Mass-Marketed Mormonism

November 29, 2011

Now that my book is out, I’m feeling slightly hypocritical. I’ve always been annoyed at the numerous books, CDs, and other media that are hawked by enterprising Latter-day Saints at Education Week, on BYU-TV, and during commercial breaks before and after general conference sessions. I’m not doing this on the same scale, but I am trying to get my book noticed by a broader audience, and I wonder if that’s any different from what the Deseret Book crowd does.

Granted, I think my book is much better than, say, anything Chris Heimerdinger has put out, and I’m pleased to say I haven’t been tempted to write anything about vampires. But I am, in the end, profiting from my association with the LDS church. And that makes me feel a little uneasy.

Thinking it through, I realize that I did not write the book with profit in mind. I wrote the blog posts that would later be edited into the book because I needed to express some emotions and memories that I had long suppressed. The blog posts are much more emotionally raw than the book is; I spent about 6 months editing the posts into a coherent narrative, and I made a conscious decision to remove a lot of the emotional commentary. I wanted the book to be about me when I was 19 and 20, not about my feelings as a middle-aged man reflecting on that time of my life. So, what you get in the book, hopefully, expresses what I was thinking and doing and feeling then. Editing it down to “just the facts” was as cathartic as writing the original posts had been. Paying such close attention to what happened in some ways sharpened my emotions and helped me work through a lot of the residual pain of that time.

Even if I had left the book sitting (as I did for more than three years), it still would have been worth writing. I decided to publish it because I thought people would enjoy the story and perhaps learn something from my experiences. But the book is also something I’m very proud of. I think it’s well-written and tells a great story, and I felt like I owed it to myself to get it published.

So, you probably won’t see me doing book signings or advertising on KBYU, but I will try to get the book out to more of an audience. If you think the book is worth reading, I’d appreciate your help in spreading the word.

Obligatory plug: Today (November 29) all books at Lulu.com are 30% off if you use the code CYBERTUESDAY.


Heaven Up Here: Print Edition

November 28, 2011

The print version of my book is finally out! You can get it from Lulu.com now, and it should be available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble shortly.

Heaven Up Here (paperback)

I’m really happy with the way the book turned out and the reception it has gotten. Thank you all for supporting me. It feels really good to have it in circulation.


In Defense of BYU

November 28, 2011

My alma mater, Brigham Young University, has received a lot bad press and criticism over its treatment of gay students and faculty over a number of years. So, it surprised me when a friend sent me a link to a ranting attack on BYU from “Standard of Liberty,” a “Christ-centered educational foundation which exists to raise awareness of radical sexual movements overrunning America’s Christian-moral-cultural life and to inspire the public will, families, and individuals to counteract these trends.”

I should note that the “standard of liberty” refers to a Book of Mormon episode wherein a righteously indignant Captain Moroni raises “the title of liberty” to rally the people around defending righteousness:

And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.

And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land …

And he did raise the standard of liberty in whatsoever place he did enter, and gained whatsoever force he could in all his march towards the land of Gideon. (Book of Mormon, Alma 46:12-13; 62:4)

The authors of the article are Stephen and Janice Graham, who apparently maintain the website. Why are these righteous standard-bearers upset with BYU? They tell us that they have “have tried to refrain from reporting anything too negative about BYU or any other Church-affiliated organization or business.” But apparently, BYU has crossed a line:

If you think BYU upholds traditional family values, think again. Certain department heads, professors, guest lecturers, and students have become a law unto themselves, regularly preaching all manner of progressivism including socialism, radical feminism, anti-Americanism, revisionist history, outdated Darwinism, and popular homosexualism, and continue to be supported, employed, and welcomed.

There is much to comment on here, but there have always been “progressives” at BYU. And when I was in school back in the late 80s and early 90s, we studied Marxism, feminism, Darwinism, and other such heresies regularly. A university is supposed to welcome a diversity of viewpoints and disciplines, and BYU does that while simultaneously upholding a religious mission and promoting its values, which, not surprisingly, are what most people would consider “traditional family values.”

If such teachings have been commonplace at BYU for years, why are they suddenly condemning “The Lord’s University”?

The issue of homosexuality is a prime example. Incredible and exasperating as it is, we must face the fact that our beloved and trusted BYU has made concessions, step by step, for homosexuality as an alternative sexual identity to be accepted and respected. This is reflected in the change BYU made to its Honor Code in 2007 (with input from gay activist students) which approved the accepting of openly gay instructors and students. Individuals acting out, however, is still prohibited, although the definition of acting out is open to interpretation, rationalization, and can easily be covered in secrecy. Even though the honor code still prohibits the advocating of homosexuality, advocating homosexuality is definitely happening. Of course all these problems are born of the compromising and soul-killing inconsistency of allowing homosexuality in principle but not in practice.

In summary, they want the university to condemn homosexual behavior (“acting out”) and reject those who have homosexual desires as inherently evil. BYU is right to recognize that there are gay students and faculty members who are willing to conform to the university’ honor code and refrain from acting on their desires. That the university understands this reality is a positive sign. I have seen church leaders and members deal with their LGBT brothers and sisters with respect, compassion, and even acceptance. It cannot be easy to be a gay Mormon, and I am grateful that there are so many good people who can get beyond dogma and deal with people as individuals.

In recent years, the LDS church has consistently taught that it is not sinful to have homosexual desires; it only becomes sinful when those desires are acted upon. Again, this puts tremendous pressure on gay members to remain lifelong celibates, which to me sounds miserable. But this isn’t enough for the “Standard of Liberty” folks. What the church calls policy they call “the compromising and soul-killing inconsistency of allowing homosexuality in principle but not in practice.”

I could go through their laundry list of complaints about the “intrusion of the lawless traveling gay advocacy group[s]” and a BYU-sponsored group “Understanding Same-Gender Attraction,” which they hyperbolically say is “really about affirming out-of-bounds sexual lust.” But the problem with these people is that they have set themselves up as a righteous corrective to the moral decline of BYU and, by extension, its sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is, of course, dangerous ground for an otherwise faithful Mormon to occupy.

In the LDS church, revelation and inspiration flow in one direction: from the leadership downward to those under their “stewardship.” President Boyd K. Packer has said, “You must decide now which way you face.” He said that even well-intentioned church members may “be turned about without realizing that it has happened…. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed.” He went on to say

There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.

The Grahams and their fellows have clearly turned about and have begun challenging the leadership of the church. I have seen this all through my years in the LDS church: Members get upset when the church doesn’t support their pet belief, so they become convinced that the church is wrong for having compromised or abandoned their position. A good example of this is the proliferation of polygamous offshoots of the LDS church when polygyny was officially abandoned between 1890 and 1904. I’ve also known people who became convinced that the church was in apostasy because it did not publicly support Birch Society politics (I knew two men who stashed automatic weapons at Temple Square because they were convinced that President Benson was being silenced by evil and conspiring men).

But such people are no different from liberal dissenters from the church. There is little difference between saying that the church is wrong in not accepting homosexuality and saying that the church is wrong for being too accepting of homosexuality. Both reflect the belief that the church member knows better than his or her church. And if you know anything about Mormonism, you understand that such a belief is rightly considered the “spirit of apostasy” within the church.

The LDS church is in a difficult position regarding LGBT members. In Mormonism, one must be married in a heterosexual union that is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise to attain exaltation and godhood. Thus, there is no place in LDS theology for homosexuality. But the church understands that same-gender attraction is a part of many members’ lives, and it cannot be ignored or wished away. If anything, BYU ought to be applauded for making changes that recognize the reality of gay members’ lives. Faithful members who are upset that the church isn’t sticking to their rigidly held beliefs ought to take some time to think through their position.

On a personal note, I cannot imagine being as cold-hearted as the Grahams. Where I see people struggling to make their way through difficult circumstances, they see only deviance and debauchery. While the church rightly distinguishes between thought and action, they insist that “homosexuality should still be officially, courageously, and correctly shown as sinful and harmful in both thought and deed in every ward, stake, and Church-owned or endorsed group, business, or education entity.” I don’t know what has motivated their obsessive intolerance of homosexuality, but I sincerely hope they have no gay children.

If nothing else, they aren’t any different from me in preferring their own judgment over the church’s teachings. But, unlike them, I acknowledge my apostasy.


Latter-day Main Street Reviews My Book

November 24, 2011

Author and blogger C.L. Hanson has reviewed my book at Latter-day Main Street:

The Armpit of the Mission Field: “Heaven Up Here” by John K. Williams

Thanks!


Giving without Prejudice: A Mormon Story for Thanksgiving

November 23, 2011

I’ve told this story before, but it’s a reminder to me of the importance of giving and sharing without being judgmental.

My father told me this story about 3 years ago. I had never heard any of this, and it still hurts to think about it.

When my mother became pregnant with me, my father was a Ph.D. student at USC. He worked for an aerospace company one day a week, and they paid most of his tuition.

My parents had three children before I was born, and my dad’s income barely paid the bills. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment that had been converted from a detached garage behind someone’s house. Needless to say, they did not have health insurance.

About 5 months into the pregnancy, my mom started bleeding, and not just a little spotting. The doctor told her that she was going to miscarry, and she should just have a D&C and get it over with. But, since she insisted she was going to do everything possible to have the baby, he told her she would need bed rest until I was born.

My parents sent my brother and two sisters to my grandparents in Utah for four months so my mom could stay in bed. When I was born, the doctors discovered a life-threatening birth defect, and I had major surgery that day. I spent the next six weeks in the hospital before coming home on Christmas Eve.

My uncle gave my dad everything in his savings account, but it wasn’t half as much as the bills. The Crippled Children’s Fund loaned my dad the rest of the money. My dad was forced to quit school and go to work full-time.

Until I was almost 6 years old, I had to go to the hospital overnight once or twice a week to have my esophagus dilated. By then I had two younger brothers. My family was very poor, heavily in debt, and under a lot of stress.

From the time that my mom started the bed rest until I was done having my bi-weekly procedures, no one from the church provided child care, meals, rides to the hospital, nothing. We didn’t get anything from the bishop’s storehouse, and no money to help with the bills. Literally, the local ward did nothing to help my family.

Just after I turned six, we moved from that ward. A few days before we moved, the former Relief Society president showed up at our house. She begged my mother’s forgiveness for not helping when we obviously needed help. She said that, in a ward council meeting, the bishop had said no one was to help the Williams family because “Brother Williams is not a full-tithe payer.”

I can’t tell you how much it hurt to hear this story. I gave so much of my life to the church, and this felt like a real betrayal. It still hurts.

But it reminds me that we must help people in need, even if we think they don’t “deserve” it, even if it inconveniences us, and even if it’s hard. I do not want anyone to think of me as someone who saw their need and didn’t help.


Another Review of My Book

November 21, 2011

Richard Packham, the founder of the Exmormon Foundation, has reviewed my book, Heaven Up Here, for the Association for Mormon Letters. Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to read and review the book. I continue to be quite gratified by the responses I’ve received:

Williams, “Heaven Up Here” (reviewed by Richard Packham)


Exclusive: Herman Cain Campaign Theme Song

November 16, 2011

I’m not sure why they chose me, but sources close to campaign manager Mark Block have confirmed that the following song will be the theme for the Cain campaign. As Cain has put it, he needs to “stay on message,” and the song is designed to do just that.

Cain has reached back into his youth to Sam Cooke for inspiration. Here, exclusively and for the first time, I can reveal the song and lyrics, which are set to the tune of 1958’s “What a Wonderful World“:

Don’t know much about Libya
Don’t know much about labor law
Don’t know much about Uzbekistan
Don’t know about defined benefit plan

I’m not sure what I really meant
But I know if I’m your president
What a wonderful world this would be

Don’t know who that woman was
Never put my hand up her dress
Don’t know much about harassment
Until I see concrete evidence

But I do know that Obama’s wrong
And if you join me in singing this song
What a wonderful world this would be

Now I’m not smart, like Governor Perry
But I’m trying to be
So, maybe if you want a job, baby
I can win your love for me

I’d trade a soldier for terrorists
But I swear I never stole a kiss
Don’t know much about 9-9-9
Don’t know much, and that’s just fine

But I do know I’d waterboard
And if I become your Overlord
What a wonderful world this would be


Taking Mormonism Seriously

November 9, 2011

When I lost my faith in Mormonism, several people, including my bishop and my father, said something I hadn’t expected: “You just took the church too seriously.” They told me I just needed to focus on the good, the true, in the church, and set aside the parts that were neither.

My father has always been able to do that, and it works for him. But I was all in, as I had been taught to be. After all, there were no lessons in the manuals about doing things halfway, no conference talks about the virtue of indifference. No, we were committed to “walk[ing] up to every covenant” we made, or we knew we would be in Satan’s power. And we accepted the doctrines of the church, no matter how absurd they might seem to others. To quote the Book of Mormon musical:

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.

But on some level, I don’t know that I accepted every last thing. For example, although I knew that the Doctrine and Covenants clearly outlined a “young earth” with a temporal existence of 7,000 years, I accepted that the earth was much older than that and that evolution was likely true. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in trying to reconcile some church teachings with what I knew of reality, but then there was always a small group of people who not only accepted every last teaching but embraced it, especially the absurd.

A few years ago, I mentioned that I found Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy and polyandry troubling, and someone told me that this was an obvious test of my faith, and I had failed. The implication seemed to be that the church is always right, and its leaders have never made any mistakes. This is entirely in keeping with Joseph Smith’s teaching that “whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.” He further taught that we should obey “even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.”

For some people, this means that if we object to something because it violates our conscience (the Light of Christ, in Mormon terms), we are rejecting God’s “special revelation.” Granted, I don’t know too many church members like this, but they are out there; they are those who take their religion deadly seriously.

I stumbled across one of these hyper-Mormons, as I have come to call them: Michael Crook. I know, I could say something about his web design, but I won’t. There’s a lot to take in on his site, from his political positions to his book about founding a 2 Unlimited fan club. (I must be really old, because I have no idea who that is.)

At first I thought his site might be a parody, as it’s so over the top, but I think he’s probably serious, from his condemnation of interracial marriage to his vendetta against Bishop Kevin Kloosterman, whose talk at the Circling the Wagons conference extended compassion to gay church members and asked their forgiveness for the way we as Mormons have treated them.

It doesn’t help that Brother Crook looks more than slightly deranged and says he spends most of his time watching cable TV. But the scary thing is that most of what he says on his site has been taught from the pulpit by church leaders or are outlined in the scriptures. Most people would be appalled at his statement that, if a woman does not “fight to the death defending her virtue” he “would call her motives into question.” To his mind, “there is no such thing as rape” because not fighting to the death indicates consent; and where there is consent, there is no rape. Sick? Yes, but it’s not much of a stretch from LDS Prophet Spencer Kimball’s statement:

“Also far-reaching is the effect of the loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in a forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” – Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, page 196

Likewise, his concern over interracial marriage is in keeping with church teachings. Crook writes, “A disturbing tread is on the rise: black-white marriages. It’s an alarming trend, but it appears that it’s here to stay.”

But, creepy and racist though his position might be, it’s entire consistent with current LDS church teachings. As Brother Crook points out, the current LDS Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3 lesson “Choosing an Eternal Companion” states:

“We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question” (“Marriage and Divorce,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1977], p. 144).

Of course, Crook does the church one better when he says, “I will never understand what attracts someone to a member of the same gender or another race. It’s disturbing in a sense, but of course everyone does have their moral agency. Hopefully, this trend of interracial marriage declines and quickly!” He’s right: that first sentence is quite disturbing.

I could spend some time on his politics and other views, which are pretty much what you would expect from a hyper-Mormon, but that’s not my point. Michael Crook is what someone looks like when they take Mormon teachings completely seriously. Yes, I know, most Mormons would probably say he’s “looking beyond the mark” or, to borrow from Bruce McConkie, getting ahead of the caravan. But what he’s doing, really, is taking the church at its word and holding them to it.

The problem here is that the church’s teaching change and are emphasized (or not) based on the circumstances. The discouragement of interracial marriage is not emphasized anymore, and I would guess that most Mormons would be shocked to find it’s still in a church manual. Likewise the teachings about it being preferable to die than to lose one’s “virtue” have been softened, though apostle Richard Scott taught not too long ago that even rape victims may share a “degree of responsibility for abuse.”

What this illustrates is that few people in the LDS church, even leaders, take everything seriously. Brother Crook admits that he doesn’t attend many church activities and is “horrible when it comes to home teaching or anything like that.” I find it fascinating that one can take such a rigid approach to some church doctrines and in condemning others but at the same time refuse to participate fully in the church that he says is essential to salvation.

I’ve never understood people who are wedded to an extreme orthodoxy but can’t be bothered with orthopraxy. Weird, huh?


Another Book Review

November 7, 2011

Here’s another review of my book, Heaven Up Here:

Review


Pampahasi, La Paz, Bolivia, 1985

November 7, 2011

For the first time in my life, I was considered tall (I’m 5’8″). Malnutrition and disease are widespread (20% of Bolivian children die before age 5), mostly due to diarrhea and resulting dehydration. I really love the Bolivian people. They are warm, generous, and find joy in life despite the hardships. In this photo, the women are dressed in traditional “cholita” clothing (this is their Sunday best): broad pollera skirt, shawl, and hat.