Sliding Back into Winter

March 28, 2009

Last week was glorious here in Utah. Green began showing through the brown lawns, and daffodils and crocuses peeked out of the flower beds along my driveway. I hadn’t even known they were there. The temperature was in the upper sixties, approaching 70, and it felt like the days of shoveling snow and bundling up were over.

And then a cold front hit, bringing with it not much snow, but bone-splintering cold. When I drove my wife to work the other day, snow was coming at us horizontally, the road a blur of white and gray in the darkness. By the next morning, the skies had cleared, and the thermometer in my van read 16 degrees.

So much for spring. But in some ways I’m glad to have this weird period of shifting weather, as if winter hasn’t totally accepted its demise and is fighting off the advance of spring. In Texas, we didn’t really have seasons, and winter, if you can call it that, was really just an extended cooler period with bare trees and yellowing lawns. The rest of the year was a mixture of hot and miserably hot.

Given the choice, I think I’ll take the seasons, as frustrating as they are. They remind me that I’m alive and part of something much bigger than me.

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What I’ve learned from online apologetics

March 25, 2009

Sometime around 1995-96, I stumbled across the old alt.religion.mormon listserv boards. A few of the usual suspects were there: Russell C. McGregor, Charles Dowis, Randy Jordan, and others. That was where I first realized that I wasn’t alone in having rethought my beliefs in response to new information. A lot of the posters there were what Shades would call “Internet Mormons,” people who rejected orthodox teachings because current evidence no longer supports the old views. Back then, I thought we were perilously close to heretical, but these days the views espoused on a.r.m. wouldn’t even cause the major apologists to shrug in disinterest.

But the anger was always there. I don’t think I’d ever met an angry apologist until I met Brother McGregor. Some of us tried to build bridges with secular and religious critics, but he and others of his stripe were having none of it. I could never figure out what made them so damned angry, but it was frustrating to me that they often destroyed whatever good will anyone else may have brought about.

I read my posts from back then, and I see a hopelessly naïve believer, someone who thought that, underneath it all, people were basically good. Then I started posting on the old FAIR board.

Back when I was posting as a believer on FAIR, my beliefs were pretty mainstream, at least to the group that posted there. Sure there were a few uber-orthodox fanatics, but most of us had adjusted our Mormon paradigm enough to make things work, and we were pretty much on the same page. I had some good exchanges with ex-Mormons, some of whom, like Ray A and Polygamy Porter, became good friends. I learned that, even the “vilest” of ex-Mormon could still be a hell of a good guy.

Then I left the church. Suddenly, people who had once been friendly and respectful treated me as if I were the worst kind of degenerate. One poster sent emails around to mutual friends suggesting that I was a sexual predator and perhaps mentally ill. When I reached a suicidal point in my life, one FAIR poster told me I deserved to feel that way, that I really should want to kill myself.

It was then that I realized that most of what goes on in the boards has nothing to do with Mormonism or religion at all. It has to do with personality, with group think, and with an us vs. them mentality. A lot of the pettiness, the hate, the sneering, would have come about even if it had been a board about, say, the Simpsons or bird watching. That the boards are about Mormonism dictates the content of the discussion, but other than that, it’s the same.

What is fascinating to me is not so much that ex-Mormons can be angry and bitter and nasty; I get that. I understand why people would be angry. But it’s utterly amazing to see otherwise normal Mormons spew such rage and hatred (and then say, who me?). I’ve often said that the main difference between RfM and some of the LDS boards is not the level of hate, but rather the absence of overt profanity.

Several friends of mine from way back have likewise left the church. One of the founders of a.r.m. left several years ago; and one of my closest TBM friends from back in the FAIR days is now one of my closest exmo friends. Oddly enough, we’re not really different, though our views have changed. We’re still the same people, even though we’re supposed to be wallowing in despair and alcoholism.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say in this longwinded post is that discussing Mormonism comes down to dealing with personalities. The wisest people I’ve met online don’t take the religious discussion all that seriously but enjoy the exchange of perspectives and personalities. So these days I’m glad I’m still here. I’ve met a lot of good people, and some not-so-good people. Thank you to everyone who has made my stay on the Net interesting.


Conversion Narratives

March 20, 2009

Much has been said about the common “exit” (or “deconversion”) narratives of former Mormons, some apologists seeing similarities among the narrative structures as invalidating the narrative itself, as if the “angry exie” adopts the narrative as a form of personal disguise with which to conceal the “real” reasons for departing the faith. Adopting the narrative, the theory goes, creates instant validity for the narrator and firmly establishes him or her within the community of unbelievers.

In his book Language and Self-Transformation (Cambridge UP, 1993) , Peter Stromberg explains that a conversion is not “something that occurred in the past and is now ‘told about’ in the conversion narrative. Rather, the conversion narrative itself is a central element of the conversion.” He suggests that we “abandon the search for the reality beyond the convert’s speech and … look instead at the speech itself, for it is through language that the conversion is now re-lived as the convert tells his tale” (3). Stromberg describes common Evangelical Christian conversion narratives as describing “the dual effect of the conversion, the strengthening of [converts’] faith and the transformation of their lives” (3). But it is the adoption of the symbolism of Christian conversion narratives that is itself transformative. He explains that “symbol use within a particular tradition can give the actor a sense of self-transformation” in much the same way that “self-understanding is constructed within the larger society” through language (4). And, he tells us, “the central task of the believer … is, through his or her interpretation of Scripture, to find a meaningful link between the symbol system (the Bible) and his or her experience” (6).

Thus the conversion narrative adopts the symbols and language of system (here the Bible) in order to contextualize the experience and bring the believer into the community of fellow believers. He goes on to describe “ritual” as consisting of “two sorts of messages”: The “indexical” concerns the “present state of the participants,” whereas the “canonical” concerns “enduring aspects of nature, society, or cosmos, … encoded in apparently invariant aspects of liturgical orders.” Ritual (in this case the conversion narrative) is the attempt to bridge the two levels and place the here and now within the context of the enduring: “Ritual is always a point where God and humanity come into contact” (11).

Most of us have heard Mormon conversion narratives throughout our lives, and many of us have given our own versions of the same. Unlike Evangelical conversion narratives, which Stromberg tells us are rarely shared outside of small groups, Mormons are encouraged as part of their worship to share the personal, the moments in their lives where the present met the transcendent.

Perhaps the most well-known conversion story among Latter-day Saints is that of the boy-prophet Joseph Smith, which is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. Joseph describes himself as a seeker of truth “in the midst of [a religious] war of words and tumult of opinions” (Joseph Smith–History 1:10). Accordingly, he first reflects seriously on the subject of religion, his “feelings … and often poignant” (1:8).

Having then decided to acquaint himself with the various sects, he finds himself completely at a loss to determine which was true: “I often said to myself, What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (1:10).

In this moment of confusion, Joseph turns to the scriptures, and as we should be familiar with by now, he finds the promise of “wisdom” through prayer in James 1:5 especially powerful: “It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did” (1:12). It is this powerful experience with scripture that leads him to the Sacred Grove, where in his first “attempt to pray vocally,” he has an ecstatic encounter with the divine.

First he is “seized upon by some power” which envelopes him in “thick darkness” and despair (1:15). Just at his lowest point, he is overcome with a vision of the divine. He describes the vision as a “pillar of light” that descended from heaven (1:16-17), and within this light appeared God the Father and Jesus Christ to teach him the truth about religion: “I was answered that I must join none of [the churches], for they were all wrong” (1:19).

This narrative is quite different from traditional Christian narratives, which tend to emphasize the prior, sinful nature of the believer and his or her transformation to a new self, made clean in the blood of Christ. Joseph Smith makes mention of his sins and their subsequent forgiveness in earlier versions of the First Vision narrative, but in the canonized version, the emphasis is on the search for truth and its ultimate reception by divine means. Not surprisingly, it is this narrative of the seeker of truth and wisdom that is most often represented in Mormon conversions. I will take my examples from a web site called, conveniently enough, mormonconverts.com. The converts come from a variety of backgrounds, from Anglicans to atheists, Catholics to Unitarians, but the narratives usually follow the same pattern of seeking and enlightenment that we see in Joseph’s narrative.

Seekers

Most of the narratives describe a search for truth, for something that is missing. And, like Joseph Smith, they seek the truth in various religions.

“There are times in your life, no matter how old you may be, that you feel you are looking for something. Maybe it is keys, that missing sock or for me, it was a search to fill an empty hole inside me.”

“My desire to marry and my growing disillusionment with the Catholic Church put me on a long path of searching. I realized that I never really had a personal relationship with Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ and I searched long and hard where I might find that relationship. That began a long period of spiritual wandering. I worshipped with Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Pentecostals. I visited Hindu Ashrams and practiced Zen Buddhism.”

“I spent a lot of years looking for a religion. I was raised without one, my mother is an Atheist, and I always felt incomplete when it came to religion. I believed in God, but that was about all I knew. ”

“When I visited all those churches over the years, nothing ever felt right to me. I always felt that there was something missing. I’d go to a church, and just feel…empty and lost. Nothing ever touched my soul.”

“I made the choice to try to find God. I know some people have said in my life that it isn’t hard, you would be surprised. Growing up most of my family and my family’s friends were involved in many different genres of Christian churches. None of it made any sense to me.”

“But there has always been something missing, no matter how I have tried and no matter how I dug I could never really find what I was looking for.”

Scriptures

When the religions leave them confused, many turn to the scriptures:

“I needed God. I knew He was the only one I could trust and the only One who could help. I picked up the scriptures and read the first 4 books of the New Testament.”

“Many years passed when … I would read my scriptures in hopes to hopefully pin point the perfect verse that would sum it all for me.”

“On September 12, 1999 I made the decision to turn my life over to Jesus Christ, and trust in Him. This was the result of being given a free miniature Gideon Bible. Having spent every spare minute reading it, and finding a new sense of happiness in what I found there, I began to believe in the Savior. But just how does a person turn their life over to the Lord?, I wondered, and I prayed to know.”

Prayer

Having decided that the scriptures alone are not sufficient to “fill the holes” in their lives, they turn to prayer in hopes that God will impart wisdom to them.

“For the first time in many years I prayed on my knees and I knew in the deepest depths of my soul that Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ knew me and loved me. I found my direction home.”

“With tears streaming down my cheeks I knelt by my bed and prayed for probably the first time in my life. Truly prayed to Father in Heaven to show me what He wanted me to do.”

“The first time I got on my knees and spoke to our Heavenly Father I was afraid, but I felt something I had never felt before, that he could hear me and he knew me!”

“My prayers were desperate pleas for something more from my life. …I had no idea how to ask for what I needed, or where to find it. I was dissatisfied, and trapped. I often cried about it, and begged with God for the answer to my problem.”

Opposition

As with Joseph Smith in the grove, some report opposition from Satan preventing them from acting on their desires to believe.

“When I finished my [baptismal] interview I had an overwhelming feeling come over that could only be caused by one thing, and it wasn’t God. The feeling that I should not do this and that I would be criticized and all the awful doubts that could possible come up did.”

“It hit me. Whoa. They want me to do what. And in the back of my mind my dad’s words echoed again, ‘It’s of the devil.'”

“I was outside the church and I felt that there was a barrier preventing me from going in. The girl I was hoping to date was already inside teaching a Primary class at Sunday School. A friendly policeman (well, he was in civvies at the time) and his fiancée, saw my predicament and asked me what the problem was. Apparently, the barrier I was encountering was Satan’s way of using an earlier innate shyness.”

A vision of light

The narratives usually conclude with an ecstatic, spiritual experience, often mirroring Joseph’s description of light and truth descending.

“[During a showing of a film depicting the First Vision]Then it happened, as Joseph was kneeling in the grove and saw the two separate personages who’s glory defied all description, I had felt it! For the first time my heart burned, chills ran up my spine and tears rolled down my face. The spirit hit me so strong that I didn’t care if I was the only blubbering fool in a theater of about 100 people. I knew that the church was true and that I had to be baptized.”

“As I read my entire being was filled with LIGHT, and I knew that Joseph Smith had seen Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

“Several times the Spirit gave me that warm feeling. And finally I was woken up one morning. I sat straight up in bed with the words: “The Book of Mormon is true! So stop asking me!” ringing in my head.”

“As [the missionaries] began to explain that we lived with our Heavenly Father before birth, I began to remember my conversations with God as a young child. I vividly remembered living with my Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. I remembered walking with my other brother, Lucifer and begging him to listen to Father and not to be so stubborn. I remembered crying when some of my friends were cast out of Heaven.”

“At that moment, a sheet of light dropped down from the doorway, obscuring the two young [missionaries] from her view.”

Do these common narrative structures mean that the conversions themselves are not valid? Not in the least, but they do suggest that as humans we ritualize our experience to weld it to the eternal, as Stromberg argues. It is interesting that Mormon conversion narratives follow such a different structure than traditional Christian and Evangelical conversions. This suggests to me that the conversions are seen in terms of cultural and religious expectation, so the narrative is structured to satisfy the needs of the larger community.


On the Sacred and the Profane

March 12, 2009

A lot of believing Mormons are understandably upset about HBO’s decision to recreate part of the LDS temple ceremony, commonly called the “endowment” by Mormons. For those who don’t know what it is, the endowment is a sacred ceremony performed only within Mormon temples. Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, became a Master Mason on March 16, 1842 and then on May 4 of the same year introduced the new endowment ceremony in an upper room of his store in Nauvoo, Illinois.

The endowment incorporated much of the symbolism of the Masons, including signs, tokens, key words, and penalties, but modified them to fit within a story of the creation, fall, and redemption of humans. The ceremony has changed significantly over the years (most recently in 1990 with the removal of the penalties and other elements, such as the long section involving a “sectarian minister”).

Growing up in the church, I went to the Los Angeles temple once or twic e a year to do proxy baptisms for the dead. I knew that, once you were of a certain age, you went to the temple to perform sacred ordinances, the most sacred being the sealing of husband and wife (and children) as an eternal family.

But the endowment was a mystery to me. Unlike most Mormon kids, I didn’t know about temple garments, mostly because my father, although he had been to the temple, never wore them. My mother wore hers, but I never saw her in just her garments. My oldest sister told me recently that she had seen my mom exactly twice in her garments.

So the endowment was a mystery to me. When I was 12, I got a job working at a gas station a few blocks west of the Los Angeles temple, and I remember talking to a young woman who had a BYU sticker on her car. She mentioned she had been at the temple, and I asked her what she had done there. She looked a little flustered and said, “Um, temple work.” I had no idea what she meant.

At 18 I finally went to the temple for the first time. My grandfather met me at the Provo temple, and I went through what at the time was a bewildering and sometimes troubling three-hour (or so) experience. With time I got used to the ceremony, and only occasionally would I feel like I was engaged in something absurd. I went through the endowment (again as proxy for a dead person) hundreds of times over the next 22 years, and I pretty much had the ceremony memorized.

When I left the church, my bishop told me that the best way to regain my testimony would be to attend the temple, along with the usual “pray and read the Book of Mormon.”  It didn’t work, obviously, and when I attended the temple no longer wanting it to be true, it was hard to force it into something spiritually uplifting. It was what it was, and it left me feeling rather cold. So I never went again.

So, what to make of the furor over Big Love’s recreation of at least parts of the endowment? If this had happened when I was still a believer, I would have been mightily pissed off. For believing Mormons, discussing specific temple content outside the temple (even among believers) is to profane that which is sacred. As one believer commented, it’s the context of the ceremony that makes it sacred, and you can’t understand the context without the presence of the Holy Ghost. So, for HBO to detach the endowment from its physical and spiritual context is blasphemy in the extreme.

I suspect that the presentation of the endowment in the show is an intentional middle finger to Mormons, probably payback for Proposition 8, though I could be wrong. So I sympathize with Mormons who feel violated, and I understand completely why they feel that way. But on the other hand, the endowment is no longer sacred to me, and it doesn’t bother me much that someone else is interested in it enough to put it on TV.

Some ex-Mormons I know are rejoicing at the opportunity to make the church look bad–and seriously, who is going to watch the endowment and say to themselves, I want to be part of that? Some people obviously delight in profaning what other people find sacred. And in all honesty, I’ve been guilty of that in the past.

But at this stage in my life, I’m not interested in seeing the depiction (I don’t subscribe to HBO), so I probably won’t see it. But I wonder what the reaction from the public will be. Even if they do a completely faithful rendering of the ceremony, most non-Mormons will find it bizarre and maybe a little creepy (but then most Mormons feel that way the first time they go, hence my bishop’s and stake president’s counsel not to worry if the ceremony upset me when I went the first time).

But the genie’s been out of the bottle a long time. On the Internet there are audio recordings and transcripts of the ceremony, photos of the temple robes, and illustrations of the signs and tokens. I suspect that, after viewing Big Love, more than a few people will become curious and hit Google right after the show ends.

For me, though, revisiting the endowment is like watching “classic” sports games on TV. I was on pins and needles in 1988 when Kirk Gibson hit his walk-off home run in game one of the World Series. Twenty years later, the moment has lost some of its luster. It just doesn’t mean much to me anymore.

That’s how I feel about the endowment. It took me years to make myself comfortable with the ceremony, and even longer to find something uplifting and spiritual in it. But now it’s just part of the past, devoid of meaning. And once something has lost its meaning, it’s no longer sacred or profane.