Female Ordination and the “Second Shift”

One of the commoner reasons I hear from conservative Mormon women for not wanting the priesthood is that they already have so much on their plates—so many responsibilities—that the priesthood would just be an extra burden. This complaint is not wholly unjustified. According to sociologists, one of the main challenges faced by women who’ve entered the workforce is that their husbands tend not to pick up a fair share of the domestic duties, so women end up working a “second shift” at home after they get off work. As a result, many working women experience a “double burden” and have less leisure time than their husbands. This holds true even for many women who have relatively progressive husbands and who perceive the domestic work in their households to be evenly divided. (If you measure it empirically, it often is not.) One can certainly imagine something similar happening with the priesthood. Women might take on extra administrative duties and still be expected to run the nursery, teach primary, and clean, cook, and care for the children at home.

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“All Is Well In Zion”: The Need for Tragic Optimism in Modern Mormonism

A few weeks ago, my Gospel Doctrine class was going over Old Testament Lesson #12: “Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction.” The lesson covers Joseph in Egypt after his imprisonment by Potiphar, his various dream interpretations, and his later reconciliation with his brothers. When discussing the dreams of the imprisoned baker and butler, a class member made the claim that these men had approached Joseph for interpretations because Joseph obviously “had the Spirit” and “was happy.” Nods of approval followed. Disturbed by this line of thought, I raised my hand and said that we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that the Spirit is always accompanied by happiness. This assumption often leads us to question our own spirituality whenever we feel down (i.e., “If I was righteous, I’d have the Spirit and therefore be happy!”). We shame ourselves and each other into thinking we have done something wrong. Not only does this mistake a normal (and healthy) emotion for sin, but it might prevent those suffering from more severe issues (e.g. depression, anxiety) from seeking help. I highly doubt that Joseph was happy about being in prison. However, I pointed out that there is a psychological difference between happiness and meaning.[1] Joseph continued to seek God’s hand both in success and misfortune. His search for meaning is demonstrated later when he says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20, NRSV).

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Why More Missionaries ≠ More Converts

Another General Conference has come and gone, and another annual statistical report has been released. This year’s report is particularly interesting, because it reveals the impact—or rather, lack of impact—of the Church’s decision last year to lower the missionary age for women, making it possible for a larger number of young women to serve. That change was perhaps partly a concession to those who are concerned about gender inequalities in the Church’s structure, but mainly I think it was an attempt to boost flagging convert numbers.

In 2002, when the Church “raised the bar” for missionary standards, the number of proselytizing missionaries fell by about 10,000 over the next two years, and the number of converts dropped by about 40,000. It is generally agreed that the decline in missionaries caused the decline in converts, and indeed, the Church immediately worked to reverse the trend by urging young men to enlist in the missionary program and local leaders to recruit them. Convert and missionary numbers mostly recovered by 2012, though both figures remained a bit lower than their 2002 level. I suspect Church leaders assumed that this recovery of the “convert baptisms” number could be extended into growth if the growth in the number of missionaries could be extended as well. “Lowering the age” was an attempt to apply the “raising the bar” principle in reverse; if fewer missionaries means fewer converts, then more missionaries should mean more converts. Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, it apparently doesn’t work that way. The 2013 statistical report shows that although the number of proselytizing missionaries increased by about 24,000, the number of convert baptisms was only about 8,500 higher than the average for the last five years and only about 1,600 higher than 2011.

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Inverting Jesus: Protecting the Ninety-Nine

Lost_sheep_on_farm_track._-_geograph.org.uk_-_368111

In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke Jesus relays a very simple, yet beautiful, parable:

What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

In these few verses Jesus relays what lies at the core of His ministry and teaching: all men and women are precious in the sight of God and just as a good earthly shepherd will never abandon even a single member of his flock, neither will The Good Shepherd leave one of His followers to search and struggle in isolation.

I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the many kind and selfless Bishops, Stake Presidents, Sunday School, Institute, and Seminary teachers, among many other members of the LDS Church who exemplify Jesus’ teachings in this regard.  There have been times throughout my Church experience where I have been a lost sheep: alone, confused, angry and yes, even sinful and in need of repentance.  Without exception, local leaders and members have reached out to me in love and kindness seeking to gently lead me back to the flock;  not through coercion, but through Christ-like compassion and persuasion.

Unfortunately, I worry that the institutional Church had adopted a position wherein the “lost” or marginal are perceived as enemies from which the ninety-nine or majority need protection.  This position represents a complete inversion of one of Jesus’ most basic and essential teachings.  The letter from Church Public Affairs to the Ordain Women organization, delivered last week, is the most recent example of this inversion as it cites the majority view to denounce the needs of the minority as “extreme.”  I am very sympathetic to the position of Ordain Women as I see a very strong scriptural and historical case to be made for ordaining women to the priesthood.  At the same time I understand the Church’s position as well.  The case for women’s ordination is not a slam-dunk.  Yet, it is a thoughtful position and one that deserves to be considered seriously; not only because of its theological and sociological implications, but also because it is clear that there are women in the Church who feel undervalued, ignored, and isolated.

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Denial and Deniability: The Church’s PR Strategy on Female Priesthood Denial

The Mormon feminist “Ordain Women” (OW) movement made headlines last year with its effort to secure female access to the males-only Priesthood session of the LDS Church’s General Conference. Ahead of the event, the group made a formal written request for women to receive tickets to attend the meeting. When the request was denied, some two hundred women showed up to the session to ask for standby tickets at the door. The group then walked to City Creek Park and watched a live broadcast of the session. Members of the group expressed disappointment at the Church’s rejection of their request. Among other things, they pointed out that although the Priesthood session is theoretically only for priesthood-holders, males who seek admission are not asked to show proof of ordination. The exclusive standards for admission, then, appear not to be about priesthood at all, but rather about gender.

Planning to repeat the performance this year, the OW group again made a formal written application for tickets. Taking a more public and aggressive tack than last year, the LDS Church this year sought to preempt the demonstration with a press release denouncing the OW movement and defining participants in the protest as unfaithful outsiders to the LDS communion. This contrasts sharply with the OW group’s self-portrayal as a collective of faithful Mormon women who are fasting and praying for change and “sincerely ask[ing] our leaders to take this matter to the Lord in prayer.” OW founder Kate Kelly especially took issue with the release’s suggestion that OW should restrict any demonstration to the “free speech zones adjacent to Temple Square” designated for anti-Mormon protesters. She told the Salt Lake Tribune, “We have nothing in common with those people. They are seeking to destroy the church. We are not against the church — we ARE the church.”

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Adjusting the Narrative–Part 2c: Jacob’s Priestly Re-Examination of the Lamanite Curse

Adjusting the Narrative is a series exploring close reading of scriptural texts traditionally related to and used as justification of LDS notions of curses on those with dark skin.  In Part 2a, I analyzed the Book of Mormon’s presentation of Nephi’s affirmation that Laman, Lemuel and their posterity up to his generation – collectively The Lamanites – had been cursed by God, and that a visual indicator of that Curse was a Dark Skin. The analysis suggested there are textual grounds for a narrative reading where Nephi does not claim to have explicitly been given the Dark Skin sign from God, but that this was a later assumptive interpretation and expansion by Nephi of the idea that the Lamanites would be ‘made loathsome’ to Nephi and his people. In Part 2b, we noted the Church’s recent doctrinal clarification and disavowal of past theories that “Black Skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse”. We will proceed to re-read the Book of Mormon narrative on this topic with the narrative conceit that King Nephi was incorrect in his affirmation that a specific act of God was the cause of the dark skin of his people’s antagonists, and we will proceed to explore how his Nephite successors dealt with making sense of his declaration in the face of their lived reality..

jacobFollowing the death of Nephi, the continuing of the sacred record is taken over not by his Kingly Heir (who is known only as Second Nephi), but by his younger brother, the Priestly Jacob, whose writings also were included as part of King Nephi’s second ‘book’. Jacob knew in his youth the original generation of what were being called Lamanites. But at this time, removed physically from the Lamanites for nearly a generation, and while still holding firm to the words of his Brother, the Late King, he begins redefining for us who exactly are to be classed as Lamanites:

“Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings.” . Jacob 1:13-14

Lamanite and Nephite are made to be a purely political designation here for the remainder of the scriptural tradition. Those who are loyal or friendly to the Nephite Dynasty are Nephites, and those who are opposed are Lamanites. Lineage is specifically noted to not be an issue from this point on in terms of designation, in at least how Jacob, the priestly record keeper, will be presenting the material. They are not terms of righteousness, or being of favor with God. They are in regards to political affinity.

This is made even clearer with his sermon, in which he declares that in many key aspects, those designated as Lamanites have become, in actuality, more righteous than many Nephites. Continue reading “Adjusting the Narrative–Part 2c: Jacob’s Priestly Re-Examination of the Lamanite Curse” »

My Visit to the Mormon Gilbert, Arizona Temple

“He expected the temple to be more beautiful on the inside than it was…”

Just a few days prior to me and my wife taking our five daughters to the new Gilbert, Arizona temple, I sat for lunch with an LDS Stake President who had taken one of his friends to the temple who was also Roman Catholic. At the end of the visit, this Stake President was taken aback when his friend explained that he expected the temple to be more beautiful on the inside than it was. Statements like this can be a bit disorienting for Mormons since they have been taught from childhood that the temple is the most beautiful place on earth. Here’s my attempt to make sense of this perplexity.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

You can learn a lot about a religion by how they create their most sacred of spaces. Sacred space provides meaning within a world of chaos, and sacred space is where the essence of the religion comes into sharpest focus. The Hajj pilgrimage for example teaches participating Muslims that their own individual story (regardless of race, gender, wealth, social status, etc) is directly intertwined with the prophets and messengers of old, and as such, this sacred space allows Muslims to attach their narratives to those of the larger Islamic community. Experiencing the sacred doesn’t just enable spiritual transformation, but it tells you what that transformation is to look like. We could observe this with any religion we wanted to look at: Krishna devotees and the Braj pilgrimage, Sufis and their shrines, Buddhists and pagodas, and Catholics and their Cathedrals. For Catholics, Cathedrals are places of deep reverence for the sacred, but also a place for congregants to participate in and experience this sacred power. Sacred relics with their own powers can be stored at these sites and the altars themselves are sometimes built atop the bones of ancient martyrs, becoming an appropriate setting for the miracle of Eucharist, where the sacred and the divine collide. The architecture of the buildings represent humanity’s best attempt to articulate the sacred and provide it visibility. Cathedrals are to be the most beautiful places on earth, and since the context was Europe, this beauty has been associated with kingdom and Jesus as King. It is awe-inspiring and beautiful.

Gilbert Temple Entrance

Mormons hold their temples as the center place of what they deem sacred, yet there is no sense of kingdom or king when you walk in the doors, but rather that of corporation and family. The entrance room felt like I had entered a very well-to-do law office or the headquarters of a major and powerful corporation. As one would expect in such a setting, there are chairs for temple workers who check to see if you have the credentials to enter. During this open period however, all are welcome. Later on, you will need a “recommend” to enter, meaning you have proven your dedication and commitment to the institution itself, in which two ecclesiastical leaders will approve and sign after private interviews.

Draper sealing room2

Draper Sealing Room

Once I entered the building, we were guided to various rooms, the lowest being the baptism font, where Mormons perform vicarious work for those who died without becoming Mormon. After climbing many stairs, we enter the top part of the sacred edifice and entered perhaps its pinnacle of sacred space – the “sealing room” where couples are married and families are bound “for time and eternity.” While in this room, those guiding us through had me and my children stand in front of a larger mirror and look in. Because there was another mirror just behind us, our family symbolically embraced infinity. This is the essence of Mormonism. The rest of this Mormon sacred space made more sense with this in mind. Another important room, the Mormon “Holy of Holies,” or “Celestial Room” represents a place where Mormons directly commune with God. By the time Mormons enter this room, they have been prepared and symbolically transformed into the divine. They make up part of its “living room.” This is consistent with most the rest of the temple interior which looks like the home of a person of extreme wealth – one that welcomes you as part of it. Lining the walls are religious paintings that add to the aesthetic of a comfortable place to dwell, and nothing there serves to make distinctions between what is worshipped and those who worship. It is not the pictures in the halls or the huge chandelier in this special celestial room, but rather the presence of the people who visit the “house of the Lord.” Their presence is what makes it sacred. They are transformed into the sacred, but in a uniquely Mormon way.

Celestial Room, Gilbert Temple

This “Celestial room” is of particular notice in our attempt to grasp the essence of Mormonism by way of looking at its architectural articulation of the sacred. On its surface, the room looks similar to what one might expect to see in the home of the most rich and famous of the world. Here, wealth glorifies God. This is not to say Mormons embrace the prosperity gospel that equates righteousness with worldly wealth, but it certainly makes the connection that heaven resembles that wealth. This is not the wealth to be gained by earthly economic fortune, but rather the belonging to the right heavenly community here on earth. Like Muslims on the Hajj, those who enter the temple once it’s dedicated put on new and simple clothes that make it hard to distinguish high class from low, rich from poor, powerful from weak. As you look at this Celestial room, you notice that there are no pictures of Christ and no images of the Cross. There are no relics. There is nothing that would give it away as obviously religious or sacred. Instead, it is adorned by plants, expensive carpet, sofas, tables and chairs. It looks like a place to hang out if you were so fortunate. Mormons call their temples “God’s house.” Indeed, it is a home where the sacred is understood to dwell, and where some Mormons speculate upon the possibility of “bumping” into Jesus himself, opening windows of Mormon temple folklore. This is Mormon cosmology and theodicy. It is the definition of what Mormons are to be transformed into. There may be messiness, poverty and chaos in the world, but once you enter into God’s house, those concerns are to disappear, and the eternal lends new perspective. This is to Mormons the ideal and beauty of their religion.

Gilbert Temple interior

This family-centric ideal however is not easy for all Mormons, and I stumbled onto this in my visit as well. As I thought about the sacred within Mormonism and how family-centric it was, I recalled what was said by an older long-time-single lady that stood behind us in line. She had come already to this open house of the temple and was excited for it to be built so she could go more often without the long lines. She stated while in line that she struggled remaining part of the LDS church because she felt like a failure due to being single in a religion that prizes marriage and family above all else. She wondered how Mormonism applied to her. She still seemed bothered by it and had her struggles, but the temple and its sacred space seemed to provide comfort for the very anxiety it helped create. Scholars of religion have found that the sacred often dwells within contradictions and perplexities, and here Mormonism offered no exception. As I stood in between the mirrors with my family gazing into the Mormon sense of the sacred, it was hard not to think about how this woman felt as she stood by herself in the same spot.

Mormon Studies Classics: The Angel and the Beehive by Armand L. Mauss

Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.  257 pages.

The thesis of Armand Mauss’ The Angel and The Beehive is centered on the response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church or Mormons) to changes within society; first by becoming more entwined with its host society, or what he calls assimilation, and then conversely by rejecting society’s changes in order to maintain its distinct identity, or what he calls retrenchment.  Mauss symbolizes these contrasting ideas with the angel statue topping the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City and the beehive sculpture crowning the former Utah Hotel.  Both historic buildings sit across each other (the latter now called the Joseph Smith Memorial Building) at the LDS Church’s headquarter location on Temple Square. The two symbols are fitting contrasts of the charismatic and bureaucratic elements within the LDS Church.  Mormonism, Mauss argues, emerged from its isolationist 19th Century roots where it was often persecuted for defying social mores into the 20th Century as a fully Americanized religion in harmony with mainline Protestantism.  Mauss identifies this assimilation phase as lasting until the early 1960s before entering a retrenchment phase in which charismatic authority reemerged, bringing with it increased emphasis on obedience to modern prophets and performance of vicarious temple work, as well as a shift towards religious fundamentalist literalism in its view of scripture, traditional family life, and sanctions against intellectualism and feminism from within its ranks.

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Review: ‘Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis – Deuteronomy’

Review of David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis – Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014).

 

As Darwin’s concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection has become central to modern evolutionary theory, so…historical criticism provides the foundation for modern scholarly assessments of the Bible. – David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis – Deuteronomy (pg. 133, ebook).

When I read this quote, I automatically thought of evangelical scholar Bruce Waltke’s resignation from Reformed Theological Seminary following his remarks about evolution. “If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution,” said Waltke, “to deny that reality will make us a cult: some odd group that is not really interacting with the real world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”[1] I thought of the pseudoscience and poor biblical literacy that tends to manifest itself in Sunday School and Institute classes. I began making mental divisions between myself and “them.” I was a seeker of truth. I was a “foot soldier in the ongoing march of progress” (to borrow Nathaniel Givens’ description).[2] But as I continued reading, I realized exactly why I couldn’t have written this book (aside from my obvious lack of credentials in the field and publishing contract): David Bokovoy wants his reader to learn and to be edified by what they have learned. He wants Latter-day Saints to walk away with their assumptions challenged, but their faith strengthened. He wants non-LDS readers to walk away with a new view of Mormon scripture and tradition and thus a better appreciation for them. The book is written as less of an argument (even if the evidence presented within it could be used to bolster an impressive one), but as an invitation. David’s is not only a work of scholarship, but one of passion. And it is brimming with charity toward his readers. This approach allows readers of conflicting views to each benefit, from the staunchest atheist to the most conservative Mormon apologist.

But more on that later. Let’s start “in the beginning”:

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Sex in Genesis: Is the Sodom story literal? (part 3)

The Levite finds his concubine dead on the doorstep in the morning after sending her out to be gang-raped instead of himself the night before

A husband finds his concubine dead on the doorstep after sending her out to be gang-raped instead of himself. The Benjamite rapists parallel the city of Sodom.

[read part 2 here]

Just as earlier stories were used to fashion the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a later story in the Old Testament borrowed the Sodom story as a template – using sexuality to shame a group of people. The story in Judges 19 tells of a Levite, his unfaithful concubine, and their unfortunate stay in a Benjamite city. The story follows the motif of the two earlier stories of visitors hosted by Abraham & Sarah – and then hosted by Lot in Sodom. Touched on are the same themes of hospitality, travelers receiving shelter from a foreigner, bargaining over sexuality though a door, marring or exalting the character of a group of people, and the near total destruction – or genesis of a group of people.

In Sodom the rape of angels, Lot’s daughters and Lot are averted. But in the Levite-Concubine story the author took the Sodom story further and had the rape actually occur. In addition, the victim is dismembered – not by the rapists, but by her husband – and her body parts are used to incite Israel to destroy nearly all of the tribe of the rapists. The author of this story follows earlier established patterns to demonize the Benjamites, making them appear as bad as the inhabitants of Sodom.

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