Monday, January 30, 2006

Where have all the mothers gone?

The other night, I went to see the musical “Aida” (the Elton John version, not the Opera) and I have just one question. Where did all the mothers go? For those of you not versed in the Aida story, it has a love triangle between an Egyptian princess (Amneria), the head of the Egyptian army (Ramades) and a slave from the kingdom of Nubia (Aida), who turns out to be the Nubian princess. All three main characters have a father who appears in the play. Aida’s father gets captured by the Egyptian army, Ramades’ father is plotting to kill the Pharoah and the Pharoah shows up just because he’s the Pharoah and you can’t have a story about Egypt without a Pharoah. But where are their mothers?

This is something that has bothered me about both T.V. and movies for quite some time. It seems that though major characters have regularly appearing fathers, mothers are quite a bit more scarce. This trend seems much more common among the sci fi/fantasy genres (where most of my attention lies) than say sitcoms.

When you think about science fiction and fantasy on television, what comes to mind: cool special effects, strange plots, interesting ideas, and even some character development. But when it comes to family relationships, specifically those relationships between main characters and their parents, there seem to be a lot more fathers.

The WB recently began airing a show called Supernatural (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer meets the X-Files). Two brothers find and destroy “monsters” based on common American myths (the girl who comes out of the a mirror if you say her name three times, the scarecrow, the man with a hook, etc.). Yes, these brothers had a mother, but she died tragically at the hands of some demon. Their father used to lead the family in their hunting, but now he is off on his own. The show is centered around finding their father and killing whatever killed their mother.

How about Star Trek, one of the most well known of the sci fi genre. Commander Will Riker of the Enterprise gets to have an entire episode where he not only deals with the emotional issues he has with his father, they end up in a fighting match. Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine hooks up with his father every time he makes it back to earth. Lt. Tom Paris struggles with the bad relationship he has with his father despite the seventy light years between them. There are exceptions in Star Trek. B’Elanna Torres of Voyager and Geordi LaForge of the Enterprise spend time worrying about their mothers. (It turns out they are both dead.)

This trend continues: Stargate SG-1, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Angel, Firefly, Charmed, and even Smallville. (Though the protagonist of Smallville has two loving parents, until recently, the antognist is constantly struggling with his father.) There are one or two exceptions. Buffy has a mother for five seasons, and don’t even get me started on Alias. (One of the most complication sets of relationships I have ever seen, though at the beginning of the show the title character had lost her mother when she was six and doesn't talk to her father.)

As for other genres of television, Cop/drama/medical shows mostly ignore character development in favor of plot. Those who do have parental figures also tend to have fathers (Crossing Jordan, Numbers), though ER has had a few mothers guest star. The other major genres of television, the Real Life show and the Sitcom, seem to have equal shares of parental figures. (Gilmore Girls, The Simpsons) Interestingly enough, it is in these genres that more main characters are portrayed as mothers as well as career women. (Close to Home, Medium, and CSI all have female main characters with children.)

As for movies, look at some of the biggest blockbusters. Pirates of the Caribbean has two characters with fathers. Elizabeth’s father is not only the governor of Port Royal, but he leaves his post to follow the Pirates who “kidnap” Elizabeth. As for Will, his father may not actual appear, but he drives the entire plot. (Bootstrap Bill) What happened to his mother is anyone's guess. Indiana Jones spends an entire movie arguing with his father. His mother is only mentioned in the past tense. The Lord of the Rings has a plethora of fathers. Arwen has a father. Frodo has a father figure. Sam is always talking about his father (my old Gaffer). Eowyn and Eomer have a father figure in Theoden. And let’s not forget the complicated relationship between Boromir, Faramir and their father Denethor.

Of course a discussion of blockbusters wouldn’t be complete without Star Wars. The original three movies are about a boy, a girl, and their father. Their mother, Amidala, does show up as a real person in the first three movies but it is sad that her role as a parent is non-existent. She lives long enough to bear the children but then passes away so that the true parental angst of the movies lies between Luke, Leia and their father. Star Wars does have one exception. Anakin has no father, though he does have a mother. Of course it is her death that begins him on a path to the dark side of the force.

Finally there are the Superhero movies. I have always been fascinated by the way so many superheroes go from ordinary guy with an extraordinary ability to a superhero. There always seems to some triggering event. For many superheroes, such as Daredevil, Spiderman, and Batman, the triggering event is the death of their father (or uncle in the case of Spiderman) in an alley at the hands of some lowlife. Even Elektra, one of the few female superheroes out there, makes her decision to fight when her father is killed by one of Daredevil’s nemeses. Superheroes, then do not interact with their fathers, but use the death of their fathers to spur them into action.

But Batman is just a little more interesting because he had a mother, and her death really didn't effect him. Bruce Wayne (a.k.a Batman) lost his mother to the same man who killed his father. In the latest incarnation of Batman, Batman Begins, it is his father’s death that takes center stage. His mother has little or nothing to say. (I honestly can't remember if she has even one line.) When Bruce Wayne has flashbacks of his early childhood with his parents, it his father, and his father’s words, that dominate and drive his decisions.

So where are the mothers? For fantasy and science fiction, mothers seem to be sweet, loving, perfect, conveniently dead non-entites who are only mentioned in passing with maybe a moment of grief attached. Aragorn mourns at the grave of his mother as Elrond reminds him of her sacrifices. (I think this happens in the Extended Edition.) Leia remembers her mother as sad, but she died when she was very young. Indiana Jones’ remarks only about his mother that she “didn’t understand” his father's obsession with the Holy Grail. Mothers are non-characters who may have once been in their children’s lives but are no longer important to the storyline.

So what is so special about fathers that they are so much more likely to show up in pop culture than mothers? Society is so concerned with single motherhood and teenage pregnancy. Women are more likely to raise their children and play a prominent role in their lives? Why don’t we depict more characters with live mothers? Perhaps it is because, despite our protestations over single mothers, we still believe that fathers play the biggest role in their childrens lives. Perhaps pop culture truly represents the ideal where fathers are more active in their children's lives. Perhaps it is because fathers are so often absent, emotionally or physically that adult children may have more complicated relationships with them.

What is so sad about all this is that society is constantly reminding us that mothers make so much of a difference in children’s lives. In the church, there is still a lot of pressure for women to stay home and raise their children. (The ideals of Republican Motherhood still exist.) But pop culture is telling us that mothers really don't matter that much. Yes, they need to be there to raise the children but as for interacting with them as adults, that's the father's job.

I would love to see more mothers, especially in the kinds of TV and movies I watch. I would love to see a superhero movie where the mother’s death spurs the action or where a mother and daughters fight the evils of the world. I want mothers to be more than the stereotype, more than dead, more than a past memory. I want there to be more live mothers on TV and in the movies.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

How to Cry in Church

By most measures, I am not very feminine. My husband has to drag me to Michael’s to look at decorations for the house, I cannot be prevailed upon to take pictures, let alone scrapbook them, and I will never be accused of being a slave to fashion, as the Car Talk guys so tactfully put it. But I have at least one tentative claim to femininity. I cry. Not delicately, like the doe-eyed women in movies who dribble out a few dainty, alluring tears. I sob convulsively. I cry like a…wounded buffalo?? It’s not the kind of crying that makes people want to offer me their great-grandmothers’ handmade lace handkerchiefs. It’s the kind of crying that makes people want to put something in my mouth so that I don’t swallow my tongue.

I have a long history of losing it at church. The first time I remember being pushed over the edge by sacrament meeting was when I was six or seven. My family was harried and late that morning, I was cross and uncomfortable in my Sunday dress, and I suspect some discouraging words may have been uttered all around before we barged in. At the opening strains of “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today,” I burst into angry tears because my soul was illuminated by not a shred of sunshine, and even then I was sure that everyone else was serene and happy and that I was alone in my puddle of misery. I had to be hauled out by my poor mother, who I’m sure was already stretched to the breaking point from juggling four intense and sometimes wild kids.

The February 2005 Ensign had a fascinating article by Carl C. Bruderer entitled ”Losing Barbara, Finding the Lord,” describing the pain of losing his wife to breast cancer and his subsequent journey to reactivity. The article was moving on many levels, but the part that absolutely riveted me was his description of seeing all of the families with both parents and ending up sobbing in the men’s restroom. At the point I read the article, I was making fairly regular trips from sacrament meeting to the restroom myself, for my own reasons, and it was so comforting to read that someone out there had done the same thing.

Recent posts have led me to reflect on the etiquette of religious crisis. Let’s face it, there are lots of reasons to cry in church, and probably all of us will experience one or more of them at some point in our lives. So, in the spirit of self-mockery and self-instruction, I offer my personal guide to crying in church.

First, cry quietly. Convulsive sobbing only creates unfortunate social complications that will likely make you feel worse, either in the moment or later, as you reflect miserably on the spectacle you’ve made of yourself. Kind people stare, try not to stare, or dither uncomfortably. (This is not their fault. When other people cry in my presence, I dither just as uncomfortably.) Should they ask you what’s wrong? Hug you? Leave you alone? Offer you a Cheerio? If you find yourself unable to keep it down, slip out as quietly as you can. In deciding whether to leave or stay, weigh the disturbance of your sobbing against the disturbance of rushing out of the meeting, and go with the lesser. Escalating sobbing suggests it’s time to flee.

Get your sobbing thoroughly out of your system before you attempt a return. While you’re completely convulsive, restrooms are best. You can lock the stall door and keep flushing the toilet if you have to, which, while undeniably a horrible waste of water, guarantees you privacy. In any other room, you risk interruptions that lead to stammered apologies on both sides. It’s also important not to convince yourself you’ve regained your composure before you actually have—this can lead to repeated attempted and failed returns, which only draw more attention. So once you’re out, don’t rush back until your hiccupping has faded of its own accord and you really have calmed down, not just stopped crying.

In the intermediate stage, after you have ceased convulsing but before you are ready to return, playing the piano in an unoccupied classroom can be very soothing.

If you are stuck in the front pew, where you would call more attention to yourself by leaving than by staying, another set of tactics comes into play. The most important thing is to get your mind off of what is driving you to tears by any means available. Open your scriptures. Contemplate polytheism in the Old Testament. Read the more anguished psalms, unless they make you cry harder. Read the Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver you have brought for this express purpose (I owe this suggestion to Lynnette. It really works!). Recite whatever scriptures, poems, or verbs you’re currently committing to memory to yourself. Say the multiplication tables backward. Make a frog out of the sacrament-meeting program. Hold the small child of a desperate parent near you.

Another tactic that rarely works, but might fool the unsuspecting: assume a beatific, touched-by-the-Spirit look. Attempt a radiant smile through your tears.

If you know you may have to leave sacrament meeting, Sunday school, Relief Society, or priesthood, position yourself in the back of the cultural hall or right by the door to facilitate a rapid exit. Recognize that certain days (Mother's Day, Father's Day, and stake conference are some of mine) are invariably bad, and on those days, position yourself accordingly, or just sit in the foyer. Recognize too that certain periods of life are just bad, and during those times, no matter what happens, you will probably break down. And remember that bad days and bad times, however endless they may seem, do invariably come to an end.

What do you all do when you lose it in the pews?

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I am not Academic

Steering things in a more secular direction...

By way of preamble, let me start off by saying this is in no way meant to be an attack towards academia, nor towards those who are academically-minded. And I bear absolutely no grudge against the world of academia (with the possible exceptions of the biology and American Heritage departments at BYU).

Anyway, so I went to my friend's mission farewell today. She's a girl I've known since I was ten, we were really good friends in high school and now she's off to serve a mission to Russia. (She actually told a cool story in her talk about how she was told by God when she was 15 that she would one day serve a mission to Russia and that's why she took all this Russian in high school and college and spent six months there teaching English.) I went over to her house after church where they had lunch and we sat around and talked and she yodeled for us (she's the only person I know who can yodel--it's pretty cool).

I was talking to her Dad, who remembered my major and asked about that and each of my siblings. I gave some such remark about how they were all off being academic, unlike me. To which he gave the reply along the lines of, oh yes, you're an academic, too. I kind of veered on past that comment by furthering the conversation in saying that they, my siblings, would rather sit around and discuss religion and politics where I would rather analyze movies, and he then said that I could incorporate that by analyzing the religion and politics in movies.

Now this is a man who I consider to be the most genuinely decent Church leader I've ever had--and I've dealt with some pretty bad ones. He was my Bishop a couple of years before he was made Stake President, and then was moved along even further up into pseudo-GA status. I took a semester of Book of Mormon from him my freshman year, and even used him as a reference when I applied to my major. And one of the coolest things about him is that he is just about the most genuinely open-minded, non-judgemental person I have ever met (which is refreshing, because one of my biggest complaints about Mormons--as a culture--is the general lack of sincerity). And I in no way think that he was trying to be offensive or push any buttons with me.

But I take the comment of someone telling me I'm an academic to be somewhat of an insult--both to me, and actual academics. Among other things, I think people will generally only tell me that because I come from a family of such, and therefore the assumption is that I fit in with the mold--despite the reality that I am really not that learning or book-oriented of a person.

Which is not, certainly, to say that I have no desire to participate in any of the politically or religiously-geared discussions on this blog. Most likely, I'll continue to lurk, and occasionally post a comment when I feel the burning desire. But my greatest aversion towards such discussions is actually one of the same reasons why I doubt I will be incorporating the subjects in my movie-learning/producing, etc. in the near future. I think I've gotten to the point where I'm a little tired of being angry. I'm tired of being angry about politics, and at certain people; I'm tired of being angry at the church, particularly in regards to women (and I'm trying desperately to prove to myself that it is possible to be a feminist and a good, faithful church member at the same time).

So when it comes down to it, I would probably pick analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of a video game over having a discussion about Khadafi and where it is he truly belongs. So I'll gladly participate in other conversations, but if anyone has any recommendations for a good RPG, I'd love to chat.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

(Possibly Nonsensical) Musings on Sense

The question of whether church teachings "make sense" (and to what extent it matters whether or not they do) has come up in a couple of places lately, and I've been mulling over my own views on the subject. I've always been a bit fascinated when I've heard people assert that they find the LDS church appealing because it makes so much more sense than any other religious system. I don't doubt their sincerity, but my own experience has been rather different.

Sometimes when other church members find out that I study theology, I get the impression that they are imagining that I'm learning about a bunch of bizarre and clearly apostate doctrines which simply don't hold up in comparison with the truths of the restored gospel. But if that were in fact my perspective on things, I'm not sure why I would even bother with this field. I've learned a tremendous amount from seriously engaging the theology of other traditions; my academic work has pushed me to think about issues in new ways, raised provocative questions, suggested alternate possibilities. I do have moments when I'm acutely conscious of just how Mormon is the lens through which I see the world, when having considered other options I still prefer the LDS theological angle— but I have to also admit that I sometimes find the arguments of other Christians to be more compelling than ours. It's a mixed bag. They have problems and contradictions and things that are hard to explain, and so do we. They have some really cool stuff, and so do we.

And yet I remain a Mormon (albeit a rather conflicted and confused one). I'm not sure I can entirely unpack the reasons for that, but I can say it's not because I think the LDS approach clearly makes more sense than that of anyone else. Over the years, in fact, I've become a lot more skeptical about a variety of fairly basic LDS teachings. I think that what has nonetheless kept me at least semi-active is my profound belief that I've authentically encountered God in the context of the church.

That, however, leaves me with the question: if my commitment (such as it is) is primarily based on experiential knowledge, does it really matter if things don't make sense? There are actually a large number of dilemmas about which I can say okay, this is an intellectually interesting problem, but it's not going to shake my faith if I can't figure it out. However, I find that there are some crucial issues which have more serious consequences. Joseph Smith famously said in the Lectures on Faith that we are unable to exercise faith in God without a correct understanding of his attributes. For me, the heart of the matter is the simple question: can I trust God? And when I encounter problems (such as evidence which suggests that God values women less, or that church leaders have felt divinely authorized to lie) which have the potential to erode that trust, I don't know that I can simply "have faith" and put those questions on the shelf, as such problems threaten to bring the entire shelf crashing down.

Does any of this make sense? ;)

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My Journey into Apostasy

It's now been almost two years since I received my endowment, and these have been, without question, the least religious two years of my life.

I was not a closet feminist before my temple experience. I was quite upfront with my bishop about the fact that I think there's no good reason for women not to hold the priesthood, and how I pray the Proclamation on the Family is uninspired. I took the temple prep class four times over the course of several years, and drove a series of teachers crazy with questions. (Why are ordinances necessary, anyway?)

But in spite of my grievances, I was committed to the church. Of course, even if divinely inspired, it's an institution run by humans, and it's fallible, and I don't expect to agree with every word that comes out of every church leader's mouth. But I was convinced through personal experience that God is loving and trustworthy and involved in the church, and I could forgive the church's mistakes for that reason only. I guess I figured, rights will eventually be wronged; God is so good, and so loving, that he's worth making some compromises for.

The temple blew me away.

At first I tried to convince myself that I just needed to bite the bullet and focus on the good and not the bad. I went back a second time, alone. I sat in the celestial room and wept and begged God to explain to me how he could be so cruel. I got no answer. And I never returned.

As angry as I was (and am), apostasy did not come easily or immediately. Far from falling out of the church, I feel I've jumped out, gradually weaning myself off religious practices that came to seem tained by this--what shall I say?--institutionalized declaration that women are not entitled to the same quality of relationship with God that men enjoy; that God does not trust women to the degree he trusts men.

It took me several months before I could bring myself to stop wearing garments, and I sobbed the night I first took them off, begging God to understand that I simply cannot endorse what they represent. For the longest time I vowed repeatedly to stay away from church services, but found myself showing up anyway. In my pre-temple life, I made an effort to fast every Sunday and read the scriptures an hour a day. Now I can't remember the last time I fasted, or took the sacrament, or got on my knees, or opened the scriptures. I've forced myself to give this all up. And there are times, not so infrequent, when I really miss the religious life.

To this day I am as convinced of the reality of God as I am of anything. But I've lost my faith in God's goodness, in his love for me, in his desire for my well-being and happiness. Call it a lack of faith (I do), but I don't trust God anymore. I can't worship God from within a framework that is profoundly personally demeaning.

I feel that for a long time I've made painful compromises because I value my relationship with God. I've been willing to forego "the right to act in God's name" on account of my two x chromosomes. I've spent my life reading androcentric scriptures. But there's a limit to the compromises I'm willing to make, and the temple is light years beyond it. My autonomy is sacred. Anything that threatens it I consider sacrilegious. I'm not going to cede my autonomy to a fallible male with a fallible ability to recognize God's will simply because God is unwilling to enter into a formal relationship with me directly. If God doesn't want me, I don't want him.

I think I've encountered just about every reaction you can imagine to this ongoing religious crisis. To those who say, "Honey, one day you'll understand why God commands what he does," my tendency is to reply, "Yeah, after I've been lobotomized." (Did I mention I have a problem with being condescended to?) Then there are those who are eager to uncover the "real" problem: am I not keeping the law of chastity? Do I have trouble with the Word of Wisdom? Other people explain to me how the church actually doesn't subordinate women, because they have wonderful mothers, or wives. (How nice for them!) One good friend suggested to me that the church is all about vicarious relationships: Christ did something for men they couldn't do for themselves, and then men do something for women. It's a gallant effort, and I appreciate the intent, but hierarchy is implied. Christ is able to lift men up because he's above them, and better than they. Why are further intermediaries needed? Why wasn't Christ's ateonment enough to fully reconcile women to God too?

One woman even accused me more or less of setting myself up to show everyone how much more sophisticated I am than they are. She was extremely intelligent, she informed me, and she had no problem with the temple: therefore, neither did I. (I don't claim superior intelligence. I don't deny that there are people smarter than I am who have no problem with the temple.) Over and over I hear that it's not a big deal. What can I say? It's a big deal to me. I'm not trying to judge those who love the temple or deny their spiritual experiences there (I have good friends in this category), or those who have made peace with it in spite of reservations. But I do wish people could accept the sincerity of my crisis.

Near the end of the movie _The Interpreter_, Silvia asks the leader of Matobo something to the effect of, "How could you give so much, and then take away even more?" I would love to put this question to God. What's so difficult about the entire issue is that I've felt God's love, and I no longer know how to make sense of it. Just the thought that there's even a possibility that the God who claims to love me expects me to accept *this is a knife to the heart.

Please observe the following guidelines in commenting on this post: 1) this isn't the place to discuss Kiskilili's spiritual failings, 2) though former church members are welcome to respectfully add their thoughts on this particular issue, this isn't the place to talk more generally about why you don't like the church or why you left it, and 3) please steer clear of specific discussion of the temple ceremony. --ZD Admin

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Role of Women in Heaven

Inspired by Starfoxy's excellent question about the role of women in heaven (see the thread on gendered language), I thought I would take this opportunity to ramble. :)

I admit, I'm confused. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that our sliver of knowledge about Heavenly Mother (i.e., she exists), was a "revelation" to Eliza R. Snow: she logically deduced that it would be nonsensical for there to be two genders on earth but only one in heaven--if God is our parent, and parents come in pairs, shouldn't he have a partner?

So far, so good. But by similar logic, I wonder, could we not posit the existence, for example, of heavenly cat parents? Otherwise where in heaven or hell did all these cat spirits that are being born into cat bodies at a rapid rate all over the globe come from? And if we assume God, all by his lonesome, is able to somehow come up with cat spirits and zebra spirits and all the rest, why could he not have produced women in the same manner, all by his lonesome?

In the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-3:24), God comes off as a little bit, well, bumbling; he makes the decision to create a "help meet" for Adam, randomly creates animals in an effort to that end, and then seemingly finally chances almost by accident on the creation of woman. Doesn't exactly sound like Heavenly Mother's at his side, does it?--or why couldn't he have just modeled Eve on her and figured the whole thing out a little sooner? Man is undeniably central in this account; woman, far from being God's "crowning creation," is derivative of man. Of course, Eve's subordination to Adam is explained as an eternal curse, but let's not fool ourselves: Eve was never equal to Adam to begin with.

If God created animals simply because a network of creatures in symbiotic relationships was needed in this earth life (after all, men can't perpetuate the species on their own!), how do we know women weren't created for nothing more than the same purpose? Man, after all, is granted divine dominion over both the animals and woman.

And then there's the old refrain that all those of us who faithfully attended seminary have heard chanted ad nauseum whenever the topic arises: the reason we know nothing about Heavenly Mother is that she's too, well, special, too *holy even. If this is the case, I wonder, whose decision was it that Heavenly Mother be an absent parent? Did Heavenly Father make it--essentially sticking his most valuable possession in a safe where no one could get to "it" and sully "it"? And was it really his decision to make, and if so, why? Or did Heavenly Mother decide herself she was too holy to have anything to do with her earthly children? If the way we pay highest respects to the holiest of heavenly beings is by refraining from attempting to make any contact at all, don't Heavenly Father and Jesus deserve this much respect too? Why not throw the scriptures away, give up prayer, and disband the Church--all as an act of ultimate worship?

I've been reminded on several occasions by several individuals that women must be valued by God, because--men can't get to heaven without 'em! I'm afraid I take little comfort in this fact. Several objects facilitate men's passage into heaven. They have their physical temple recommends, the vehicles that convey them to temples, baptismal fonts, the bricks that go into the construction of church buildings, on and on and on. But does God love the bus that shuttles his faithful flock to his holy house *for itself*? Does he feel concern for the bus when it encounters obstacles and weep when it breaks down and is replaced by a more efficient model?

I, personally, am either going to mean more to God than an object facilitating someone else's salvation, or I'm going to refuse to have a relationship with him at all. I simply will not be an eternal housepet.

In short, I'm not at all sure what exactly the women in heaven are doing, but I've become increasingly convinced I would rather not be doing it.

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The Social Functions of Happiness

Because of all the other bloggernacle posts on happiness and maintaining appearances (see Dave’s Mormon Inquiry, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Exponent II), I’ve been thinking about this subject for much of the day today. However, my thoughts have taken a slight detour through my academic interests.

I do a lot of work on thinking about the ways in which emotions are not only signals of internal states or biological processes, but have social functions. In Catherine Lutz’ Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, she argues that emotional concepts cannot be thought of as independent of the culture and society from which they originate, and that the discourses and structures to which emotions belong determine their very nature. She explains that "the concepts of emotion can more profitably be viewed as serving complex communicative, moral, and cultural purposes rather than simply as labels for internal states whose nature or essence is presumed to be universal" (5).

Today I’ve been thinking about the ways in which "happiness," an "appearance of happiness," or a "culture of happiness" has specific social functions within the church. While I think a lot has been said about the impact that this "culture of happiness" has on its individual practitioners, today I’ve been thinking about the impact that the "culture of happiness" has on the ways in which people inside (and outside) of the church relate to one another.

I think fMhLisa hits on one of these in her post, when she writes "You are happy for an audience of potential converts who will see any sign of unhappiness as an excuse not to convert." How many times have we heard conversion stories with the phrase "I was attracted to your church because everyone seemed so upbeat and happy"? While I would be interested in hearing to what extent this is an attraction that the church holds for non-members (my inclination is to think it’s exaggerated), I think there is truth in the belief that an appearance of happiness will attract people who are looking for a greater sense of peace and happiness in their own lives. There’s a reason that people in advertisements who are using various kinds of products are almost always smiling and having fun. (For the sake of not getting too complex, I’m ignoring the whole "light of Christ" issue, though I think more needs to be said on both the differences between and the relationship of a "culture of happiness" and exhibiting the "light of Christ.")

I think there are also social functions of a "culture of happiness" within the membership itself. There are scientific experiments that have been done on the effects of acting happy (or even doing something as basic as smiling). Most participants in the studies reported higher levels of happiness after pretending as if they were happy. While I am certainly not a proponent of the extreme versions of this formulation—-"if you try hard enough, you can make yourself happy" or "if you act happy, you will become happy"-—I do think that in many instances having interactions with happy people (who are truly happy in genuine, affirming ways) can increase your own levels of happiness. Similarly, if you were around a bunch of stressed and depressed people who were projecting those emotions onto others, your own stress and depression levels would probably rise. So, one social function of happiness is that it can increase happiness levels in certain kinds of interactions.

I think another social function of a "culture of happiness”"is that it seems to collectively affirm the truth of the gospel. Others have noted that there is an individual phenomenon (which Russell Arben Fox, in his comments on fMhLisa’s posts on FMH, labels "works righteousness") where we believe that happiness stems directly from righteous living, and if we display happiness, it indicates to others our own level of righteousness. I think this happens on the collective level as well. Not only does displaying an attitude of happiness signal to those around us that we are living a righteous life (according to church discourse/culture), if everyone is doing that, it affirms to the community the truth of their beliefs. If we look around us and see that everyone is happy, we can say to ourselves "the church is true—the fact that everyone is so happy is proof." Even if we are struggling with our own testimony, we can look over at Sister Jones, see that she’s happy living the gospel, and ideally that can give us hope that we can achieve a similar state of happiness in our own endeavors toward righteous living. It’s a collective affirmation that the church formulas for gaining a testimony, increasing our faith, and obeying the commandments really do work.

Now, I am not arguing that any of the above are "good" or "bad" social formations. I think they’re complex, and that they have both benefits and detriments. However, I think a "culture of happiness" impedes certain kinds of social formations, and I would argue that this is a clear problem.

For instance, I think that it often prevents certain kind of social conversations and relationships that could potentially be very strengthening to church members. I am reminded of the scripture in Moroni 6:5: "And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls." Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I think about this scripture, I imagine a church membership getting together and having intense, honest conversations about their struggles with faith and how to overcome them, etc.

A "culture of happiness" often impedes authentic conversations on how to deal with struggling testimonies, problems achieving obedience to certain commandments, etc. If we encouraged other kinds of emotional social formations, not only would those of us who are struggling with this issues (which is everyone in the church at some point in their life) feel more comfortable with our own inadequacies, we would be able to have authentic and strengthening conversations about the very real struggles of life and living the gospel. It can also make it much more difficult to "mourn with those that mourn" and "comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:9)

Other thoughts? In your mind, what kinds of social formations and relationships does a culture of happiness encourage? impede? Are these beneficial, harmful, or (my personal favorite) both?

Read more . . .

Blogging from North-West Cheeto Land

There I was, last October, reading 2 Nephi over my morning Crunchy Corn Bran and Mountain Dew, and suddenly I thought, I think I'll go on a mission. Yes, that's a lovely idea. I'll go convert those people who think they need no more Bible. Glad that’s settled. Are we out of skim milk?

Of course I was melting down an hour later, but the interim was a nice breath of irrational certainty. As bad of an idea as this looks from the practical perspective, it has a sanguine air of inevitability to it; I’m simply convinced that I’m going to go. It’s also a solid 180 retroversion from my previous position. I'm twenty-four, and in the last three years of eligibility, I’ve been fiercely opposed to the idea. Part of the reason is that there's so much about the Church that makes me crazy, and on irritable days I get this horrible vision of me in a denim jumper and nametag half-heartedly telling people to come join our church so they can be ostracized for drinking diet Coke and watching The Simpsons and also find out that their gender role involves being the adornment of humanity. Part of the reason is that although I’m committed to the LDS Church and call myself a devout Mormon, I’ve always struggled with the “one true church” rhetoric. I can’t imagine looking a committed Christian of another faith in the eye and saying “You’re wrong. I’m right.” As Eve has pointed out to me, though, committed Christians of other faiths don’t usually let the damn-mar-mans past the doorframe, so that’s an unlikely scenario.

And part of the reason is, for good or ill, selfishness. It’s inconvenient. I’m in the first year of my MA/PhD program and taking time out now means letting the Latin and Old English I’ve been struggling to bring up to par atrophy away back toward oblivion; coming back will be like starting over. I just took out 23K in school loans, and I certainly don’t have the resources to pay that back before I leave. I’ve uprooted my life and moved across the country once in the last six months, and I’m only just beginning to settle into my new home and find friends among my new acquaintances. I don’t want to deal with the social hardship of the mission, and I don’t want to deal with the social hardship of coming back. And given this detour, I’ll probably be into my thirties before I leave Bloomington, Indiana permanently. I know that doesn’t quite read as catastrophic, but I sort of had Bloomington filed away in my brain as a rest-stop on the highway of my life, somewhere I’m going just so I can get to somewhere else, and the prospect of turning thirty here makes me think it’s probably got more to it than picnic tables and a gas station. Going on a mission now seems like it’s going to leave me stuck later. It takes time out of a life that I never feel is large enough to do everything I want to anyhow.

On the other hand, my life invariably goes better when I do what I suspect God wants me to. I’ve made too many bad decisions while ignoring that persistent vibration in the back of my mind that falls somewhere between better judgment and revelation, which I associate with God making suggestions. And I remember my favorite professor at BYU suggesting that some people might need to hear the gospel from a girl with purple hair and a nose-ring, and even though I can’t take either to the MTC, I’ll still have them on the inside, if that makes any sense. If God and Christ and the Atonement really are at the center of my life, and I’d like them to be, then it seems like I should be willing to endure the inconvenience and the nineteen-year-olds to go to Russia or Finland or North-West Cheeto Land (as Ziff has kindly predicted) or even (heaven forbid) Iowa (I’ve actually had nightmares about getting called to Iowa) and tell people about these things that are so important to me.

So look for me this time next year, illicitly blogging from the MTC. Eve and that same BYU professor have both warned me that although I'll probably do fine in the field, the MTC will be a very grim trial indeed, and I'll need my Bloggernacle fix. Ten points to the best idea for how to smuggle in a laptop.

Read more . . .

Monday, January 23, 2006

Gender-Inclusive Language

In writing papers for school, I continually find myself confronted with questions about language and gender. Like most of the academic world, I pretty much take it for granted that saying "man" and "he" simply isn't going to cut it if I'm talking about the entire human race. The lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular is awkward at times— my own preference is usually to alternate between "she" and "he"— but I'm very much a believer in the importance of not writing as if all humans were male.

The place where I admit that I've found myself a bit less certain is in discussion of God. Like most Mormons, in casual speech I nearly always refer to God as "he," and that was initially how I wrote my papers. Yet the more I've thought about the issue, especially as I've encountered feminist theology, the more uneasy I've become with that choice. I'm quite sympathetic to the argument made by feminist Christian theologians that if God transcends gender, which is how mainstream Christians (a term I'm using in contrast to "LDS Christians") view deity, then there is no reason to limit our metaphors for God to masculine ones (like "father), or to use exclusively male pronouns when referring to the divine. (I'd recommend Elizabeth Johnon's She Who Is for a good discussion of this.) I also share Mary Daly's oft-quoted concern that "if God is male, then male is God."

The problem takes on different contours, of course, when one comes at it from an LDS perspective— our belief in an embodied God means that we aren't merely being metaphorical when we use the pronoun "he." Yes, we have a vague and very underdeveloped notion that there is a Heavenly Mother out there, too. But the God who acts in scripture, the God of official church discourse, is always male. And unlike mainstream Christians, I find that I can't dismiss such references as simply the language convention which the speakers are opting to use as they struggle to describe a being who is in reality neither male nor female.

I don't know where exactly I am right now on the question of how to refer God. At the moment, at least in my academic writing, I usually go for the strategy of avoiding gendered references altogether in my discussion of the divine. I don't entirely like that, though, as I think it comes across as making God sound more distant, more abstract, more impersonal.

When I go to church, however, these questions seem far away, because we're still back on the question of whether gender-inclusive language is even needed when we're discussing human beings. I do think this is an area where things have improved greatly over the last few decades, but I still find it jarring to hear talks about "man" and "brotherly love" given to audiences of both sexes. For years, I've changed the words of the hymns when singing them. (I remember one entertaining incident when I was sitting with several of my sisters and we all substituted "sister" for "brother," causing the people in front of us to turn around and laugh.)

I realize that the God-language question raises some real theological issues. But it strikes me as a fairly straightforward matter to at least note that women as well as men are members of the Church, and to acknowledge that reality in the way we talk. I'm a bit puzzled by the fact that those who resist the practice are so often the same people who are emphatic about the reality of gender differences; it seems to me that they would in fact be highly motivated to ensure that women weren't inadvertently being referred to as "men."

What are other people's thoughts on this?

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Glimmers of Grace

From the beginning of my studies in theology, I've been fascinated by the doctrine of grace. As with many questions in this field, I'm particularly interested in what it actually means for lived experience. If grace is something real, I keep asking, what concrete difference does that make in how I live? What does it mean to wake up in the morning to a world of grace?

I remember as a teenager furtively reading evangelical pamphlets which encouraged me to say the Sinner's Prayer and be saved, and feeling intensely drawn to that possibility. Though I disagree with various aspects of the overall evangelical outlook, I think there is something deeply powerful in that basic idea that you can approach God even from the wreckage of your life and he won't turn you away, that you don't have to live up to some minimum standard before you can ask for his help. I love the story of Alma's conversion, how in Alma 36:18 he cries, "O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me" and then in verse 19, he reports, "I could remember my pains no more." I'm always struck by how there is no verse 18.5 in which the Lord says, "Well, I might think about forgiving you, but only if you devote the rest of your life to becoming a great missionary."

On perhaps a similar note, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich makes the case that repentance is actually the result of forgiveness, rather than the other way around. Last fall I read a book by the Orthodox author Olivier Clement, in which he comments, "the awareness of being loved and the response that it unlocks are the only criterion of repentance." I've found such observations helpful in coming to re-think repentance not so much as something which you endure in order to re-gain God's favor or appease his anger, but the desire to change which is sparked by sensing God's radical acceptance of you. Several twentieth century theologians have pointed out that grace isn't some kind of substance which can be bottled and analyzed; rather, grace is a relationship. It is God's steadfast willingness to be in relation with us, a relationship which if we will allow it can be transformative of who we are.

Yet I often struggle to believe in that possibility, go through times when life feels empty and dark and I wonder why, if grace is everywhere, I am so unable to see it. I've come to believe more and more that grace tends to be mediated through other things, that it is not an abstract force "out there" somewhere but rather a part of the fabric of my everyday life, and that if I'm going to find it, it will be in those quotidian details. I often glimpse it in literature or poetry or theology or music. Most of all, I encounter it in the people in my life who are patient and forgiving and don't give up on me even when I make serious mistakes. It is through the experience of such relationships that I've gradually come to develop more trust in a God who is not seeking to condemn, but who is "full of grace, equity, and truth, full of patience, mercy, and long-suffering." (Alma 9:26) It may be rare that I directly see the workings of grace, but when I look, I am frequently surprised by how many hints I see of something just around the corner, beckoning to me.

Read more . . .

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Words of the Heart

My favorite part of the Joseph Smith story has always been this passage:

While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. 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; for how to act, I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know…(JS-H 1:11–12).

I love this passage because it describes an experience I have had over and over with the scriptures, and also because I hope and yearn for the generous and comprehensive God James promises, a God who gives to all, who desires us to seek Him, who does not rebuke me for my ignorance. When I take the time to approach the scriptures with an open heart, sometimes a passage I’ve heard or read many times in boredom or distraction pierces me to the very core of my being, speaking to me at a level of understanding that involves and yet exceeds both the intellectual and the emotional. I could not explain what it is about such scriptures that alters me, suddenly deepening my understanding of their words in a way that is beyond words and unmistakably summoning me to a better life.

The experience Joseph describes of being so profoundly spoken to by a scripture that he returns to it again and again, of being called to a deep and self-implicative reflection that radiates from the words into his life and calls him into a deeper communion with God is at the very heart of my experience of the gospel. I think of really reading the New Testament for the first time as a college freshman, of being newly stunned by the ethical power and beauty of Jesus’ teachings and knowing, knowing on that level beneath the mind and even the emotions, that they were divine, of knowing This is how I must live my life. I think of Abinadi rebuking the priests of King Noah because he perceives that the commandments of God “are not written in [their] hearts” (Moisah 13:11). And of the Old Testament, speaking of the law: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart” (Deuteronomy 6:9). And of Isaiah, where God addresses the people “in whose heart is my law” (Isaiah 51:7). And of Jeremiah’s experience of the word of God as an irresistible fire: “his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jeremiah 20:9). And of the promise in Ezekiel: “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19–20). And of the description in Hebrews: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God discerns me, searches me and tries me, as the Psalmist says (Psalm 139:23), and teaches me to confess and forsake my sins (Doctrine and Covenants 58:43): “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).

In the gospel of John, the chief priests and Pharisees ask the officers why they haven’t brought Jesus, and they answer, “Never man spake like this man.” (John 7:45). With them I say that although there are many writers I adore, never has anyone spoken to me as God has. Nothing calls to the very depths of my soul like the scriptures. Nothing.

Perhaps one way to view the labor of this life is, through the grace of God, to bring my body and soul to conform to His words as Christ, the perfect example and Savior, was the word made flesh (John 1:14), to write and write my stony heart into a heart of flesh that loves the ordinances of God—or, more accurately, to open my heart to God, that in His grace and generosity He may write and write upon it, that with Enos I might “declare...the truth which is in Christ all my days, and…rejoice…in it above that of the world” (Enos 1:26).

What scriptures speak most deeply to you?

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Searching for Honesty and Wholeness in Teaching Women’s Studies

I’ve been a teaching assistant for an introductory Women’s Studies class the past few semesters. Last semester I had a rewarding and thought-provoking experience (I’ve actually had many, but I’m going to talk about one in particular) with one of my sections. We were talking one week about art and activism and the ways in which women have used art to represent their lives and make feminist statements. I think the reading prompted the students to consider how to negotiate feminism in their own lives because one student expressed frustration with translating the ideas from class into her lived experience. She was trying to deal with friends dismissing her by saying things like “Oh, there she goes again with her feminist complaints about patriarchy,” and she wanted to know what to say in these situations; basically, she wanted to know how to communicate the ideas she learned in class and have people actually listen. We talked in class some about that frustration, and ended up bringing the conversation back to the art we were discussing—how the women artists used humor, creativity, and personal experiences to reach their audience (rather than just angry ranting).

Then one of my students asked me about my own experiences with feminism and Women’s Studies. In a website we looked at, the woman artist expressed how her initial enthusiasm for Women’s Studies had waned at a particular point in her life because she found herself only having conversations about feminism with other feminists, and my wanted to know if I had had a similar experience. I think my student was also asking me was whether or not I got tired and frustrated after years of being a feminist and multiple semesters of teaching Women’s Studies, and whether or not these things dragged me down and made me lose my enthusiasm for feminism and Women’s Studies.

I told my students that actually the opposite was the case—that my enthusiasm for the subjects I teach my students has actually grown, that I came from a background where feminism was looked at with suspicion, and that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained more confidence in and enthusiasm for my feminist beliefs. I didn’t go into a lot of detail because my classes are student discussion and not instructor-centered, but afterwards I reflected more on the students question; I thought about how I negotiate feminist theory in my own life, especially in regards to the church (which is the place I encounter the most non-feminists).

In high school and at the beginning of college, I was a person who believed the stereotypes about feminists and had no desire to take a Women’s Studies class. I didn’t want to hear about how my desire to get married and be a mother was wrong (little did I know that I probably wouldn't have heard this). My first encounter with feminist theory was in an introduction to critical theory class, but I didn’t really spend much time thinking about it because it was mostly about feminism and film (all that stuff about the "male gaze"), and it wasn’t directly applicable to my life. When I got to my Postmodernism class the next semester, however, I encountered my first article about the history of the Women’s Movement, and its complex portrayal of the debates and tensions within feminist circles strongly affected me on both an intellectual and emotional level. I found myself simultaneously agreeing with and resisting things that seemed to directly contradict what I believed.

Obviously, my identification with feminism grew (a story I’m not going to detail now), but I still find myself negotiating tensions between my conflicting beliefs, both at church and in the classes I teach. I have to deal with a certain amount of compartmentalization, and I tend to not share my complete story with people in both arenas. At church, I don’t introduce myself as a feminist, I don’t try to convert other women to feminism, and I don’t do feminist critiques of issues such as how church culture and discourse has their own problematic version of women’s appearance being connected to their power. I do sometimes share my feelings in more personal settings, but I’m often scared to say something even then. While I want to be honest, I don’t want to deal with the aftermath, as a tension-filled Visiting Teaching experience earlier this afternoon reaffirmed. On the other hand, in my Women’s Studies classes, I don’t share with my students my turbulent and conflicted thoughts on the subject of abortion, and in our unit on women’s sexuality and our discussions of heterosexism, I don’t tell my students that I’m still a virgin and that my church teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I think that honesty about one’s own experiences can be powerful teaching moments, but it’s difficult for me to use my own experiences as teaching moments when I often can’t make sense of them myself.

Despite this compartmentalization and my inclinations towards silence, I find myself increasingly trying to find ways to share my honest thoughts and integrate these two disparate parts of my life. I was brave enough in a Relief Society lesson I was teaching on the Priesthood to explain how my focus on the Priesthood as the power of God (and my avoidance of any gender-related discussions) was because of my own emotional discomfort with the issue. I find that feminism and Women’s Studies has increasingly helped me make sense of my questions about the church’s teachings on gender—something I always possessed but didn’t have a language for. My understanding of women as divine individuals has strengthened my belief in the goals of feminism that are about women realizing their potential, desires, and goals (something that is at the heart of feminism).

What I find the most rewarding and where I find the most wholeness, however, is in teaching Women’s Studies. I see my own experience reflected in my students grappling with ideas they find liberating, challenging, and sometimes threatening. I tell my students stories about my life that I can make sense of. I find joy as these students come to class, trying to make sense of their lives, and leave with alternate and positive ways of thinking about issues that are often very painful for them (violence against women, eating disorders and body image, etc). When students tell me stories about how their friends react negatively to what they’ve learned, I’m sad, but I’m also excited that this class not only increases their knowledge, but also directly translates into their everyday lived experience. When I reflect back on my answer to my student’s question last semester, I wish I had been better able to articulate that despite the many struggles I’ve had integrating feminism into my life, I don’t get frustrated with feminism or Women’s Studies because of her and the rest of my students.

Read more . . .

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Headbanging through Church

Although I relish VTing horror stories more than I should (it's really hypocritical of me to pray to forgive these people and then keep recounting and relishing their insensitivity), the aspect of Lynnette's post that interests me the most is this paragraph:

But this is one of the many areas in my relationship to the Church where I find it hard to delineate how much of the problem is me (my negative attitude? my lack of faith?) and how much is a legitimate mismatch between the program and myself. In other words, could I make it work for me if I tried harder, or would that be more akin to repeatedly banging my head against the wall and expecting it not to hurt?

When it comes to Church programs, I'm a lifelong headbanger. Young Women's, seminary, and now VTing and Enrichment generally just don't work for me. I go through headbanging cycles like this: guilt for nonparticipation, gird up my loins have more faith pep talk to self, try program out, and experience nauseating headbanging sensation and vivid flashbacks of why I quit before. Rinse and repeat. And repeat and repeat and repeat.

What is the voice of God in all this? On the one hand, the official discourse tells me to participate, and sometimes, at least, I think I should. Quit being so hypersensitive and judgmental, I tell myself. Give it a chance. On the other, I've sometimes wondered after a particularly spectacular headbang if God isn't trying to tell me to quit beating my head against the wall.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Confessions of a Visiting Teaching Drop-out

For the past two years or so, I've requested to not have anything to do with visiting teaching. I have a kind of meta-guilt about this, in that I feel like I ought to feel guilty for it. (I certainly hear plenty of exhortations on the subject calculated to prick one's conscience.) But the truth is that I don't actually feel all that bad. Not being involved in visiting teaching has been such an immense relief for me that it's hard to summon up much regret for having made such a choice.

I don't entirely understand why I have such negative feelings about the whole thing.
It certainly hasn't been all bad; I've at times had visiting teachers and teachees whom I quite liked. And unlike many people I've talked to, I haven't had any truly awful visiting teaching experiences. But nonetheless, when I have participated in the program, it's usually felt like far more misery than it was worth, a horrible weight hanging over me every month. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I've generally viewed upcoming visiting teaching appointments in a similar manner to how I've viewed upcoming exams, with a combination of stress and anxiety and even dread.

Maybe part of the problem is my sense that in such a context I have to censor much of who I am. When church-related topics are discussed, I often don't want to say what I really think for fear that it will lead to either a fight (which I'm guessing is probably not one of the Relief Society's goals for visiting teaching), or that the other sisters will be concerned for my eternal soul and start trying to "fix" me. And it takes a lot of energy to come up with comments which aren't dishonest but which also aren't going to stir up unnecessary controversy.
What do you say, for example, when you more or less disagree with the official message, and your companion and the visiting teachee are discussing how marvelous it is? It's not that I think that all disagreement should be avoided, though I'll admit to being a person who isn't crazy about conflict. But visiting teaching doesn't usually feel like the most appropriate setting to start airing my more heretical thoughts.

Part of this is probably also tied to personality tendencies. I'm very introverted, and I find engaging in small talk with people whom I don't know well to be roughly as pleasant as having root canal work in the best of situations, let alone situations in which you're visiting someone who would probably rather be doing something else but is doing their duty by allowing you to come by.

But this is one of the many areas in my relationship to the Church where I find it hard to delineate how much of the problem is me (my negative attitude? my lack of faith?) and how much is a legitimate mismatch between the program and myself. In other words, could I make it work for me if I tried harder, or would that be more akin to repeatedly banging my head against the wall and expecting it not to hurt?

The strange thing is that at least in theory, I rather like the idea of visiting teaching, of working to ensure that everyone in a ward feels connected to at least a few other people. I really can see its potential value. But when I'm confronted with the reality of it, my immediate impulse is to go into hiding. So I'm curious—how do other people feel about visiting teaching? Do you do it? What aspects of it have you found positive, or not-so-positive?

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Life as a Test

I actually attended Gospel Doctrine yesterday (don't fall over in shock, anyone), and there was much discussion of this scripture:

"And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them." (Abraham 3:25)

I've heard all my life that life is a test. But I'm not entirely comfortable with that way of talking about it, and I've been thinking about why that is. Maybe it's that a "test" sounds to me like something being given by a neutral, disinterested party— as if God were a scientist running us through mazes and observing whether we or not we succeed. It strikes me as rather similar to the notion that God is responsible for all the trials in our lives, an idea which I've always found tremendously disturbing. (To clarify, I do believe that God can bring good out of even awful situations, but I don't think that's the same as saying that God is the one responsible for such situations.)

Perhaps I also dislike the metaphor because it sounds so external. I do think our choices matter, but I think they matter because they make us into the people that we are— not because God is going to assign us a grade at the end. "Sorry, you almost made the 90 percent cut-off for the Celestial Kingdom, but unfortunately you sometimes skipped your visiting teaching." (Minus the 90 percent bit, I actually once heard a statement along those lines in Relief Society.)

But I think my biggest objection is that life seems less meaningful somehow if its most fundamental purpose is about passing or failing. I believe that our experiences here have some kind of intrinsic value, that they're more than just lines to be added to a celestial resumé. It seems to me that the purpose of this life must be closely tied to experiential learning, in that we have experiences here that we couldn't have in the premortal world— such as being embodied, or having to make decisions in a situation of ambiguity. And perhaps my problem with the test idea is that I don't really associate tests with learning; I see them more as a kind of arbitrary hoop-jumping. My sisters and I have often discussed that feeling of wishing you had the time to genuinely learn the material you were studying in school, instead of frantically choking it down. Is it possible, I wonder, that focusing on life as a test which you have to get right could lead you to miss out on a lot of what is actually most rich and valuable about this experience of mortality?

Read more . . .

Saturday, January 07, 2006

An Inarticulate Hunger: LDS Women and Graduate School

Last night I read again in 3 Nephi 28 about the three Nephite disciples who didn’t dare tell Christ what they most desired, leaving him to read the thoughts and the sorrows of their hearts. I won’t pretend that my desires are anything like theirs, but their fear to speak their own deepest yearnings lays bare something in me.

Growing up in Utah County, I didn’t realize it was possible for an LDS woman to go to graduate school. I don’t remember meeting any women who had, and the women I heard about who pursued advanced degrees or careers were usually spoken of with disapproval. Like my sisters here at Zelophehad's Daughters, I’ve always had a passion for books and ideas, but I've also long felt that my desires for learning were not just daring, but beyond the bounds of religious acceptability, even evil. From the time I was eight or nine and throughout Young Women’s my future was usually laid out for me in terms of marriage and children. Among the hard lessons I absorbed during those years was the message that marriage and children would obliterate the intellectual desires that, consequently, came to feel so presumptuous to me that I hardly dared articulate them. That lesson, among other influences, taught me to view marriage and children with resentment and dread, as an unavoidable but divinely ordained fate. I recoiled from what I saw as a contracted future of feminine simpering (the women I identified as “real” Mormon women simpered) and struggling with too many children (I was the sort of Mormon girl who hated to babysit my own brother and sisters, let alone anyone else’s.). To borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich, I was split at the root, my public religious life set in contradiction to the desires it rendered illegitimate and drove underground. As an adolescent I read all of Chaim Potok’s novels of religious conflict over and over, frantic for answers to questions that I couldn’t ask in the seminary classes I rarely attended. I remember the mute desperation I felt in junior-high and high-school careers classes, in senior meetings with my guidance counselor, whom I told I wanted to be a music teacher because that seemed an acceptable answer for a Mormon girl. In college I had long conversations with God about the harsh dichotomy between the limits imposed by my gender and my internal wildness. I accused God of cruelty, wondering why, if He had made me a woman, He had also afflicted me with this relentless fervor to know, to know, to know. Wallace Stevens said, “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never”—but the longings of the mind can also be the longings of the heart.

When my husband began graduate school in the fall of 1998, we moved from Provo, Utah, where we had both been attending Brigham Young University, to a remote rural area of South Dakota. The transition was a difficult one for me. I felt abruptly cut off from intellectual pursuits. Once every month or two, without having planned to, I would find myself reading until 4 a.m., restless, giddy with lack of sleep and the wild contemplations of darkness, and ravenous for something I had long tried to convince myself was my religious and moral duty to sacrifice. But I often felt frustrated with that sacrifice and resentful of my husband’s intellectual adventures, partly because few besides my long-suffering husband seemed to see it as a sacrifice. In the LDS community, moving for a husband’s schooling or job is what women do, what many of the other women in my ward had also done, and it seemed routine, scarcely worth comment. However, the branch there—along with the immense and almost inhuman beauty of the Great Plains, the sea of prairie and sky I fell hopelessly in love with, as I had earlier fallen in love with the mountains and the desert—saved me. Although we left the plains seventeen months ago, I still physically ache for that dizzying view that exceeds the eye’s circumscription, for vast skies streaked with clouds or traced with the circles of enormous flocks of migrating birds or littered deep with stars. It is the geography of eternity into which I still escape time’s contingencies. And although I was raised in the church, living in that branch was the first time in my life I ever made friends in an LDS congregation. I had been so accustomed to looking for friends elsewhere that it took me a year or two even to imagine that a branch might become a home.

Last summer, my husband completed the final requirements for his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. That process, along with his acquisition of an M.B.A., took seven years. Honoring a long-standing agreement that we made partly in recognition of the fact that he is far more likely to find gainful employment in his fields than I am in mine, he finished his education first. Now we have reversed roles, and as he’s begun his first full-time job, I’ve returned to graduate school. Partly because we’ve moved twice recently, we have had different four bishops and branch presidents over the past two years. In casual conversation, two have explicitly discouraged me from pursuing a Ph.D., both by posing the question in terms of whether I don’t have enough education already. I don’t mean to condemn these bishops, nor to make them offenders for a word (Isaiah 29:21, 2 Nephi 27:32). I don’t envy them their callings, and I can only imagine the excruciating situation of living at the center of the ward fishbowl and of having to monitor every word that falls from their lips. The words that too routinely fall from my lips would not bear such scrutiny. I realize too that neither they nor any of us can entirely escape our cultural constraints. Yet their casual discouragement evokes an old sense of loneliness, of being split at the root.

I struggle to have faith that my faith, most truly understood, pervades and orients my life and is not merely a fragment of it, that even a woman’s mind can be consecrated to the purposes of God.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Comment Policy

You're more than welcome to add your two cents to the conversation here; we greatly appreciate the well-thought-out and insightful responses that so many people have generously shared with us. Just a few guidelines to keep in mind:

1. Please focus on your own experience, ideas, and interpretations. This isn't the place to call others to repentance, or to attempt to remove the mote from anyone else's eye. Comments along the lines of, "in my experience, this has been helpful" or "this is the way I see things" are fabulous. Comments along the lines of "this is what's wrong with you" are a problem.

2. You're welcome to explain why you completely disagree with someone's ideas, but personal attacks are not acceptable. This includes such behaviors as name-calling, insults, or questioning other people's personal righteousness.

3. Please keep ranting and raving to a minimum. We'd like to keep the tone here constructive.

4. While you certainly don't have to be LDS to participate here, please respect that this is a blog aimed primarily at an LDS audience and avoid comments with a generally anti-Mormon tone. This isn't the place to debate the veracity of the LDS faith, or to attempt to argue anyone in or out of her/his beliefs.

Comments which violate these rules may be removed. If this happens and you think you've been misinterpreted, or you have other questions about this, you can contact us at

In a nutshell, don't be obnoxious and don't be self-righteous, and you should be just fine. :)

(updated 5/1/06)

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About Us

Six of us are sisters:

Eve is working on a PhD in comparative literature and philosophy. She's been married for nearly ten years to a clinical psychologist who is much better at home-decorating than she is. She's perfected the skill of studying Latin while watching The Lord of the Rings, but her penchant for multitasking sometimes leads to problems when she attempts to talk on the phone and cook at the same time.

Lynnette is in a PhD program in systematic theology. She's especially fond of chocolate, fantasy novels, and staying up too late, and her highest priority in life is beating her siblings at Settlers of Catan (an occurrence which doesn't happen nearly often enough.)

Kiskilili is pursuing a PhD in Akkadian and Sumerian studies. (The name "Kiskilili," by the way, is that of an Akkadian demoness.) She's a bit fanatic about In Search of the Trojan War, dreams about learning every language in the world, and is more likely to celebrate Bach's birthday than her own.

Elbereth recently completed a B.A. in history, and is currently employed as a secretary for a gaggle of family historians. Her interests include pop culture, library science, women's history, and children's books. She served a mission in Detroit, where she learned (among other things) the skill of fitting large pieces of luggage into a small car trunk.

Melyngoch is enrolled in a MA/PhD program in English with a focus on medieval studies. She has an incomprehensible attachment to the color orange, has dyed her hair often enough that no one remembers what its original color was, and is very interested in social justice. She recently came out of the closet and confessed that despite appearances (e.g. her nose ring), she's in fact planning to serve a mission.

Amalthea is about a year away from completing a B.A. in film studies. She plays a mean game of Mario Kart, is known for going to see movies she enjoys multiple times (we're talking double digits here), and is generally more of a salty spirit than a sweet one.

Unlike the real Zelophehad's Daughters, we have a brother. Ziff is a perpetual graduate student. His name comes from Mosiah 11, where we learn that evil King Noah went so far as to tax the people's ziff at a rate of 20%. He and his wife have two incredibly cute sons, who are very popular with their aunts.

Our final two members aren't related to the rest of us, but have graciously agreed to contribute nonetheless (and, we hope, prevent our blog from collapsing into complete family insanity):

S is in a PhD program in English. She's a committed feminist who loves to cook and shop for clothes. She's currently engaged. She and Lynnette survived being roommates while attending a university in the Midwest, and have been good friends ever since.

Katya is working on a Master's degree in Library Science. Her alias comes from taking Russian classes as an undergrad, and a Midwestern winter has convinced her to take up knitting. She explains, "Melyngoch have been friends since about halfway through her first semester at BYU, when she figured out that I was more than "nice" and I figured out that she was more than an angry little freshman."

(updated 6/2/06)

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Welcome to Zelophehad's Daughters!

If you're not familiar with the story to which our title refers, it comes from the book of Numbers. In a nutshell, Zelophehad died without sons, and his daughters came to Moses with the request that rather than having the property pass out of the family, they be allowed to inherit. Moses took the case to the Lord, and got this response:

"The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them." (Num 27:7)

It's a fun story because it's about women who aren't afraid to speak up for something which has been denied them in a patriarchal society, and God even takes their side. (Also, the name Zelophehad just sounds kind of cool.)

We're particularly interested in blogging about subjects related to Mormonism, feminism, and academia. But we might also from time to time tackle other very important topics such as Cheetos, pop culture, and Star Wars.

Thanks for coming by! If you'd like to get in touch with us, you can email

(updated 5/1/06)

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