a constructive and supportive space to begin the process of seriously wrestling with my Mormon heritage and what it meant to me. Given my continuing attachment to the LDS tradition, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised when I eventually decided to come back to church. Read More
My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.
About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. Read More