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.

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Jan 01

Sources of Mormon Feminism

Mormon feminists, like Christian feminists more broadly, are posed with the difficulty of making sense of the patriarchal aspects of a tradition which they believe to be inspired. One of the most challenging questions for both groups is this: if one is to reject particular aspects of the tradition (for example, female subordination), on what basis can such a rejection be made?

Some feminists have concluded that Christianity and patriarchy are too closely intertwined for them to be ever pulled apart, and have therefore abandoned Christianity. (Interestingly, a similar assumption is made by those conservatives who see Christianity as inherently patriarchal, and therefore argue that real Christians must abandon feminism). However, a number of others have proposed ways to maintain serious commitments to both Christianity and feminism, looking for creative ways of negotiating the tensions. Some propose drawing on contemporary experience, while others look to liberating elements within the tradition. And in an LDS context, I would add the approach of drawing on personal revelation. Continue reading

Jul 10

Taking Ally Isom at Her Word

On Sunday I decided to bear my testimony in sacrament meeting and talk about my involvement with Ordain Women. I’ve transcribed below approximately what I said. In case you were wondering, in my opinion it was only the third strangest testimony of the meeting. Yay for Mormon weirdness!

Next post I’ll share the response so far from my local leaders and fellow ward members. I think you’ll find it to be generally good news.

This past year I taught Book of Mormon in seminary and I absolutely loved it. I loved the kids, even when they were half-asleep or all-the-way asleep, or even when my son was making smart remarks. What I especially loved, though, was the opportunity to help the kids develop a personal relationship with God.

I love the Book of Mormon and am deeply moved by many of its teachings. One of my favorites is when Nephi teaches us that all are alike unto God. Over the years this scripture and other Church teachings have led me along a path of life that may be different from yours, and that is what I’d like to talk about even though it is hard for me. I feel very vulnerable baring my soul like this so I hope you’ll bear with me. Continue reading

Oct 15

Elder Christofferson’s Edit Suggests Some GA Doesn’t Dislike All Feminists

As you’ve probably heard, Elder Christofferson’s Conference talk a couple of weeks ago originally included a swipe at “some feminist thinkers,” who he claimed “view homemaking with outright contempt.” This statement was edited in the printed version to be aimed at a more nebulous “some” who view homemaking with outright contempt. This change seems like a clear win for feminists, as the written record, which will likely be referred to far more often than the audio and video recordings of the spoken talk, now no longer has an explicit mention of feminists in a negative light.

But I think an even more positive outcome of the edit is what came out of the explanation for it. Here’s Peggy Fletcher Stack quoting Ruth Todd, Church spokesperson:

Church editors had suggested to the apostle that “referencing ‘some feminist thinkers’ would inevitably be read by many as ‘all feminist thinkers,’ ” Todd explained in a statement. “Elder Christofferson agreed and has simply clarified his intent.”

Okay, so call me a cynic, but I thought that Elder Christofferson’s original intent was to do precisely what Todd’s statement says he wanted to avoid: put down all feminists while using the word “some” to maintain plausible deniability. I really doubt, then, that the edit originated with Elder Christofferson. But whether or not I’m right, the important point in Todd’s statement is that whoever originated the edit did not want it to be thought that Elder Christofferson was putting down all feminist thinkers. This suggests that there are some other feminist thinkers who the editor of the talk thought should not be put down. I think this is huge! Since when has any word from the general level of the Church had anything positive to say about any feminists or feminism? I thought President Packer’s view of feminists as one of the big three enemies of the Church reigned supreme, with others like Elder Nelson clearly subscribing to the view that feminists oppose all that is true and right in the world. Ruth Todd’s statement gives me a glimmer of hope that some GA somewhere does not want all feminists to be painted with a broad negative brush.

Sep 05

Dona Nobis Aequalitatem

In May of 2010, I was standing alone in my new room after having just started a new job for the summer working the dorms at BYU. I had just finished completely unpacking, and everything was in place and orderly. And it was at that moment, when all seemed settled, that I decided I had to leave.

There I was, just done with my first year at BYU. The past year and a half of my life had been spent fighting against a thought that started as a small flicker but overtime became impossible to push back. That struggle had been spent with what seemed like virtually constant prayer, and I was feeling very close to God at that time in my life—closer than I had ever felt before.

And so, I sat down at the end of my bed and said a simple, to the point prayer. . It wasn’t a prayer of asking—I am much too decisive a person for that. I said something like “Hey. I know I just unpacked and everything. But I can take it no more, and I have decided to leave the church. No one understands my struggle better than you—you’ve been with me through it all. But I can’t do it anymore. I do not feel welcome, and I do not feel that this is my home. I’m starving slowly and I am finding no nourishment in this church. I am scared if I stay much longer, the damage will not be reversible and I’ll never recover. So, I have decided to leave. I’ll transfer to a new school. I’ll move on from this.” Continue reading

Aug 03

My Lucky Day

If I were playing the lottery, I know what numbers I would choose. They would have some variation of 0803 in them (but no, would-be scammers, that is not my debit card PIN number). If I were starting a land war in Asia, I would invade on August 3rd. If I were having elective surgery, I would do it on this day. Today is my lucky day.

You see, August 3rd is the day that my organizing, funny-story-telling, contagiously-laughing wife and my creative, ear-to-ear-grinning, anime-loving only daughter were born. What an awesome day!

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Nov 23

Everything I Know about Feminism I Learned from the 1970s

At a recent FAIR conference, Joshua Johanson spoke about how he has negotiated the conflict between his same sex attraction and his religious faith.  Something that struck me about this talk was a comment he made near the beginning about his wife’s relationship with the feminist movement and how it is similar to his relationship to the gay movement.  He stated: Continue reading

Oct 22

Coercion: Stop it

One of my first posts at ZD was about what I called my “feminist awakening.”  I pinpointed it to a particular summer, the first of my graduate studies.  But, I don’t think it really explained the bigger picture of what really was happening.  That summer wasn’t the beginning of my discomfort with gender inequality, it was just the first time I named it.  And, it was the first time I really dealt with something I came to term “gender coercion.”  And by gender coercion, I mean:

The forcing of another party to act out gendered expectations in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation, or some other form of pressure or force. Continue reading

Jul 10

Critical Thinking and the Modesty Meme; or, Why We Need More English Majors

Likely everyone has come across the following internet/facebook meme, but just in case you’ve been backpacking in the Andes for the last two weeks with no wifi, or don’t have well-meaning conservative facebook friends, or have blocked all the well-meaning conservative facebook friends, or just aren’t on facebook precisely so you can avoid things like this, here you go:

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Dec 07

My Feminist Beginning: The Joseph Smith Seminar

It has always intrigued me to hear about people’s “realization moments”–for it seems that, often, women and men come to understand feminism in a sudden moment in time when it became clear, or a series of common events that string together to form the sentence, “Something is not right here.”

I have these moments, and I’ve often thought how interesting it was that my first self-identifiable “feminist realizations” floated around in one single summer, the summer I studied at the Joseph Smith Seminar. Continue reading

Feb 08

Feminism is Not a Trial

Like every other human being on the planet, there are things in my life that I would consider trials. Mental health wackiness. Being single in a married church. Financial insecurity, and wondering whether I’ll ever get a job.

However, the fact that my perspective on the church is informed by feminism is not one of them. And I find myself bristling when concern with feminist issues is placed in that category, as if it were an affliction to be borne. As if some people have to struggle with illness or unemployment, and others come down with a bad case of feminism.

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Apr 08

In Defense of Negative Feminism

One of the things that most struck me at the recent Claremont conference was the extent to which I was doing what I might call “negative feminism.”  I’m using “negative” both in a kind of netural, descriptive sense (in academic theology, there’s a tradition of “negative theology” which emphasizes what we don’t know about God), as opposed to more constructive work which puts forth new ideas–and “negative” in the more usual sense of the term, in that I was in fact  painting a rather negative picture of LDS teachings regarding the eternal status of women.  The reactions I got were varied; some liked it, but others found it excessively gloomy.  This has gotten me thinking about possible dangers with this approach, but also why I think it’s important. Continue reading

Apr 02

Thoughts from the Claremont Conference

I spent last Friday at the Claremont conference, “Mormonism through the Eyes of Women.”  It was an amazing experience.  I’ve been to a lot of different Mormon conferences in the last couple of years, and presented at more than one of them, but none of them felt quite as intense to me as this one did.  Perhaps because Mormon feminist theology is a topic which matters so much to me; perhaps because I hadn’t really presented publicly on the subject before (and I have to admit that I had some anxiety about doing it).  But also, I think, because it was so exciting to be in a room full of people interested in talking about these ideas.  I know that Mormon feminism is thriving; I see it on the blogs every day.  But seeing it online isn’t quite the same as interacting live with a group of people who really care about the subject. Continue reading

Mar 03

Thoughts on LDS Feminist Theological Work

A question which has been on my mind recently, as I have been contemplating some of the theological questions involved in LDS feminism, is that of methodology. In particular, what are the sources of authority which might be used in feminist approaches to the tradition? Too often, I think, LDS feminists—including myself—have a tendency to simply import norms and values from the varieties of feminism which are prominent in contemporary secular discourse, and then measure the Church against them. This inevitably leads to the criticism that feminists are advocating “worldly” values, and these are irrelevant in the realm of revealed religion. For example, popular terms like “rights” and “equality” may have deep resonance when invoked in the context of Western liberal democracy, but some question the usefulness of these terms in a Christian context. Continue reading

Dec 02

Exploring a Misconception about Feminism: Women’s Superiority

One of the complaints I often hear about feminism (on the bloggernacle and elsewhere) is that feminists say that women are superior to men, or that feminism is about advancing women above or ahead of men (etc.).

When I hear this I am confused, since in all women’s studies classes I’ve taught and in all the conversations I’ve had with fellow feminists, we have focused on men and women’s equality (and what that means, how best to achieve it, etc.). Continue reading