Apr 03

Meaningful Service

A few weeks ago I was sitting at home while the kids were at school and feeling kind of depressed. Part of the reason was the inability to go anywhere or do much, but it was hitting me particularly hard that day (as opposed to the previous few weeks, although not much had changed), and I thought maybe there was something in particular I was missing. I couldn’t figure out what, though.

Having been raised as a good Mormon girl, I decided to start trying to figure out the answer using some of those standard Sunday School responses. Not because I think they’re a cure-all, but because they were mostly things I could do, I figured it wouldn’t hurt, and I had to start somewhere. So I started with prayer, and then moved on to scripture study. Neither were bad, but neither did anything to get me out of my funk, either. After reading about a chapter in my scriptures I thought that maybe reading some of my favorite GC talks would be more helpful. I started perusing some of President Uchtdorf’s talks (because he’s my favorite), and a couple of talks in something he said (no, I don’t remember what, or which talk) made me realize what I’d been missing. Service. Continue reading

Apr 02

Stories

I’m eating Cheerios for breakfast, and contemplating the small plastic pill box sitting in front of me. Seven days of psychotropic magic. Unlike my evening meds, the morning ones are small and easy to swallow. But the thought crosses my mind, as it so often does—why am I doing this, exactly?

—————

After too many of them, the hospitalizations start to blur together. Sparse double bedrooms with doors that you’re not allowed to shut. Showers that turn themselves off every minute or so, so that you have to keep pushing a button to keep them going. Rules against having anything sharp, against shoelaces, against pens, against personal electronic devices such as cell phones or laptops. That last one makes life particularly challenging. One or two payphones for the unit, with stiff competition and time limits. A common area with a television which, except during groups, is on almost constantly. If you aren’t all that fond of television, it’s likely to drive you crazy. Crazier, I mean. Continue reading

Apr 01

Church Announces Slowdown to Hastening of the Work

In a surprise announcement this morning, the LDS Church confirmed that it will be rolling out a slowdown to the Hastening of the Work. The new slowdown program, to be tested initially in several pilot stakes, appears to be a response to concerns expressed both within and without the Church that the work is becoming too hasty.

Elder Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is appreciative of all that has been achieved, but an inside source reported having recently heard Packer mutter under his breath that the work is going, “…just too d@#n fast.” Continue reading

Mar 30

Patterns Teach

What do patterns in Church practice and patterns in the stories we hear in Church teach us? I was thinking about this question recently after reading the #VisibleWomen series at the Exponent. The question of how patterns teach was brought to my mind because the whole series seems to be built on this idea. The purpose of the series is to make suggestions to Church leaders about ways that women could be made more visible in areas like Church art, in giving talks, and in conducting their own session of Conference. The subtitle explains the reason: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The suggestion of this line is that patterns of practice in the Church like how infrequently women are portrayed, how rarely Heavenly Mother is mentioned, and how women aren’t even allowed to conduct their own Conference session, are conveying messages to women that are limiting their view of themselves.

I used to be a statistics teacher, and in that role, I often thought about how patterns can teach. One way the issue came up was when I used example data to teach my students about a statistical test. They would sometimes draw conclusions from irrelevant patterns in my examples. For example, if I illustrated use of a test using two examples, one where the data were temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit, and the other where the data were temperatures in degrees Celsius, students might conclude that the test could only be used when the data were temperatures, but not if they were shot put distances or cell phone provider preference ratings or rat body sizes or any other type of data. Or if the data I showed were all rounded to the nearest ten, students might conclude that the test could only be used with data that had been similarly rounded.

I’m not at all surprised that my students did this. People are great at finding and generalizing patterns. The upside of this is that it made teaching easier: students picked up on many real patterns in how different tests could be used without my ever having to state them explicitly. This generalizes far beyond the classroom. Much of what we learn (probably most of it) comes from observing patterns in what other people do, rather than from having people explicitly explain things to us.

What I tried to do with my students to avoid accidentally teaching things I didn’t intend to with irrelevant patterns was to vary the characteristics of my examples as much as possible to break up the incorrect patterns. For example, if I wanted to avoid conveying that a test could only be used for temperature data, I might show one example that used temperature data and another that used something completely different, like elephant tusk length data. If I wanted to avoid conveying that a test required values rounded to the nearest ten, I would show data where values were rounded at different points.

In case my statistics-related examples are too dense, here’s one that might be more straightforward. If I were teaching someone about parts of speech, and I introduced adjectives with the examples “orange,” “blue,” and “green,” it wouldn’t be surprising if the person I was teaching concluded that only colors qualified as adjectives. I would be better off using a set of examples that broke up the pattern I didn’t want to convey, so something like “orange,” “hairy,” and “difficult.”

Getting back to my opening question, there are many obvious patterns in what we do in the Church, and these patterns convey clear messages, even without anything being stated explicitly. I thought it might be interesting to list some of these patterns and briefly outline what they’re teaching. Many of them come not even from our practice but from the types of stories that are taught (in Conference, Church magazines, and in lesson manuals). Continue reading

Mar 17

Pitting Believers Against Unbelievers

The March 2015 Ensign includes a BYU-I devotional from Elder Dallin H. Oaks titled, “Stand as Witnesses of God,” which divides the world into believers and unbelievers. Oaks pulls no punches in critiquing the latter, using the term “anti-Christ” to describe atheists, and asserting that the Great and Abominable Church is “any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God.” I find this framework to be troubling, and this characterization of atheists to be unfair.

Oaks isn’t sure that atheists really have moral standards. He is worried that “today many deny or doubt the existence of God and insist that all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected at will.” But this doesn’t necessarily follow. You can believe that rules are (human)-made without seeing them as something to be cavalierly rejected or accepted. You can still take ethics seriously. Oaks acknowledges that atheists are not necessarily moral relativists but raises the concern that “absolute standards not based on belief in God are difficult to explain.” The moral values of atheists are suspect, in other words, because he fails to find any persuasive reason for them. But unbelievers could make a similar move, critiquing believers by making the case that their moral principles are based on something imaginary and are therefore not to be trusted. I think we would all do well to acknowledge the ability of people to make genuine moral commitments regardless of their status as believers or unbelievers.

Continue reading

Mar 05

Patriarchy and Agency

Agency is central to LDS theology. We fought a war in the pre-mortal existence to preserve it, and it is an essential part of becoming like God. For this reason, one of the aspects of patriarchy that I find most disturbing is the way in which it affects agency, particularly female agency.

To make sense of this assertion, I need to start with a discussion of the nature of freedom. Mormons as well as other moderns tend to have what is called in theology a Pelagian understanding of freedom, as advocated by the early fifth-century Christian thinker Pelagius in his ongoing dispute with the well-known theologian Augustine. For Pelagius, freedom means the absolute ability to choose good or evil. The will is neutral, un-inclined in either direction, and entirely autonomous. Although in reality all humans fall short, perfection is in fact within human reach—there is no reason why a human being could not in theory make all the right choices. Sin is external to the will, something we choose; it does not infect the will itself. 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

Feb 27

Why I Want to Be Persecuted

This guest post comes to us from Jonathan Cannon, who blogs regularly at Rational Faiths and Exploring Sainthood.

A recent speaker in my local Sunday services quoted a recent reminder from one of our Twelve Apostles: We Latter-day Saints haven’t been persecuted for many years, but scripture foretells the day will return when we again will be. Of course, I believe we might yet avoid this, and both we and the rest of humanity could repent of our various evils and avoid destruction–as Nineveh did after Jonah’s call to repentence–but if this is true (and I don’t doubt it is a possibility) then I want to say what I hope we will be persecuted for. Continue reading

Feb 25

Strawberries and Patriarchy

I detest strawberries. I shudder when I see my sisters eating them by the handful, or chopping them up for their cereal. I pick them out of salad so as not to ruin the flavor of the other ingredients. And I am horrified when people waste perfectly good chocolate by slathering it on strawberries. Since I’m also not fond of raspberries or tomatoes, a friend once accused me of having a phobia of red fruits. This is demonstrably false, as I will cheerfully eat a cherry or a red delicious apple. But keep the strawberries far from me. Continue reading

Feb 23

Which GAs Prefer Which Books of Scripture? (Take 3)

This post is a follow-up to my post last week, where I looked at how much members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (Q15) quote from each of the five books of scripture in the LDS canon in their Conference talks. In the previous post, I showed one breakdown for each Q15 member, aggregating his citations of scripture in all his Conference talks, across whatever period of years he served in the Q15. In this post, I’ll show trends across time for each individual Q15 member. The previous analysis would miss it if a GA changed over time from preferring the Book of Mormon to preferring the New Testament, for example. This analysis might be able to show such changes (if they’re large enough). As for the previous post, my data source is the LDS Scripture Citation Index.

The graphs below show seven-year moving averages for the percentages of citations each Q15 member took from each book of scripture. There’s nothing special about seven years for the moving average. I chose it by eyeball. The year-to-year data often jump around a lot, which isn’t surprising given that for Q15 members who aren’t in the First Presidency, one year’s worth of Conference talks is typically just two talks. Seven years of aggregation looked like a good compromise that smoothed out the yearly variation but didn’t smooth so much that it made changes over time disappear. One other note is that I’ve only made graphs for members who have at least 16 years of data. This allows for 10 years worth of seven-year moving averages to be shown (because the first six years are combined into the initial seven-year moving average).

Graphs for Q15 members are shown in the order they were called, which is the same ordering I used in my previous post. Also, to make it easier to look back and forth between the two posts, I’ve used the same color to represent data for each book of scripture as in the previous post. One warning with these graphs is that the scaling of both the horizontal and vertical axes changes from person to person to best display each Q15 member’s data, so be careful if you’re looking at comparisons across graphs.

books of scripture quoted across time - kimball Continue reading

Feb 17

Which GAs Prefer Which Books of Scripture? (Updated!)

I wrote a post last year that looked at which books of scripture members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (Q15) quote from most in Conference. In an article published last week, Peggy Fletcher Stack briefly referred to my work in a discussion of the Book of Mormon taking priority over the Bible in Mormon thought. She specifically talked about the influence of Ezra Taft Benson, and it occurred to me that it would be easy to expand my post from just looking at the living members of the Q15 to including past members as well, so we could actually see what President Benson’s numbers looked like. In this post, I’ll look at which books of scripture members of the Q15 back through Spencer W. Kimball quoted most in Conference. Unfortunately, I can’t go farther back than that because the LDS Scripture Citation Index, from which I’m pulling data, only goes back as far as 1942, so Q15 members called before then have incomplete data. President Kimball was called to the Q15 in 1943, so he is the oldest member for whom I have complete data. Continue reading

Feb 13

Three wards enter. Four wards leave.

My ward is getting divided this Sunday. Or as you can probably guess from my title, it’s not actually a straight-up split of my ward. It’s that I’m in one of three wards that will have its boundaries realigned, and the result will be four new wards.

churchI’ve been through this process only twice that I remember. One time was when I was about sixteen. My family had lived in the same place for eight years or so, and I was felt pretty comfortable in my ward. Between the time that the realignment was announced and the release of the actual details of who would end up in which ward, I remember being extremely worried about having the ward split cut me off from my best friends in the ward. As I recall, the change ended up making very little difference, at least to me. All my best friends were still in my ward after the split. And in retrospect, it’s kind of odd that I was that concerned. I lived in Utah Valley and the ward was geographically tiny, so even if my friends had been divided away from me, I could have still easily walked the short distance to their houses to visit them.

The other ward division I recall going through was just a couple of years ago, when my wife and I lived in a college town that had two wards that were realigned to make three. I was less worried than I had been as a teen, but I still recall worrying that the people I liked most in the ward would end up split away from me. Again, for me the outcome was very little change. All the people I liked most stayed in the ward with me.

What strikes me about the process of ward boundary realignment is that I know so little about it. The process of how such things come about is pretty much completely opaque to me. So what I’d like to do is pose a few questions about the process and speculate a little about the answer to each, and then hope you, dear reader, will be so kind as to share any knowledge you have in the comments.

Continue reading

Feb 02

Gospel Ballet

This is the text from a recent talk I gave in sacrament meeting. Try not to get too excited.

road showWhen I was 16 years old, my Utah ward put on a road show. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do remember that it had a comedy dream sequence that included some dancing circus ballerinas. For some reason none of the young women wanted to be the ballerinas, so my buddy Rich and I volunteered. My mom and other ladies in the ward sewed us full-body ballerina suits, complete with tutus and ballet slippers. As cross-dressing ballerinas, we were the stars of the show. Continue reading

Jan 31

Church Discourse on Homosexuality

In April 1971, President Spencer W. Kimball quoted some of the shocking proposals he had recently encountered. One unnamed church, he discovered, had “approved recommendation that homosexuality between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offense. …” These are ugly voices, he warned.1

In a news conference in January 2015, the LDS church announced that it was “publicly favoring laws and ordinances that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.”2

It’s been an interesting few decades. Continue reading

  1. Spencer W. Kimball, Conference, April 1971 []
  2. Neil Marriott, News Conference,  Jan 27, 2015 []
Jan 26

Aging of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve

The median age of the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (Q15) is currently about 83. Even for a group that’s often thought of as being old, this is unusual. In fact, the Q15 is older now than it has ever been before.

Here’s a graph showing the age of the Q15 since 1835. The blue line shows the median age. The orange lines show the age of the oldest Q15 member; the green lines show the age of the youngest. The dashed black line shows the age of the Church President. The data come from ldsfacts.net.

GA age 1835-2014 Continue reading

Jan 21

Poll: What Gets Most Emphasized by the Church?

In your experience, what is most emphasized by the church? (select up to three)
What do you personally see as the most important? (select up to three)
Jan 19

Discernment

As a kid in primary, I was in awe of the bishop. He was the trusted authority figure, the one who knew how things should go. The awe faded somewhat as I became a teenager, but I still remained firmly convinced of his inspiration. If he felt that we needed a talk on morality (the code word for chastity), for example, it was because that was what God wanted. Full stop. To some degree, I saw church leaders as infallible.

Continue reading