The fallacy of appealing to intellectualism

We hear repeatedly throughout our educations that appeals to emotion are forms of argumentative fallacy.  In many cases, they are exactly such, and the interjection of emotion obscures the underlining problem and makes it difficult to resolve productively.  However, in other cases appeals to emotion operate as (the only) viable forms of evidence.  In these cases, the interjection of emotion into an argument should not be seen as a fallacy, but as evidence needed initially to push a conversation forward.  Of course, we are familiar with the risks that come when we voice emotion, and, as a strategy, we should strongly consider looking for non-emotional forms of evidence in order to avoid these problems.  But in this post I’m not interested in the good reasons to avoid emotion.  Those are discussed enough.  I’m concerned with the often-overlooked phenomenon that occurs when emotion used as evidence is dismissed by the fallacy of appealing to intellectual tones or modes of argument. [Read more…]

A brief rhetorical suggestion

In our culture, we claim to enjoy the privilege of belonging to the only “true” church.  However, the language of truth leads us into uncomfortable positions when we attempt to share our faith, when we are uncertain about which aspects of our complex, bureaucratic church are truly “inspired,” and when we might feel the word pressures us into feeling that anything short of certainty about our beliefs is unacceptable.  So, could we use a better term for describing the restored church? 

I would like to suggest that instead of claiming that we belong to the only “true” church that we say more frequently that we belong to the only “authorized” church.   This rhetorical shift seems both to better express what we mean by “true” when referring to our institutional and founding contexts and to avoid the divisive pitfalls that applying the word “truth” to an organization rather than to specific principles entails.
[Read more…]

Searching for Chieko Okazaki

This Christmas, my mother-in-law mentioned in passing how much she liked the books and other writings of Chieko Okazaki.  Now that I have read her book, Aloha!,  I share her positive opinion.  But at the time, my first question was, “Who is Chieko Okazaki?” 

Despite the fact that Sister Okazaki was the first non-Caucasian to serve on a general board and called to be a member of the Relief Society General Presidency in 1990, I do not remember learning about her before or after I graduated from high school in 2000 and entered Relief Society.  The fact that I grew up with little-to-no knowledge of this remarkable sister merits scrutiny. [Read more…]

The reluctant missionary

Just about the time I had given up on being a member missionary, the missionaries showed up at my neighbors’ door.   On November 3, we had discussed the gospel with our neighbors who seemed interested, and then, on Election Day, the missionaries just happened to track their door.  A few weeks later, they attended church services with us, and they were so impressed by the discussion of tithing and fast offerings that they donated a fast offering to the ward.   The next week, they asked me for a copy of D&C, because they already read The Book of Mormon, but were now eager to defend our faith to a non-member who chided them for attending our ward and told them to watch out for what is in D&C.  I don’t know where their spiritual journey will take them — they already exemplify the qualities of Christ and defend our faith.  But I do know that this opportunity to engage in missionary work has changed me. [Read more…]

Revealing truths: is modern day revelation different?

Sometimes when combing through pages of the Ensign to read recent Conference talks I have felt disappointed.  Although our arguably most powerful belief as an organization is in our leaders’ abilities to receive continuing revelation, a glance at recent addresses makes it clear that our mode of receiving revelation is no longer that practiced by Joseph Smith.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but whereas Joseph Smith spoke directly through God’s voice in his numerous public outpourings of revelations, current leaders very rarely make such claims of authority. 

Given the central importance of our claim to continuing revelation, some explanation is needed as to why we have shifted so much in our capacity to and our mode of receiving revelation.  Again, I am not arguing that it is desirable that Joseph Smith’s revelations be models for today or that we receive more revelations, but it intellectually troubles me.  While I cannot pretend to know how our current leadership understands their unique callings as revelators (though I am eager for them to explain), analysis of their public addresses suggests that they more frequently couch their remarks as merely strong advice.  They also tend to rely on citations of previous authorities or scriptures, suggesting that their role is more one of interpreting and preserving past revelations for our times than of revealing new principles. [Read more…]

Facebook frenemies: is social networking making us kinder?

Several months ago, I joined Facebook after being pestered by my close friends to do so.  Some parts of Facebook I find stressful: I’m painfully aware of what I put on my “status” updates, always balancing the desire to share news with close friends with the desire to market myself to newer friends in particular ways.  And, I confess, I am driven insane by certain statistical issues that Facebook reveals: how is it possible that nearly all of my friends know a certain “Melissa” who I had never heard of?  But, on the whole, I enjoy rekindling connections with friends –- and enemies.   [Read more…]

Are conversations about feminism and heterosexual marriage now harder to have?

Last fall, I began to write a post addressing an aspect of the publicity surrounding Prop 8 that did not garner much attention on the bloggernacle but seemed critical to me: what does the recent focus on same-sex marriage mean for the future of Mormon feminism and Mormon heterosexual couples?  At the time, I pulled this post from publication in order to prevent unwelcome controversy from entering the BCC site.  But now that the immediate impact of Prop 8 is over, I think it is time to ask how the goals of Mormon homosexuals and married Mormon feminists might support or conflict with each other.  This post is not intended to pass a value judgment on any camp, and it certainly doesn’t presume to understand the complexity of desires amongst Mormon homosexuals and women, but it does seek to open a discussion. [Read more…]

First Presidency Letter on the value “virtue”

By happy coincidence, I was given a copy of the First Presidency letter announcing the YW value “virtue.” I’m reproducing it here for your parsing pleasure as a supplement to Rebecca’s post.

November 28, 2008

To: General Authorities; Area Seventies; Stake, Mission, and District Presidents; Bishops and Branch Presidents

Dear Brethren:

Revised Young Women Theme

We are pleased to announce the addition of the attribute of “virtue” to the Young Women theme. This addition will assist young women in developing high moral standards. We invite parents and leaders to teach the doctrine of chastity and moral purity to help each young woman to be virtuous and worthy to make and keep sacred temple covenants and receive the ordinances of the temple.

The complete text of the revised theme is enclosed. Please give a copy of this letter and the enclosure to all Young Women leaders.

Sincerely yours,
The First Presidency

My blogging life: how blogging continues to change my faith

I started blogging one and a half years ago.  Perhaps like many of us, I started blogging as a form of therapy.  I wanted to anonymously vent frustration and voice opinions that I didn’t feel I could say in church.  Blogging, however, has rapidly become something more meaningful and more complicated to me.  This is a post about both how my perspective on blogging has changed and how blogging has changed my perspective of the LDS church.

I started my first (and now inactive) blog, Mormon Rhetoric, with little expectation that anyone would read my musings and with the assumption that my identity on the web was entirely anonymous.  However, within a few months I was shocked to discover that people in fact did read the blog and that the blog was traceable to me.  Through a series of connections, I was invited to blog on BCC, and I thus ceased to be a private blogger.  In a startlingly short amount of time, my experience shifted from one of anonymity to one of community.  With this shift came a parallel shift in my focus as a blogger: knowing that I had a readership caused me to think of blogging less as therapy and more as an act of community building. [Read more…]

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…]

Mormons as monsters?

This past month my students were assigned to do a group project on the role of monsters in our society.  As part of this project, they needed to pick a central exhibit to study.  Imagine my horror when they decided they wanted to write on Mormons as examples of contemporary monsters.

This experience obviously made me pause.  They did not know that I was Mormon, so I decided that the best approach was to have a conversation about why they thought Mormons were an appropriate example.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the issues that they raised were polygamy and discrimination against blacks and women. [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…]

Lesson manuals: a comparison

As I was looking at the new Joseph Smith manual for RS and Priesthood, I couldn’t help thinking how strikingly different the kind of instruction we teach in Young Women’s is from that found in the other organizations. Is the YW’s manual, which focuses significantly on homemaking, family, and other life skills in addition to church doctrine, an anomaly? I decided to check out the Young Men’s manual. Here are the table of contents first from the YW’s manual and then from the YM’s manual. What do these suggest about how we raise (and gender) our children?  Is this the kind of instruction that they need to follow Christ in today’s world?  Tell me what you think…

From the YW’s manual: [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: