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Saturday, March 04, 2006 

Gumming up the works

Before anything else, I need to apologize to JP for stepping on her day. I had most of this written yesterday, but couldn't seem to upload it until this morning. Sorry. Go read JP's post!

When I think of "the Mormon Machine," I think about the beginning of some movie that I saw in my late high-school years. It begins in a toy factory where we watch a doll or an action figure being put together piece by piece in a Goldberg-esque assembly line. Body parts are molded, moved about, painted, and stuck together to the beat of a Tori Amos song (I believe the movie was Toys, which also featured LL Cool J hiding inside of a couch). This is how I imagine the people behind the machine imagine it working: taking normal folk, adding layer and layer of spirituality and responsibility until they come out of the other side with a happy marriage, lots of loving grandchildren, and an RV with a painting of the Manti Temple on the side.

Certainly there is a bit of formality to the process. We graduate from Deacon to Teacher to Priest to Elder (insert the female equivalents here, if you like). We are told to do well in school, prepare for a mission/marriage, attend BYU, marry, have kids when you're young, and have missions and family history vacations when you are older. In this idealization, everything happens with the regularity and precision of clockwork. Become a bishop by your mid-thirties, stake president by your mid-forties, GA by your mid-fifties if you are related to one already. For the women, YW president by mid-thirties, Primary president by mid-forties, Relief society by mid-fifties. There is a certain appeal to this doctrine. It lets you know your place in the world and it allows you to judge how far along you have come and how far you have to go. It lets you know when to buy a white suit.

On my mission, I was a junior companion for the first two companionships. After this, my mission president, who believed that "senior" and "junior" companionships were unnecessary after a certain amount of experience, never put me into a junior or senior position again (well, I trained a greenie, but aside from that, nothing). I became a District Leader at about 8-9 months (clockwork) and then, a few months later, I was called into the mission office. I was on the inside, on track to become an AP or, more likely, a ZL (office elders had a certain reputation). At the end of my office tenure, I learned that I would be one of the first (young) elders to work in Armenia. I would be there for a month or two and then I would return to certain glory (in my mind's eye, my mission president, a buddy now, wouldn't let me down). I came back, got a greenie, and with that ended all mission responsibility for me. I was a rank and file missionary from then on out.

I don't know if I was offended by this. People I had come to the field with were AP's and ZL's. I was just a missionary. I didn't think much of it at the time, aside from a vague feeling that I had failed somehow. I hadn't progressed in the straight line that I thought I was supposed to. Maybe my mission president didn't like me as much as I thought. Maybe I should tract harder or improve my Russian. There must be something wrong with me, as I was no longer on the fast track to being a mission president at 50.

Herein is the problem with the machine idea, we forget that we don't earn callings like we earn diplomas (by making no waves and sitting still for a few years). We don't earn callings at all. That I wasn't called to be an AP was no reflection on me (at least, I hope not); it just meant that God needed the people who were called to that position in that position. There is no regular schedule for life, in the church or out of it. People do not have to be missionaries at 19/21; People do not have to be married before their thirties.

The regularity of the machine makes it easy to comprehend and easy to use as a measuring stick; however, it isn't a measuring stick that God uses. He looks at the heart of people and makes decisions based on what he sees there; we look at the machine and decide how others are doing. The machine as measuring stick only matters to those who believe its regularity is the most important of all doctrines. God isn't to be found in that camp.

Of course, this may all be my opinion; I remain off the fast-track. At the moment, I am a nursery worker. I am happy with my calling and, I think, doing a good job at it. Maybe being a cog in the machine isn't so bad, after all.


Posted by John C.

Excellent post, John. Life <> machine.

The role of status in Mormon culture is interesting. Of course, status matters to almost everyone. Every institution confers status to influence people's behavior. It would be interesting to explore why status plays the particular role that John is describing.

My hunch is that it has to do with the role of virtue in the Mormon understanding of the world. We believe that we can talk to God. But only if we are virtuous. We believe that we act in God's place. But only if we are virtuous.

Hence validation becomes doubly important. It's not only a manifestation of achievement. But our "career" in the LDS Church reveals our true nature. The lack of status indicates an individual's lack of virtue.

I agree with John that this view is an absurd notion of divine will. But it is an observable practice in Mormon culture. The most obvious indication are the benefits of the status "returned missionary" in Mormon sexuality.

The only calling I aspire to is primary pianst. Through various wards (moves and splits) I had it for 10 (almost straight) years. Now I am in EQ and church is a chore rather than a blessing.

There does seem to be a natural progression in the church sometimes. I think that, for the most part, things work fine that way. There are many exceptions to this "rule" though.

Neither my mission nor my post-mission experience has been a a part of the "machine". I was never even a senior companion...

I went through a similar experience on my mission where I spent the entire two years in tiny towns with no more than four missionaries and about that many members. It got tough near the end, having done nothing but tract and street contact for nearly two years. When I was transferred, with barely four months remaining, to yet another small town, I questioned my mission president about it. He told me that the reason I had spent my entire mission in the boonies was that he (and the Lord) had enough faith in me that I didn't need to be someplace where he could keep an eye one me. He felt that he could just put me out there and I would work hard, stay faithful, and do what I was supposed to be doing.
Canned response? Maybe. At the time I felt like I was being buried in a thankless role and forgotten about, but I have seen the wisdom in it since. We can't all be chiefs, and sometimes just being an Indian is rewarding enough.

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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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