In a recent post, I mentioned a few Mormon celebrities, or at least, the few I recognized from the awesome I’m A Mormon campaign, like Brandon Flowers, who is arguably the most “real-world” famous person from that campaign. There are others, of course, who didn’t get their own video at Mormon.org, but are celebrities in their own right, like Torah Bright, that Gold-Medal winning snowboarder.
Incidentally, that article I just linked to for Torah Bright underscores just how unusual our Latter-day Saint Christian values have become in this day and age. People are baffled by the sheer novelty and anachronism of it all. Look at the headline: “‘I’ve never drunk or smoked,’ says champion snowboarder Torah Bright.” Subheading: “She also doesn’t drink tea or coffee - and won’t have sex until she’s married. Think she’s boring? Then let’s see you do a Switch Backside!”
There are several lists online in various places that identify famous Mormons, like David Archuletta, Carmen Rasmusen, and Ken Jennings, (Wikipedia’s list of notable Latter-day Saints looks like it’s the most authoritative, comprehensive, and well-maintatined.)
(I remember being rather excited at the news that Gladys Knight had converted to Mormonism.)
But if reading through that list does anything, it demonstrates that Mormons are kind of everywhere. Think we didn’t help co-create Yo Gabba Gabba? Think again! We’ve got our fingers in a surprising number of pies.
The most heartbreaking list is the one (also on Wikipedia) listing those famous people who were Mormon, but have since fallen away. Just think of the Public Relations coup if we’d been able to hang onto the likes of Amy Adams, Ryan Gosling, Katherine Heigl, Eliza Dushku, Aaron Eckhart, and Paul Walker. (Even Warren Zevon was a Mormon, apparently, once upon a time.)
Those Elder’s Quorums in Los Angeles need to start home teaching and reactivating these celebrities quick, so that we can all relive the halcyon days of yesteryear, when The Osmonds were the bright stars in the Mormon firmament; our ambassadors to the world…
I look at other blogs by Latter-day Saints, like the one by the tirelessly enthusiastic and joyful convert Al Fox (the so-called “Tattooed Mormon”), and they are filled with earnest and inspirational faith-promoting stories written in a fun, easy, conversational style. Many of my pedantic posts, by stark contrast, are over-long self-serious essays. I also don’t talk much about my personal life, but that may be a manifestation of both my Canadianness as well as my general tendency toward introversion.
The question, I suppose, should be who am I writing for? When I compose a blog post, who do I anticipate my audience will be? Though I’m not doing it consciously, I think I try to write in a way that is accessible to everyone, Latter-day Saint and non-Mormon alike. I might lean slightly more toward writing for a Mormon audience, just because that saves some time when I’m writing. I don’t have to stop every three lines and explain what a “ward” is.
Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun and inspiring blog, maybe about crafts or something, I think LDSLiving.com has a list that you can start with. Or you can dive into the phenomenon of Mormon Mommy Blogs, which are apparently quite popular and have received surprising mainstream attention. But if what I’m doing here, whatever that is, floats your boat, then great. I hope you feel welcome.
I briefly referenced this unfortunate mess back in an earlier post, about a Young Adult novel that was recently denied publication by an LDS publisher because one of the co-authors wanted a reference to his “partner” included in his author’s bio.
Here is a press release about the issue.
The other author (who is not gay) wrote this on his blog about the situation (emphasis mine):
“I’d like to point out that, yes, I am Mormon. The folks who run Cedar Fort are also Mormon, but this was not a Church decision. I don’t agree with Cedar Fort’s decision. I know legions of Mormons who also do not agree with their decision. Some might, I don’t know. I have never been a fan of blanket statements, so it is my hope that people see that there are LDS peeps in this world - and many other religious and non-religious peeps - with love - not fear - in their hearts.”
I’m glad he pointed out that this decision reflected the weird hang-ups of that particular publishing house, and not the Church at large. The problem with these situations is that the whole Church gets implicated because that’s how most people form opinions; guilt by association. They hear about what one Mormon believes, and then extrapolate for all Mormons. It’s why there’s still mistrust of the Islamic faith just because a few nut job terrorists happened to call themselves Muslim.
Now, I get that there is a lot of apprehension in the Latter-day Saint community about homosexuality. But it seems ridiculous to assume that publishing an author’s bio constitutes tacit endorsement of all aspects of that author’s lifestyle. I’m not even sure what the publishers are suggesting here; that a young adult will see that one of the authors is gay, and then think “Wow, he’s gay? I should really give that whole lifestyle a whirl. It sounds great!”? What I suspect, instead, is that young adults might challenge their preconceived notions about homosexuality, begin to dispel any negative stereotypes they may have inherited from parents raised in a less tolerant time, and begin to see homosexuals as human beings.
Look, the law of chastity is being broken ALL THE TIME in the world. Literally, all the time. I don’t think that the way heterosexuals break it and the way homosexuals break it is qualitatively different. Yet there seems to be be an undue focus on the former, when, frankly, quantitatively we should be much more concerned about the latter.
In my original post on this subject, (and there have been more than one) I linked to the author’s press release after a brief paragraph about Orson Scott Card, who is likewise helping perpetuate the stereotype of Mormons as intolerant homophobic bigots, when, in reality, we are instructed (as President Hinckley taught), “to love [homosexuals] as sons and daughters of God.”
Why is it so hard for some Mormons to reconcile themselves to the fact that homosexuality is not a choice? And that while we disapprove of any violation of the law of chastity, regardless of sexual orientation, it is a fact that some homosexuals (just like most non-LDS heterosexuals) are going to choose to live their lives in the way their sexual preference suggests would bring them the most happiness. We cannot judge them for that. We shouldn’t be judging anybody!
Again, I support the Church’s position on gay marriage. I just think both that position and the Church’s doctrine about homosexuality are widely, tragically misunderstood both outside and within the Church.
Further reading on this blog regarding Mormons and same-sex attraction:
In my last post, I highlighted some of my feelings about vociferous theists and truculent atheists, and how their perpetual pas de deux (or is it pas de Deus?) seems somewhat removed from Mormons insofar as the atheists are usually picking apart doctrines to which we do not adhere, and Religion is defended by those who likewise do not represent our specific tenets or speak on behalf of our unique beliefs. And whenever Mormonism is specifically singled out for criticism or ridicule by either atheists or other religionists, (like when a Mormon is running for president, for example) those attacks still tend to either grossly misrepresent or misunderstand our doctrines, or else, like most anti-mormon rhetoric, they miss the vast, complex, and nuanced forest for the tired, decrepit Spaulding manuscript trees. Or to put it another way, “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”
At least Romney’s campaign managed to bring those two disparate groups together, atheists and theists, in agreement on at least one thing: A Mormon shouldn’t run the country. Now, I don’t want this to get political, and for another thing, I’m in Canada anyway, where religion has quite reasonably never been an issue in our elections. In fact, I guarantee that if you asked ten random Canadians the religion of our Prime Minister, I doubt three of them could tell you with any accuracy. (For that matter, a few might not even be able to tell you his name…)
I didn’t agree with a number of Romney’s policies, for what it’s worth, and I probably wouldn’t have voted for him. (My earlier posts about Glenn Beck might have tipped you off.) The Church is, thankfully, politically neutral, and always counsels its members to vote according to their conscience, and my conscience has tended to be decidedly left of centre in the last few US elections. But that’s neither here nor there. (And if I have to listen to one more person try to explain how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not Christian, my head may explode.)
For the record, I’m not a huge fan of the way Obama is handling transparency and privacy in his current administration, and that is something that affects me way up here in the True North. But I digress.
Perhaps it’s in the nature of Mormons to feel persecuted, given our history of, well, persecution. When I read the derisive things written about Islam or Scientology, I reflexively bristle, if only because I know what it feels like to have your belief system, no matter how apparently peculiar to others, scorned and ridiculed. Now, Mormons, Muslims and Scientologists might not have a whole lot in common, doctrinally speaking, but I think when it comes to intolerance, we might have some broadly similar anecdotes we could share at our next (herbal) tea party. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to rank world religions in terms of who has had it worse in the persecution department. (Obviously Judaism wins that particular battle.)
It’s just too bad that neither the left or the right really wants us. The left thinks we’re bigoted nut-jobs, and the right thinks we’re a dangerous un-Christian cult. No wonder the Church’s public affairs department has shifted gears over the last number of years toward highlighting the normalcy of our members. It helps when we have a celebrity to whom people can look and say, “oh, he’s not crazy”, the way people used to about Tom Cruise. But our list of practicing non-political celebrities is not that long.
To put it another way, the people who tend to be poorly disposed toward Mormons are the ones who have never met one. To know us is to love us!
Okay, maybe not, but it’s hard to think bad things about someone that you know personally to be a good neighbour, a hard-working person, with a loving family, who serves their community.
Of the Mormon “celebrities” that were featured in I’m A Mormon ads, we have that You Tube violin playing dub stepper Lindsay Stirling, and Brandon Flowers, the rock-star lead singer of The Killers. And probably some others, but those are the only two I remember off the top of my head from the campaign who could arguably be considered celebrities. (Does Jenna, the cute comedian who works on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart count?)
It’s a good strategy, that I’m A Mormon campaign, because it dispels a lot of tenacious myths about who we are, and what we look like, and how we act. It’s a low-impact way for non-members who don’t know us to have an opportunity to “meet” a Mormon. It’s like Michael Otterson, Managing Director of the Church Public Affairs Department, said:
“What we have found, again, in research – this is not guesswork – is that people tend to have a better perception of individual members of the Church than they do of the Church as an institution. That’s not unusual. And so when people have met our missionaries, or they’ve interacted with members who are maybe their neighbours, they’re likely to have a much better perception, and that is very significant… If every member were to understand the collective power, the collective influence, that their interactions with their neighbours [have]… That is about the most powerful component of our collective reputation. The burden of responsibility actually rests with the individual member. Not to try to preach theological sermons, but to live their religion in such a way that people see their values.” (Transcribed from Conversations #42; from The Mormon Channel.)
Brother Otterson’s comments should be at the very least reassuring to those Latter-day Saints who struggle with member missionary work, since he appears to suggest that merely being a good example and letting other people know you’re a Mormon is half the battle. (At least when it comes to general public perception of the Church. Conversion, (i.e. the purpose of member missionary work), will require more effort I’m afraid…)
I wrote about atheists recently, but I thought a new post was warranted on the subject of science and religion – two great tastes that taste great together, if you ask me. I most strenuously object to atheists’ expropriation of science as their exclusive domain. I love science! I know there are some religions that take a dim view of science, or which believe things that appear to be in direct contradiction to established scientific facts, but I don’t think The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among them. In fact, I believe that science and religion have fundamentally the same aim, namely, the pursuit of truth, and truth is never contradictory. Pure religion and true science will agree completely, and it is embarrassing when one must contort itself in order to correspond to the other. Mormons do not have our heads in the sand with regard to scientific progress and discovery, and we need not compartmentalize our religiosity and our understanding of the natural world. As Brigham Young said,
“In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts – they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing… If we understood the process of creation, there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant.” (The Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 491)
Mormons do not fear secular education. On the contrary, we embrace it! We seek after it hungrily, eager to learn everything we can about the world around us. We’re one of the only religions where religious commitment increases the more educated we become. Watch this:
Science is not the sole domain of the atheists, and they are not entitled to wield it like a stick against the believers. Why do we Mormons have to get lumped in with those who believe that the universe was created in six 24-hour periods a few thousand years ago? Or with those who believe in the 3-in-1 Godhead of the Nicene Creed? Or that unbaptized infants are condemned to hell? Or any of the other fruits of the Great Apostasy which, like shackles, were cast off in the glorious light of the Restoration? I align myself with virtually every scientist on Earth about climate change. To be a climate denier in the face of the overwhelming and indisputable evidence to the contrary is not to be purely religious, but rather, willfully ignorant. And I am not some outlier in these views; why else, for example, would we be building solar powered chapels or making LEED certified buildings a priority?
I likewise believe, as many Mormons do, incidentally, that the principles of evolution have been conclusively, scientifically demonstrated. (Please note that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unlike many other Christian churches, has no official position on evolution, allowing members to decide the issue for themselves.) I have read Bill Bryson’s “A Brief History of Nearly Everything” twice, and once skipped school in Junior High to go listen to a hero of mine, Sir Stephen Hawking, deliver a lecture. My lovely Latter-day Saint wife has two university degrees, one in Science and the other in Chemical Engineering. Mormons are not afraid of science.
Some people who wish to discredit the Church (usually atheists, but also occasionally those from other faiths – we get it from all sides) point out that DNA evidence taken from Native Americans fails to demonstrate that North America was populated by a few families that crossed the Atlantic from the Middle East 600 years BCE. No duh. What these critics fail to point out when delivering this evidence is that there are hardly any Mormons left who actually believe that Lehi and his family washed up on the shores of an entirely unpopulated ghost-continent. There is certainly nothing to suggest that is the case in the Book of Mormon itself; on the contrary, Mormon scholars have for decades been pointing out passages in the Book of Mormon which seem to indicate that North America was considerably well populated by the time Lehi arrived. (Simple math discounts the idea that Lehi and his family formed the entire genetic basis for the indigenous peoples of North America.) So once again, critics beat a drum about science disproving an entire religion, but it is based on one assumption made a long time ago (i.e. that every North American Indian is a direct descendent of the Nephites and/or Lamanites), and which has since been both discredited and abandoned among Mormon scholars, and most Mormons, too.
An Article of Faith given to us by Joseph Smith asserts that,
We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
66God has not stopped speaking. His Church has been restored to the earth, with a prophet of the Lord at its helm. We do not eschew science in the name of religion – to Mormons there should really be no distinction. We humbly acknowledge that we, like science, do not have all the answers yet, but one day we will, and in the meantime, we continue to learn along with everyone else, including our friends the atheists.
I’m currently reading a memoir by my favourite comedian, David Mitchell. He’s agnostic, and while he has little time for religion, he also expresses his distaste for the somewhat recent trend towards assertive atheism:
“Atheism also requires a leap of faith, albeit a nihilistic one. It might as well be a religion – many of its adherents evangelize about their philosophy and beliefs as much as the religious do. They claim their opinions to be certainties. They viciously criticize those who believe otherwise. They are, in some cases, emotionally attached to the idea that there’s no God and dislike being gainsaid as much as a Pope or an Ayatollah does. They then wrap up this annoyance as anger at the terrible suffering religion has brought to the world – as if they truly think it’s the religious beliefs themselves, rather than humanity’s built-in urges to kill, persecute and suppress, that led to the Crusades, or the Troubles or the failure to address the AIDS Pandemic.
"Don’t they get it? Humans will always find an excuse. The avowedly atheist communist states of the twentieth century killed greater numbers than any regimes before or since and needed no religious justification. A politically ideological one served just as well… Atheists are being incredibly naïve if they think that, in the absence of religion, other reasons won’t be found for disguising violence as virtue – or indeed that atheist belief systems aren’t just as potentially susceptible to murderous extremism as any of the religions they oppose.” (David Mitchell: Back Story, p. 175)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I thought Christopher Hitchens was often a brilliant and erudite writer. Richard Dawkins, too, is undoubtedly very clever, as are the multi-talented Penn Jillette and Ricky Gervais. I have always enjoyed the work of Stephen Fry, and Douglas Adams was, for most of my adolescent life, hands-down my favourite author. (Since I’m naming prominent atheists, I might add that I do have some trouble with Bill Maher, not because he’s an atheist, but because I find his “ain’t I a stinker” schtick insufferably smug, bizarrely hostile, and not-that-amusing. But then again, I suspect I am not his target audience.)
A brief aside: I’ve loved Penn and Teller since I was very little, buying their books, watching VHS tapes of their appearances on Letterman and SNL. It was a bit of a dream come true when I was able to see their live show in Vegas a few years ago, and I was thrilled to meet them after the show and get their autographs. They are consummate professionals, and extraordinarily talented and dedicated magicians. Penn Jillette is, I think, quite a thoughtful, introspective man, and he is proudly militant (if occasionally a bit shrill) about his atheistic beliefs. He also has a shockingly low regard for Mormons. But I think Penn is absolutely wrong, and he of course believes I am wrong, but we both would defend our mutual right to say that, which is at least something.
I don’t believe for a moment that most atheists’ aim in asserting their atheism is malicious; I am convinced that most of these strident neo-atheists/secular humanists are sincerely well meaning, though obviously, from my point of view, misled. I do not believe, as many contend, that the irreligious cannot be moral or ethical people — that assertion is demonstrably untrue, and disbelief in God clearly does not preclude one from caring about one’s fellow man, or humanity at large.
To be fair, the most vocal religionists don’t always represent the rest of us God-fearers exactly how we might prefer, and therefore many religions (and religious people) tend get painted with the same enormous brush, which is convenient for atheists, but hardly equitable. Not everyone who believes in God also denies evolution, for instance. We’re not all self-deluded bumpkins. Proponents of biblical infallibility, for example, are swept up together with everyone else, and the result is that a lot of straw men are built up and destroyed on both sides of this Sisyphean debate over the existence of God. On the whole, I am proud to count among our Mormon Articles of Faith this declaration from Joseph Smith:
“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
I believe that privilege of religious freedom likewise extends to those who do not worship or believe in Almighty God at all, and I think Joseph Smith would agree.
There are some things to which I object, when it comes to atheists of the ilk I named earlier. Their flippancy, for instance, is annoying, and their self-righteous arrogance is often insufferable. They begin, it seems to me, from a position of presumed moral and intellectual superiority, as though they’re speaking to children, and that air of condescension is obnoxious. It’s the idea that they alone have left Plato’s cave and are now looking back at us pitiful fools as we watch the pretty shadows dance on the cave wall. The problem is that I’m fairly certain atheists feel exactly the same way about the religious apologists, who can be every ounce as arrogant and condescending. Does the fight always have to be over moral superiority? With all the virtues being annexed by all factions, it seems unlikely that anyone on either side is willing to claim humility.
I get that they disagree with the tenets of our faith (at least, our tenets as they understand them; I consistently hear these vocal atheists authoritatively speak about some aspect of Mormon belief that does not resemble anything I believe; I will leave the specific apologetics to people smarter than myself), but what happened to respect? The kind of respect Joseph Smith wrote about in the eleventh Article of Faith? Even our Church Handbook includes the lines:
Much that is inspiring, noble, and worthy of the highest respect is found in many other faiths. Missionaries and other members must be sensitive and respectful toward the beliefs of others and avoid giving offense.
Perhaps respect is the wrong word - maybe civility is the concept I’m looking for. But most of the atheists I mentioned seem to delight in giving offence. They seem to obtain a gleeful kind of rush from being outrageous; from saying things that no one else would – and I’m sure they feel like they’re a minority standing up to a bully when they do this; like they’re speaking truth to power. There’s an argument to be made there, but I still think there’s a civil and respectful way to have these discussions.
I respect atheists’ position as per the eleventh Article of Faith, inasmuch as they have every right to believe as they choose, but it does not seem to me as though that respect is very often reciprocated. (I think Mormons may be in a minority among the religious regarding our position on those who do not share our beliefs. For example, I suspect many atheists would be surprised, and I think a little disappointed, to learn that we do not, in fact, believe they will be going to hell.)
I’ve heard atheists talk about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically, (when they aren’t simply taking cheap pot-shots, or mocking for humour’s sake things that we consider sacred), and they tend to repeat things that have fairly obviously been gleaned exclusively from various anti-Mormon sources, rather than from independent research, thought, or consideration. (I get it, they’re busy, and there are a lot of confusing religions to denounce. Who has the time for genuine inquiry?) It is interesting that a group who purport to value truth and rigorous scholarly inquiry, would neglect to consult, say, Mormon.org, or even LDS.org, to find out what we actually believe, and then make their recriminations and counterarguments accordingly. It is easier, I suppose, to visit sources already predisposed to angry renunciation, and pick up pre-packaged tidbits about an obscure piece of doctrine or scurrilous nuggets from Mormon history, but it’s craven, transparent, more than a little disingenuous, and hardly fair.
I’d move on to discuss the troublingly intolerant and often viciously and virulently prejudicial nature of some people’s commentary on my religion, but I’m afraid of violating Godwin’s law…
When considering the Saviour’s infinite Atonement, Latter-day Saints are faced with an act of sacrifice the effects of which are mind-bogglingly vast. And even if we can manage to sort-of wrap our minds around the salient effects of this supernal act, the mechanics of this pillar of eternity are hopelessly out of our reach.
When discussing the Atonement, or any aspect thereof (the Crucifixion, the intercessory prayer in Gethsemene), there is what I find to be an unsettling propensity toward a grisly cataloging of the horrible suffering the Saviour endured. This serves a purpose, I suppose, and I do think it’s important to understand what took place in the Saviour’s final days. But while I think this approach is effective in making people feel sad, it feels manipulative to me somehow, and it doesn’t particularly help me understand the Atonement any better. I also don’t think the gory details of the crucifixion are particularly relevant, since many other non-atoning people were also crucified by the Romans – there was something else, something more about Christ’s suffering that was unique, which we don’t understand, cannot comprehend, and cannot be made to recognize by absorbing more details about the human physiological response to being nailed to a cross. (That is one reason why a crucifix has never held much power for me as a symbol, and also why Mel Gibson’s fixation on exsanguination in The Passion of the Christ makes it more like a horror film than anything that might provide helpful insight into the nature of Christ or His Atonement.)
I accept that there are mysteries in God’s kingdom. Many of those mysteries are interesting and productive to contemplate. I believe firmly that God is much smarter than us; omniscient in fact; and that there are simply some concepts that our beyond our mortal comprehension. But I also believe, equally strongly, that we are given to understand as much as we need to in order to exercise faith. Such is the case with the Atonement. It sufficeth our Heavenly Father that we simply know the Saviour’s atoning sacrifice took place in Gethsemene and Golgotha, and that there were certain specific infinite and eternal effects that resulted from that expiation. We are redeemed and ransomed by it, and thus we also need to understand how to apply the Atonement in our lives. The science of how the death of one man could atone for the sins of everyone who ever has or ever will live, is beside the point. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if we comprehend the laws of physics that govern resurrection, but it does matter that we know Jesus Christ was resurrected.
But since the hows and whys of the Atonement are not as clearly laid out as the whos, whats and wheres, well-meaning Latter-day Saints step in to try to make things simpler. They do this through parables, naturally. After all, that is how the Saviour himself conveyed complex doctrines. He was, in fact, a master in this regard, and his parables are bottomless founts of rich doctrinal pedagogy. Suffice it to say, Latter-day Saints sometimes fall somewhat short of the Saviour’s high standard of instruction. Understanding how to apply the atonement in our lives is a worthy pursuit, and one that is not likely to become easier through contemplating doctrinally inaccurate parables.
I must stress that the parables are well-meaning. I don’t believe there is any malice in either their creators or disseminators. And there is some comfort in having something like the atonement distilled allegorically. However, in the vast majority of the modern parables with which I am familiar, key doctrines of the atonement are either omitted or seriously misrepresented. I am not suggesting that the Atonement could not or should not be constructively elucidated via parable, (on the contrary, as an important and poorly understood doctrine, it lends itself particularly well to metaphorical interpretation), but I am saying that most of the parables I come across are woefully inadequate, failing to accurately track the fundamental components of the atonement.
Take for instance, the idea of sin being like nails pounded into a two-by-four. Repentance is like removing the nails, but the holes in the wood remain. Granted, that is not a parable per se, just a hackneyed metaphor, yet it could not mangle the reality of the atonement more egregiously. The atonement does not only kind-of work. The atonement, to use the language of the metaphor, renders that two-by-four as though no nail had ever been put to it. (There are some variations on this metaphor that attempt to overcome its inadequacy by adding a part wherein the empty hole left by the nail is filled in with some kind of quick-drying wood caulk, but as object lessons go, it’s still pretty weak and somewhat belaboured.)
In a similar vein, there is the idea that continues to be taught occasionally in the Church that likens a young women who has engaged in sexual sin to a chewed piece of gum that cannot be unchewed, and is therefore as undesirable and repellant as a piece of chewed up, used up gum. This absurd and hurtful simile likewise sells the atonement short, putting bizarrely arbitrary limits on its efficacy. (Elizabeth Smart recently brought attention to the dangerous fallacy of this metaphor, though I’m not convinced as some commentators were that she was arguing against teaching abstinence.)
Getting into the extended metaphor of parables is equally problematic. Everyone must have heard the one about the room with the filing cabinets, with sins written on recipe cards. One person is ashamed by all the sin-cards in his file, and suddenly the Saviour is there, taking the cards one-by-one and signing them, with a “sad smile”. This is not only unhelpful in demystifying the Atonement, but weirdly overlooks the nature and importance of repentance. Even worse are the variations on this parable that imply each sin we commit retroactively increases the suffering of the Saviour. (Incidentally, despite our appropriation of that parable, it was written by non-Mormon speaker and author Joshua Harris who says he dreamed it while in Puerto Rico for the 1995 Billy Graham Crusade.)
Maybe you’ve heard the parable that involves a switch operator at a railway crossing. The switch operator’s four-year old son is, for some reason, playing on train tracks nearby as a train hurtles towards him. The switch operator could divert the train and kill all its passengers, or sacrifice his son to save them. The switch operator makes the utilitarian choice, diverts the train, and the son is killed, saving the oblivious commuters. This story, essentially a variation on the infamous ethical Trolley Problem, is ostensibly meant to help us empathize with what Heavenly Father did when he sacrificed the Saviour. This metaphor breaks down upon even the slightest reflection, in several obvious ways. For one thing, the metaphor denies the Saviour any agency, which I think many would agree is a crucial aspect of His atoning sacrifice. It is also presumptuous, I think, to speculate on the thoughts or feelings of our Heavenly Father when it came to the Atonement. I’m not sure a one-to-one correlation with the emotions of imperfect mortal beings is necessarily accurate. This is yet another parable which attempts to evoke strong emotions and then somehow connect those strong emotions with the Atonement in ways that are disingenuous and fallacious. The parable would have to be distorted significantly in order for it to make any relevant sense at all. The train would have to be filled with everyone who ever has or ever will live. The son would not be an oblivious 4 year-old, but an adult man who fully understands the sacrifice, and makes it willingly. (He would also need to rise from the grave in a resurrected body shortly thereafter.) The results of the sacrifice would have to include not merely the persistence of life for those on the train, but their eventual resurrection, their ability to repent of sins in such a way that they can return to live with the man’s father, (who is also literally the father of all of them). It would need to encompass all those other aspects of the Atonement that are so often overlooked, that have to do with assuaging sorrow, pain, anxiety, grief, and guilt, etc. Reframing the parable along any useful lines results in such a contortion of the original, that one might as well just talk about the actual Atonement. All this parable is good for is demonstrating that fathers love sons and will likely be sad when they are forced to kill one. I don’t need a contrived fiction to make that facile point, and it certainly doesn’t help me understand the Atonement, or even how Heavenly Father felt about the Atonement, which was, I think, the strange goal of the parable.
There are countless other examples of unhelpful parables, usually involving an appearance from the Saviour Himself. These Latter-day parables are only as valuable as they are accurate about the nature of the Atonement, and in my experience they tend to be severely lacking in that one crucial criterion.
For one thing, there is so much more to the Atonement than simply the ability it gives us poor sinners to repent and become clean. But overwhelmingly, the parables employed to explicate the Atonement focus exclusively on that single aspect of the doctrine. (Stephen E. Robinson has come closest to actually formulating a useful latter-day parable for the Atonement, in my opinion. Elder Boyd K. Packer also did well with his parable in the “Atonement” chapter of the Gospel Principles manual.)
I don’t wish to overstate my position; I’m not anti-parable. I love a good parable as much as the next person, and I admit they can be helpful in illustrating doctrinal concepts. I’m anti-simplistic, fallacious, and superficial parable, and we seem to have a surfeit of those in our Church when it comes to the Atonement.
The doctrine of the Atonement is beautiful. There is little need to look beyond the scriptures or the words of general authorities for elucidation. And we should definitely be skeptical of any parable which presumes to simplify the doctrine, or sell it short.
I haven’t really given my testimony on this blog yet, in a formal way. My first post might technically qualify, but not really. (My Mormon.org profile is much more thorough.) In all likelihood, I will be expressing my belief in various individual doctrines and principles of the Church as I happen to write about them, but may otherwise refrain from constantly bearing my more comprehensive testimony on a regular basis, which could get tiresome.
My declaration of faith is not complicated. I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. I know that Jesus Christ lives, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, who restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. I know that we are led by a prophet of God today. The Book of Mormon is true. I am profoundly grateful for the atonement of our Saviour, and the ability I have to repent when I screw up, (which I do with alarming regularity). I am profoundly grateful for the knowledge I have. I should be better about sharing it with people.
My last post tried to elucidate the Church’s position on gay marriage. (I’m still not sure how well that turned out.) I neglected to address what may be the most important and ostensibly compelling question raised by the Church’s position on homosexuality. Namely, how and why a loving God would ever allow someone to be born with innate urges that this same God decries as sinful if acted upon? This typically rhetorical question is intended to suggest that a loving God would not, in fact, be so cruel, and that therefore homosexual urges, since they are not a matter of choice, must therefore be considered natural and divinely sanctioned. I understand why this argument is so persuasive, and I can see how people who ask this question are sincerely baffled by anyone who would continue to declare the goodness of God on one hand and the sinfulness of indulgence in homosexual behaviour on the other.
Of course, a variation on this argument is used to justify quite a lot of human urges, including the sexual one. In essence, this line of reasoning might be boiled down to “if it feels good, do it.” And certainly a lot of people seem to feel that’s a reasonable philosophy. However, merely having sexual urges doesn’t in itself justify their indulgence, nor does it suggest either celestial provenance or tacit divine approval. I think the question of why a loving God allows His children to be born with urges that he then requires them to suppress can only be asked by someone who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the plan of salvation, and more specifically, the reason why we’re all down here in the first place.
First of all, I don’t think anyone can credulously suggest that life in general is even remotely fair. On the contrary, even the most cursory glances at the news cycle at any given time makes the inequity of our respective situations abundantly clear. The dichotomy, in fact, would be laughable if it weren’t so heart-breakingly sad. Life is cruel and unfair, and yet we believe God is merciful and good, so what gives? Or to put it another way which may sound familiar, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s a question that’s been around for as long as there have been questions, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an answer.
I don’t doubt that people are born with homosexual urges or tendencies baked into their genetic code, in exactly the same way heterosexuals are born with that inclination. But I also know that some people are born with genetic predispositions toward alcoholism. Or with physical and/or mental disabilities. Or into families with abusive parents. I’m not suggesting these challenges are in any way equal, but I am suggesting that we don’t all get the same fair shake at life, and in my experience, this fact is used not only to suggest that homosexual activity is A-OK, but it’s also employed by many atheists as partial justification for their disbelief in God. How can there be a God when there’s so much suffering in the world? How can gay marriage be immoral when so many people are born gay, and want to get married? Who is this God Person Anyway?
The problem is, I think, one of perspective, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of why we’re here. Mortality is essentially a test, the ultimate goal of which is to return to live with our Heavenly Father. There are better places to get the details on this plan, like at Mormon.org, or from people whose job it is to teach the plan, but suffice it to say we are all being tested. A bunch of imperfect people dropped into an imperfect world, and God is seeing how we do with what we’re given. We are immortal beings living a mortal life; one which is infinitesimal in length when measured on the incomprehensible scale of eternity. If we were all sent down to Earth to live and die in blissful harmony, that would not be much of a test. And so we have challenges. Temptations. Adversity. Tragedy. Injustice. Sometimes, unspeakable horror. The test is in how we deal with these things, how we learn to control our base appetites and learn to love and serve one another, with Jesus Christ as our exemplar.
I touched on this briefly in my last post with that C.S. Lewis quote from The Problem of Pain. I would like to excerpt the entire paragraph here:
By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness - the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction.
There’s the rub. Isaiah said it another way: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Once we understand that we are all here as part of the probationary test of mortality, and that we lived as spirits before we were born, and will persist as resurrected beings after we die, we start to gain some eternal perspective on the inequity of our respective situations. If we can endure well the indignities and sorrows of mortality, we will enter into our eternal reward.
“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7-8)
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