Why Men Need to Read “One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly”

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I gave a version of these remarks last night as part of the panel discussion at Writ & Vision in Provo.

In her foreword to Ashley Mae Hoiland’s new book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to FlyKristin Matthews aptly identifies its participation in “a markedly female tradition of Christian writing,” noting its affinities with the work of writers like Mary Oliver, Louise Glück, and Annie Dillard, as well as medieval mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich (xviii-xx). That’s esteemed company! Add to which that this is the first monograph published by a woman in the history of the Maxwell Institute or FARMS, and it becomes clear that One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly is opening up new avenues for Mormon women’s writing. I’d like to talk for a few minutes tonight about what those avenues might be, exactly, by way of arguing that this book is as important for Mormon men to read as it is for Mormon women.

As a backdrop, though, I need to talk for a minute about correlation—or, to give it its proper name, priesthood correlation—which entailed bringing various Church auxiliaries and programs under centralized priesthood management. As part of this initiative, the Relief Society Magazine ceased publication in December 1970. (The editorial announcing cessation ended with these words: “Moriturae te salutamus [We who are about to die salute you.]” [1]) This periodical, along with its predecessor, The Women’s Exponent, provided more or less official Church venues for women’s writing. The shift to correlated publications brought advantages and disadvantages. For the better, women who contributed to the new magazines now reached a mixed-gender audience: men who may have been unlikely to read the Relief Society Magazine now had occasion to encounter some of its writers. For the worse, the fact of sharing space with male writers simply meant a diminishment of female voices overall—and a discontinuation of regular fiction features and the like. Broadly, priesthood correlation meant that women’s voices had less official bandwidth than before, in part due to the fact that men can hold the priesthood and women can’t. Consequently, a magisterium that was always gendered male in significant ways became even more so.

I want to suggest that this gendered structure informs the phenomenon of “faith crisis” and the burgeoning literature aimed at addressing it. One feature of this development is the perceived sterility of traditional apologetics, that hyper-modern empiricist program of defending the faith against its critics. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that FARMS never published a monograph by a woman (although a few women did publish articles in FARMS journals or edit collections of essays), because the apologetic enterprise had built into it an assumed cozy relationship with the magisterium, which made male participation seem more natural than female. Faced with criticisms of the Church, people looked to FARMS for responses that they could perceive as official, and this expectation worked in tandem with the prevailing gender dynamic to produce a masculinized magisterial edifice whose very crumbling lies near the heart of the faith crisis phenomenon, especially as this pertains to women’s experience in the Church.

In addition to being gorgeously written, incisively perceptive, and emotionally rich, Ashmae’s book has the virtue of not even attempting to be magisterial. Crises of faith in institutions don’t get resolved by urging faith in institutions. Rather than attempt to renew trust in institutions, Ashmae writes: “I learned to trust my story” (209). But God isn’t in her story alone:

I told my story. I realized that my story is not the point, but rather that I can embrace the fact that every person has the starring role in their own story, that we are a million ways different. We are a field of wildflowers together when we tell our story. When I listen to the stories of others, when I cry not just for the hard parts of my own story, but for the hard part in others’, when I laugh together and love the stories I do not understand, when I recognize that my story is so small, but also so big, then I find Christ there. Then I picture myself entering a brightly colored room where everyone is cheering for me, not because I have figured out the answers but because I was brave enough to try. (211)

This isn’t solipsistic, go-your-own-way religion: this is communal in a deeply Mormon way, adding to our baptismal covenant to mourn with those who mourn a promise to laugh with those who laugh. The institution still has value, but primarily as a vehicle for this communion, and if we really want to be part of that, Ashmae seems to be saying, we need the courage to tell our own stories. She’s said that learning to tell her own story wasn’t easy: so many cultural elements both within and without Mormonism invite women to think that their stories aren’t worth telling, and Ashmae wasn’t exempt from these pressures. She has talked about the anxiety of publishing a book in a series all of whose previous authors are very accomplished older men with Ph.D.s: “I’m just a stay-at-home mom,” she’d say, “How am I possibly qualified to do this?” But, with the support of friends, she found the courage not only to tell her story, but to believe that she even had one to tell. The resulting book revealed to her, and now reveals to us, that her story was very worth telling indeed, and it nudges us toward the revelation of our own stories, both to ourselves and to others.

I hope that Ashmae’s courage inspires more Mormon women to believe their stories worth telling. As a people, we need those stories, and we need them badly. It’s a very good thing that the Maxwell Institute has cracked the door open a little wider for those stories by providing an institutional venue for this book. But I also think that Mormon men need to find the same courage, and just as badly. We can no longer hide behind the magisterium that priesthood ordination has long seemed to offer us. We are more than the offices we bear and the callings we fulfill. One of my favorite sections of the book talks about the way that Ashmae’s children have taught her to play again. “My children pull me along into their world where play is mandatory,” she says, “because my world of answers bores them” (133). (Which leads me to ask: is the Gospel truer in Nursery than in Sunday School? Maybe.) As Mormon men, we have been the bearers of answers for too long, and at this point in our history it seems we’re in danger of being crushed by an empty carapace. All that responsibility has cut us off from the greater communion for which we might hunger without even realizing it—a communion in which women and men enrich each other through their stories. Ashmae’s own epiphany can guide us, though: “I discovered I was not in crisis—rather, I am an explorer” (209). Her book, with its invitation for all of us, whatever our gender, to undertake the courageous exploration of our own stories and to bravely share them so that we can find God in the communal telling—well, that looks an awful lot like Zion to me.

Notes

[1] Marianne C. Sharp, “Editorial,” The Relief Society Magazine, 57.12 (Dec. 1970), 895. Available here.

Comments

  1. I picture myself entering a brightly colored room where everyone is cheering for me, not because I have figured out the answers but because I was brave enough to try.

    It feels to me that this is possibly what heaven — the afterlife — is like. It resonates with George MacDonald’s view as expressed in Lilith, in any event.

  2. It’s a really beautiful vision, isn’t it?

  3. Also, this has me thinking: “As Mormon men, we have been the bearers of answers for too long, and at this point in our history it seems we’re in danger of being crushed by an empty carapace.”

    We created a culture where we wanted to believe we had answers *because* we were men (and men, not women, hold the Melchizedek Priesthood with its “oath and covenant,” including in particular D&C 84:19 with its explanation that the greater priesthood “holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” — so a very real and prevailing attitude for much of the post-priesthood-correlation twentieth century was dismissive of women as not included in this designation of having such knowledge, or “answers”). But relevant to the issue of faith crisis, McConkie-style Mormon Doctrine “answers” — or even, unfortunately, the “answers” provided by many of the best-intentioned FARMS reviewers in the Review of Books responding to “critics” — were in many cases a mirage, completely unsuited to responding to what actually happens when many individuals experience a faith crisis. In short, we didn’t have satisfactory answers for most things; our perfunctory and apologetic/reactionary “answers” were often not sufficient to the challenge and did not contain the light or knowledge necessary to calm troubled souls. Such one-sided answers missed massive parts of the equation and the myriad available solutions that differed from person to person.

    Maybe, if women begin having more of an equal voice in addressing these issues through their experiences and knowledge, our answers will begin to get better and more responsive to faith crises. Here’s hoping!

  4. John, that’s hugely insightful. Thank you for sharing. After reading it though, it feels like it shouldn’t be written in past tense.

  5. Really insightful, Jason. I’m even more excited to read it than I was before.

  6. While I agree with the thrust Jason, a little caveat. There have been prominent women writing apologetics. Susan Easton Black comes immediately to mind although her “400 questions” series was I think published by Deseret Books. I don’t know the reason for that but it may reflect the audience she was attempting to reach.

    I think there’s only a handful of major apologist writers who one would immediately recognize by name but she’s definitely one of them.

    It’s fair to say though that the major apologists writing from a scientific/empiricist perspective about the ancient world with a background in ancient history are primarily men though. I’m a bit loath to say this reflects substantial gender differences regarding religion though. I suspect it reflects more the makeup of PhD programs and BYU hires. Which may be indirectly sexist mind you. But tying it to a quasi-essential gender difference regarding religion itself seems verging on sexist. I simply know too many women who read apologetics and like that style of thought to think that’s fair. I certainly don’t think it’s related to priesthood or the “magistrarium.”

  7. 1) I carefully qualified the point to allow that women have participated in apologetics. Your caveat is in the OP.

    2) Reading apologetics and writing/publishing apologetics are two very different things.

  8. I’m incredulous you don’t see the role played by priesthood correlation as touched on in the OP here, Clark. Seems fishy.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Jason, like I said it was a minor caveat. You mentioned they participated but in a minor way. That’s what I disputed. I think Susan Easton Black whether you like her apologetics or not has done more than “articles in FARMS journals or edit collections of essays.” She has a large number of monographs. As I said not formally published by FARMS but I think that has as much to do with the turmoil at FARMS as anything. (And I say this really liking a lot Maxwell Institute has done but wishing they also did a bit more traditional apologetics rather than leaving it just to The Interpreter)

    John F, I honestly don’t see the connection between apologetics and priesthood correlation. I say that having done volunteer work at both FAIR and FARMS back in the heyday of the 90’s. Could you expand a bit? If anything I always saw the priesthood as a big negative because professors at BYU kept getting called to Bishoprics or Stake Presidents making doing research quite difficult. I’ve heard many complain about that (although they clearly were more than willing to take the call when given)

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Just to reiterate my point though I’d love to see many more women doing apologetics in the “empiricist” style. I’d certainly encourage people to participate at FAIR. Likewise I was a little disappointed that at SMPT last month the only woman presenting was Jenny Webb. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend any of her presentations) There were quite a few women at the sessions I attended (except for the first one which was lightly attended in general). But overall, without distracting in the least from other styles of writing, I’d love to try and attract more women to these more empirical types.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Thanks for this, Jason. I think Ashmae is coming to Seattle later this month for a fireside. I look forward to reading her book.

    Aaron B

  12. I shared the following thought via Twitter with Jason and Steve. Later that night, I saw Steve at one of Ashley Mae’s readings. He suggested I post my thought here, as a comment. It is short, but hit me like a ton of bricks.

    I admire Jason and have thoroughly enjoyed the conversations we have had together. I loved his remarks when they were given at Writ & Vision, but the next morning as I read the title, “Why Men Need to Read ‘One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly'”, my heart sank. Never in my three decades of life have I heard the phrase “Hey Sara, you should read this book, even though it was written by a man.” Have you ever heard this phrase before?!

    Jason graciously acknowledged and replied to my tweet, and there are absolutely no hard feelings there. I don’t blame Jason for the title given to his remarks because I see what he is trying to do: he wants all people to know this book is worthwhile. He doesn’t want someone to dismiss it simply based upon that fact that the author is a woman. (A sad and ugly truth we must all face.) I realize we are all here trying to navigate a world in which patriarchy reigns, no matter how hard we push back. But I am happy to see the landscape of Mormon/religious publications changing, becoming more inclusive and representative of women and their voices. I look forward to the day when the given gender of an author will offer no negative sway on a book’s readership.

  13. Thanks, Sara. I’m glad that you’ve shared that comment here. Navigating patriarchy is hard to do, and I readily acknowledge that I haven’t got it figured out.

  14. Sara, your comment is so true that it really pierces.

  15. I look forward to the day when the given gender of an author will offer no negative sway on a book’s readership.

    Amen! I think we Latter-day Saints are still operating far too much under these constraints. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially considering the male dominated demographic that has followed Maxwell Institute publications in the past. I think too many readers are likely still caught in a space where the very author or cover or subject of a book makes them believe something is either for women or men. So away with that.

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