Great Moments in Testimony Meeting: The Scissors Story

September 30, 2008

We lived in Orem, Utah, for a few years, and there was a nursing home just down the street from our house. One very elderly man from Mississippi moved his wife into the nursing home and then rented a room from our neighbors so he could be close to her. The first Fast Sunday after he moved in, he ambled up to the podium and said something like this:

“Back when I was a boy in Mississippi, there was a crazy girl in our town who never said nothing but ‘SCISSORS!’ all the time. It drove everyone to distraction. Whenever you saw her, she’d come right up to you and say ‘SCISSORS!'”

“One day one of the men in town told her he’d had enough. He said, ‘If you say scissors one more time, we’re going to throw you in the river.”

“She just looked at him and said, ‘SCISSORS!'”

“So, several of the boys grabbed her and carried her down to the river and threw her in. She went under, and when she came up, she yelled, ‘SCISSORS!'”

“Then she went under a second time, and when she came up, she yelled, ‘SCISSORS!'”

“The third time, only her hand came up out of the water, and she did this.”

He raised his hand over his head and with two fingers, made a scissoring motion.

“Then she went down again and was never seen again. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

My wife and I were hiding behind the pews dying of laughter.

Drop the Doctrine, and Back Away Slowly

September 30, 2008

We all remember Gordon B. Hinckley’s famous “I don’t know that we teach it” moment when he denied a core doctrine of Mormonism on live, national television. What’s interesting is that at the following General Conference, when he addressed members’ concerns about his remarks, he didn’t reiterate the doctrine of deification but simply told members not to be concerned:

There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church. (Ensign, Nov 1997, p.4.)

I suspect he did this because he knew that if he had reversed his earlier denial, the national press would have been all over it. Better to just tell the members they need not worry.

Obviously, a sound bite on a TV show does not constitute a binding statement of doctrine, but it does illustrate how fluid Mormon teachings are. A commenter here said yesterday, about homosexuality and the church:

American civilization may change, but the Lord does not and will not.

I’ve heard this said many times before by members of the church, and it’s almost quaint in its naivete. If the Lord doesn’t change, the church certainly does. All my life I’ve heard that policies and practices change, but doctrines don’t. It’s a nice slogan, but it’s not so.

Let’s start with an easy one. Today in the church, the doctrine is that there are three members of the Godhead: 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 (D&C 130:22). But before that, the doctrine was a two-personed Godhead, with the Holy Ghost being the shared “Mind” of the Father and Son:

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 fullness. 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…. And he being the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, and having overcome, received a fullness of the glory of the Father – possessing the same mind with the Father; which Mind is the Holy Spirit, that bears record of the Father and the Son (Lectures on Faith 5:2b-2k

Another doctrinal change is the rejection of polygamy and polyandry. Of course, the church still believes in polygamy, hence a widower can be sealed to his second wife along with the first. But in the last century, prophets taught that polygamy was essential for exaltation. With the second Manifesto in 1904, the church formally abandoned all earthly practice of polygamy (well, except for some leaders up to 1940 or so). And other than Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, no other person in this “dispensation” has ever been authorized to engage in polyandry.

In 1949, the First Presidency issued a statement that the withholding of the priesthood from those of African descent was a result of “the conduct of [their] spirits in the premortal existence.” After 1978, that doctrine has been referred to as a mere folk doctrine promulgated by a few misguided members.

My commenter also wondered about temple changes. It’s a testament to the church’s skill in erasing its past that a mere eighteen years after the changes, you have active members who have never heard of such things as the penalties and the “orthodox” minister from the pre-1990 temple ceremony. And for the record, I went through the temple the first time in the early 1980s and participated in hundreds of endowments before and after 1990. I’m not going to spend any time here on direct temple content, but suffice it to say that with every sign and token in the temple, there used to an accompanying penalty. We were told, “The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken.” As I’ve said, these representations involved pantomiming having your throat slit and being eviscerated and disembowelled. And there was a long section involving a sectarian minister who was in the employ of Satan. For the not-faint-of-heart, you can see the changes in the endowment made in 1990 here

What I find interesting is not that the church changes and adapts to the times. A vital and prophet-led church ought to be changing and growing, line upon line. But it’s fascinating to me that some members insist that Mormonism has any lines drawn in the sand. If the church is to survive into the next century, it will adapt and change. And I suspect that, like it has in the past, the church will be a latecomer to the party, but it will eventually change to accommodate gay members. It’s changed before, and it will change again.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

September 29, 2008

I spent a lot of my weekend working on my book, in between mowing the lawn and doing some work around the house. I feel pretty good about the book. I wanted to tell my mission story without too much commentary because I hoped the story would speak for itself. I really just wanted to write down what happened, and I think I’ve succeeded. The book tells the good and the bad, the spiritual and the mundane, without any editorializing. Now, whether it’s any good is another story. But we’ll see.

Sunday morning my wife asked me to go to church with her, so I got dressed and we managed to slip into the church in time for Gospel Doctrine class. The class is reading in Alma, which is probably the best-written narrative in the Book of Mormon, though that’s not really saying much. Anyway, I was less interested in the lesson content than I was in the class members.

During the lesson, my wife watched a couple with a newborn baby, who was resisting their attempts to get her to take a pacifier. Once the baby spit it out with such force that it rolled about ten feet to my feet. I remembered those days (none of my kids would ever accept a pacifier) fondly, when it felt like your adult life was just beginning, and you were destined for good things.

A couple of rows ahead of us sat an older couple, the husband a retired BYU professors (you know, the kind of guy who wears a bow tie). The wife had long, detailed answers to every question the teacher asked, and my wife remarked afterward that every Gospel Doctrine class has that kind of monopolizer. At one point, the instructor read George Albert Smith’s little parable about how the more righteous you are, the more “devils” you have surrounding you to tempt you. This sister raised her hand and said, “That’s not a parable. It’s literal. We really do have little demons following us around and whispering in our ears.” I really can’t relate to that approach to life, as I’m not much of a mystical person. I’m with my mission president’s wife on this one: We don’t do wrong because someone tempted us into doing so; we do it because we like it.

At one point, a young woman raised her hand and said that the scriptures’ teaching that we should never be the aggressors in a war is something we should take to heart today. My wife leaned over and said, “Watch out.” Sure enough, the class was soon having a spirited debate about Iraq and whether the Bush Administration lied to get us to support a war. The man in the bow tie, who said he was “a little to the right of Attila the Hun,” said he looked forward to “educating” the young woman who had started the fracas.

After church (I skipped priesthood) we drove up Hobble Creek Canyon for a picnic. The leaves are turning, and that canyon is spectacular. My son said that it looked like the trees had been dipped in blood, and he wasn’t that far off. We stopped at a park where the canyon forks and had some tuna sandwiches and chips and some plums from our tree. We all got on the swings, and my wife told me how amazing it was to lean your head back and look at the world upside down while you’re swinging. I leaned back, and she shouted, “No! Lean back until you can see the grass!”  I thought it might be a little scary to see the world swinging back and forth over my head, but it was just a new and strange perspective on the familiar.

When I began slowing down, my wife said I must have been scared, so I just said, “I have to pee.” She laughed and said she had just seen in vision me at five or six years old getting off the swings to go pee. “Yeah, but I might not have made it,” I laughed.

The clouds were darkening and some large drops of rain coming down when we left. The wind blew our bag of chips off the table (I’m sure some squirrels ate well last night), and we packed into the van. On the way home, we drove past our old house in Elk Ridge. The people who bought it from us have not kept it up at all. The backyard is overgrown with weeds, and the paint I put on the trim ten years ago has not been redone, so everything is faded, the exposed wood graying and warped.

My wife became pretty emotional as we stood there looking at the house, and I’m pretty sure I know why. Ten years ago when we lived in that house, everything was going well for us. My job was going well, our finances were solid, I had just been ordained a high priest, and we were expecting our sixth child. Since that time, we’ve moved to Texas, and I’ve left the LDS church. Our marriage has had its ups and downs, I’ve been laid off twice, and our kids haven’t always done what we hoped they would.

But I wouldn’t change it. The struggles we have had have only strengthened our marriage, and leaving the church has helped me gain a perspective on life that I never would have imagined from within the confines of Mormonism. In short, I’m doing OK. No regrets. I don’t think I could ask for more.

Why Proposition 8 is a lose-lose for the LDS church

September 26, 2008

I’ve already posted about why the church in its insular little way can benefit from their opposition to Prop 8, but in the long term, this is a watershed for the church, and not in a good way.

A lot of you are too young to remember the fight over the ERA. Just as now, the church got heavily involved in the campaign to defeat the amendment. They did the same kind of scare tactics: equal rights for women would destroy traditional families and would result in the destruction of the nuclear family and in turn society.

Church members who disagreed with the church’s position were demonized and excommunicated. Reading Sonia Johnson’s speeches and columns from that time, they seem pretty tame. But Sonia Johnson is still held up in Mormon circles as a sort of whacked-out Satanic figure.

But the difference back then was that the wider society wasn’t quite ready for the ERA. People were, to put it bluntly, much more conservative socially back then, despite the sexual revolution. The Mormon church was solidly in the middle of the “moral majority.” As maligned as Falwell et al., were, they were genuine power brokers in the Republican party.

Today, the religious right is still deeply entrenched in the GOP, but it is no longer respectable in the wider culture, so there are no real counterparts to the Falwells and Schlaflys of the late 70s. Instead, there is the insular world of talk radio. But Rush and Hannity and Glenn Beck do not have the organizing power to make themselves much of a political force. The religious right was just powerful enough to scuttle Mitt Romney’s campaign, but it wasn’t strong enough to prevent McCain’s. The Mormons should have learned that their political allies are few and fickle.

Simply put, the wider culture has moved on, and I suspect that the wording of the ERA would be pretty uncontroversial today. Likewise, American culture has been moving slowly towards tolerance of gays and lesbians.

But the LDS church still thinks it’s back in the 70s. It continues to use the heavy-handed tactics of the seventies: the fear-mongering, the siege mentality, and the demonization of their opponents in and out of the church. They actually think that a shipment of Chinese yard signs will be enough to awaken the moral majority again.

Even if Prop 8 wins, the church loses in the long run. It has forever wedded itself to reactionary social politics. When missionaries knock on doors, not just in California, a lot of people will think, “Oh, these are the people who hate gays.” Likewise, the ubiquitous PSAs about “family, isn’t it about time?” will fall flat because people know what kinds of families they are talking about.

Also, a small minority of the church membership seems to be more than a little appalled at the church’s position and heavy-handed tactics. For a lot of people, questioning whether the church is out of step with reality might be the final impetus to get them to question everything about the church.

Civilization is passing Mormonism by, and someday, the church will see that, probably when it’s too late.

A little schadenfreude?

September 25, 2008

Maybe I’m being really petty (OK, I am being really petty), but I thought this was quite funny. A friend pointed out a blog wherein a recently moved Mormon woman did a little venting about her former ward:

A Cautionary Tale

It seems the former ward members caught wind of it, and hilarity ensued:

See my point

Some of this is priceless. It’s totally predictable that they would cite Bednar’s talk about how someone who is offended by the words or actions of another is at fault for choosing to be offended. Here’s what one sister said:

Heather – I’m a BIG fan of the talk “Be ye not offended”, by Elder Bednar. Basically – anyone who “gets” offended is really at fault. It’s a choice. And apparently this girl was looking for a reason to take offense.

To me, Bednar’s talk just gives Mormons a green light to treat people like crap. After all, if I offend you, it’s your own damn fault. And of course we get the tired idea that people are out looking to be offended. If you listen to some Mormons, there are a heck of a lot of people who spent all their time in the church trying to find ways to be offended, to lose their faith, or to criticize the leadership of the church. I guess a little kindness, forgiveness, and compassion are too much to ask for from some of these people.

Anyhow, enjoy the mini-kerfuffle. I know I did.

The Real Reasons I Left Mormonism

September 25, 2008

OK, I admit it: the problems I listed in my earlier post are not the real reasons I am no longer a practicing and believing Mormon. Here are my true motivations, in no particular order:

I was offended. Once my bishop called me “Monty” by mistake, and I seethed quietly for months. Eventually, I began focusing on the faults of my church leaders, noticing, for example, the high priests group leader’s bad breath and the Relief Society president’s incessant repetition of “ya know?” I figured that if Bishop Bittman couldn’t get my name right, how was I supposed to have any faith in Joseph Smith? I’m still mad at the bishop. Dirtbag.

I had a secret desire for sin. It’s shameful to admit, but I am afflicted with the same deadly temptation that tormented the late Troy McClure: a marine mammal fetish. Try as I might, I couldn’t control my baser instincts, and soon I found myself wandering aimlessly around Sea World in San Antonio. I knew I couldn’t live out my fantasies and still be a Mormon, so I left.

I never had a testimony. When I’ve spoken about intense spiritual experiences I’ve had in the temple, on my mission, and in answer to prayer, I was lying. I made it all up. After all, if I’d had a testimony, I never would have left in the first place, would I? I guess I’ll always be a cucumber, and never a pickle.

I’m too proud. This one is obvious. When you start feeling like you have some reasonable answers as to why things in Mormonism don’t add up, you know it’s pride working on you. It has to be pride when you start thinking that God’s prophets are wrong about such things as evolution, the flood, Lamanites, and same-sex marriage. I admit it: I excel in pride. It’s one of my more endearing qualities.

So, let this be a warning to others who would think to stray from the path. The flaxen cords of apostasy lead only to misery. Not really, but some people like to think that.

Last Gasp for McCain?

September 25, 2008

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been really impressed by how agile the McCain campaign has been in controlling the news cycle. As I’ve mentioned before, the Sarah Palin choice, though mocked by many, has really shaken up the race and made an otherwise establishment candidacy seem almost edgy. It took weeks for the slow-footed Obama campaign to deal with Palin effectively at all, and really, it’s too late now.

Yesterday McCain pulled another trick out of his hat: the economic crisis is so bad, he told us, he was suspending his campaign to go back to Washington and help work on solving it. As political theater, it was a genius move. The man who a few months ago admitted to not knowing much about the economy suddenly had put it at the forefront of his campaign, and he all but dared Obama to follow suit and suspend his campaign. Again, brilliant, because now Obama’s “thanks but no thanks” response makes him seem less serious about the economy than McCain.

But you have to remember that this is nothing more than political theater. McCain does not sit on any of the committees that will be debating the Wall Street bailout, and his presence at the president’s contrived economic summit will be mostly as an observer. But it was pretty damn good political theater.

And then Letterman happened. Scheduled to appear on “Late Night” last night, McCain begged off at the last minute because, as Letterman put it, “the economy is exploding.” Letterman made the most of it, mocking McCain at every turn (you can see the video here). But then Letterman showed McCain getting his makeup put on for an interview with Katie Couric. I’m sure that moment will be network news fodder for a while. Ditching Letterman for Katie Couric was a dumb move.

Other than that misstep, though, McCain’s campaign has been pretty agile and smart, and Obama’s has been mostly in reactive mode, a weird stance for a campaign about youth and change. The relative skill of the campaigns would matter in any other year, I suppose. But not this year. The stars are aligned for a massive Republican defeat, and I will say here that the Bush Administration has done so much damage to the Republican party that it will not be able to recover in a long time. We are back to the days of the mid-20th century, when the Republican party was so much in the minority that it was almost irrelevant.

So, enjoy the theater while it lasts. We won’t see much more of McCain after next month.

How Mormonism Destroyed Me

September 24, 2008

I read that this morning over on the Recovery from Mormonism message boards. Yes, the author tells a harrowing story (a lot of Mormon stories are harrowing), but I can’t relate to the idea that the religion can destroy you. Yes, it can cause a ton of damage and pain, and it is devastating to realize that it just isn’t true.

But it can’t destroy you–unless you let it. I came up with a bad joke today:

What’s the difference between Mormonism and a Dementor?

One is a hideous creature that sucks all the joy out of your soul, and the other is a fictional character in the Harry Potter books.

All kidding aside, no one can take your soul away from you. No one, no organization can take what is uniquely you away from you, unless you give your soul to them. But even then, you can take it back. I gave forty years of my life to Mormonism. I believed in it, heart and soul. I had a testimony. And I did everything I was asked to do. I made decisions based not on what I wanted to do, but rather on what I had been told I should do. And I regret a lot of those decisions.

But they never got me. When I left, I took ownership of my life again. I had to dig deep down and figure out just what I believed in and what my morals and values were. It was easy as a Mormon to simply adopt the teachings and beliefs and values we were taught. We didn’t even have to think about it. I suspect that a lot of Mormons wouldn’t have a problem with legalizing same-sex marriage if the church had not taken a position. Think about it this way: if the church had come out in support of same-sex marriage, very few Mormons would have voiced any objections.

So, the process of taking your life back involves making your own decisions and learning that certain things are right because they are right, not because someone standing a pulpit in Salt Lake City told you they were right. You realize that you don’t have to believe that it’s OK for a prophet to marry teenagers and married women behind his wife’s back. You can admit that it’s wrong, and you don’t have to make any more excuses.

I honestly felt like my life was over when I admitted to myself that Mormonism is not and never was true. But I have a life. I enjoy my life, and in many ways my life is richer and fuller now than it was when I was a believing high priest in the LDS church. My life is better because it is my life. Not theirs. That they couldn’t destroy.

Ten Reasons I Can’t Be a Mormon Anymore

September 23, 2008

Back by popular demand from JLO:

10. The Book of Abraham turns out to be a common Egyptian funeral text called the Breathing Permit of Horus.
9. Anachronisms and clear plagiarisms in the Book of Mormon.
8. Joseph Smith’s history of claiming to be able to find buried treasure by looking at a rock in a hat, the same method he would later use to “translate” the Book of Mormon.
7. The wholesale stealing of Masonic rites for Joseph’s inspired temple ceremony.
6. Joseph’s practice of sending men on missions and then “marrying” their wives as soon as they had left town; see, for example, the story of Marinda Johnson Hyde.
5. Joseph’s practice of “marrying” teenage girls behind his wife’s back and promising eternal life to parents of teenagers for their consent.
4. Widespread use of church funds to enrich church leaders, from the days of the Kirtland Safety Society to Brigham Young and beyond.
3. The Mountain Meadows Massacre.
2. Racism, sexism, and homophobia.
1. Most of all, the church’s pattern of hiding all of these things. If you grew up Mormon, you were never told any of these things.

They’re all true. And I won’t be a part of that anymore.

Film Review: Ghost Town

September 23, 2008

Saturday night I saw the film “Ghost Town,” with Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, and Tea Leoni. Before I get to the review, I should probably say that I’m a huge fan of Ricky Gervais, who has been brilliant in everything I’ve seen of him. But I was curious to see how he would fare without Stephen Merchant or Karl Pilkington around. And at first glance, Gervais seems out of place in a standard Hollywood romantic comedy.

The plot is a subtle twist on a predictable Hollywood formula: A misanthropic dentist, Bertram Pincus, played by Gervais, dies during a routine medical procedure and is brought back to life after seven minutes. On leaving the hospital, he discovers that he can see dead people, all of whom want something from him, in much the same way that the ghosts in “The Sixth Sense” needed Haley Joel Osment to help them reach some kind of closure. But here it’s played for laughs, and Gervais quickly finds himself being hounded by crowds of ghosts, all of whom want him to fix things they left unfinished.

Enter Greg Kinnear, a self-absorbed philanderer whose widow is engaged to be married. He strikes a deal with Pincus: break up the engagement, and he’ll keep the needy ghosts away. In a development you can see a mile away, Pincus falls for the widow, and the rest of the film covers his awkward attempts to woo the widow and keep his bargain with Kinnear’s character. I don’t need to tell you how it ends. As I said, the script follows a rather old formula, but that’s not really what we came to see.

The film is Gervais’s to carry, and he does so brilliantly. If you’re familiar with his radio personality (which one presumes is close to his “real” personality), you’ll be surprised, as I was, at how well he portrays such a damaged and beaten character. In other hands, Pincus would be difficult to like and a rather unpleasant character. But Gervais makes him human, someone who doesn’t so much hate other people as fear them because he is afraid of feeling pain (ironic in a dentist). And of course, his comedic timing is impeccable. His conversation with a rather shallow and self-absorbed surgeon about his dying “just a little bit” is hilarious. The other actors in the film seem more like props in Gervais’s one-man show, with the exception of Kinnear, who, like Gervais, makes something out of an otherwise unsympathetic character.

Is it a great film? No, but it is funny, and it’s worth seeing the beginning of what I suspect will be a long career for Gervais in Hollywood.