Monday, August 25, 2008

Why don't we put Anti-Nephi-Lehities on T-Shirts?

Mormons love the story of the 2000 Stripling Warriors. There are invigorating songs, t-shirts, action figures, cartoons; little boys dress up and want to be like them, and even the BYU head football coach references the story to inspire his team.

In Sunday School this week we covered both this and the foundation story of the Ammonites or the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi and I was struck by how disproportionately the two stories have manifested themselves in modern Mormon culture.

As a young boy it was perhaps natural to aspire to be a stripling warrior, I mean--just look at those guys, what scrawny preteen wouldn't want to have arms like that. However, as I advance in years after yet another birthday, I am increasingly troubled that we often glorify the militarism side of the story and brush over the pacifism element of the story. I wonder if the the choice in artwork and song would be different if the LDS Church were dominated by followers of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. and not by lifetime members of the NRA?

There are of course multiple reasons why the stripling warrior story has become more popular. The name for one, "Anti-Nephi-Lehities" does not carry the same machismo as the brawny "stripling warrior." I will point out that that phrase "stripling warrior," let alone, "strapping warrior" which is more often the connotation and visual depiction, is never used in the text itself. The text does use the word 'stripling' in it's constant emphasis on how young the boys were and it uses the term soldiers not warriors. (In passing I'll also point out that the term AntiNephiLehi often strikes readers as funny because of our association of the Greek root "anti" meaning "opposition" but greater textual analysis shows cultural and textual consistency, another score for Joseph Smith).

If the visual depictions were more accurate they would more likely approximate the images we see of boy soldiers in the modern era although the comparison stops there as the stories of valiant youth fighting to preserve the life and liberty of their pacifist parents is not even comparable the the innocent suffering of kidnapped-at-gunpoint slave soldiers in the Congo or Uganda.

I look forward to seeing the piece of art that will depict the parents as the heroes and the tender young boy soldiers going to fight as a noble but ultimately tragic necessity.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mormons should carol instead of knock doors.

One element of LDS culture that I absolutely love is the strong choral tradition.  I am admittedly influenced by my own mother being a choral instructor and my having been a singer in choirs all my life but I also think theologically it is a beautiful cultural treasure. 

Mormons are known for having great choirs, most prominently the Mormon Tabernacle Choir which has even been labeled "America's Choir" due to it's performance at multiple presidential inagrerations and having the longest running radio show broadcast in the world.   Brigham Young University also has a great suite of choirs.  Gladys Knight's choir, Saints Unified Voices, is probably the greatest recent addition to the Mormon suite of choral music and I believe will be looked back on as a significant development in the LDS musical tradition.  Last but not least, one of my personal favorites is the Montreal Homeless Choir started by a member in... Montreal.  

As a people we are striving to be of "one heart and one mind," and the act of singing in "one voice" can be both a beautiful manifestation of that spirit as well as a mechanism for building such a community.  It is a symbolic gesture that is used throughout Mormon worship.  I am convinced there will be gorgeous choral music in heaven.  King Benjamin and Mormon were both looking forward to singing with the choirs above, and the angels at the birth of Christ were no doubt singing Handel's very arrangement.  

I look forward to the choral music that will come from church members as the LDS church grows internationally and across different musical traditions.  The musical repertoire of the SUV Choir is the first great example.  I can't wait until we have Mormon choirs of Mongolian throat singers, Bulgarian women's choruses, or simple church choirs that sound like this community choir in Malawi

Friday, August 15, 2008

I'm Alive!

The google gods have smiled upon me and my blog has been reinstated. They apologized for their robots having labeled my site as spam, the trajectory of which, to me, is a bit scary, having to apologize for the behavior of one's robots, but that's a discussion for a different forum.

I'm excited to be back, I felt the conversation was just getting started...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Who I am, why I write, and my intended audience

I am not an expert on LDS culture or Mormon fine arts.  I am a relatively everyday member of the Church striving to be a valiant disciple of Jesus Christ, defend the faith, and build Zion in the ways I can.  I am unabashedly failing miserably on all accounts- I would be lost without continual repentance.  I have enjoyed music and the performing arts all my life both as a performer and amateur connoisseur but that is my only expertise, my own experiences.  So that is my first motivation: pure personal interest and love of the subject.

Second, I experienced a major paradigm shift in regards to arts and culture in the Church when I served as a missionary (many many moons ago) in one of the most culturally diverse wards in the world.  In our ward we had, in no particular order, members from various African nations, Latinos from multiple countries in Central and South America, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Korean, American New Englanders with Catholic backgrounds, and Utah-pioneer stock transplants; coupled with wide ranges in language, education, and socioeconomic status.   The cultural complexity of the ward and the challenge to bring everyone together was exhilarating, daunting, and beautiful.  However, at times it was also terribly sad because the cultural barriers were so great that many members did not endure let alone thrive; the environment was a constant challenge as opposed to a home or refugee.  To me that was and is a great tragedy and ever since I have been a champion for challenging the mainstream to rethink certain cultural elements that are not necessarily connected to principles or doctrines of the gospel.

On top of it all I am fascinated by culture, history, sociology and anthropology and so when I combine it all I don't think I will ever be at a loss of words. 

My intended audience is mainly the American general membership of the Church which I think still represents the cultural core of the Church and who I think is active in the online conversation.  In reality I know my audience is largely my friends and family with a few stragglers.  Hi Mom.   But I am definitely writing to inspire an internal discussion among church members.

I decided to start my own blog as I felt the other voices online were either too extreme in their criticism or completely unwilling to examine with a critical eye, I hope I can find that fine balance somewhere in between.  I have admittedly struggled with finding that proper tone and I hope to always have the mantra playing in my head, 'beware of pride.'  My hope is to inspire conversation, critical analysis of our behavior as practicing Latter-day Saints, and to learn something about myself in the process all the while striving to help myself and my community to become a people of Zion.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Am I a "Liberal" Mormon?

This blog and my tone in it sparked a real-life conversation with one of my friends in which I found myself explaining that I was perhaps "more liberal" than others in the church when it comes to LDS culture. After reading the post of another friend at Temple Study which cites some strong language from the LDS prophet Harold Lee using the word "liberal," I have been forced to reflect on my word choice from the previous evening.

This morning and I found myself commenting on a post at MormonTalk and much of what I was writing is applicable to this discussion. So the text below comes from that comment but parts might make more sense having read the original post and the full commment.

Re: the fallibility of the "LDS Church", particularly leaders. My response:

I understand your point and agree that non-transparency can injure and break down confidence and faith. However, I would question whose role it is to be transparent and who is the “LDS Church”.

First, I would argue that we should not expect nor would we want the voice from LDS headquarters as the sole voice of transparency. We need independence as a check, much like the need for independent journalism in society. When challenges are made I think we want a voice from LDS headquarters that is not defense but humble but also positive. Personally I think the LDS Church is handling this better as time passes. The norm of response has completely changed during the administration of Gordon Hinckley and there are positive signs that that will continue such as the Ensign carrying a story about the Meadows Mountain Massacre recently. Historically to understand why the church has responsed to criticism the way it has I think Teryl Givens’ “People of Paradox” is the most insightful analysis.

I think there already exists a body of faithful LDS watchdogs so to say. I think the greatest example of extreme critic while at the same time unquestionable loyalty and faith was and is Hugh Nibley. And there is a whole group that have followed in his footsteps that I believe have maintained that fine balance. I personally think there critics who get too caught up in their criticism that they shoot themselves in the foot and lose their faith, but that is not the fault of the Church by any stretch of the imagination, that is a battle within the mind of that individual. I think modern authors like Bushman and Givens are some of the best well-known examples of how to live that balance appropriately, but there is also a whole population of common everyday Latter-day Saints that have found that balance as well, however it is more likely to hear the voices of those everyday members who did not find that balance when you peruse the internet.

Re: "inevitable" loss in confidence when discovering critical aspects of the Church, church history, culture, etc.

I disagree with ‘inevitable’. In any aspect of life and development there is naivety and then subsequent increases in knowledge that challenge previous worldviews, the response of the individual at those points in time is completely a choice. It is the easy path that jumps to conclusions, that thinks they are an expert in LDS history and doctrine the minute they discover an issue. It is the wise and humble who will say, 'here is an issue, let me learn more, it is obviously a known issue by other faithful members', and can also accept that our knowledge might never be complete on some issues.

In the complete opposite of inevitable loss of faith, I personally think that coming to a view that leaders of the church are fallible and human is a profound humbling and faith building experience and often comes with age as well as being asked to be a leader oneself.

Overall, the issues are neutral, the response of the individual is on trial.

In response to another commenter who was disillusioned with the Church but said if the temple oaths really were about serving your fellow man then that was a little redemptive for the image of the church in his eyes.

Finally regarding the comment that the temple oaths being about serving our fellow man as being redemptive… first that has always been the message and covenant from baptism on, I find the most poetic description of that is found in the scene at the Waters of Mormon after a group was baptized. And yes the culminating oaths in the Mormon temple are never about blind obedience to church leaders or blind faith but they are about, as have been published elsewhere (see below): Obedience to God’s commandments (reminder-the primary commandments being about love). Sacrifice of self. Also, purging of unholiness from our lives, particularly in the way we treat and interact with others. Additionally, fidelity in marriage. And then ultimately giving of our whole souls, everything we have and are, to God, his Church, and building his kingdom (which I will point out does not mean blind obedience to some institution but the complete opposite: the whole hearted freedom of choice to choose to build and to make the vision and mission of the institution your own i.e. caring for the poor, building faith, making good men better.

Public statements about temple covenants from church approved sources:

-Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997 ): 147.
-Elder Talmage, The House of the Lord, 100. Also quoted by Elder Packer in The Holy Temple, 163.
-Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988): 121.)
-Encyclopedia of Mormonism

I also want to link to Jeff Lindsay talking about how we need to prepare people better regarding the specific covenants they will make in the temple.