Off the Top of My Head

It’s late, and I should be in bed, but for certain reasons, I have to stay up. Naturally, my brain is going in a lot of directions at once, so why not write down what I’m thinking?

Has anyone else noticed how every instance of human evil is treated as if it’s part of a baseball score? No matter what happens, there’s always a “yes, but.” And that “yes, but” is almost always about how some other group has done worse things. So, two sociopaths murder 17 French citizens, and we can’t just say that’s a terrible thing and mourn for the dead. No, we have to explain how the French have mistreated Muslim immigrants (and yes, they have done so), which means the murder is just, what, evening the score? When the two New York policemen were killed just before Christmas, someone I know posted on Facebook, “Chickens coming home to roost,” as if these murders were somehow the fault of the policemen. In the same way, we’re told by other folks that people like Eric Garner were not compliant, so apparently that means they deserved to die. And now we’re told that it’s wrong that the recent attacks that killed some 2.000 Nigerians haven’t received as much attention as the murders in France. And we can’t say anything about ISIS because America’s done worse things. Maybe it’s not like a baseball score; this is like tennis or a video game, with an endless stream of “yes, but” attempts to outdo each other in terms of moral outrage. For God’s sake, can’t we just grieve for all the dead and resolve to try and end the cycle of violence? Why does everything have to be measured and one-upped by everything else?

I watched a video called “Meet the Mormons” (no, not that one) that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 last summer, and it stirred up some emotions in me that I hadn’t felt in a while. I must say I enjoyed how the filmmakers treated the LDS “minders” as sort of a creepy kind of comic relief. It struck me how strange it was that church leaders thought they could (and should) exercise that degree of control over what the missionaries and other members could say to the interviewers, and predictably their efforts erased a lot of the filmmakers’ initial good will and ended up making the church look ominously controlling. Then I saw the trailer and some interviews about “My Husband’s Not Gay” (spoiler: yes, he is). I can only assume that these guys and their beards–er, wives–didn’t get permission from church leaders because this show turned out to be little more than a live-action dramatization of the song “Turn It Off.” Somehow I don’t think the LDS church wants to be known as a group consisting of guys who spend their time leering at men while insisting that they aren’t gay (it’s SSA) and pretending that they really, truly are attracted to their wives.

I read somewhere that when you realize that Mormonism may not be what it claims to be entirely and Joseph Smith may not have been the greatest person, it’s not necessary to abandon it as “false” and walk away. One of my commenters here refers to it on his blog as “playing the ball where it lies.” In other words, you recognize the reality and work with it as well as you can. I would say it’s more playing the hand you’re dealt, but who’s going to quibble over metaphors? But I think that depends on whether you believe that the LDS church is, as my commenter puts it, “inspired” and reflects the divine will in some way. Or you might just believe, as a friend of mine does, that the LDS church has a net positive effect on the world. I am happy to acknowledge that the church does good in the world, and I am convinced that a lot of people are better for their association with the church. Heck, it’s pretty obvious to me that there are people out there who need the church and whose lives would be much worse without it. But for me, the shock of acknowledging that I didn’t believe in the church’s truth claims was overshadowed a few months later when I realized to my utter horror that, despite what I’d told myself all my life, I was miserable in the LDS church. I had a testimony, as they say, but I wasn’t happy. Watching that British documentary and reading about the gay-not-gay guys in Salt Lake just reminded me of the church’s capacity to hurt people’s lives in profound ways. I really struggle sometimes with what I write about the LDS church. I really would like to get to a point at which I never think about it anymore. Of course, given my family situation, that is impossible. But every so often I am reminded that, at heart, this is an organization focused on increased membership and income. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true. I wouldn’t mind the church if there were universal and obvious blessings from membership, but from what I see, there aren’t any. So many Mormons are like my friend, who described himself as “tired” in the church, with nothing left of himself to give. Part of me sees that and wants to help people get out of that miserable existence. But I don’t. If people are happy in the church (and there are some), they should be in the church. But something has to give: either the church has to start doing something good for its members, or the members have to do good for themselves.

It’s late, and I am not sure I’m even making sense anymore. I really have mixed feelings about my relationship with the church. I want to believe it is the church of high ideals and personal development that I once thought it was, but too often I have to stop myself from calling it a stupid fucking cult.


17 Responses to Off the Top of My Head

  1. tolworthy says:

    Excellent blog as usual.

    I think your second post (the weariness and vexation of spirit that is Mormonism) answers your first part (must we respond to violence with “yes but the other side did…”). There are always different opinions on the surface (Islamists, westernists, Mormons, non-Mormons). Differences lead to conflict. But we can find common ground, or underlying causes, and that lets us move forwards together.

    The common ground in LDS Mormonism is that it makes people weary. Pretty much everyone agrees, so we can work with that. The common ground in political violence is that nearly everybody does it (either directly or by paying soldiers through taxes and then turning a blind eye). By acknowledging the other side’s view as valid we can move forward and find solutions.

    So back to the original question, I do think there is value in saying “yes but our side kills people too”. Not to pick sides, but because we will solve noting in the long term nowhere until we recognise the other side as having a valid point of view.

    I really like how you recognise that yes, Mormonism works for some people on some level. Until then we create a cartoonish caricature of the other side (idiot Mormons believing nonsense) and this is too superficial to be any use. The recent “je suis Charlie” movement is so symbolic of this cartoonish tendency. Let us literally caricature the other side! Let us treat them as idiots! Yes we can, but does it solve anything?

    Do we really think that Islamists are merely offended over images? Do we think there is absolutely no connection between how the west sees Islam and the thousands of people we kill in foreign wars?

    If we merely want to focus on “victim of the weak” then we do not need to see the other side. But if we want to ensure there are no victims next week then we need to see both sides.

    tl;dr in Mormonism or word politics it is good to see the others’ point of view so we can find the underlying causes.and thereby solve our problems.

    In my opinion.

  2. CAB says:

    Thank you, runtu! I think this may be my favorite of all your posts.
    “I want to believe it is the church of high ideals and personal development that I once thought it was, but too often I have to stop myself from calling it a stupid fucking cult.”

    I tried so damn hard to glue, staple, tie, wrench, paste, cobble my belief and trust in the church back together, but finally everything just fell to shards and I couldn’t any longer pretend that it was not a “stupid fucking cult,” and that it did far more harm than good, over all.

    In my therapy practice and in meeting with other people in settings outside of what was controlled by the church, I learned too much to be able stay. Victimizing the victims and shielding and supporting perpetrators of abuse, driving Gay teens to suicide, institutionalizing through the temple ceremonies and Proc on the Family the 2nd class citizenship of women, are just a few of the ways the church does incalculable harm to its members.

    For some years after my disaffection I was so angry that I could hardly talk about the church without expressing rage. And I often despaired of ever healing from my grief and anger and sense of betrayal. I could not “leave the church alone” because I was in deep mourning. If it were possible, I would have given anything if I could somehow make the church “true”–like a lover whose beloved has died, but can’t accept the loss.

    I understand why true believers resist reading about, learning and then acknowledging painful truths about the church–the devastation of the loss of what has shaped one’s life, the foundations of that life, is terrible, indeed.

    I have calmed down a lot since those agonized days, but I still sometimes struggle to not hate the church.

  3. CAB says:

    PS I quoted your opening lines elsewhere, I hope you don’t mind, runtu.

    • runtu says:

      Nope, don’t mind at all. I’m glad you comment here, as otherwise I might start thinking I was an angry, mentally disturbed crank. 🙂

      • CAB says:

        Ha. “…angry, mentally disturbed crank.” I think you might have just described me. Maybe it takes one to know one.

      • runtu says:

        Maybe I should just say I’m not just an angry, mentally disturbed crank. There’s so much more to me. To you, too, apparently. 🙂

  4. I think it is interesting how you have phrased this. You see the world as a “yes, but” sort of system. Terrorists attack in France “yes, but”, some, myself included, point out that the attackers were a marginalized minority and that the satire was unnecessarily inflammatory. in the end, however, it is One or the Other. Black or white. Good or evil. Tastes Great or Less Filling. And this applies to a lot in your life. Mormonism is either good or bad. Why can’t it be both?

    The problem is that the world has never been a “yes, but” world, but more of a “yes, and…” world. The terrorists to who killed French satirists were not marginalized youth or terrorists, they were both. There is a whole complex backstory that explains this sort of activity that has twists, turns, and nuances that really need a LOT of detail to understand. If you want to simply admire the problem that satirists were killed, and that is Bad, no one I know would disagree that this was a Bad thing. It does require a lot more study to fully understand what was really going on, however. Very few people want to invest the time, or effort in understanding these sorts of things, however, most people avoid complexity these days, it is messy.

    Mormonism is the same. It is certainly not pure as the driven snow, neither is it “this is an organization focused on increased membership and income” or “a stupid fucking cult.” It is a complex institution dedicated to something that is rather nebulous and ephemeral, metaphysics being a difficult science to work with at the best of times.

    Joseph Smith was inspired, noble, even laudatory. He was also a jackass, lecher, and arrogant fool. Neither statement is untrue. He was in fact both people, and a whole lot more. This is not “playing the ball where it lies”, at least not really, in part because there is no other way to play the ball, except where it lies. The other option is to walk away. If you want to stay in the game, “playing the ball where it lies” is the only option, so there is no particular strategy in that. No one walks up to a game of golf and says, “I think this time, I am going to simply hit the ball from where it lands”, because that is the way it is every time.

    Part of the problem is the erroneous belief that ex-Mormons are “lied” to. Mormonism does not lie, at least not in the traditional sense. The fact that fully understanding Joseph takes a lot of study to sort of “uncover” the dirty little secrets is not unusual. This is religion. This is ALL religion. The Catholic Church has a LOT more skeleton in their closet, likely because they have simply had more time to accumulate them, but they are there. Martin Luther was an unabashed racist and bigot. Muhammad was a jerk. This is human nature. And as we set up systems of theological thought, we tend to hide these inconvenient truths, in part because what we aspire to is to be better than this, so we try to create archetypes that exemplify what we want to become, even if the individuals were not really that way in real life. Consider American history, do we hear about the foibles of the Founding Fathers? They were jerks too, but history tends to gloss over these, particularly in Texas history books (they follow the David Barton school of scholarship).

    There is a story in Buddhism about how some scripture that begins “Thus I heard the Buddha say….” is completely false, but the teaching is good, so it is ok. Buddhists are comfortable with the conceptualization that their scripture may not be “pure” and that it is ok. I heard a Dharma talk where the priest said the story of the Buddha may not be true at all. But they were all ok with this. Some Buddhists may not be, but the ones I associate with certainly are, because they take the complexity as a given and understand the tendency to lionize and idolize both canon and people is an aspiration and not reality. The dirtier reality is dirty, but is at least real.

    Have you ever asked yourself why you continually fixate on Mormonism? I started studying Islam, because I like it. I like the faith, I like the ritual, I like the theology, I like the region. I like studying it. I like understanding the nuances and complexity of the system. I study Islam because of a positive orientation with the belief system. Your study of Mormonism focuses on the negative instead of the positive, and I think you are kidding yourself if you do not think this colors your commentary, or that it does not have a deleterious impact on your overall mental health. It is odd that you “want to help people get out of that miserable existence” when you hardly seem like you are enjoying yourself.

    • runtu says:

      Nice to have you back. I was wondering what had happened to you. It’s interesting how you want my remarks to fit neatly into a “black and white” dichotomy; so, when I say we shouldn’t be choosing sides with the “yes, but you’re worse” attitude, you see that as me seeing everything as “good or bad.” Very odd. I thought I was reasonably clear: life is not a team sport where you keep score between good guys and bad guys. How you got the opposite out of it is beyond my comprehension.

      Anyway, I will say again that I have never in my life said the LDS church lies, and I’m not sure where you’re getting that. I can’t disagree with anything you said about accepting religious leaders for being human, as I’ve said the same thing many times. Again, I wonder if you’re really reading what I wrote or just telling me what you think I believe. I have no idea. Anyway, my point, which you didn’t address is that everything depends on whether you think the church is inspired or a positive force in the world. If you do, that’s great.

      • WRT the attacks in Paris, as I said, if all you want to do is admire the carnage and say “This is bad…” no one I know will disagree with you. If you want to at least scratch the surface of the very complex and nuanced issues that led to this point, and will contribute to more violence in the future, with the ultimate end of hopefully leading to a societal change that recognizes many of the self-perpetuating negative influences in not only Parisian society but also American society, then far more detail is necessary.

        As for claims the LDS Church lies…see CAB’s comment. As for what you believe, you may not be aware how black and white your reasoning is.

        “too often I have to stop myself from calling it a stupid fucking cult.”

        Negativity is your élan. As a said, if I compare your interest in Mormonism, with Jan Shipps’ interest in Mormonism, or my interest in Islam, there is a difference in orientation. Jan Shipps is clearly critical of Mormonism, but not in the same way you are. I am critical of Islam, but not in the same way you are. Your negativity is coloring your perceptions.

    • CAB says:

      Mormonism is nothing if it is not about black and white, us vs them, good and evil, male and female. It is a religion of absolutes, certainties and guarantees.

      1) Buddhists do not claim infallibility for their leaders. In fact it almost isn’t even a religion in the usual sense, but more a philosophy of life.

      2) Mormons do claim the infallibility of their leaders, plus they claim that “obedience is the highest law of heaven.” Seems pretty black and white to me.

      3) Joseph Smith made some pretty substantial claims about his divine mission, etc.; he is all but officially deified now–see “Praise to the Man;” he himself said that he had done more for the world and humanity than anyone born except possibly Jesus Christ, and maybe even him, all of which removes him from the same category as the Founding Fathers with their “foibles.”

      4) The LDS Church does not just lie to former members, it lies on a regular basis, routinely, about a great many things. I think your definition of “lie” needs revisiting.

      I think a recent statement from BK Packer covers it: “Some truths are not useful.” Ah, there is that sticky little phrase–not useful. But not useful to whom?

      • runtu says:

        Well, I’m not going to into a discussion of whether or not Mormonism is a religion of absolutes. I think I’ve written just the opposite before, as I think the Nancy Rigdon letter spells out pretty clearly that the church does not really believe in absolutes. Will have to check. Anyway, I just was surprised that, when I said I thought people should stop taking sides and instead work together for peace, it would be construed as a black-and-white, us vs. them approach to the world. I honestly can’t figure that out. Maybe he missed the part where I said I don’t believe in gratuitously mocking other people’s faith, so I can’t support the ugly and offensive things Charlie Hebdo did (and still does). I do, however, support the fundamental right of people to say things I don’t like or that I find offensive. As I said, I find some of the Evangelical protests outside Temple Square to be disgusting and horribly offensive–not to mention completely counterproductive. I feel the same way about Westboro Baptist’s awful behavior. But they have a right to say and do those things, whether or not I like it. I have a right to be offended, and I have a right to do what I can to counter those ugly messages. But I have no right to forcibly attempt to silence them, through violence or any other means. What Brother Abraham is doing is setting up a false dichotomy, insisting that I believe you must either support French Muslims, or support Charlie Hebdo.

        In the same way, he insists that I believe Joseph Smith was either a pious Saint or a debauched liar. In my view, he was somewhere in the middle. And he insists that I believe the LDS church must be perfect (no dirty little secrets) or pure evil; of course, I don’t believe it’s either. But that won’t do for Mr. Abraham. He needs me to hate Joseph Smith and hate the LDS church. Why? I don’t know. I have to confess that I don’t think I’ll ever know who Joseph Smith was. I quite like the theology he came up with, especially the idea that humans have divine potential. And he certainly inspired fierce loyalty and love from his friends and followers, including my own ancestors. Then there are aspects of his life and behavior that I find pretty awful. But then I think we could say that about most people: we are a mixed bag because we are human.

      • WRT….

        1. You may want to read “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist” with regards to Buddhist infallibility. Buddhism is rife with the same spectrum of believers as any other faith system is. While it is not a religion, it does have some similarities that are interesting.

        2. I am not aware where LDS leaders have claimed infallibility in a theological sense. Prophetic calling certainly claims guidance from God, but guidance interpreted through a glass stained by the perceptions and prejudices of that individual. Also the theology of continuing revelation allows for significant flexibility in changing past actions, even given the potential claim of infallibility.

        3. Joseph remains a very interesting and enigmatic figure. Certainly he made a lot of grandiose claims, but most recognize the flawed individual involved. As I said, he was both Prophet and ass. He can be both, without conflict.

        4. As I said, the ex-Mormon argument about lies is sort of silly. The Church certainly believes their claims, and presents a whitewashed history, but this is identical to most religions. No real surprise here.

        And does BKP define all of Mormonism?

  5. CAB says:

    I am unfamiliar with the Nancy Rigdon letter and will have to remedy that. I am willing to reconsider my long-held opinion that the LDS church is one based on absolutes. But I still believe that the culture, if not the doctrine, is based on absolutes. The current climate of “you’re 100% with us, or you’re 100% agin’ us” is a case in point. Maybe we have different definition of “absolutes.”

    I agree that Joseph Smith was a mix of parts, like most, if not all humans. I don’t hate JS, but I do hate some of what he did and what has become of the religion he founded. I am related to him–he and my great-grandfather were 1st cousins–which may color my mixed feelings about him.

    Humans are messy and not simple creatures. Life is messy, and we all get to make the best of it we can. I feel very uncomfortable mocking that which is held as sacred by others. I am always a little sickened by displays of temple garments and ceremonies on the internet. So I agree with you about those who make almost their own sacred cause mocking what is sacred for others.

    It is possible that my discomfort is affected by my studies in other cultures and belief systems as an anthropology student. I learned that humans attempt to make sense of their worlds and that usually involves trying to create a way to have control over the events of your life, and to make sense of that over which you do not have any control. There are sound reasons why people came up with all the religions of the world.

  6. CAB says:

    Ok. THAT Nancy Rigdon letter. Yeah, I think we are perhaps talking about the same issue.

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