Sunday, September 22, 2013

FYI...

A month or so ago I began writing a series of essays about my experiences and beliefs about faith, religion, and the LDS Church.  Because they were so different in tone from the rest of my posts here, I decided to give them their own blog, which I have name LDScholar.  If you'd like to continue reading this posts, then check them out at ldscholar.blogspot.com

Cheers,

Averyl

Monday, August 26, 2013

LDScholar: When Tradition Swallows Truth

Despite the positive responses I received from my previous LDS Scholar post, I have been hesitant about writing a new one.  I've worried that in my attempts to critically explore and understand LDS doctrine, I may come across as fault-finding, offended, or angry.  My aim is not to point out all of the imperfections and defects that I see in the LDS Church and then blab about them on this blog.  Instead, my aim is simply to study the LDS faith.  I strive to identify its truths while stripping away any false traditions, cultural beliefs, or myths that may distort it.  

With this in mind, I thought it would be useful to write an LDS Scholar post on tradition and its role in the Church.  In the past, I've always thought about tradition as a good thing.  Throughout my life I've heard my church leaders and fellow church members speak of tradition in a positive light, emphasizing how traditions can help raise families, build communities, and encourage righteousness. I myself have enjoyed family traditions of vacationing together during the summer, eating dinner as a family, and celebrating birthdays together.  I’ve cherished these and many other traditions, and I hope to continue them in the future.

However, I’m sure we’re all well aware that there are also many harmful traditions.  Child abuse tends to be traditional: abused children are more likely to abuse their own children or seek an abusive spouse when they grow up.  (By the way, I’m using the definition of “tradition” from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom).”)  The objectification of women, rape culture, and slut shaming are all harmful traditions that make sexism appear to be an acceptable part of modern society.

But what is the difference between helpful and harmful traditions?  I decided to look up “tradition” in the scriptures, and what I found was not at all what I expected.  Of the several dozen references to tradition in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants, only a small percentage speak of tradition in a positive light.  Most of the time, tradition is described with such words as "incorrect," "foolish," "wicked," or linked with such disparaging phrases as "evil deeds and iniquity," "remain in [a] state of ignorance," and--my personal favorite--"the fathers have inherited lies."  Even more shocking was that entry for "tradition" in the index to the Book of Mormon suggests: "see also Custom; Doctrine, False."


Wow! An overwhelming attitude of hostility towards tradition?  Speaking of tradition as "inherited lies" and false doctrine?  This was the opposite of what I assumed I would find.  Sure, I knew that there were several references in the Book of Mormon to the harmful traditions of the Lamanites.  But I had been taught in church time and time again that traditions were wonderful and good.  Why was there such a wide discrepancy between the scriptures and what I had been taught?

I believe the answer lies in how we view the past, and especially the traditions of the past.  For many modern American Christians, "tradition" is a rallying cry, and when the problems of today's world seem too overwhelming they can look back at the traditions of past generations and imagine how much better it must have been.  Wouldn't it be nice to live in the 1940s, when American patriotism was at an all time high and communities worked together to help win the war?  Wouldn't it be nice to be alive during the 1950s, when most people went to church and believed in God, and when kids didn't do drugs or have sex?  But the problem with looking back at the past is that most people also tend to sentimentalize the past, making it seem rosier than it really was.  The cry of "tradition" thus becomes a path back to a sentimentalized past, with the logic that maybe if we adhere to the traditions of our grandparents, we can change society back to the way it was then.  The problem is that when we use "tradition" in this sense, we are trying to travel back to a sentimentalized past that never really existed at all.

Sure, there are many good traditions of the past.  But the past also gave us some pretty horrible traditions as well, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, just to name a few.  And just as we have some really excellent traditions in the Church, we also have some not-so-great ones: the tradition of pressuring missionaries to start looking for an eternal companion immediately after they return from their missions, the tradition of bearing testimonies that consist wholly of thanking friends and neighbors, the tradition of looking down on mothers who choose to work outside the home, etc.  These traditions are not always Church-wide, nor are they doctrine.  But it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish tradition from doctrine, especially in places where these traditions are firmly held.

Probably the worst tradition in the Church is the tradition of teaching that tradition is inherently good. We cause so much confusion when we use problematic terms like "traditional values" and "traditional marriage."  What I think we really mean to say is "timeless values" and "temple marriage."  Instead, we are accidentally teaching that these values and this type of marriage are only good because they are "inherited, established, or customary pattern[s] of thought, action, or behavior."  Is it just me, or is that an extremely weak argument?
 
What we should be teaching is that tradition is a neutral vessel.  It carries "pattern[s] of thought, action, or behavior" for passing on to others, but it cannot control whether those patterns are good or bad.  Furthermore, tradition gives rules, but it does not give meaning to those rules.  A parent can teach their child worthy traditions of praying daily and serving others, but until the parent has taught the child the meaning and importance of those actions, the actions are effectively meaningless. 


I don't have much of a conclusion to sum this up (I might write a better one later) so instead I'll just ask you to comment.  Do you agree or disagree?  Have you experienced the effects of helpful or harmful traditions in your own life?  What do you think is the best way to use traditions responsibly?

Monday, July 8, 2013

LDScholar: Agency, Repentance, and Obedience

In the past months I've become rather discontented with my religious beliefs.  As I've pursued my goal of becoming an English professor, I've noticed my love of literature grow stronger by the day, and I've often wondered why my love of my faith has not increased as well.  Recently, I've realized that the reason why I am enchanted by the literature I study is simply because I study it: when I read a novel, poem, play, or other text, I also take notes on that text, read scholarly criticism about it, discuss that text with other like-minded scholars, write about it, then I go back and reread the text again.  If studying literature leads me to enjoy literature more, shouldn't the same process work for my faith?

So, in hopes that I can strengthen my understanding of and conviction in my faith, I am attempting to study my religious beliefs by writing a series of essays on topics of religious importance to me.  Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (street lingo: Mormons) I will primarily be using LDS doctrine to discuss religion, faith, and belief.  However, this does not mean I am excluding readers of other persuasions.  You are all welcome to read and comment as I venture to become a scholar of my faith.

*   *   *   *   *

Recently I read a blog post (and I'm embarrassed that I can't find the blog anymore, but if you've read it before, please send me a link!) about one woman's personal experience with obedience. [EDIT: The post is by Feminist Mormon Housewives blogger Elisothel, and is entitled, "Help! Help! I'm Being Repressed!" Kudos to Kristen for sending me the link in the comments!] She said that she was concerned about the constant focus on obedience within the LDS Church.  She felt that overemphasizing obedience was problematic because it didn't allow for the possibility of making mistakes and learning from those mistakes--instead, it was much more important to try to keep your record as clean as possible.  Furthermore, overemphasizing obedience hurt her beliefs about Heavenly Father (a.k.a. God the Father), making him appear to be a strict disciplinarian instead of a loving, forgiving, godly father.  I wish I could share some other passages from her post, because she is much more eloquent--and more humorous--in sharing her opinions than I am.  (Again, if you recognize the blog post I'm talking about, please let me know!)  But I appreciated her basic premise: either we can live our life in fear of making wrong choices, or we can accept our fallibility and use the wrong choices we make as opportunities to learn and grow.

I do not mean to say that obedience is stifling or that we should seek out sin.  Obedience is an important part of faith, because it shows devotion and love.  However, we must be careful about how we view obedience, how we apply it in our lives, and how we teach it to others.  Obedience motivated by fear of sin or by fear of sullying one's reputation is counterfeit obedience: on the surface it may appear indistinguishable from sincere obedience, but it eventually leads to perfectionism, self-doubt, and despair.

The difference between counterfeit obedience and sincere obedience might be better explained by the difference between innocence and virtue.  During my freshman year I took a class on Shakespeare in film, and in order to help us better understand the religious themes in Shakespeare's plays, our professor gave a lesson in which she discussed the different ways that people viewed obedience during the English Reformation.  Before the Reformation, most Englishmen and women valued innocence as the best method of obedience: it is most important to avoid sin completely, and although you can repent if you've sinned, it is better and holier to have not sinned at all.  After the Reformation, many Protestant groups emphasized the importance of virtue over innocence.  I'll stop briefly to acknowledge that although "virtue" has many different meanings in other contexts, in the context of the English Reformation, virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which is often translated as moral power, vigor, and growth.  Those who prized virtue believed that since sinning was inevitably part of the fallen human experience, it was more important to learn and grow from our experiences with sin.  For example, a man who is never tempted to steal and therefore does not steal is innocent, but not virtuous.  A man who is tempted to steal and does steal, but then repents of his theft, makes restitution, and learns from his experience is not innocent, but he has gained virtue.  The innocent man is faultless, but has learned nothing.  The virtuous man has sinned, but he has come to abhor the sin of stealing, and has gained a testimony of repentance.

Yet despite the inevitability of sinning, and despite the many lessons that we can learn through sin and repentance, I have also noticed an overemphasis on obedience in Mormon culture, bordering on valuing innocence above virtue.  I do not think LDS doctrine overemphasizes obedience, but like the blogger mentioned above, I think that Mormon culture often overemphasizes obedience, while failing to sufficiently explain why we should be obedient and how we can repent if we have been disobedient.

As a woman who grew up in the LDS Church, I can remember being taught about obedience from a very young age.  Although I was also taught about repentance, it was not as frequently discussed as obedience--for every Sunday School story about Bobby who did something bad, felt ashamed, and then repented, it seemed there were five or six stories about Sally, Fred, Jane, or Susie who were obedient and then immediately felt happy about their obedience, without the pain of guilt, shame, or repentance.  Most damaging was the false aphorism I heard on occasion, that every time you sin, Christ sheds another drop of blood for you (I can't begin to tell you how false, destructive, and manipulative this belief is). Although I am sure my Sunday School teachers were trying to teach me correct doctrine, what I gained from learning so much about obedience and comparatively little about repentance was this: "If you don't sin, then you don't need to repent.  And since sin, shame, and repentance will hurt, you should just be obedient in order to avoid that pain."  The choice was obvious.  Just like a student who gets 100% on the assignment doesn't need to do extra credit or make-up assignments to help their grade, a person who gets 100% in obedience doesn't need to bother with repentance.  I learned to view repentance as a last resort, and not as an everyday necessity.  I became afraid of the sorrow associated with repentance, and so I tried to avoid it as much as possible, rationalizing that because I was a good student, I went to church, and I was obedient to my parents, I didn't need repentance that much.  It sounds silly when I say it out loud, but that was more or less the way I understood obedience.

I don't mean to blame my Sunday School teachers or church leaders for my distorted understanding of obedience.  It is just as much--if not more so--my fault as theirs that I thought this way.  But to blame this attitude towards obedience on any person is missing the point.  This distortion of the principle of obedience is a cultural attitude, perpetuated whenever we point out his alcohol addiction or her tattoos, the way she yells at her kids or how he doesn't sing the hymns at church, the hemline that is too high on her dress or the videogames  that are too violent for his age. Whenever we look at a person and choose to see only their sins (or seeming lack of sins), we forget to value that person as a fellow child of God, and we additionally forget the importance of repentance, of the wonderful capacity humans have to change and improve themselves.  We wrongly assume that God views our souls like a teacher views report cards: only those who have the least marks against them will get a good grade.

So what is the correct way to view obedience?  Although I don't pretend to know how to once-and-for-all solve our widespread cultural problem of overemphasizing obedience and under-emphasizing repentance, I was able to correct my own incorrect understanding of obedience by understanding obedience's role in the Plan of Salvation.  If you aren't familiar with the Plan of Salvation, I'll try to explain it briefly: before anyone was born on Earth, we all lived with Heavenly Father as his spirit sons and daughters.  Heavenly Father had a plan (the Plan of Salvation) for us to come to Earth so we could gain bodies, be tested, and become like Him.  Then He asked all of his spirit children if any of them would volunteer to be a Saviour, that is, someone who would be willing to help us in our mission on Earth.  Two spirits volunteered.  The first said that he would do it according to Heavenly Father's will.  The second said that he would do it, but because he wanted to ensure that no spirit would be lost, he would have to take away our agency, or our right to choose for ourselves.  Heavenly Father accepted the first spirit.  He rejected the second spirit's offer because the second spirit "sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him" (Moses 4:3, you can read more about this in Moses 4 and Abraham 3).  If you haven't already guessed, the first spirit was Jesus Christ, and the second was Satan.  According to this account, Jesus Christ was chosen as the Saviour of the world because he would preserve humankind's God-given gift of agency, even at the cost of losing some spirits.  Let me reemphasize that: agency is so essential to the success of the Plan of Salvation and the happiness of humankind, that Heavenly Father would rather allow us the ability to choose evil than to be forced to be good. 

Even in the present day, Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father still want us to have the ability to exercise our agency.  And unfortunately, Satan still desires to take our agency away.  Satan tempts us to sin because he wants us to lose our agency.  For example, if a person abuses drugs, she becomes addicted to them and can no longer choose to live without them.  If the addiction becomes worse, she will find her life controlled by her addiction rather than by her own agency.  On the other hand, obedience to laws and commandments protects our agency, or even increases it.  For instance, a person who has developed safe driving habits is able to travel about without fear of being ticketed or having her license revoked.  Obedience protects agency. Disobedience often hurts our agency.  Repentance can help restore that agency.

But let us not forget that obedience is not an end in itself.  Obedience is the means by which we protect our agency. Obedience is like a key that opens a chest, and agency is like the treasure that fills the chest.  Although the key is valuable because it provides access to the treasure, it would be foolish to forget the treasure and value the key above it.  Likewise, we must forget the worth of agency as we strive for obedience.  If obedience were truly worth more than agency, Heavenly Father would have chosen Satan's plan instead of Christ's plan.

But He didn't, and that's great!  Heavenly Father understands our weaknesses, He sees our struggles, and He loves us anyway.  In fact, He loves us because of our weaknesses and struggles, because He knows how difficult our lives can be on this little blue marble, and He loves us for trying.  Most importantly, He loves us because we are His children.  And because He loves us so, He sent Christ as our Saviour to suffer and die for our sins.  Through the Atonement, we are able to maintain our agency: even though we are all imperfect and have all sinned, when we repent our sins are washed away.  We no longer have to view Heavenly Father as a strict disciplinarian who frowns at all our mistakes; instead, He is a kind and loving Father who mourns with us when we feel sorrow for our sins, and helps us become closer to Himself and to Christ when we repent.  Through repentance, Heavenly Father can turn even our worst sins into experiences of growth, learning, and love.

When we value obedience above agency, and above repentance, we become obedient for the wrong reasons.  We fear the repentance process, which robs us of our opportunity to become closer to Christ and to understand the Atonement.  We become so obsessed with obedience that we adopt dangerous traits of perfectionism, we sink into despair as we find it impossible to live up to that perfectionism, and we fail to take advantage of the wonderful blessings promised to us in the Plan of Salvation.  Yes, obedience is important, but Christ didn't die for us to be obedient.  He died for our sins, He died for our agency, and most importantly He died for us.  Obedience is a wonderful path to protecting our agency and showing our love and devotion to Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father--but let's not forget the path's destination.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

At least October is good for something

In the past month, prayer and friends and listening to Sara Bareilles have been the only things holding me together.

But not necessarily in that order.

Actually, yes. Definitely in that order.



On a separate note, I've decided Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor, and Etta James are my music soul-sisters.  Pun most definitely intended.

Disclaimer:  This is not supposed to be an overly-dramatic, whiny post.  It's not a veiled reference at a break-up or lost romance.  And good heavens, it's definitely not a tribute to Vampire Diaries.  The day I start watching Vampire Diaries is the day my brain is sucked out and replaced with glitter and seventeen magazine and UGG boots.

This is just me conversing openly with vast quantities of time and space.


Qualis cordis non respiciat?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kommunist Propaganda Kaption Kontest

I think my title adequately describes the post.  So here's the deal: you come up with a "translation" for what the Russian (I'm assuming it's Russian) says, post it in the comments, and I will give a prize to the best caption.  And the prizes will be good.  Like maybe I will send you a puppy... which is a small stuffed animal. And/or taxidermied.

Here's the propaganda beauty:


Here are some caption ideas to get your juices flowing:

"Hey, baby! You're nearly exposing yourself to the public!"

"Hail, Stalin!  You were such a cute little tyke!"

"Welcome to the USSR! We put vodka in our kids' bottles!"



IMPORTANT: The caption contest ends in a week a month i don't care.  Eventually I will declare a Kommunist Propaganda Kaption Kontest Winner Komrad.  And you will love it.  I'm looking forward to reading your entries.  And if you don't submit a caption... actually, that's kinda what I'm expecting.  I'll actually be really surprised if anyone responds.

Good Luck!

(p.s. In case you were dying to know, I found this little gem while searching for "Slavic baby" on Google images.  If you want to know why I was searching for images of Slavic babies, ask jcrofty.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guy on a Buffalo: A Pretty Accurate Description

Usually the internets are a big waste of time for me.  I find myself wasting hours on facebook, awkwardfamilyphotos.com, youtube, and the like.  And when the older generation preaches to us young fools about the dangers of too much texting and tweeting and messaging, and how it will totally ruin our social skills, and how we are replacing our friends with computers, and spending too much time in the cyberworld and losing focus on the real world, I have completely 100% agreed with them.

Except now.  No matter how much the internet has taken over our lives, no matter how much pain and suffering our parents predict we will experience from overusing and abusing the world wide web, the video I am about to show you makes the internet worth it all:


Guy on a Buffalo: It's time to take things at face value.  It's time to respect the Great American West.  It's time to conquer the wild frontier.  It's time to grow over-fluffy facial hair.

It's also time to watch another Guy on a Buffalo:


It's time to save the rising generation.  It's time to straddle more than you've ever straddled.  It's time to do a mediocre but acceptable job at lip reading.  But most of all, it's time to ride yet another buffalo:



No need to thank me, Readers.  You're welcome.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

I like that sound. It's the sound of my shoes.

As we discussed in my previous post, I am not a stereotypical, 21st-century, American woman.  I don't throw elaborate dinner/costume parties, I don't reuse my mother's old dresses as cute table runners, and I don't spend hours at the craft store picking out which vinyl bird stickers to put on my canvas bag.  But just like I own a blog and go running, there is another characteristic which makes me slightly more womanesque than I previously thought.

Hello, my name is Averyl, and I'm a shoe-shopaholic. *cue music* 



It all began this afternoon when I told my Dad I was going to go shopping for a pair of boat shoes.  I had already found them online, so I told Dad I was going to the closest retailer for one pair of shoes and that I'd be back in a half hour.

Nearly two hours and three stores later, I was back with one pair of boat shoes, some rain boots, sneakers, high heels, tights, and a significantly lower likelihood of being able to pay my rent this month.  I live life with no regrets.

But for those of you who may not understand the shoe love, let me explain my logic:  I hate feet.  It's pure and simple.  Feet are disgusting and awful and oddly shaped, and I thank heaven everyday that they are located at the very end of my legs, because then I don't have to see them all the time and sometimes I forget they even exist.  And those are very happy times, rating somewhere between "I just got free popcorn" and "did you see that monkey do a backflip?" But since I can't always make my feet disappear, I do the second-best thing: wear shoes.  That way, you can cover up all the hideousness with something cute or classy or just plain awesome. 

So I guess my shoe love doesn't come from the typical female love for shopping and all things accessorial, but rather the fact that I believe as human beings, we all have entered into a pact to protect each other from our feet, which are the repulsive enemies of all things true and beautiful.  It is for this reason I wear shoes, and for this reason I went a little crazy at Payless and Famous and Target today.

But seriously, ladies, can we please stop and visualize my triumphs?

For only $9 (I don't know why, but for some reason I call
these "patricia heaton" shoes.  they just really remind me of 
debra from "everybody loves raymond." def my fav sitcom.)


 Yes, they're a little on the wild side, but I need some shoe spice,
and they were only $6.24!  That's right, females, I'm a bargain beast.
And I desperately need some puddle-jumpers.


The original cause for shoe-shopping.  Although the 
ones I ended up getting had white shoelaces and 
white stripes  on the upper part of the shoe.  Which 
makes them cuter.  And only $14.


And la-creme-de-la-creme.  I won't mention the price
for these works of art, but I will say they were less than
$30.  Shoes like these almost make me glad that I have feet.
Almost.

And I leave you with a psychedelic music video manifesto of shoe love, performed by the slightly overrated and under-talented band, Tiga.  Just skip to 0:40.  And try not to be freaked out, if you can help it.