Stuck in My Head

June 19, 2008

Last night I was watching the film Snatch., and several times they played snippets of The Specials’ “Ghost Town.” I couldn’t sleep last night because the song kept playing over in my head, even though it’s probably been twenty years since I heard the song.

The song reminds me of my high school days, when Southern California rich kids and surfers were affecting the mod style of the British 2Tone ska movement. The song “Ghost Town” illustrates rather nicely the despair and pessimism of Thatcherite Britain at the time, and the contrast could not have been greater with the sunny optimism of early eighties America. But it was fashionable to put on a gloomy face along with the military overcoats and Ray Bans while riding a Vespa GS scooter.

As I was watching the video, it struck me that the mood aligns pretty well with what’s going on in the US right now: economic turbulence, political discord, and some rather disastrous foreign policies.

Of course the clothes and the hair are different.

What good is Mormonism?

June 18, 2008

Critics like me spend a lot of time talking about what doesn’t work in the LDS church and what isn’t true, but I suspect that most of us find a lot to admire in Mormonism. Here’s my list. What do you find that is positive in the LDS church?

- Focus on education. I grew up knowing I was expected to go to college, and I was taught in church and at home that learning is its own end. I’m grateful for that.

- Opportunities for speaking. I received a promotion back in Texas because I was the only person in my department who wasn’t afraid to speak in public. That comes from years of speaking and teaching in church, as well as missionary work.

- Work ethic. I was taught to work hard, and two years in Bolivia taught me how to do it consistently.

- Community. I always felt (and still do) part of a community of people who all wanted to serve God the best way we could.

- Appreciation for ancestors. I know a lot more about my ancestors and their lives because of the church’s emphasis on family history. It’s still one of my passions in life.

-Charity. I have been in so many people’s homes giving service, and I have had a lot of opportunities to make a real difference, such as in cleaning up after two hurricanes.

- The worth of souls. The church’s teaching that every person is a valued child of God has helped me try to treat others with kindness and compassion, no matter who they are.

- Commitment to truth. Mormonism taught me that finding and following truth is paramount in life.

Fault Finding

June 17, 2008

Someone I know has long chastised me for having an “uncharitable” attitude toward the LDS church and its leaders, and I have often wondered how much truth there is in that. I look back and think that I’ve tried very hard to be charitable and kind towards others, including my church.

In fact, I have kind of a major character flaw in this regard. I have a hard time imagining that other people don’t always want to do what is good and right. I sometimes think that, even in doing evil, people rationalize that they are doing what is right. It has taken a lifetime to stop fooling myself into believing the best about people.

So, as far as the LDS church goes, I expect the same thing: I think most church members and leaders are trying to do the right and good thing, and I’m surprised and disappointed when they don’t. But I try not to hold a grudge.

Ironically, the one person I am hardest on is me. I do hold grudges against myself, if that makes sense. When I make a mistake (and I make mistakes all the time), I really get down on myself and have a hard time forgiving myself. And when I screw up again, I forget that I even made an effort to be better.

This constant self-flagellation isn’t very healthy, and it took a near-suicide to make me rethink what I was doing. Since that time (almost a year ago), I have been better at forgiving myself and giving myself the benefit of the doubt. I know deep down that I am trying to do what is good and right, but I don’t always succeed.

What I need to do is to allow myself to fail and then get back up and do better the next time. I need to treat myself more “charitably.” Then I can work on being more charitable to others.


June 17, 2008

I heard this morning that the first same-sex marriages have been performed in California since the court ruling invalidating the ban enacted a while back.

I’ve heard all the arguments pro and con, but to my mind, if people want to solemnize their commitment to each other, that’s a positive thing, and they should be commended for doing so. The idea that gay people should be encouraged not to be in stable, committed relationships is absurd on the face of it.

So, in this brief post, let me congratulate those who have waited a very long time for this day.

Providing Context

June 16, 2008

I came across this interesting paragraph in the current LDS priesthood/Relief Society manual Teachings of Joseph Smith in a lesson about apostasy (I may write more about this lesson later):

As that year [1837] wore on, a spirit of apostasy grew among some of the Saints in Kirtland. Some members became proud, greedy, and disobedient to the commandments. Some blamed Church leaders for economic problems caused by the failure of a Kirtland financial institution established by Church members.

At first glance, if you didn’t know anything about the bank failure, you would wonder why on earth anyone would blame Church leaders for the actions of Church members. Why, anyone who would do such a thing would have to have a spirit of contention and apostasy. But if you know the context, it makes perfect sense.

First, who were the “Church leaders” who were being blamed? Chiefly Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.

And who were the “Church members” who founded the bank? Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.

Thus, the sentence ought to read: “Some blamed Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon for economic problems caused by the failure of a Kirtland financial institution established by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon.”

Makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it?

How faithful were Ex-Mormons?

June 16, 2008

Over the years I’ve heard several theories from believers as to why people leave the LDS church, but the common theme is that we left because we wanted to leave for some reason. We were looking for an excuse to leave, or so I’ve been told.

Whether we were offended or proud or wanted to sin or whatever, we allegedly embarked on a downward spiral of doubt and sin that led to our eventual break with the LDS church. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell believers that this was not the case with me or with most of the ex-Mormons I know. They know better; they know we wanted out.

I was thinking that a good measurement of where ex-Mormons were when they left is whether they held a valid temple recommend, so I asked on a couple of message boards frequented by ex-Mormons.

As I expected, the vast majority of ex-Mormons (more than 90%) said that they had held valid temple recommends when they left, and they tell me that they were worthy of the recommend. I know I was. Here’s what a friend of mine said: “When I stopped believing, I had one, and was fully worthy to have one, too. For many months after I stopped believing, I was still worthy to have one, if you had a liberal interpretation of the word ‘testimony’ in the questions that started with, ‘Do you have a testimony of …?’” And another good friend said, “Not only did I have a recommend, I was a full-on, set apart ordinance worker when I stopped believing. Talk about your uncomfortable positions. … I was completely worthy of that recommend when I realized that the church simply wasn’t true and that whole gordian knot unraveled. I didn’t even reframe the testimony questions when I did the recommend interviews. ”

For most, it wasn’t a gradual downward spiral. One described it as his brain having “flipped a switch.” One respondent describes attending “attending the temple regularly at the behest of my BP to salvage my testimony.” Another said, “I had a valid recommend, and I used it one last time to go to the temple and pray and meditate about my impending departure.” I did that, too. Another respondent said, “Yes. When I gave [the bishop] my resignation, I turned in my recommend.”

The interesting thing to me is the common theme of desperately fighting off the doubts, trying to salvage belief. “I don’t think I’m the only exmo in the world to leave, wonder if they’ve made a mistake and come under pressure to try again, only to become stronger in their disbelief.”

One of the few respondents who said they did not have a recommend when they left said, “The only reason I did not have one was because the bishop asked for it when I separated from my ex (for extreme emotional abuse and beginnings of other types of abuse — known to the bishop and admitted by ex). The bishop told me that any couples that were separating or going through divorce were not following their covenants in some way and were not temple worthy.”

I’m not posting this as anyone’s exit story, but I would hope that believers might get past the easy stereotypes and talk to ex-Mormons. We’ll get along much better if we at least try to understand each other.

Top Ten Things Mormons and Ex-Mormons Can Agree On

June 13, 2008

10. If you’re going to put cologne on, at least wash your hands before breaking the sacrament bread.
9. That guy who played Joseph Smith in “Legacy” was really bad.
8. Your kids shouldn’t be bearing their testimony if you have to whisper it in their ears.
7. Pioneer chapels and tabernacles are usually quite beautiful and inspiring.
6. Ed Decker is a dork.
5. The world would be a better place without Living Scriptures, Melaleuca, Arbonne, and Noni Juice.
4. There will never be any conclusive evidence for the Book of Mormon other than a testimony.
3. Richard G. Scott should stop his deliberate staring into the conference cameras. Whatever effect he’s going for isn’t working.
2. Articles of Faith 11.
1. Tom Trails rocks!

What I’m Up To This Week

June 13, 2008

What I’m reading: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson.

What I’m watching: 24 marathon on DVD with my wife.

What I’m listening to:
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?
MIA – Arular
Dandy Warhols – Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia
X – Live in Los Angeles
Juanes – Fíjate Bien
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
The Ricky Gervais Show podcasts

Tommy and Gina and Me

June 13, 2008

The other night, for whatever reason, I stayed up late watching the top 100 songs of the 1980s. If nothing else, watching that made me feel really old.

I came of age in the early 1980s, graduating from high school in 1982 and graduating from college in 1989 (with a mission to Bolivia in the middle). For me high school was the transition between the feathered hair of the late seventies and the brightly colored spandex-and-headband-clad mid-eighties. In Los Angeles at that time, people were listening to punk, ska, and some techno and wearing thrift-store clothes (you can see a little of the residual of that in Pretty in Pink).

Anyhow, I was watching this show, giving my daughter a running commentary and gasping at the gray-haired geezers that the pop stars of my day had become. These guys were old, and surely I’m not that old, am I? Of course, maybe they just look old after a life of hard drugs and partying.

But then it hit me: I am old, and the only reason my daughter was watching this show was solely for the “kitsch value.” We watched everything from one-hit wonders like Modern English and Dexie’s Midnight Runners (shudder) to the major stars like U2 and Madonna. (I missed most of Madonna’s early stuff because I was on my mission.) I remembered when Bono had a mullet and George Michael was still singing “Wise guys realize there’s danger in emotional ties!”

It struck me that, as in every other decade, there was a lot of crappy music in the 1980s. I could have lived the rest of my life blissfully without being reminded of New Kids on the Block or Ratt. But there was good stuff, too.

For me, it was a hopeful decade. I felt like I had my whole life ahead of me and could finally start living my dreams. I was a member of God’s true church, and these were the days when the church was growing at a phenomenal rate, and we could see on the horizon the fulfillment of Spencer Kimball’s vision of a world full of Mormons.

Now I am living my dream, with a great career and a wonderful family. I think I’m more realistic about life, and I have grown past the myths of my youth. Even the Mormon church has seen its heyday recede into the rearview mirror as its growth rates flatten and its faith claims become even less plausible. But they, like me, soldier on.

So, what was the number one song as voted by you, the viewer? “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. Holy crap, I stayed up for that? For my money, the best album of the 1980s came out in 1980: The Clash’s London Calling. Nothing the rest of the decade comes close. Certainly not Bon-freaking-Jovi.

But Joe Strummer is dead, and even Big Audio Dynamite is long gone. I’m left to see in the mirror a graying, middle-aged man on the downhill side of life. But I’m happy where I am. I can look back on the eighties with nostalgia but also with some relief that my youth is over. I like being a grown-up.

Fluid Doctrines

June 12, 2008

Let me first say that I’m overwhelmed by the response to my question about my readers’ beliefs. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and deepest-held beliefs with me. That means a great deal to me.

I’ve been having an interesting conversation with a believing Mormon about the nature of doctrine in the LDS church. Officially, the church position seems to be that policies and procedures change, but doctrines remain unchanged. Apostle Boyd Packer stated it pretty succinctly: “While doctrines remain fixed, the methods or procedures do not” (“Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov 1989, 14).

But the idea of “fixed” doctrine in a church with no systematic theology but “continuing revelation” seems a bit oxymoronic, as clearly some doctrines have changed. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve seen Brigham Young’s emphatic declarations that Adam is God our Father, which were at one point taught in the temple “lecture at the veil,” just as vehemently denounced a century later as damnable heresies. We’ve seen a prophet of God wave off a core doctrine of his religion with “I don’t know that we teach it.” And of course, we’ve seen the recent spectacle of an apologist attempting to remove polygamy from the doctrines of the LDS church.

In the past, I’ve been told that these seeming changes represent peripheral doctrines or simply reflect a misunderstanding on my part. The core doctrines, the ones outlined in the Articles of Faith for example, are fixed and eternal.

But this isn’t so.

The very first article of faith proclaims, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Every Mormon child can recite this passage, and we are all clear on its meaning.

Joseph Smith taught that to know “what kind of being” God is represents the first principle of the gospel:

The apostle [John] says, “This is life eternal”–to know God and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. If any man, not knowing what kind of a being God is, inquires to know if the declaration of the apostle is true–and searches diligently his own heart–he will admit that he has not eternal life; for there can be no eternal life on any other principle.

In short, we cannot have eternal life unless we comprehend who and what God is. Currently, LDS doctrine is described in Doctrine and Covenants 130:22:

The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.

However, most Mormons remain unaware that even this clear and important doctrine has changed. Until 1921, the Doctrine and Covenants contained the “Lectures on Faith,” which had been written under Joseph Smith’s direction as central doctrinal expositions for the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830s, so that church leaders “might be more perfectly instructed in the great things of God” (History of the Church 2:180).

The Lectures on Faith were removed because they conflicted with the First Presidency’s 1916 statement, “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition.”

According to the Lectures on Faith,

There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things–by whom all things were created and made, that are created and made, whether visible or invisible: whether in heaven, on earth, or in the earth, under the earth, or throughout the immensity of space–They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit, glory and power: possessing all perfection and fulness: The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man, or, rather, man was formed after his likeness, and in his image;–he is also the express image and likeness of the personage of the Father: possessing all the fulness of the Father, or, the same fulness with the Father; being begotten of him, and was ordained from before the foundation of the world to be a propitiation for the sins of all those who should believe on his name, and is called the Son because of the flesh–and descended in suffering below that which man can suffer, or, in other words, suffered greater sufferings, and was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be. (Lectures on Faith 5:2.)

The lecture goes on to say that the Holy Ghost is not a separate personage but is simply the “mind” of the Father.

Thus, the 1916 First Presidency statement officially retired this doctrine and replaced it with Joseph Smith’s later teaching in Doctrine and Covenants 130. Excising the Lectures on Faith in 1921 removed the last vestiges of this outdated doctrine, to the point that today most church members have never read the Lectures on Faith or are even aware of their existence, for that matter.

To his credit, my correspondent readily acknowledges that this doctrine and others have changed. I really can’t decide if the fluidity of Mormon doctrine is a strength or a weakness. On the one hand, it allows the church to adjust to changing circumstances, which obviously would help it survive in the long term. But then if all the church’s teachings are equally as flexible, there is no center to LDS doctrine, and that ought to give us pause.

I’m left to conclude that church doctrine is whatever the church teaches today. And the first principle of the gospel is not so much a doctrine as it is the principle of obedience: do what the church teaches today, and you’ll be fine.


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