Sunday, December 25, 2005 

Always Winter, Never Christmas

The title of this post is Narnian, a description of the world as it was when in the grip of the White Witch. Coincidentally, Dante saw the lowest circle of Hell as equally cold and inert, with Satan eternally gnawing on the trapped souls frozen into his maw. Hardly a satisfying meal.

The description, to my mind, is apt, if not for the dead, then for the living. When I am wracked with sin or tormented by my failings, static is how I feel. That I will never change, that I cannot change. There is no hope, no future, only an everlasting present of pain, sorrow, disappointment, despair, anger, bitterness, etc. In these moments, I often find that, although I rationally know that they can't go on forever, I can't really believe that. I am stuck in a pattern of sin, because it is all that I know how to do, all I can do. I am inert.

Winter is my least favorite of the seasons (perhaps because I grew up in Florida). While I enjoy snowfall as much as anyone (I had a branch president on my mission tell me that "winter covers all our sins in white"), eventually the vantage point changes to a miasma of dirt, grime, ice, and soot. There is no hidden sin here as the white brings out all the spotty rotten color of the world and it is all a dull-gray muddy brown. There is no joy here.

And then we get Christmas. I know some people complain because Christ very probably wasn't born on Christmas and that we are actually celebrating a pagan holiday. I know that some people believe that Christian aspects of of Christmas are being swallowed up in the consumerism of our national day of spending. But I don't buy it.

So long as Christmas exists, then here is hope, joy, and peace in the midst of despair. A reason to smile on a dark, dreary plain. A warm spark in the twilight, frozen world wherein our dirt and filth is shown back to us in high contrast. It gives us light in the midst of the darkest part of our year.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Rabbit Hill. Naturally, I read its sequel, The Tough Winter. I hated it. The nice bunnies and other denizens of Rabbit Hill were being put through such a tough time and I couldn't understand why. In the midst of it came Christmas. Some kind soul laid out a feast for the starving denizens of Rabbit Hill, who hadn't eaten for so long.

Christmas is our feast, a reminder of the true bread and the true water that came down to feed us. It is a gift, given us by kind caretakers and good providers. In the wake of the recent movie, many critics have dryly noted that Father Christmas provides the Pevensies with weapons. But Christmas is a weapon, an opportunity to fight back at the dark that envelops us and gain a little breathing room that can last until the coming of spring, signalled by the commemoration of the death of He whose birth we celebrate today. It is appropriate, perhaps necessary, that the winter of our discontent be broken midway by a reminder of He who broke its back.

I know that we are all at different stages in our spiritual lives, but I get the impression that we are all believers. Please, use Christmas as a moment to celebrate that which is good and useful in the world and revel in the knowledge that winter, in life as in Narnia, will eventually end and the sun and flowers will shine upon us again.


Posted by John C.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005 

What Would An Angel Say, The Devil Wants To Know

I had an experience on Sunday that once again makes me wonder just where my place in Mormonism is. For the days since I have pondered where I belong in this religion, where my thoughts and feelings and convictions fit in. I have wondered about a lot of things, I have in no way questioned my faith in Jesus Christ, but I have questioned my faith in the Mormon Machine.

On Sunday I attended church solo as my husband works every other weekend and can’t attend our 9am meeting block with me. Sacrament meeting was a missionary farewell that felt more like “This is Your Life” instead of an hour of worship. I tried really hard to put myself in the shoes of that mother who was sending her son off (to where I don’t know because him actually serving a mission was never mentioned, she was too busy talking about him being born prematurely) to serve the Lord for 24 months and how I would feel if it were me. That got me through the meeting, but honestly, my spiritual tank has been dangerously close to empty as of late. Working 12 hours a day and never seeing my husband except for when I kick him out of bed for snoring and am waking him up before I leave for the day has worn me down, and I needed to be filled, I needed to be replenished. It wasn’t happening. So, I made my way to Sunday School with the hope that there would be a teacher who would provide the class with a catalyst for a spiritual discussion that would get me feeling the way I wanted to feel, and was currently not. I needed spiritual stimulation! Having been a gospel doctrine teacher for 8 years, I was foolish enough to believe that perhaps that class would have been the place to find it. No such luck.

I’m not sure what the actual lesson title was, but the class instructor wrote “THE FAMILY IS UNDER ATTACK!” on the board and then proceeded to make a list of all the ills of the world that are attacking the family: the government, abortion, gays, the media, selfishness and then (ironically) pride. People in the class then took turns judging groups of people they probably haven’t had all that much interaction with and demonizing what to me felt like anyone who wasn’t Mormon. Well, I’m sure you can guess what happened next. I raised my hand and proceeded to word vomit on the whole class. I expressed my belief that maintaining a strong family unit was not unique to Mormonism, that we were not the only religion in Christianity or otherwise that took HUGE steps to help families stay together, and to stay strong. I also expressed my belief that by demonizing other groups of people we were doing nothing but falling prey to the evil pride we have preached so much against. I explained that this coloring of people as evil and unclean and a burden on a society that if it were ours alone would be without flaw did nothing but drive the mot deeper into our own eyes as we are so feverishly busy trying to get the beam out of everyone else’s. I expressed my opinion that we should keep our opinions about abortion to ourselves, that by saying someone is no good because they have experienced abortion or thought about it or support a woman’s right to choose an abortion was one of the most asinine, self righteous things I had ever heard. I said that we are so easy offended when people teach against Mormonism, when we are protested against at conference or when a temple is going up, but we are more than happy to sit in this class and do the EXACT SAME THING to people outside out faith. And then was when I started to cry a little.

Needless to say, there was what I like to call a “stunned silence” for a little bit. And then the teacher did what I probably would have done if I were teaching and said something along the lines of, “we’re not judging anyone.” Which, you know, was just a big fat lie. So, I sat there through the rest of the class silent (and that will probably be the way I sit through church for the rest of my life) and FLED as soon as the closing prayer was said.

Here’s my bright spot in all this. A little 65 year old sister followed me out and stopped me. She then thanked me for my candor, thanked me for saying some of the things she’d been thinking. She talked to me for a long time. Told me of growing up in Utah, hating the way people acted there, making her own waves. (In 1977 she told a relief society that she would rather her daughter marry a black man who would honor the priesthood if he could hold it than a blonde haired blue eyed returned missionary who didn’t honor that priesthood he had been blessed with. “You should have heard the gasps!” she told me.) It was good to talk to her. It was good to tell her, “Sometimes I think I’m just WAY to liberal to be Mormon!” and have her say, “I’ve felt that way for a long time.”

That night, I finally told my husband what had happened, and then I started the whole crying thing again. I told him about the feelings in my heart of not belonging, of feeling like I can’t speak my mind, that my thoughts and feelings are looked down on and I should be ashamed of how I feel. “Why did you marry me when I’m like this? Why did you marry someone who doesn’t belong anywhere?” He smiled that smile that he does, the one that makes me think he really does know everything sometimes, and said, “I married you because you belong with me. I married you because I love the way you think and I believe you can do nothing but good by sharing those thoughts.”

I still don’t know how I feel about what happened on the Sabbath. I don’t know how I will be received when I return to church this Sunday. What I do know is there has to be a place for me. There has to be a reason for my believing in this for so long, even when it would have been so much easier for me to simply walk away. But where is there room for a pro-choice, gay loving, liberal to the core brown girl like me in Mormonism?

Posted by Sarah Marinara

Monday, December 12, 2005 

Worth Mentioning

This isn’t my post to write, but when has that ever stopped me?

I wanted to expound a bit on the comment I made on John C.’s post, because it is worth talking about…and would maybe spark a comment or two on other mainstream Mormon musicians (Michael McLean does not count).

pre_newyorkdoll270

Long story short, Arthur “Killer” Kane was a member of one of the first bands to be classified as “punk rock”, The New York Dolls, a band that was absolutely influential to later bands and musicians such as The Clash, Iggy Pop, and The Ramones. The New York Dolls wore make-up and huge hair and women’s clothing. Their then rebellious and unusual look would later influence a whole generation of “hair bands”.

The Dolls were into the typical rocker things: music, sex, and drugs. In fact, several of the original and replacement members are dead due to drugs, and only David Johansson, a.k.a. Buster Poindexter, ever had a semblance of a career after the break up of the band.

Some years after the breakup, Arthur, living in LA broke and addicted, saw an add in the TV Guide for a free Book of Mormon and the rest is history…a history documented in a recently released film called “New York Doll” by Greg Whitely, an LA film student who met Arthur through his home teachers.

Arthur agreed to be filmed and to tell his story, which at a glance seems sort of quaint: former punk-band-bass-player turned family-history-center-worker Mormon. Well…the filming coincided with some fairly amazing opportunities for Arthur, which I will not discuss …to entice you to see it for yourself.

The point here is that Arthur, a slightly burned out, middle-aged, humble, loner, is a sincere, believing, practicing Mormon. The film is not too heavy on the Mormony stuff, I think Greg Whitely handled all of that really well, but we get to see something real, and really amazing.

Highlights:

Arthur talking about how it’s a lot harder now to have a relationship these days; while he fully appreciates the good old days of…and I quote… “wham-bam-thank you m’am” he now knows that that is not appropriate behavior.

The little old ladies in the Family History Center at the LA temple where Arthur works giggling like groupies discussing the fact that they can’t imagine Arthur in a rock and roll band.

The moment in rehearsal when the estranged David Johansson arrives late and just picks up the mike and starts singing “He Don’t Come Around Anymore” as if nothing had happened for the last 30 years.

Arthur giving the back stage prayer with the reunited Dolls where he says…and again I quote… “and Heavenly Father, please bless that the New York Dolls play well, and that the audience has a really good time…”

David Johansson singing “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”.

If this film wasn’t released in a theater near you, then seek it out at Net-Flicks or something. Seriously. I heard that a friend of a friend left the screening of the film hosted by the local NPR station saying, “Now THAT’S how I want my religion represented in the media.” And I say “Amen” to that.

Thinking of movie stars versus rock stars: who has the more difficult time? I’m thinking Aaron Eckhart vs. Brandon Flowers. While Brandon (of the “Killers”) admits that he’s a non-practicing Mormon without malice, does an actor have an easier time, or an excuse to justify? Discuss…

Posted by Carrie Ann

Friday, December 09, 2005 

Out of the worst books...

On my mission, if someone knew something about Mormonism (before they met the missionaries) it was because they read one book: A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a Sherlock Holmes mystery that relies upon the literary trope of the vile Mormon, who tricks or abducts innocent British women into polygamous Western slavery. This book did more to poison general public opinion toward the Church than anything else (and this was in a country that was generally pretty intolerant to outsiders).

Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had likely never met a Mormon and didn't actually know anything about them that wasn't based on hearsay. The way the community is described in the book isn't meant to reflect reality; it is meant to provide an appropriately morally repugnant adversary for Holmes to overcome to the delight of his Victorian readers. The Evil Mormon as a stock character.

In Robert Heinlein's sci-fi novel, The Sixth Column (aka The Day After Tomorrow), Heinlein comments favorably on Mormons. He basically says that they are good practical people who are religious, but who are also kind of opportunistic (religiously speaking) and, therefore, perfect for the heroes plan (I'll track down the exact quote later today). So, Heinlein believes that Mormons are basically good, but rather mercenary in how they come about their religious beliefs.

Far be it from me to malign either Heinlein or Doyle, but have you noticed how Mormons are often portrayed in mainstream media. Does it strike you that anyone ever does a good job? This post is an attempt to solicit the best and the worst examples of the portrayal of Mormons by non-Mormons. What comes to mind?

Posted by John C.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005 

Shaking it Up

We're changing the format here at Various Stages. After nearly a year of all posting on one topic per week, we've decided that we need a change. Perhaps our creativity was stifled or perhaps it was just too much of all one thing at a time, but some of our authors were becoming complacent because of or overburdened by the once per week requirement.

We've decided to follow the path that the majority of group blogs take... just post when you want, about what you want... so long as it's Mormon-relevant.

Hopefully, this next stage makes what we write more interesting and thought provoking. And maybe... just maybe... I'll get around to fixing our formatting issues.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 03, 2005 

Baptism by proxy

As I stated in my previous post about temples, baptisms for the dead are perhaps the only facet of temple work that I don't have an issue with. It neatly solves the problem all religions face: what to do about the billions of people that fall outside their belief system. The main problem is that we often do such a lousy job of explaining what exactly it is. "Baptisms by proxy" is, to me at least, extremely unclear and leads to the "you baptize corpses?" kind of questions.

The physical nature of the baptisms for the dead is also appealing to me. I don't remember my own baptism, so the only memory I can refer back to is the experience of being baptized for other people. The jacuzzi-temperature water and fancy baptistery of the temple are probably more pleasant than the circumstances of my actual baptism anyway.

With the billions of people who have lived and died without a trace (and continue to do so), I don't think we're making much of a dent in the work to be done. And I think it would be petty to complain about the massive amounts of duplication and ambiguity in the work that we actually do (I remember being baptized for 6 guys named Wolfgang, with no last name). For these reasons, I think these baptisms are for the living, not the dead. For me, that's good enough.

Friday, December 02, 2005 

Dem Bones

Terryl Givens pointed out in his book, By the Hand of Mormon, that what was the most shocking thing about Joseph Smith's claims was not the visions he experienced, as many people in that period had visions (and many still do). Rather, it was his insistence on a physical set of plates given him by a physical angel who was the servant of a physical God. The, presumably, empirical reality of his claims are what set him apart from other religious claimants of the same period.

I find the physical aspects of the church reassuring. It reminds us that we are dealing with a God who has experienced blood, sweat, dust, and tears. Moreso, it reminds us that we have a God who takes these things and uses them. One of the more profound scriptures (to my understanding) is found in Moses chapter 6:59-60:
59 That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory;

60 For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified;

Why is this a powerful scripture for me? To be honest, I don't entirely know. But I know that it has something to do with the manner in which it combines the physical and the spiritual into an explanation of at least two acts wherein the temporal and eternals planes connect.

One of these acts is baptism, a form of which is practiced in the temples. For some reason, whether or not we enter a pool of water in a certain way at a certain time has some effect on our eternal standing. It is a completely arbitrary standard, a symbol made important by its importance, not for its ability to explain anything. It is such an odd little thing for the living, one wonders why people balk at doing it for the dead.

The biggest question regarding baptism for the dead is the issue of free will. Mormons cheat when they answer this. They say that acceptance of the gospel is entirely up to the dead person. While this may be technically true, I am not sure that Mormons believe that the dead will reject the offered ordinance. We assume that they will have some sort of knowledge that will make it clear to them what to do. This may or may not be true (our ignorance of the afterlife is far exceeded by our ability to discuss it). In any case, this is what appears to be driving the persistent baptisms for holocaust victims, Adolf Hitler, and Elvis. I believe the idea is that it costs nothing to the person doing the genealogy work to be baptized and it may help those poor departed souls. Any activity that allows us to pat ourselves on the back, especially while ignoring the offended cries of the ignorant gentiles who don't really understand what we are trying to do, makes me suspicious. I do not mean to say that temple work is bad or inherently prideful (I believe the exact opposite of that actually). Rather, I worry about the pride inherent in using the gifts, ordinances, and houses of God in a way that seems designed to hurt others (especially when the Brethren have asked us to stop).

All temple work (all ordinances, really) are a sublime combination of the earthly and the heavenly for me and I love them for it. Ritual and Mystery cause me to rely less on my own understanding and more on God's. I don't believe that to ever be a bad thing.

Thursday, December 01, 2005 

Just One More Thing to Feel Confused About

There are many things about the gospel that are hard for me to fathom. To be perfectly honest, I could drive myself insane just thinking about it all. Even after having wonderful experiences from the youth temple trips and doing baptisms for the dead, there really are so many unanswered questions that I have.

Two of Kaycee’s questions are similar to my own. Even during temple trips, I was so curious and maybe even a little confused at how all those names just “appear” in the temple. This logically leads to the next question of those people that have no written record of their birth, death, etc. Its mind boggling…and it’s a tad weird to think about.

I’m sure that my feelings of confusion and curiosity have a bit to do with not being active in the church...even if I had those feelings before. I think the difference before was that the faith that I had in the process overpowered the feelings of confusion or curiosity. It’s not that I’ve given up the faith, really…it’s just not as “present” as it used to be. When you’re not sure about your faith, it makes it pretty hard to be sure about things like baptisms for the dead.

This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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