Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mormon Chastity Lessons: Elizabeth Smart

          As a teenager, I attended a self-defense class. Our group was made up of Mormon girls between the ages of 12 and 18. The instructor, also a Mormon, chose to end the presentation by telling us “The greater the number of earrings in your ear, the more revealing your clothing, the more you expose yourself to the possibility of sexual assault.” I nodded along with his words; I grew up believing that a woman must dress modestly at all times. I attended a number of lessons in my youth during which the boys – my peers – pointed to the immodest dress of women as a trigger for impure thoughts.
          A couple days ago Elizabeth Smart gave an interview during which she pointed to chastity lessons as contributing to her captivity. Smart, who was held captive for eight months by a self-proclaimed prophet, talked about a lesson she had as a teenager in which her virginity was compared to a piece of gum. In Smart’s words

“I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, and she said, imagine, you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that? Well that’s terrible, nobody should ever say that, but for me, I thought, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody rechews a piece of gum, you throw it away. That’s how easily it is to feel that you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out?”

          Chastity object lessons are very common in within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly referred to as the Mormon Church. Sometimes it is the piece of gum, which, once chewed, nobody else wants to chew. Other times it is the cupcake, which, once licked, is once disgusting to anyone else. Other times it is the rose, which, once passed around and handled by multiple people, turns brown and wilted. There is no un-chewing of the gum, no un-licking of the cupcake, no un-wilting of the rose.
          In the book “The Miracle of Forgiveness” the previous Mormon leader, Spencer W Kimball, wrote

“It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”

          Earlier this year, Elaine Dalton, the leader of the Young Women’s program and one of the few females in a visible position of leadership within the Mormon Church, said in a world-wide broadcast to young Mormon girls everywhere

“Cherish virtue. Your personal purity is one of your greatest sources of power.”

          This is what chastity is within Mormonism; something that, once it is gone, can never be regained and the loss of which forever diminishes a person’s worth.
          In the light of these teachings, I suppose that if I had been assaulted while wearing a tank top or extra earrings, I would have blamed myself for the attack. I would have blamed myself for my tight clothing or my two earrings or for not fighting enough or for not being faithful enough. And so I am grateful to Elizabeth Smart for having the courage to speak out against these harmful lessons. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ex-Mormon, Post-Mormon, and Letting Go Of Anger

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain. “

                James Baldwin, Notes of A Native Son

         I alternate between using the terms ex-Mormon and post-Mormon. My use of these two terms is deliberate; I consider ex-Mormon to be an active recovery stage and post-Mormon as an indicator of a past history. Personally I alternate between being an ex-Mormon and a post-Mormon. Most of the time I am at peace with my Mormon past: in other words, I call myself a post-Mormon. Other times my Mormon past is a source of pain and anger: that’s when I call myself an ex-Mormon.
         These past few weeks I have been firmly in the ex-Mormon camp. I don’t want to go into details, other than to say that I grew up in a pretty toxic family environment. Some of my family dysfunction I see echoed on a larger scale within Mormon culture. Other aspects I suspect are simply my own family’s dysfunction. Either way, the legacy into which I was born is not always an easy burden to bear. To be frank, sometimes it is a huge source of pain.
          When I am struggling, my first emotional response is usually anger. Hanging on to anger is easier than dealing with the pain that comes after letting go of anger. On an intellectual level, I know I need to find a way to move past this recent flare-up of anger. Emotionally I don’t when or how that will happen. I suppose the path to recovery is different for everyone; I am still charting my own way.
          One day this will pass. Even now, I recognize this fact. I am not my family. I am not a Mormon. I am not doomed to repeat the past. My path in life is my own to create.
          I am still searching for resolution. One day I hope to find it. Until then, I suppose the most I can do is to try and get past this. And really, as ex-Mormons, that’s all we can do – search for resolution and in the meantime, live the best life we can. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Post-Mormon Guide To Coffee

Coffee is my favorite part of the morning - hot, fragrant, and flavorful, a warm cup puts me in the right mood for the rest of my day.  Over the years, I have developed a few key principles that allow me to consistently brew good coffee using my trusty French press. 

These principles are:

1) Fresh coffee - the best coffee beans have been roasted within the last two weeks and are ground just before using.  This particular bag I discovered through a sample subscription service; I liked this particular brand so much that I ordered the full-size bag.  I am also a huge fan of Gimme Coffee, which originated in my hometown and then expanded to New York City.  

2) Filtered water.  Tap water in my city tastes pretty bad.  Bad tasting water results in bad-tasting coffee.

3) Proper measurement.  Sounds simple but I have messed up many pots of coffee because I failed to measure.  Right now, I use five heaping tablespoons for one full French press of coffee.  

4) Use water that is just off the boil.  Water that is too hot will result in bitter coffee, water that is too cool will result in a sour coffee.  Coffee needs to steep for four minutes.  

5) After letting the coffee steep for four minutes, press down the plunger and enjoy!  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Growing Fruit In A City

          I grew up in the country and live in a city.  Growing up, we had blueberry, raspberry, and elderberry bushes, along with four gnarled old apple trees.  Moving to a large city, what I missed most about home was all of the green - the trees, the flowers, and the fruit trees.  
          Several years ago, I was lucky enough to move into an old bungalow on a modest city lot.  The previous owners had planted an orange tree; the fruit that comes off that particular tree is unbelievably sweet.  So, needing to improve the landscaping, which was composed primarily of strewn rock and sad-looking grass, we hired a company to plant fruit trees.  Most of the trees and bushes planted were unfamiliar to my Northern sensibilities - pomegranates, grumichamas, Cherry of the Rio Grande, lychee, and passion fruit.  A few of them remind me of home - blueberries and blackberries.  Either way, with the advent of spring, these trees are starting to bear fruit and I am starting to feel like less of a stranger to the city.  

Blueberry bushes, with small green fruits

Flowering blackberry bushes

The very showy passion-fruit flower

Flowering pomegranate

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grant Palmer Statement: Facts versus Faith

          Recently a statement, written by the historian and author Grant Palmer, has been making its rounds in the ex-Mormon communities. In this statement, which has been posted to MormonThink, Palmer describes several interviews with two anonymous higher-up leaders within the Mormon Church. These individuals claim that the Mormon leaders know the foundational claim of the Mormon Church is false but continue anyway because they believe the people need the church in their lives.
          Now, this is a statement that describes anonymous interviews that make a lot of unfounded claims. For this reason, although I do respect Grant Palmer’s writings, I am going to take all of this with a huge pinch of salt. For an excellent overview of the credibility of this controversy, I would suggest reading David Twede’s post “Rumor, Rumor, Every Where, Nor Any Fact To Think?” 

          As murky as this controversy is, I do think it raises an important issue: facts or faith?

          The Mormon Church is in a bit of a tight fix; its legitimacy rests on the shoulders of its founder, Joseph Smith, who lived in a recent enough era that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he was not the man he claimed to be. The most notable example is the discrepancies between the numerous First Vision accounts. The official version states that Joseph Smith, as a fourteen year old boy, entered the woods to pray and was visited by Heavenly Father and Jesus, who told him that none of the churches were true and that he was destined to restore the one true gospel to the earth. This is the official version, which was written towards the end of Smith’s life. However, there are multiple versions, written by Smith, that vary in details such as his age at the time of his vision, who appeared to him in the vision, and what the message was. For such a keystone event – and an event that I would assume is unforgettable – Smith seems quite uncertain on the details.
          Most of the Mormons I have met who know the full version of Mormon history justify their belief on faith. Some point to the church as being a good institution. Others have the faith that all will be made clear in time. In contrast, ex-Mormons tend to point towards the facts: the inconsistencies in the origins of Mormonism and the lack of archaeological and genetic evidence for the Book of Mormon. These two mindsets go a long way in explaining why Mormon/ex-Mormon arguments are never very fruitful – people have different values.
          Personally, I am curious as to how all of this will pan out. Perhaps people will come forward and verify the allegations. Perhaps the controversy will die down. As it stands, right now this is a situation where people are trying to decide between the facts of the situation and their faith in Grant Palmer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Caffeine Controversy: When Even The Insiders Can't Explain Doctrine


“Mormons don’t drink coffee or tea because caffeine is a mind-altering substance, right?  That’s what I was told.”

          I was sitting with a group of students waiting for class to begin; we were talking about our different obsessions.  I brought up my coffee obsession – I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about brewing methods and roast qualities.  This discussion then segued into the Mormon taboo against coffee and tea. 
          My classmate’s statement was entirely right – at least, correct according to the interpretation I grew up with. 
         “I grew up thinking that it was the caffeine in coffee and tea that you needed to avoid – we were also told to avoid caffeinated sodas,” I said.  “But now caffeinated soda is OK.” 
          The proscription against coffee and tea owes to the Word of Wisdom, which proscribes against the consumption of hot drinks.  I said as much to my classmates.
          “So no hot chocolate?” said another classmate.
          “We-e-ell…no, hot chocolate is OK.” 
          Mormonism is confusing, even to people who grew up in it.  The reason that Mormonism is so confusing is because it changes all the time and once it changes, there is a collective denial that the policies were ever any different.  A more serious example would be the priesthood ban on blacks; until 1978 black men were banned from holding the priesthood, a policy that effectively barred them from the majority of church life.  Church officials have never offered an apology or explanation for the ban.  Nor have they refuted the words of earlier leaders, who taught some truly reprehensible teachings on race in the name of God.  There is just a collective denial.  
         While conducting research for this post, I came across a commentary in the Deseret News about the caffeinated sodacontroversy.  The author began by saying that everyone knows what the stance is on Coca-Cola, that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t specifically mention Coca-Cola.  She then tells an anecdote from her childhood where her mother poured caffeine-free Coca-Cola down the drain, to “avoid the appearance of evil.”  The author’s conclusion was that she would still avoid Coca-Cola.  Reading this article brought back memories of a youth camp counselor who told our group of girls that she would not marry a man who had touched a cup of coffee.  All of this must seem very silly to outsiders but following the Word of Wisdom – whatever the current interpretation may be – is a serious issue within Mormon circles. 
         I grew up thinking that caffeinated soda was bad, a teaching that was echoed by the members around me.  In her memoir “Book of Mormon Girl,” author Joanna Brooks writes that she felt like a “root beer among colas.”  Brooks was raised to avoid caffeinated sodas; she writes about being a child at non-Mormon birthday parties, worrying about finding the root beer among cola drinks. 
Then, somewhere along the way, caffeinated sodas became acceptable.  Perhaps it was the Monson effect - the current church president drinks a lot of Pepsi.  Perhaps people became used to the idea of caffeinated sodas.  But all of this was unofficial.  Then, last summer, the Mormon Newsroom released a statement saying the Word of Wisdom only applied to coffee and tea, creating a huge controversy within Mormon circles.  
          As a Mormon, I was a pretty anxious personality.  Now, based on the fact that I can’t even explain the rationale behind a policy that is so integral to Mormonism, I am beginning to understand why I was so anxious.  We were raised to take this all very seriously.  We were promised that Mormon doctrine was infinite and unchanging.  But whatever it was that we were supposed to do and why, we really didn’t know.  Or rather, we did know, at least until someone came along and told us we were wrong. 
         We just knew we had to follow no matter what.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ted Talks: Julia Sweeney

I found this video a couple weeks ago and loved it.  The comedian Julia Sweeney was raised Catholic.   I hadn't realized that Catholics also have an age of accountability but her realization on the subject was uncannily similar to my fears about baptism.  (There is also a fantastic anecdote about meeting with the Mormon missionaries!)