Jun 15

Mainstream Christian and LDS Feminism

This is a basic overview of feminist theological issues. I have a vague memory that I wrote it for a specific purpose, but I don’t remember what. In any case, I found it hiding in the depths of our queue, so I figured that I’d might as well blog it.

Though it’s not my particular specialty, in the course of my studies I’ve encountered a fair amount of Christian feminist theology. As I’ve thought about the various issues raised by feminist theologians, a recurring question for me has been that of to what extent and in what ways these issues are applicable in an LDS context. In comparison to mainstream Christian teachings, how might LDS beliefs either be supportive of, or pose challenges to, feminist ideals? Here I’d like to look at a few distinctive aspects of LDS teachings in this context. Continue reading

Jun 12

The Covenant Keeper’s Guide to Attending Church While on Vacation

You may have heard that it has been said by them of old time that covenant keepers will attend the full three-hour block of Sunday church meetings, even while on vacation. But I say unto you that that’s not nearly enough. Simply attending the three-hour block is for slothful, lukewarm covenant breakers who were clearly less valiant in the pre-existence. If you want to demonstrate that you’re a true covenant keeper, you’ll be sure to do the following while on vacation:

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Jun 05

Church President Probability Changes with Elder Perry’s Death

Elder L. Tom Perry died on May 30th at the age of 92. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that one question that I immediately wondered about on hearing the news was how this would affect the other Q15 members’ probabilities of becoming Church President.

Here are their probabilities and average predicted years of being President before and after Elder Perry’s death. These come from the simulation I posted about a couple of months ago where I used a mortality table to run 1000 scenarios and see in how many each Q15 member would become Church President.

change in probabilities of becoming president with elder perry's death Continue reading

Jun 03

Quote . . . Close Quote

I make the Sunday bulletins for my ward. I typically put a quote from a scripture or a Church leader that’s related to the theme of the sacrament meeting on the front. I often look for quotes from Church leaders by looking through recent Conference talks on related topics. Recently while I was doing this, I was reading a talk given by a member of a general auxiliary presidency, and I was struck by how much of her talk was made up of quotes of other sources. This reminded me of David Evans’s excellent post at T&S a few months ago where he looked at which speakers in Conference quote which types of sources. One of his findings was that higher-authority speakers quoted less from high authority sources than did lower-authority speakers.

What I wondered is whether higher-authority speakers quote other sources in general less than lower-authority speakers, regardless of the level of authority of the sources being quoted. An advantage of this question is that it didn’t require me to figure out authority levels of sources. Instead, I could just count words in talks and count how many of the words were in quotes.

I got data from all the talks in the last ten Conferences (October 2010 – April 2015). For each talk, I noted the speaker’s calling, the number of words in the talk, and the number of words in the talk that were part of a quote. Here are results by calling group.

Position Talks Percent quotes
 First Presidency  88  14.8%
 Quorum of the Twelve  118  21.8%
 Quorums of Seventy  99  21.5%
 Other – men  19  20.8%
 Other – women  50  24.1%

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Jun 01

A Mother There or Multiple Mothers There? A look at whether GA statements about Heavenly Mother leave the door open for polygamy

I’ve always thought that a big positive of the Proclamation on the Family is that it mentions Heavenly Mother. Or to be more precise, it mentions Heavenly Parents. Here’s a quote from the section where they’re brought up:

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.

I have always read “heavenly parents” here to mean a heavenly couple: Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. But I was part of an online discussion recently in which Nancy Ross (who you might know from the papers she has co-written on Mormon feminism) pointed out that the wording here is completely compatible with the possibility of a polygamous Heavenly Father married to many Heavenly Mothers. “Heavenly parents” could be two (as I’ve always read it) or it could be 50 or 10001. Another participant in the discussion, Melissa Mayhew (who you may know from her blogging as Rune at Feminist Mormon Housewives), suggested that it would be interesting to look at other statements GAs have made about Heavenly Mother to see if they’re also compatible with a multiple-Heavenly Mother reading. I thought that was a great idea, so that’s what I’ll be doing in this post.

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May 27

Alzheimer’s Prevalence in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve

How many of the fifteen men in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are currently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease? Of course I don’t know the answer to this question. I can give you an estimate, though. Since I’ve been crunching numbers recently to predict which Q15 members might become Church President, I have all these data on their ages and life expectancies lying around, and given that age is a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to match up the age data with an Alzheimer’s prevalence table to see what proportion of the quorum might suffer from it in the past, present, and future.

The major data sources I used are (1) ldsfacts.net for birth, calling, and death dates for historical Q15 member ages, (2) the simulations I did for my post last month on predicting who will become Church President, for future Q15 member ages, and (3) this paper from the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia for the Alzheimer’s and dementia prevalence rates. If you’re interested, I’ve described the process I followed in more detail at the end of this post.

Here’s a graph showing the average age of the Q15 and the age of the Church President from 1835 to 2014 (taken at the end of each year), and predicted ages for the Q15 and for the Church President for the next 15 years. I calculated predicted ages in two ways, one using the SOA mortality table that I used for my post last month about predicting which Q15 members would become Church President (labeled “not adjusted” in the graph, with darker colored lines), and the other (labeled “adjusted,” with lighter colored lines) with the mortality rates in the SOA table multiplied by 0.89 because I found in analyses for another post that this provided better fit to actual historical mortality rates of Q15 members.

president and q15 age Continue reading

May 26

She Shall Be an Ensign: A history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told through the lives of its women.

Ardis Parshall, who you probably know as the author of the Mormon history blog Keepapitchinin, is planning to write a history of the Church told through the lives of women. She is asking for support through a Kickstarter campaign. I believe this is important work because I think the book will serve as a great counterweight to the overwhelmingly male-narrated and male-focused histories we currently tell in the Church. I hope it will help both women and men to have a broader vision of what women have done in the Church, and as consequence a broader vision of what women might be doing now and in the future. I have made a pledge, and I’m posting to ask you to also consider pledging. For a pledge of $10 or more, you’ll get a copy of the ebook version of the book, and for a pledge of $25 or more, you’ll get a hard copy.

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May 24

Placement of Scriptures vs. Conference in Menus at LDS.org

Last week, the Church rolled out a redesigned version of the navigation menus at lds.org. The new menus rearranged links to parts of the site in order to make it easier for site visitors to find what we’re looking for.

One change in particular that seems unrelated to usability caught my eye, though. In the old menus, scriptures appeared in their own menu, and General Conference was in a menu labeled “Teachings.” Here’s a screenshot that shows the old menus. I’m sorry it doesn’t show General Conference under “Teachings,” as the old menus aren’t available anymore so I can’t take a new screenshot. I’ll just have to ask you to trust me that it was there. Also note that the callout calls the menus “new” because this image is from 2012, when the old menus were introduced.

lds.org old menus Continue reading

May 13

A Look at Conference Speakers’ Favorite Verses of Scripture

I thought it might be fun to look at which speakers in General Conference are most fond of quoting which particular verses of scripture. If you’re thinking you’ve seen me blog about this before, you’re right. It’s just that in my previous posts, I’ve only looked at the level of book of scripture, but now I’m getting all the way down to the verse level. I apologize in advance; I don’t have any interesting hypotheses to examine here. This is another post where I’m just looking at some data descriptively and saying, “Isn’t this cool?”

I took scripture reference data from the LDS Scripture Citation Index. I used the current version of their site and not the new beta version because it was easier for me to pull data from the current version. Unfortunately, this means that what I have is only updated through 2013. The Conference data begins in 1942.

The table below lists the top five verses cited for speakers in Conference since 1942. I’ve limited it to showing top fives for two groups of people: Q15 members who have at least 500 total verses cited, and female auxiliary leaders who have at least 100 total verses cited. Many of the speakers have a tie in their #5 spot, so I’ve extended the table to show all tied verses, except in a few cases where it would have made the table ridiculously long (e.g., Julie B. Beck has a 25-way tie at #5). I’ve also included a brief quote or summary note on each verse to help jog your memory for verses that are less well-known, and I’ve linked each verse reference to the scriptures at lds.org so you can go read them in full if you’re interested.

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May 11

Predicting Who Will Be Church President: Fit of Actuarial Mortality Table to Historical Data

Last month, I wrote a post where I used a mortality table and the current ages of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to see who among them would be most likely to become Church President. One question that was raised on the post and in some Facebook discussions was how well that mortality table matched up to historical mortality rates of Q15 members. In this post, I’ll try to answer that question.

I looked at historical data from January 1960 to April 2014. Each month1, for each current Q15 member, I noted two pieces of information: his age at the beginning of the month, and whether he was still living one year later. When I aggregated all the data together, they made an empirical mortality table. For any age that at least one Q15 member during that time period lived to, the proportion of such members who died within one year was the empirical mortality rate. Of course, there’s more data for the table at some ages than others, as few Q15 members during this time period were as young as their forties, but many have been in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Here’s a graph showing the mortality rate for Q15 members (in red), along with the mortality rate for the Society of Actuaries mortality table I used (in blue). I included only ages for which I had at least 120 person-month observations (or 10 person-years).

one year mortality rate by age for q15 members 1960-2015 Continue reading

Apr 30

Deep Doctrine

“Deep doctrine” is one of the phrases I most dislike in Mormonism. It’s usually used with reference to questions like the location of Kolob, the Lost Ten Tribes, the role of other planets in the Plan of Salvation, the characteristics of different phases of existence, the meaning of various symbols in the book of Revelation, and so on and so forth.

If people want to spend their time exploring such subjects, I have no objection. I have plenty of my own strange interests. What I dislike, however, is the framework in which these topics are “deeper” than more central teachings, or that they are for the spiritually sophisticated. “Deep” all too often gets used as a synonym for “esoteric.” And one might ask, all right then, what are the “shallow” doctrines? Faith, repentance, the atonement? Are those doctrines that you grasp before moving on to the more advanced ones? Something seems more than a little off in such a model. Continue reading

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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Apr 19

Could President Uchtdorf Become *President* Uchtdorf?

https://www.lds.org/bc/content/ldsorg/church/news/580-newUchtdorf%20CES.jpg

After I wrote last week about the probability of each of the members of the Q15 becoming President of theChurch, a few people asked specifically about President Uchtdorf’s chances. And I share their interest. I have found him to be a big breath of fresh air, and I would love it if he did become President.

So what would it take for President Uchtdorf to become President Uchtdorf? Here’s a chart showing a little information for him and all the Q15 members senior to him.

Quorum member Rank Birth year/mo Age Prob Uchtdorf outlives
 Monson  1  1927 Aug  87  84%
 Packer  2  1924 Sep  90  88%
 Perry  3  1922 Aug  92  91%
 Nelson  4  1924 Sep  90  86%
 Oaks  5  1932 Aug  82  71%
 Ballard  6  1928 Oct  86  80%
 Scott  7  1928 Nov  86  82%
 Hales  8  1932 Aug  82  74%
 Holland  9  1940 Dec  74  48%
 Eyring  10  1933 May  81  69%
 Uchtdorf  11  1940 Nov  74  N/A

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Apr 13

Verses of Scriptures Most Often Quoted in Conference

Which of the Ten Commandments gets quoted most often in General Conference? In this post, I’m going to look at some lists in the scriptures (like the Ten Commandments, the Articles of Faith, etc.) and show the relative popularity of the items in the list in terms of how often they’ve been quoted in Conference.

As I so often do, I got data from the LDS Scripture Citation Index to answer this question. They have data from Conferences from 1942 to 2013. Unlike with my other recent posts using their data, I took data not just at the level of book of scripture, but all the way down at the verse level, which of course was required to allow me to look at comparisons between individual verses.

So let’s get started. Which of the Ten Commandments is cited most? (For simplicity, I just looked at references to Exodus 20, and not to any other places in the scriptures that the Ten Commandments appear.)ten commandments Continue reading

Apr 09

Predicting Who Will Be Church President (Now Continuously Updated!)

Update: Now that Elder Perry has died, I have replaced the continuously updated table and graph with static versions that show the probabilities as of May 2015. I will write a new post with continuously updated probabilities after his replacement is called in October.

Who among the current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve is mostly likely to eventually become President of the Church?

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Apr 06

Spiritual Nardoo

A few months ago I went to a Unitarian Universalist church for a singalong Messiah performance. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church, I found myself overwhelmed by a feeling I couldn’t identify or articulate; I was suddenly shivering and in tears, feeling buoyant and light. Nothing dramatic happened that evening—I sang along with the Messiah, frequently failing to reach the highest soprano notes—but as I dissect my feelings later, wondering what had happened in the parking lot, it came to me: I was happily anticipating entering a church. I was about to do something religious, and all I felt was pure uncomplicated excitement.

That evening at the UU church made me realize that I brace myself each Sunday, and I have been for years. I rarely, if ever, feel the Spirit at church, but I often drive away crying, grieving dogmatism or sexism or boredom or disconnection or my own simple inability to fight my anger or cynicism, and at this point I’ve trained myself to expect this. Sunday is a day I am vulnerable to grief and fear and pain, with little expected joy in return, so Sunday is a day I put up walls. On Sundays I am not the person I hope to be.

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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