It’s good (except for one part)

Because I have grounded my ill-mannered eleven-year-old from her Primary class for the time being, she spends the second hour of church hanging out with me in the library, often reading old issues of the Friend and the New Era. I haven’t decided if she’s doing it primarily for entertainment or to look for further evidence that the Church is stupid, but in any case, it keeps her off the streets.

So last Sunday she found something in an old issue of the New Era that disturbed her. (And by “disturbed her,” I mean “caused her to yell out something controversial in front of the chalk-and-eraser-borrowing multitude.”) It was an article by a general authority about marriage and dating, and tucked into a section on not having pre-marital sex was a paragraph about two controversial topics that I won’t name here because they are contentious issues and irrelevant to my larger point. Suffice it to say that my daughter disagreed vehemently with one particular sentence that the author had written, and when I read the sentence and its surrounding context myself, I discovered that I also disagreed with it–I daresay even vehemently, if you want to get technical about it–and I told her so.

My daughter was somewhat relieved that I was siding with her and wanted to expound on the wrongness of what the author had said, but time and circumstances did not permit me to indulge her in this. “Sometimes you’re going to come across things in church that don’t match up with your own values,” I said. “It’s upsetting, but you need to keep these things in perspective. Don’t let it ruin your day.”

“I know,” she said. “I know what the main point [of the article] is, and I agree with all of the other stuff it says. It’s just…” She stopped talking and went through the magazine until she found the page she wanted me to see. “It’s good, except for that one part.” And she handed me the magazine, which was opened to a Mormonad.

It was a picture of an ice cream sundae with a cockroach peeking out of the middle of it. “IT’S GOOD,” read the caption, “except for one part.” Touche, my dear. Touche.

I admit it, I laughed. And my daughter laughed, too. That was the end of that conversation.

I have reflected on it since then–and not just because that cockroach lurking in the ice cream haunts my dreams. We’ve all seen or at least heard about those object lessons where something vile is baked into the cake or other, otherwise-acceptable dessert–it’s good, except for that one part–the point being that you wouldn’t eat Jell-O that had cat feces in it, so why would you subject yourself to media that has inappropriate language or images in it? Who cares how good the rest of it is? Better just to avoid the whole thing. Of course, not everyone is so fastidious about what they ingest. I know plenty of folks who would have no qualms about eating around the cat feces, literally and figuratively, but the visual is undoubtedly stunning, nonetheless.

Of course there are significant differences between a Hollywood movie and an article in the New Era. One is designed primarily to entertain and the other is designed primarily to instruct and edify–which is not to say that the entertaining can’t be instructional and/or edifying or that the instructional can’t be entertaining, but the primary purposes are still different, and that matters. But the way my daughter turned that Mormonad on me impressed me because I don’t think she was really trying to be clever. My daughter tends to take things at face value. Here was an image that illustrated how she felt about the article, so she used it. Certainly she appreciated the irony, but irony wasn’t her objective.

Fortunately, my daughter has enough common sense to realize that one false statement does not automatically render all of a speaker’s message worthless. Whether or not it’s okay to watch a movie with one bad scene or dig around the cat poop in the Jell-O is a question I’ll leave to the philosophers. As of now my daughter is more concerned with how much it should matter that she disagrees with a church authority on any particular thing.

I tell my daughter that she is perfectly within her rights to disagree–out loud, even–with things she’s taught at church. For one thing, she’s there to learn, and if something doesn’t make sense to her or sit right with her, she should ask for an explanation, politely and respectfully. (It’s the politely-and-respectfully part that challenges us currently.) For another thing, sometimes people say things at church that are just plain cuckoo, and I’m a firm believer in not letting the cuckoo slide in such settings. But if we are at church to learn, we need to have some humility. That’s where things get tricky.

People called by God are still human; therefore, they can still be wrong. Even the prophet can be wrong. We aren’t required to take a leader’s word for it; technically, we only have to take the Holy Ghost’s word for it. But the higher up on the chain of authority a speaker is, the more circumspect I tend to be about dismissing a statement as wrong. But it can still be wrong. And in that case, I believe it’s important to say so–with humility, bearing in mind that I’m also human–because when you’re in the business of preaching God’s word, you can’t be keeping cockroaches in your ice cream. Because that’s just gross. And ice cream was meant to be enjoyed.

It's good (except for one part)

Comments

  1. Earlyschmearly says:

    I think one has to simply determine just how many cockroach-laden scoops of ice cream one can stomach. It’s all about weighing the value; the pros and cons.

  2. Kathryn Lynard Soper says:

    Brilliant turnaround, RJ.

  3. Jello with cat feces? What diabolical mind came up with that?

    I remember being taught a doctrine in seminary as a teenager that I just couldn’t accept. I wasn’t really crazy or hurtful, and it’s still taught today, but it went against something I believed had been taught to me by the Spirit in primary. So, I raised my hand, thoughfully disagreed, and proceeded to politely defend my position. My seminary teacher called my father (the bishop) that evening to express her concern, and couldn’t understand why he told her it was no big deal and not to worry about it. Finally, he told her he agreed with me, and she retreated in shock.

    It was enormously liberating to me to realize I could be on opposite sides of a doctrinal issue with the church without being on opposite sides of the church. Rather than threaten my testimony, it allowed it all sorts of room to grow. As I learned more about church history, it made it a lot easier not to choke on the things that bothered me.

    After a week of backpacking, sleeping on the hard ground, sweating in the hot sun, dirty, dusty and tired, I would have no problem at all scooping out the cockroach and devouring the ice cream. To some extent, it’s all relative.

  4. “But the higher up on the chain of authority a speaker is, the more circumspect I tend to be about dismissing a statement as wrong.”

    Beautifully said. Humble, practical, and much more enlightening than the myriad “prophet speaking as man or prophet” discussions that I’ve had to sit through.

  5. Touché indeed.

  6. Eric Russell says:

    I’m having a hard time trying to figure out which is the great part of the picture and which is the bad part: the 1000 calorie dish of fat and sugar, or the little slice of protein?

  7. Protein? That’s just roughage, Eric. You gotta’ get them as larvae if you want protein…

  8. For a slightly twisted perspective, when Scout was a puppy he would’ve spit out the jello to get to the cat feces.

  9. It sounds like your daughter has a pretty mature sense of how to deal with people. Thanks for your post

  10. IMHO, we’re all imperfect/incomplete and working it out “with fear and trembling.” I don’t agree 100.0000% with every thing that comes over the pulpit but I note that Pres. Kimball said that if we follow the prophet, we’ll end up where he does. Coupling that thought with my observation that the prophet is failing at a much higher level than am I, I take this to be a shortcut to a higher level for me, from which I try to follow the Spirit on particulars. (My recent-convert wife noted after about a year of membership that she’d rather be a “led” Mormon than a “Yes” Mormon).
    .
    After all that, I remember that this is where my soul was healed and the Spirit bears continuing assurance to me that this is where God would have us be — partly to help each other with this working it out business.

  11. I like this post a lot. That Momonad, like many things which reduce a complex issue to a bumpersticker, really bugs me (pun inended).

    It’s just as easy to make the opposite comparison and say “You wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” along with a picture of a precious infant being dumped out the window along with a bit of dirty water.

  12. The 1971 Beehive manual has an entire lesson devoted to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” which goes (in part) like this:

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.

    I wish that were in the New Era somewhere, or in the current manuals.

  13. Love this. And that you encourage your children to question leaders.

    I wish it were as acceptable for an adult to ask an honest “why do we do this?” type question in church as it is for an 11 year old. It seems we tend to be more patient with children and less so with adults that should ‘know better’.

  14. MCQ, I want to see that Mormonad. Maybe Matsby could make it for us.

  15. I’m bored and want to be titillated by discussions of controversial topics in a New Era article. I wish you hadn’t left those parts out.

    Also, I would totally eat around the cockroach. That ice cream looks tasty.

  16. Eric,
    Yeah, that got me too—the food stylist definitely needs to be fired. The cockroach looks as appetizing as the cherry. Even without a cockroach, that ice cream doesn’t do it for me. This I’d eat, though, cockroach or no cockroach.

  17. Your daughter sounds like she’s fun to talk with.

  18. Another odd thing is that the Mormonad in question cites Article of Faith 13, which directly contradicts the point the ad is making.

  19. Splendid post.

  20. when you’re in the business of preaching God’s word, you can’t be keeping cockroaches in your ice cream.

    What do you mean by “cockroaches” in general? In the article in question, it’s clear–you can’t say 10 nice things and one bad thing and pretend it’s okay to say that bad thing just because the good outweighed it. But most of the time it seems like the “cockroach” may not be so visible to the audience–it may be an allegiance to a certain school of thought that forces an agenda into sermons, an addiction that blurs your vision or grieves the Spirit during preparation, and so on.

    The frustrating thing is that I don’t think any of us are entirely without those blemishes in our lives; some are just equipped with a better grinder to ensure the pieces of roach are miniscule and remain hidden, right?

    I don’t really know if I have a question here.

  21. My question is just how did you get your teen to go to Sunday School? That part in and of itself made me read more just to find out the answer to that dilemma.

  22. I like this post, Rebecca. Thanks. The balancing act between correcting “wrong” things at Church and doing so with humility is indeed tough. That perfectly sensible folks often disagree on what’s “wrong” and needs to be corrected further complicates the issue, I think.

    Also, I think that ice cream is available in Provo, for anyone interested.

  23. If you eat processed foods, you’re probably already eating bug parts and mouse feces, etc. Just sayin’.

  24. Interesting post. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that “that one word” or “that one flash of flesh” ruined an entire movie. Likewise, one bad article in the Ensign doesn’t ruin the entire publication. Easy enough.

    In practice, though, I think it’s a difficult thing, this business of teaching kids to be mature and responsible filters of what they see and hear around them. I think it was Bill Russell (CoC) who recalls, as a young boy, hearing his dad good-naturedly dismiss things that they had heard at church services with which he disagreed. “Well, kids, you don’t need to worry about that,” he’d shrug as they headed home after services.

    The tricky part, for me, is how to convey the important skill of critical thinking, while never giving the impression that the gospel is just a smorgasbord of ideas that we can smile and nod about while at church but ignore the minute we leave the building.

  25. Kristine,

    Interesting that you would cite “Pied Beauty.” Our vocal ensemble just completed a concert series that featured a setting of that poem. I had never seen it before learning this music. (The setting is Libby Larsen’s “Missa Gaia” – “Mass of the Earth”).

    Singing choral music for most of my life has taught me that there are many different (and often profound) ways to express truth and beauty. There is great wisdom to be discovered outside the church, if we are open to it.

  26. People know they have to filter what they see on TV or hear in music, but they may not be so discriminating about the teachings of the prophets. Which is more insidious? *<:0)

  27. The problem with that Mormonad is that it assumes we consume movies and books and TV like it’s food: passively ingesting everything before us, good or bad. And while that be accurate when I’m exhausted and the TV comes on late at night, it’s certainly not ideal. Watching movies or reading should be more like a conversation or listening to a speaker: you don’t have to agree or accept everything they say, but you don’t have to get up and walk out the moment they say something you disagree with. We need to be more active with our media, and not follow the food metaphor.

  28. Dallin –

    While your idea is the ideal, the Mormonad is aimed at the under 18 crowd, nearly all of whom “consume movies and books and TV like it’s food: passively ingesting everything before us, good or bad.”

    Adults have, sometimes, developed a more mature critical sense, and so yes, at that point the Mormonad doesn’t really apply. But in my experience, teenagers aren’t usually interested in or capable of nuanced critical discussion (though I can think of a few happy exceptions).

    Actually, based on that, many adults I know also passively consume any and all media that comes their way. What is needed is a better critical culture, but in absence of that, there’s nothing wrong with the general sentiment of the Mormonad, if the idea isn’t taken too far and applied to widely (nearly every metaphor or analogy falls apart at some point – even the parables in scriputre. The problem isn’t if there is some problem when the comparison is taken the wrong way, the problem is if we ignore any truth therein because it doesn’t fit into our own self-justified world views).

  29. Rebecca, I gotta say your daughter seems pretty rad.

    29 said:
    ” the Mormonad is aimed at the under 18 crowd, nearly all of whom “consume movies and books and TV like it’s food: passively ingesting everything before us, good or bad.””

    I have to disagree here. Have you ever taught the youth? I can’t tell you how many times I would hear in-depth conversations about the meaning of life, initiated by a hip hop song that they agreed/disagreed with. Teenagers think. A lot. Their behavior might not always reflect it, but I believe those minds are turning fiercely, much of the time.

    Rebecca’s awesome 11-year old demonstrates this quite well, though not quite a teen.

  30. Rebecca, you have already indicated reservations about commenting on what the disagreement with the article was, but you have piqued my interest.

  31. Beautifully written post. A great example of interpreting things within only the sphere’s of thought that they were meant to be.

  32. Scott (21) – That’s a good point. And to go along with what kuri said in (24), we certainly find our cockroaches more palatable when they’re ground up. At the risk of taking the food analogy too far (I hope I’ve already acknowledged the limitations of that Mormonad), perhaps we shouldn’t go around pointing out the cockroach parts in other people’s ice cream and beholding not the cockroaches in our own ice cream. I don’t know. But I get what you’re saying.

    Hunter (25) – With my daughter I emphasize keeping things in perspective, as that is one of her biggest challenges. She has a tendency to focus on details here and there and remove them from context and/or blow them out of proportion. Sometimes she is truly making something out of nothing, but other times she has legitimate concerns that simply need to be kept in perspective. I wouldn’t dismiss a legitimate concern with “well, you just don’t need to worry about that,” but whatever troubling things she encounters at church need to be weighed against the balance of the gospel message and the church’s role in her life.

    Roblynn (22) – As of this writing, my daughter is not allowed to attend her Primary class (my decision, not her teachers’) for reasons that are too “nuanced” to get into here. I’m hoping that she’ll be able to return soon because a) she should really be in class, and b) I think she could make valuable contributions if she just had a teensy bit more decorum.

    Hammie (30) – I thank you on her behalf. :) As frustrating as she can be at times, when I am in a reflective mood I deeply appreciate her refusal to let things be easy.

    Larrin (31) – It was really one bad sentence that my daughter objected to–and I suspect that if the author were confronted about this sentence, he might see how it was problematic. It could easily have been worded differently and conveyed the same basic message that (I assume the author intended. (Perhaps it was the ground-up cockroaches in the editors’ own ice cream that prevented them from catching this particular cockroach…but no, we won’t go there.) Also, it was an old article–about 8 years ago, I think–and I’m thinking that these days there would be a little more sensitivity to the issues concerned that would result in more appropriate wording. That is my hopeful take on it, anyway. So I’m sympathetic to your curiosity–in your place I would be dying to know–but I just didn’t want my poor blog post to be overwhelmed by a discussion about the offending sentence’s content. If it were an article that appeared in a current issue, I’d think it worth discussing, but in this case, not so much.

  33. RJ, I really hope I can be half as quick and honest with my children when those questions come.

  34. Hammie –

    yes, I have taught the youth, and I have taught adults. And I can say that (excepting a few happy exceptions), that my experience indicates both youth and adults, for the most part, passively consume media.

    The few times media generates discussions, it’s often to justify the message the media is selling. Usually after some popular movie that condones adultery comes out, I often hear youth engage in discussion, using the movie as proof, that adultery might actually be okay is some circumstances. Sure, discussion was engaged in, but it was a very passive discussion, with the media consumption determining the outcome.

  35. Thanks for the follow-on comment, Rebecca J.

  36. Sure, both teens and adults passively consume media sometimes. But they also BOTH gain a lot from meaningful discussions because of things they disagree with in the media.
    Being only a teenager myself, I bristle at the idea that most teenagers passively consume everything like food because they don’t have adults’ critical thinking skills. It may be just because I am infinitely better than other people my age (in fact, I’m sure that is it, so just ignore the rest of this) but I have had meaningful conversations with the most unexpected people because of things in the media. We really do think about what we listen to and watch. And like Hammie said, “A lot.”
    And I’m really not just one of the “few happy exceptions”.

  37. AL–thanks for the reality check! One of the things I like most about teaching teens is their very sensitive BS-meters. I find that if I haven’t thought something through very carefully, or if I’m trying to persuade them of something I don’t quite believe, they will call me on it instantly.

    Probably we could use a few more of you hanging around here!

  38. AL –

    I’m glad for you. However, I also find that teenagers tend to get very defensive when it’s suggested they aren’t as mature as adults. Which, frankly, they aren’t and they need to realize this. [But then again, there are lots of adults who aren’t as mature as some teenagers I know].

    However, just asserting something doesn’t make it so. I hope you and your friends really are possessed of good critical sense. But I also know many teenagers who insist they are possessed of critical skills, and then recited talking points rather than engage in discussion.

    Many people insist they really don’t passively consume media, when in fact they’ve just fooled themselves.

  39. I have no problem with your statement that people consume media passively. I know teenagers do it. I know adults do it. I know I do it.

    Also, I knew if I said I was a teenager this was going to happen. Oh well, too late now. Since I can’t pretend, I’ll say this: I’m nowhere close to a “mature adult” and I’d be the first one to admit it (ok, maybe not to my parents…) but PLEASE don’t insult my intelligence and suggest this means I and other teenagers need oversimplified Mormonads so we don’t go sin and watch rated R movies or listen to songs with swears in them.
    It makes it very hard to respect the lesson in Sunday School, for example, when we’re treated like we are incapable of handling grey. Like Kristine (whom I adore) said, it’s BS. You may be protecting us at first from making stupid decisions, but what is going to happen when we realize it’s not that simple and haven’t been giving the guidance to navigate those grey areas?
    That is why I have to come here.

    (I made my motto for the year, “I’m a woman. Damn it!” Not because I think I am mature, but because I realize I’m not and it’s something I’m working towards. Finally posting something on here after reading for ages was a maybe step in that direction, though it is a little ironic, considering the discussion I chose to respond to. Like I said, I’m still working on it.=D)

  40. AL –

    whatever makes you happy. I never advocated “protecting the youth” – that’s a straw man version that bears almost no resemblance to what I’ve actually said. And while the Mormonad is simplified, it’s not oversimplified; it’s just limited in application.

    But your latest response speaks for itself and somewhat proves my point, so I’ll just let it stay there.

  41. I wish you would not write not write off everything I say as defensive. I feel like I have some substance to contribute and I merely stated my honest opinion.

  42. Also, If you’re not suggesting mormonads are meant to protect the youth from making bad media consumption decisions because of their poor critical thinking skills, what are you suggesting the mormonads are for? Why are their simplifications worthwhile? I’d really like to understand your point of view better.

  43. Kristine says:

    Ivan, if nothing else, you’ve provided a potent illustration of why teens sometimes get defensive, and why adults often end up not hearing their most interesting thoughts.

  44. AL, thanks for your comments. They are needed here as the voice of my own daughters who are (I assume) roughly your age. Fwiw, I am impressed by your contributions.

    Ivan, fwiw, I agree whole-heartedly with Kristine’s #44.

    I have had similar conversations with my children fairly often, since there often are things said in church with which I and they disagree – at least once after a talk by a Stake President in Stake Conference. My daughters were incredulous after something he said, so we talked about it on the ride home. It helped that 90% of his talk was wonderful and uplifting, but we talked about the 10% that was . . . how do I say this charitably . . . his own unique perspective.

    Not one of us is perfect (and very few of us are as mature as we think we are), and I’m sure other families in the wards where I have lived have had similar conversations because of things I’ve said in church. I’m fine with that – as long as they had those conversations. I’d FAR rather have someone disagree and talk charitably about it than to have everyone agree simply because of my calling – or disagree and never say anything to their children about it.

  45. Ivan Wolfe says:

    I’m not writing anyone off as defensive, nor am I insisting that all teenagers (or adults) are immature passive consumers. I also do not advocate protecting anyone from bad media – we all have to make our own decisions there. I feel like I’m being made into a straw man here, so I’ll try to explain in greater detail what I mean.

    As for the Mormonad – well, I find way too many people are willing to justify all sorts of inappropriate media (that often has more than just that “one bad part” – often it’s shot through with inappropriate parts). The Mormonad is useful if it causes us to take a step back and re-evaluate out media choices and see if they really are something God would approve of. That’s about as far as that Mormonad should go – if it is used to advocate banning any and all media with ‘bad’ stuff, then it’s taken too far. But as a simple “hey – wait a minute, just because I enjoyed that movie/song/play/whatever doesn’t mean it was actually good for me” wake up call type thing, it’s fine.

    I gave a talk on “appropriate music” in sacrament meeting a few weeks ago, and one of my points was that the adults in the congregation too easily write off the youths’ music. I suggested that the adults should actually take the time to listen to their children’s music and appreciate it for what it is and the contexts that their kids’ music is appropriate in.

    Of course, I also took some people (I’ve heard this mostly from youth, though I didn’t target them sepcifically) task for the facile “I don’t listen to they lyrics” or “the lyrics don’t affect me” excuses that are more self-justification than actual truth.

    My main poitns were:
    1 – merely enjoying something is not enough of a reason to pretend it’s a virtue to consume it
    2 – we all (myself included) have far too many self-justifications for consuming media that we really shouldn’t. What is needed is honest self-evaluation. [If the Mormonad with the cockroach spurs some of that, that’s a good thing. Blitehly writing it off as some sort of censorship inducing idea shows a lack of critical thinking].
    3 – In the end, there are lots of different contexts for various media, so what is “appropriate” in one situation is not always appropriate in another. Pretending there’s only one type of “appropriate” music (or other media) is too simple.
    4 – the best way to develop a critical sense about music (or any media) is too subject yourself to a wide variety (for music, punk, baroque, guitar rock, jazz, bluegrass, country, classical, etc.). This often comes with life experience, so adults tend to have a slightly more refined critical sense due to a wider exposure to different genres, but that doesn’t mean much in specfic cases of individual people. Most teenagers I know wouldn’t be caught dead listening to old timey country western or hard bop jazz, but there are plenty of adults I know who only listen to 70s guitar rock or Seattle grunge. So it goes on and on in circles.

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