Mormon rhetoric: the social uses of meaningless words

“I know that the Church is true” strikes me as one of the most rankeling phrases that I heard in my early childhood.  I desperately wanted to know that the Church was true, but I never could figure out precisely what it meant to know that it was true.  The phrase held the promise that one day, if faithful enough, I would be initiated into knowledge of “the” truth.  But in the meantime, it teased me for my lack of understanding.  At the moment, I still can’t claim to understand precisely what the phrase means.  But I have concluded that a substantial part of the phrase’s considerable use and power resides precisely in its lack of definable meaning.

Lately, I have been thinking about why we use the rhetoric and reasoning skills that we do, and I have concluded that we use the language and thinking skills that are most rewarded in the local contexts in which they apply.  For example, English professors often consider texts and language to lack clear meaning, because their professional livelihoods depend on them uncovering new meanings and connections with a canonical text.  This commits them to thinking that no one can easily determine what a text “means.”  By contrast, a legislator wants to create language that is unambiguous, since society functions more smoothly when the rules are clear.  Professionally and socially, they have incentives to minimize misunderstandings.  What makes rhetoric and reasoning skills good is always a function of their suitability to local contexts and needs. [Read more…]

Reading Twilight through the lens of my Mormon youth

Spoiler alert: This is a post about the connections between the Twilight books and the experience of Mormon adolescence.  As such it risks spoiling in two ways: one, by giving away the plot’s general trajectory, and, two, by explaining in critical terms why it bothers me that I like these books too much.  But, my aim is not to detract from any one’s pleasure in the books or from Meyers’s accomplishment.  Quite the opposite: I have always thought that understanding my pleasure increased it.

I told people who asked that I decided to read Twilight over Christmas, because, for cultural reasons, I was curious to learn more about a best selling series by a Mormon author. That, of course, was a lie: I wanted to read Twilight, because I wanted to indulge in the peculiar kind of romance that I enjoyed since my adolescence—the kind of permissible romance that doesn’t depict graphic sex and yet is unquestionable arousing. [Read more…]

Not so special: why feeling special can be problematic

At moments in my life, the words “I am a child of God” have touched me with awe and respect for my fellow human beings.  But I have evoked the words far more often to remind myself that I am special and loved.   I don’t know if God intended us to feel special by virtue of being his children (I suspect that he would have preferred us to feel more humble), but I believe that is what those words mean to many children (and former children) who are immersed in a religious and secular culture that assures us that we are all special, capable, and full of unlimited potential.  It is, after all, a very gratifying idea.  I am just not sure that it is a useful one in our secular and spiritual lives. [Read more…]

LDS v. Mormon: a quick note

Lately, I have heard people stress the importance of calling the church by its full name – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Obviously, having the word Christ in our name is important.  But what puzzles me about this focus is that we are also supposed to say “LDS” as opposed to “Mormon” when we do abbreviate the full name.  Since neither of these abbreviations contain a reference to Christ, it is unclear to me why we should prefer LDS, especially when there are decided advantages to using the term Mormon. [Read more…]

The canon’s costs: instruction, boredom, and the incentive for repetition

For sometime now, I have embraced the view that the idea of a literary canon – the idea that there is a timeless set of literary masterpieces worth continually studying – is theoretically problematic but institutionally convenient.   Leaving aside debates about what belongs in and if there should be a canon, it is rather obvious that the typical student is not stimulated to further reading and writing by an Austen novel.  In my own experience, students are far more eager to read and write about events that they deem current, and they develop a wider range of skills when reading and writing in multiple, often non-literary genres. After all, one is never evaluated on how well one reads a novel after graduation.  But despite the obvious advantages of diversifying the kinds of reading we give students, we still persist (though there are some places where change is coming) in over-emphasizing teaching through the canon in secondary schools and many general college courses.  Why?  In a cynical moment, I decided that one major advantage to teaching the canon is that it reduces costs in the short-term.  (In the long-term, it is probably harmful if we fail to teach basic skills.) [Read more…]

Why, and how, we should read The Bible more

Since moving to the South a few months ago, I have had more opportunities than ever before to share our faith with neighbors who are genuinely interested in religion and involved in their own denominations.  These exchanges, always respectful and gracious, have allowed me to see how astoundingly well members of other faiths often know The Bible.  Our Sunday School and Seminary programs ensure that Mormons are more familiar than the average population with the contents of The Bible and The Book of Mormon.  But, I would argue, Mormons now know their Book of Mormon far better than their Bible.  Although all knowledge is good knowledge, The Bible is the book that we share in common with members of others faiths, and, therefore, it is often one of our best missionary tools.  So, given its importance as a faith-bridging tool, why do we not currently know it as well as our other scriptures? [Read more…]

Called to learn: what you would tell a missonary

Despite being a Mormon feminist, I confess there are times when I have been glad that our church does not demand of women what it sometimes does of men.  I believe in service and in the transformative power that comes from the life experience gained on a mission.  But I still have ambivalent feelings about proselyting, particularly about convincing others that our beliefs offer more than theirs, so I was glad when my gender allowed me to avoid the question of whether or not I would serve a mission.  My younger brothers, however, have no such luxury.  Although they share my ambivalence, a refusal on their parts to serve a mission entails a loss of their standing as good members and risks alienating friends and family.   They cannot wait, as I can, to serve a mission when I feel ready.  They must serve at age nineteen.

One of my brothers has now completed a mission, but the other still must decide if he will serve.  Since I have not served a mission, I feel that I am poorly equipped to respond to him with the empathy and understanding that I believe his questions demand.  But as I watch them struggle, I am convinced that it is important that they feel supported and not banished to a closet with their concerns.  So, I am writing this post as an open invitation for people to share their thoughts on how they would approach a full-time mission and on how they would reconcile their beliefs with mission goals and imperatives that are sometimes at odds with them.  I am beginning this thread by sharing a few insights that I have culled from conversations with those near me. [Read more…]

Temple prep

Two years ago I went through the temple with certain expectations about what to find in that space.  The temple, I had learned, was a perfect space: there, I could expect an unadulterated, divine ritual far more perfect than anything else within our church.  What we performed in the temple was the most important work we could do.  What we learned there would give us “truth,” power, and knowledge.  Being a generally skeptical person, I was not surprised when what I experienced there did not, in my mind, meet these standards or personally transform me.  I was surprised with how disappointed – perhaps even betrayed – I felt when they did not.  I did not realize how invested I was in the expectations that so many youth leaders had created for me about the space that I had no means of experiencing except through their lessons. [Read more…]

Too much safety in keeping the commandments?

Modern instruction seems simple enough when it comes to keeping our covenants.  Consider the following suggestions, chosen for their typicality, that appeared in my Sunday school today:

“When you seek entertainment such as movies, television, the Internet, music, books, magazines, and newspapers, be careful to watch, listen to, and read only those things that are uplifting.  Dress modestly.  Choose friends who encourage you to reach your eternal goals.  Stay away from immorality, pornography, gambling, tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.”

I can’t blame you if you skipped the above – this advice is by now overly familiar.  But, I want to suggest that while this advice is sound, even worth being reminded of, it is troublesome that it dominates current discussions of what it means to keep the commandments. [Read more…]

The Wonder Years

In Sunday School today, the lesson was chapter 11, “The Organization and Destiny of the True and Living Church.”  There was some discussion of  Joseph Smith’s vision of the church filling North and South America, how much the church had begun to fulfill this prophecy, and the church’s future growth.  Someone mentioned that the church was still in its infancy.

However, upon reflection, it may be that the church is better described as a teenager: We’re having a hard time getting used to a rapidly growing body, we obsess over what other people think of us, and we’re not quite sure what to make of girls.


Reflections on the Mormon brand

Several weeks ago, I read with interest Mormon responses to the situation surrounding the Fundamentalist Mormons.  At the time, it struck me that one of the main responses amongst Mormons was to attempt to differentiate us from them.  In context, there were many valid reasons to take such an approach.  But the observation struck me: we Mormons, perhaps because of the marginal role that we feel we occupy and our commitment to a restored gospel, are deeply invested in protecting our religious “brand.” [Read more…]

Close reading and other approaches to The Book of Mormon

English departments at most universities have for the past few decades in part justified their disciplinary existence on the grounds that they produce students who are good “close readers.”  To be a close-reader in part means to be an active reader, but in practice it is also means literally “close,” focused on how small units – punctuation, words, sentences – convey meaning.  The story goes something like this: if students learn to read actively, then they will become ethical free agents who we no longer be duped by the ideologies they encounter.  They will be, in short, better consumers, able to dissect the assumptions and claims made by the messages they encounter and assign them with proper value.  And, importantly, this ability to read is a transportable skill, a skill that will payoff in any professional field and thus justify English as a major.

When pressed, this line of reasoning seems to me at best troubled.  It seems far from clear to me that reading skills really are transportable from one sphere to another.  The ability to read a novel, in my mind, requires a much different set of reading skills than the ability to read, for example, a newspaper or a blog.  Different mediums and genres appear to demand different modes of reading, some which value our ability to ignore or forget information as much as to focus closely on it.  The sales pitch for close reading frequently ignores real problems about how the material coniditon of the object of study change reading practices and meaning. [Read more…]

Judgment: a dilemma for individualistic Mormons?

For many years, I have been perplexed by the question of what I am required to do and believe as a latter-day saint.  Confronted by a long and often contradictory history of commandments and culture attitudes within the church, the process of sorting out commandments from suggestions was nearly impossible.  Finally, I settled on the belief that I am primarily accountable for acting upon only those precepts I have learned by my own experience to be important.  While I respect those ideas that I do not now agree with, I have faith that God will hold me accountable only for acting with the best of my ability upon those concepts I personally know to be correct.

[Read more…]

Nostalgic protests

A phenomenon is occurring at Columbia that interests me for the fact that it is happening at all.  Columbia over the last semester as had a series of protests.  The first occurred over Ahmadinejad’s visit to the campus.  The next began after a noose was found on a African-American professor’s door at Teacher’s College.  And, finally, a group of Columbia undergraduates has begun a hunger strike over several demands, including reforming the core curriculum to include more minority writers, creating an ethnic studies department, and expanding ethically into Manhattanville. [Read more…]

Ceasing to say “we:” recovering our spiritual agency

On a typical Sunday my Young Women are asked to imagine how they would act when a non-member encouraged them to participate in any one of the stock activities – drugs, underage dating, or parental disobedience – that we Mormons find outside our fold.  These conversations are often surprisingly enjoyable, serving as moments when the Young Women solidify their bonds with each other as they contrast themselves to various others.  But inevitably these conversations take a turn into the more disputed aspects of Mormon culture.  From minor debates over a topic like the Mormon stance on Coke emerge spaces where a variety of Mormonisms emerge that disrupt the group solidarity our role-plays foster. 

Out of these moments of rupture often comes the suspicion that our deepest threats to our “Mormon” identity come not from the world without but from within.  What these stories of Mormons v. the world mask is that the deepest challenges to our faith, in other words, often spring from the members we wish to support us or assume censor the version of faith we practice. [Read more…]

Dispersed authority: thoughts on the truth-making process in church culture

Recently someone very dear to me let me know that although he has a strong testimony of God, he has been questioning his ability to participate in the Mormon church, because many of his beliefs in God and experiences have lead him to perspectives that contradict some of the cultural ideas in the church as well as what authorities have said. My purpose in the next few blog posts is not to blame him, but rather to hypothesize that many Mormons can deeply sympathize with his positions. I want to respond to him in these posts by looking at the various concerns that he raises and asking what we as church members can do both to make our church more open to questions and when we face our own doubts. Today, I want to begin to think about the process through which church truths emerge.

[Read more…]

Word play

So, are people who oppose the BYU dress code “anti-knee high – levis?”

A plea for expanding our notion of leadership

After reading the news of Faust’s passing earlier this morning, my husband and I naturally began to think about who might succeed one of our favorite leaders as an apostle. So, we began reading biographical sketches of our church leaders. With the exception of some foreign members of the Seventy, many of which served in the CES system, the vast majority of our leaders pursued careers in law or business. This did not especially surprise me, since in my experience this has been the case amongst local leadership as well.

Here are the stats for the Quorums of the Seventy as we read them on [Read more…]

Mormon History in the New York Public Library

Today I made the surprising discovery that the NYPL hosts a large collection of documents pertaining to Mormon history.  The collection, begun by a donation in 1899, features not only some of Joseph Smith’s correspondences, but also such treasures as diaries by Brigham Young, an original Book of Mormon and Book of Commandments, and tons of Mormon periodicals, newspapers, and government documents.  Anyone can apply for a free research card and gain access.  For people in NYC, it is worth a look:

Ward boundaries: thinking beyond geography and singles wards

Recently the Manhattan stake where I live has undergone a surge of growth.  In response to the influx of new members, new wards have been created, buildings have been erected, and there is every appearance that the stake will soon divide. 

The surge of members in New York City is undoubtedly exciting.  But these members are also shaping a Mormon community that looks scarcely like the one I grew up in.  The majority of these members are, like me, young singles, newly weds, or parents of young children who come to the city to pursue school or professional goals.  They are also unlikely to settle in NYC permanently.  Even those who do stay in the city for several years often switch apartments frequently and thus migrate from one ward to another.  If NYC wards are anything, they are resoundingly transitory phenomenons, with congregations whose faces change almost monthly as huge intern populations come and go. [Read more…]

Harry Potter, fragmentary reading, and church history

Over the past few days my husband and I substituted Harry Potter for our nightly scripture reading. [Read more…]

Speaking from experience: a technique that often limits me

For a long time I have struggled to figure out how to frame the comments I make within and about the church so that they seem supportive but might also lead to what I would deem as positive changes in our church culture. For a while now, I have operated on the model that couching my comments in terms of personal experience works best using the logic that while it is easy to argue with a person’s philosophical stance, it is hard to argue with how they feel about an issue or perceive an event they experience. For example, when I wished to explain to someone why I felt that the church could use more revelation on gender, I would explain to him/her how I felt great pain when I realized that I would not receive the priesthood, when I watched the young men receive much more attention than the young women, or when I could not learn about what the General Authorities told my Stake President about the state of the stake, since only the priesthood was invited to hear the news. [Read more…]

If I can only take my knowledge with me, then can I take Google?

Normally, I’m not one for speculating about the afterlife. Clearly, how we think about it informs the decisions we make here – in fact, what we think about the afterlife most likely reflects what principles we most value – but I often find discussions about it a little futile. However, I find one phrase frequently repeated and agreed upon: “You can’t take your property with you, only your knowledge and talents.” [Read more…]

Animals among us

Although Sam already beat me to a post on animals in the gospel, I’m adding the one I prepared to the conversation surrounding his post . . .

Last month my dog, Blitzen, passed away. To lose a beloved pet – and to recognize in its absence how deeply its life was intertwined with one’s daily routine – is to realize that it is possible to have a more intimate relationship with an animal than I will ever have with the majority of people I meet. [Read more…]

Modern scripture: exploring our relationships to holy works

Although I believe that the single most powerful concept in the LDS faith is the principle of continuing revelation, I have lately begun to wonder why we have ceased to be a scripture creating people. Certainly, I have heard the argument that we should treat the apostles’ words as scripture, but these words do not appear to me to be granted the same weight within our church as our canonical texts – The Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. [Read more…]

Fashion statements: dress as communication

Quite recently, Levi Peterson wrote a post entitled “Don’t Come to my House in a Shirt and Tie.” This provocative post and the fascinating comments about it clearly signaled how standards for dress remain one of the most contested spaces as we attempt to negotiate our identities as church members. Struggles over what constitutes respectful and modest clothing, and the related struggles over whether the paradigm of “modesty” dis-empowers more than empowers women and is culturally relative or not, continually surface as sites for everything from adolescent rebelliousness, to deep explorations of our spirituality, to humanitarian causes. [Read more…]

Beyond peace and calm: daring to experience the spirit in novel ways

A remarkable thing occurred in my Sunday school class this week: we reached consensus. While we all acknowledge that there is no right way to feel the spirit, we all concurred that the spirit was accompanied by peace, calmness, and quiet. [Read more…]