Daniel C. Peterson spoke at the Logan Institute of Religion on Friday. He was one of their more exciting guests in my book. I respect his scholarly work. I respect that he resigned from the Republican party and denounced Donald Trump. I respect that he defends Islam against its detractors nearly as much as he does his own church (and the detractors are often members of his own church). One curious fact that's become a running joke with him is that critics of the Church of Jesus Christ constantly portray him as evil and mean-spirited and insist that his writings are full of ad hominem attacks. I could list a few apologists of whom that actually is true, but I just don't get it in his case. I guess he's just the best at what he does and that makes them angry. He's one of my faithful-intellectual role models and it makes my day whenever I comment on his Facebook page or his blog and he likes my comment.
He talked about the official and unofficial witnesses of the Book of Mormon and plugged the film Witnesses of which he and his wife were executive producers, and which the Institute showed that evening. I watched it in the theater last summer and yelled at an old lady the third time her phone went off. After it ended, someone said to her, "That person who yelled at you, that wasn't very Christlike." Right, she disregarded the most basic well-established theater etiquette and everyone else who paid to see the movie, but I'm the rude one. Okay. Sure. /s <- Sarcasm tag because it turns out neurotypical people can't understand written sarcasm unless it's labeled as such. Anyway, other than the three times the old lady's phone went off, the movie was all right. I went home and moved on with my life and woke up in chills that night as the quote at the close of the movie, in which a newspaper reporter in 1888 describes David Whitmer's integrity and sincerity, seared into my soul. That was weird because it's not like I didn't already believe in the witnesses. I think their testimonies are pretty dang incontrovertible. But it's a good movie and I recommend it. This time, during intermission, someone behind me said she likes the humor even though it's kind of sacrilegious. She's the most sheltered person in the world if she thinks anything in this movie is sacrilegious.
I hope to get back to my usual long-winded self in time for General Conference next weekend, but at this time I don't feel like waxing all thoughtful and detailed because I haven't slept well at all this week. Lots of waking up and not getting back to sleep. I spent most of the last three days making a Spotify playlist of the eighties. I'm sure there are thousands of Spotify playlists of the 80s, but this one is going to be exactly the way I want it, including for instance more songs by Bangles and Eurythmics and "Weird Al" Yankovic than most people would be inclined to include in theirs. I typically organize playlists by topic. I have a couple by genre, but usually I prefer to shuffle all the genres together. This is my first one based on a certain time period. Although every decade has countless great songs, the eighties is my favorite by a small margin. In the future when I'm chronically sleep-deprived again and need something easy to do, I may move onto the nineties and seventies.
Oh, I almost forgot. "Marie," a former recurring character on this blog whom I'm now going to out as Elisabeth because I don't bother with pseudonyms anymore and she already found out that I was writing about her so it doesn't matter if anyone else knows it too, felt a need to send me this comment that I made once. The original post no longer shows up. It was one of those Facebook trends that everybody did, a cartoon of how God made you and what ingredients he put in. I can't help laughing at my comment now because it's so pathetic but so legitimately clever at the same time. Unlike the movie Witnesses, however, it may be just a smidge sacrilegious.
As I reflect on my graduate school career that began only yesterday, I have to say it turned out to be pretty dang easy. It was a challenge, but the kind I like, the kind that stretches me a little, not the kind that makes me regret being born. It wasn't entirely devoid of stress, but I seem to have experienced a lot less than most of my classmates and colleagues. I credit that to my therapist a few years ago who said that his experience successfully procrastinating as an undergraduate made him less stressed in graduate school. That advice entered into my heart like few words ever have. For the most part, I've just gone with the flow and known that everything would be all right. One example of that would be how I was at lunch with some of my classmates and colleageus a few weeks ago, and they talked about revising their theses and scheduling their defenses, and I thought Oh yeah, I better get on that, so I made a few more revisions and sent my thesis chair Charles what I had, and he said it was good to go and I got my defense scheduled before most of the others. We held it last Wednesday.
Calling it a "defense" is very misleading, inexplicable even. I didn't have to defend anything. Charles assured me before it started that I would pass, and then I stepped out for twenty minutes while the committee deliberated, and then I came back in and Charles broke with tradition by assuring me that they'd already decided I would pass and my answers to their subsequent questions wouldn't affect that one way or another. So it was as rigged as pro wrestling or the 2020 US election. They asked about future plans for schooling, career, publication, whatever, and I mentioned how one of my thesis stories ("Do Robots Dream of Electric Horse Debugger?") won second place in the graduate fiction category of the USU Writing and Art Contest, so that's going to be published in the Sink Hollow literary magazine, but I mentioned that I had to cut some stuff to fit within the length requirement, so Charles said he could talk to the editor and get them to publish the whole thing. Rigged, I tell you. One of my classmates and colleagues won third place, but the person who beat us both isn't even an English major, so that's kind of embarrassing.
I also mentioned that I was hoping to stay at USU in some capacity and also for some kind of online teaching job so I wouldn't have to move but could if I changed my mind, and committee member Jessica mentioned a sudden opening to teach concurrent enrollment English 1010 broadcasts for high school students and I emailed her about it and she recommended me and someone else explained the job and I told them both I was interested and that was on Friday so I don't know if the job is mine just like that, but it might be. I hope it is because job searching makes me regret being born.
I recently arranged to hang out with someone from my ward because I didn't look forward to being alone for every hour of spring break and she seemed like a safe person to talk to about some stuff. We were going to go for a walk but when she had to work late, we went to dinner instead. It wasn't a date. I made sure to tell her up front that I was only seeking friendship, so she wouldn't have to wonder about my intentions, and she appreciated that. She told me about her awkward drama with two guys from the ward who are competing for her affections. If I needed a reminder of how grateful I am to not have anything to do with the world of dating anymore, which I didn't, that would have sufficed. I felt bad for them but also amused that someone besides me is going to suffer this time.
I told her that I just recently came to the conclusion that I simply straight-up don't believe in some teachings and claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A lot of people wouldn't see that as earth-shattering. Members who don't believe every single part are the rule, not the exception. But I tried for a really long time to avoid that route because I saw it as logically untenable to pick and choose parts of a religion that claims to be the only true and living church, the kingdom of God, uniquely led by revelation. It's all or nothing, I thought. But I grew tired of trying to make certain things work or pretend they made sense, so here I am. And I hesitated to share that fact with anyone. As invisible as I feel pretty much all the time, I know that a few people in and out of the church, including some who don't even believe in God, admire me as a truth seeker and an example of balancing faith and reason. I didn't want to shake anyone's faith, or to be seen as a hypocrite or as proof that faith and reason can't be balanced after all. I picked this person to confide in because I knew she wouldn't judge me and she didn't have enough preconceived notions to be too disappointed. She asked for examples of what I don't believe anymore. I said, "I don't believe that same-sex relationships are wrong." Without skipping a beat she was like, "Yeah, me neither."
The Church's opposition to homosexuality - which in fairness, it shared until pretty recently with the entire Judeo-Christian world - has bothered me a lot for a little over a decade, ever since I befriended a real live lesbian who shockingly didn't appreciate being told that God wanted her to pursue a life of celibacy. (I didn't volunteer that information, thank goodness. I didn't even know she was a lesbian yet. She asked me "What are your thoughts on gays?" and I told her and she said "Houston, we have a problem.") As I talked to her, the horrible real life implications of the glib phrase "The attraction isn't a sin, but acting on it is" - an improvement on the Church's previous stance of "Homosexuality is a curable pathology" - suddenly sunk in. Still, I remained agnostic about it. I tried to maintain some epistemological humility and not claim with certainty that the Church's position was wrong. God's ways are not my ways. Just because I and countless others find something deeply confusing and hurtful, I told myself, doesn't mean it isn't from God. I listened to countless rationalizations and obfuscations from happily married straight people about why it isn't as fundamentally unfair as they know it is. I decided I would just love people and not judge their lifestyle choices, and if God didn't like their lifestyle choices, that was His problem, not mine. And I continued to experience cognitive dissonance every time I became aware of yet another gay person who had left the Church because its teachings made him or her miserable.
The tipping point actually came last week when the final speaker at the Logan Institute's LGBTQ+ and allies seminar, a happily married straight man, gave everyone a handout of quotes that were supposed to rationalize and obfuscate the fundamental unfairness of the Church's position but had the opposite effect on me. For example:
Robert George: "If one believes that 'sexual orientation' or 'gender identity' truly is central to one's identity or being, then The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' teaching about marriage and family, including but not limited to the Proclamation on the Family, will always be highly problematic and, indeed, mysterious. It will be defensible, if at all, sheerly by appeal to authority." Okay, so sexual orientation per se is a pretty modern construct, but people have had varying kinds of sexual attraction for as long as people have existed, and how can that not be central to one's identity or being in some way if marriage and sex are central to God's plan? How can the purpose of one's existence be uncoupled (no pun intended) from the internal motivation to take part in it (or not)? Dr. George is certainly correct about the appeal to authority - though apologists have tried to fill in the gaps, church leaders themselves have made little if any serious attempt to explain or defend the Church's stance on homosexuality beyond "God said so."
N.T. Wright: "We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church, where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out." I believe this statement, and yet when applied in this context, it singles out (no pun intended) a small segment of the population (percentage-wise) and holds them to a different standard than most people. If you're part of the heterosexual majority, then in this context God is regarding your wills and affections as sacrosanct to a significant extent. He is commanding what you already love and promising what you already desire. Maybe you won't be able to find someone, but that's because of bad luck, not because He doesn't want you to and forbade you from trying. Oh, and there's also the small detail that people's sexual and romantic wills and affections are typically the ones God gave them in the first place.
Robert Johnson: It's become increasingly common to believe that one "mortal human being has the responsibility for making our lives whole, keeping us happy, making our lives meaningful, intense, and ecstatic." Stephanie Coontz (misspelled Coonz): "Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable." Maybe Latter-day Saints get this idea because the Church teaches that marriage is the most important thing in the universe and, once entered into, should be one's highest priority at all times. I thought this quote was on the list to imply that gay people shouldn't make such a big deal out of marriage because it isn't all that great, which would be pretty freaking hypocritical. After looking at the original article and its brief mention of LGBT+ individuals, though, I think it's on the list to imply (even though neither of the people quoted were talking about this) that gay people shouldn't mind dating and marrying the opposite sex without getting to enjoy any of the romantic feelings or attraction that straight people take for granted, and which gay people also get to enjoy when they date and marry the same sex.
So now I've had no choice but to change my mind. God's commandments can sometimes be very difficult to follow, but I'm pretty sure they aren't supposed to be a constant source of avoidable pain and trauma. The fruits of the Church's teachings on this subject tell me loud and clear that they aren't from God. If they are, then it seems to me that celibate gay members should find happiness and inner peace that outweigh the benefits of being in a relationship, and those who leave to pursue gay lifestyles (assuming they would even still want to) should feel empty inside and want to come back. From what I've seen, this is overwhelmingly not the case. (Of course there are rare exceptions on both sides, and there is sometimes middle ground. John Gustav-Wrathall was excommunicated in 2005, and has continued to attend church every week with his husband. Tom Christofferson broke up with his long-term boyfriend to get rebaptized, and now he's dating men again because he got lonely. A gay friend of mine is zealous about the gospel and committed to celibacy, and on my birthday he told me he was interested and kissed me on the lips.) The bottom line for me is that the gospel is supposed to work for all of God's children and the Church is supposed to be a healthy place for all of God's children, but it doesn't and it isn't, and consequently something needs to change. I don't presume to know exactly what, but something.
Even if it's true that opposite-sex marriage is a requirement for exaltation in the highest degree of heaven, and consequently the only form of marriage that can be sealed for eternity in the temple, it doesn't logically follow that a temporary same-sex marriage is worse than no marriage at all. On the contrary, since same-sex love and relationships are every bit as real and meaningful as opposite-sex love and relationships, a same-sex marriage that ends at death still provides the personal growth and development between two imperfect people that I believe is the main purpose of marriage. (I'm pretty sure that reproduction is not the main purpose of marriage, which every non-human organism on the planet gets along just fine without.) The Church could keep its temple sealing policies and teachings about the hereafter, and still stop punishing gay members for doing what makes them happy. This would still confer a kind of second-class status on gay members and be unsatisfactory to a lot of people, but it would be an astronomical improvement. In 1948 BYU students Kent Goodridge Taylor and Richard Snow told President George Albert Smith that they were in love with each other, and he told them to live their lives as best they could. Of course, that was a few years before gay people in the US started agitating en masse to be treated like human beings, which apparently frightened church leaders and sparked the rampant homophobia and witch hunts of the 1960s and 70s.
And even if my fallible mortal logic is wrong and it is true that marrying the wrong person somehow gets you farther away from exaltation than being alone, I don't believe that any God worthy of the title would be more concerned about chastity violations between people who love each other than about, say, the LGBTQ+ suicide rate. So there's the whole matter of priorities too. Again, not a perfect solution, but there is ancient and modern scriptural precedent for God allowing people to live a "lower law" when the "higher law" proves impossible for them.
My friend asked, "Are you a pretty logical thinker?" I said, "Yeah." She said, "That makes it hard." And then I complained about the hostility I frequently encounter in the Church to critical thinking or any kind of nuance whatsoever, as exemplified in recent remarks by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Nelson. My friend hadn't heard about the latter, and she smiled and shook her head when I described them. And then that led her to the topic that I would have brought up next anyway. She brought up a Sunday school lesson that our bishop taught last year, which I've complained about on this blog multiple times, but I had gotten over it and I'm only bringing it up again because she did. In this lesson he very forcefully asserted that God wants all married women to work unpaid 96-hour weeks as homemakers, and told the women present to only use their college educations to be better mothers, not to have careers (emphasis his). My friend remembered him saying that people who disagreed were "babies" in their understanding. I don't remember that, but I remember him saying that we were following the "natural man" and the world's lies, so the same general idea. I was very concerned about the women who sat through this nonsense. I was concerned that those who recognized it as nonsense would leave the Church, and those who didn't would either give up their dreams, feel guilty for having dreams, or feel guilty when modern economic realities forced them to have careers whether they wanted to or not. Now I know how two of them reacted. My friend said that she and her roommate were both angry about it, and then she went home and bawled.
Hearing that also made me angry all over again - about the lesson, and about the total lack of any retraction, correction, or apology to those harmed, because we don't seem to mean it when we say we don't believe that our leaders are infallible. A few months later, referencing my complaint to the stake president, the bishop privately acknowledged to me that "We all make mistakes," but my friend and I are pretty sure he still doesn't think he said anything wrong. She was chill about it, though. She said we don't have to believe everything we hear, and if something feels wrong, it probably is. She shared another experience in another ward when the principle of modesty was, as per bloody usual, taught completely wrong by telling the women they needed to cover up to help men control their thoughts. (Jesus would have told the men to pluck their eyes out if they had a problem.) And she was upset, but that very week she saw a quote in institute that she was able to take to her bishop to convince him that this was the wrong way to teach modesty, and he asked how she would teach it and asked her to prepare a lesson, and she was terrified but she got a reprieve from the you-know-what pandemic. Because of her taking this stand, though, when the time came for her mother (who had originally seen nothing wrong with the modesty lesson) to require the young women at some church activity or other to wear shirts over their bathing suits, she refused. My friend said people like us need to be here to take stands like that and to create space for others who otherwise wouldn't be welcome. I agree. It just feels at times like a ridiculous burden that we don't deserve, especially when less nuanced members and leaders openly resent us as they push the culture in the opposite direction.
I told her about how I had become an out-and-out feminist in the last couple years because of my ex-neighbor Calise, who probably still has no idea that she had this effect on me. (This friend already knew something of the less positive effects that Calise had on me and had said that she "sounds like a butthead," so I jumped at the chance to give a more nuanced picture.) Because of her, I started to question things that I had never questioned because they were conditioned into me. Calise made the most beautiful artwork and she wanted to be a teacher and share her passion with children. It made me sick to think that anyone would tell her not to use that God-given talent because she had a one-size-fits-all role to change diapers, wash dishes, and so on. My friend said that she really appreciates men like me. That was nice. She said we have "a lot of very conservative men" in our ward and that the ones in our home evening group have made several "domineering comments" and she finally called them out on it. I stopped going to Elders' Quorum for a while in part because of sexist comments like the high councillor's assertion that his wife "understood her role as a homemaker" and that her career was to follow him wherever his career took him. They weren't frequent by any means, but I felt like life was too short to gamble every other week on whether or not one would pop up.
I said, "The whole thing about the man being the breadwinner and the woman staying home..." "...is bullcrap," she interrupted. I was going to say "...only solidified after World War II and was only feasible for white Americans of a certain social class where women could afford to stay home instead of working as housekeepers for wealthier families," but I guess her more concise version covered that. Of course, I don't think it's bullcrap if/when a heterosexual couple decides with equal input and without coercion that it's the right option for their specific circumstances, but it is bullcrap when preached as God's eternal model for everyone ever. So anyway, I've come to the conclusion that I don't believe anything the Church teaches about gender roles. It's lost all credibility on that subject for me because its current teachings are just a watered-down version of more egregiously sexist teachings from a few decades ago (that some people are still perpetuating). And while men and women are obviously different, everyone is an individual and you simply cannot make any generalization about one or the other that will always be true. (Not to mention that many differences stem more from culture and upbringing than biology.)
I could have gone on about things I don't believe anymore, but my friend asked what I do still believe. So I started listing those off. I believe the basic theology, which, although I don't often say so because I have no interest in denigrating other faiths, in my opinion is the most complete and makes the most sense of any Christian theology. As an example, I mentioned the teaching that some part of our identities, which Joseph Smith called "intelligences," is uncreated and co-eternal with God. This resolves the theological problem that if God created us from scratch, it's His fault that we aren't perfect and His fault that we sin. I don't know if she ever considered that before but she looked impressed. I believe in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. For whatever reason, after saying that I felt a need to reassure her that I don't like polygamy. It's one of the major issues that keeps a lot of people up at night but doesn't bother me much for some reason, but if I were a woman like my friend it would probably bother me more, so I felt like I needed to be sensitive to that after mentioning that I don't have any real problems with Joseph Smith. So we got on a tangent about that because she said that she doesn't like it either but she thinks it was necessary for a time and she just recently learned about how it empowered plural wives to take turns going back East to get college educations. I said, "The Church was more feminist in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth." She said, "Ohhh yeah."
She had said she needed to be back around 6:45, but when I glanced at my phone at 6:35, she told me not to worry about it, to take my time. We left around quarter after seven. I had a delightful time and appreciated her empathy and thoughtfulness very much. I am starving for these intellectual discussions that I can't have at church or with my family. She said she thought I wasn't giving myself enough credit for everything I still believe. I agreed and no longer felt like it was a big deal to share this with both of the people who read my blog.
The other night I had the great privilege of hearing Dallas Jenkins, creator of The Chosen, which I now remember I said a long time ago I would review on this blog at some point and then I didn't, do a Q&A session with Mormon Studies Chair Patrick Mason at USU. He was, as always, charming and funny and spiritually supercharged. He talked about giving his career to God after one of the biggest failures of his life, and how God has guided him since then. It's very clear from his stories and from the most recent results of his career that this guidance is powerful and frequent. I thought to ask myself on this occasion, what does "the gift of the Holy Ghost" include that he doesn't already have? I was taught that my church has exclusive access to this gift, which is bestowed at baptism; that the Holy Ghost can and does speak to people outside the church, but only we can have it as our constant companion. And in fairness, I don't know of any other religion that places nearly such an emphasis on personal two-way communication with God as we do. Evangelical Christianity, which Dallas calls his spiritual home, places far more emphasis on the authority of the Bible and even asserts that feelings are an unreliable guide to truth. Yet I would wager that he has a stronger and deeper relationship with God than the overwhelming majority of Latter-day Saints. And he's one of the people that Brad Wilcox thinks is only "playing church" because he doesn't "have God's permission."
He talked about how focusing on Jesus can bring down religious barriers, and how people of different denominations can disagree even about significant things, refuse to compromise on their own beliefs, and still be friends and collaborators. I wish his fanbase would get the memo. Last I checked, evangelicals in the The Chosen group on Facebook were constantly posting about how Latter-day Saints and/or Catholics aren't really Christians, and it was very annoying. I got more defensive of the Catholics because life is too short to care what idiots say about my church. I would call out Catholic-bashers and conclude with "Sincerely, not a Catholic." I also mentioned more than once that this holier-than-thou gatekeeping bullcrap just makes Christians in general look bad to everyone else, and is a contributing factor to the modern secular world's lack of respect for them. That didn't fix the problem, but it made some people really mad because they knew it was true. Anyway - focusing on Jesus. There can never be too much focus on Jesus. I came away from the event convinced as ever by this godly man that whatever else I may or may not believe at any given time, I believe in Jesus.
Dallas talked about some things from a writing perspective that of course interested me as a writer even though I've heard him talk about them before. For example, he portrays even Jesus' enemies as nuanced and complicated people, which is both realistic and good storytelling. We see why some of the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus. As Dallas puts it, Shmuel didn't just wake up one morning, twirl his mustache, and ask himself how he could make Jesus' life difficult. Judas, who's introduced in the last episode of Season Two, seems to just be a regular decent guy, as he must have been at one point. This show skillfully avoids the dogmatic us vs. them persecution complex approach that makes the first two God's Not Dead movies unwatchable (and makes my own church experience insufferable sometimes). Very few people do evil things just for the sake of being evil. Even Putin has realistic motivation for his evil deeds. I'm not saying lust for power is a good motivation, but it's a little different than waking up one morning, twirling his mustache, and asking himself how many war crimes he can commit just for fun. I thought about this principle again the following evening when I got Zoombombed for the first time.
Dr. Solimar Otero of Indiana University was giving the Fife Folklore Honor Lecture entitled "Stories of Our Lives - Material Culture, Memory, and Narrative on the Bóveda," and I tuned in because I was bored and lonely. I half paid attention and half read a book. Half an hour into the lecture, someone screenshared pornography, and I cycled through six thoughts in about six seconds.
1. Ew, gross.
2. This is the most embarrassing moment of someone's life.
3. Ew, gross.
4. Wait, is my computer doing that somehow? If it is, I'll have to kill myself.
5. Ew, gross.
6. Wait, this is no accident.
My realization was immediately confirmed as someone started saying the n-word over and over and over again, and at least three people pasted it in the chat several dozen times each, rapid-fire. It was a blitzkrieg, a far more efficient invasion than Putin's. Someone said "If you make me the cohost, I can get rid of them," but for all I know he was one of them. It was very difficult to think under this barrage, but I tried to focus and come up with something to say that would make these Zoombombers understand that their lives were collectively more pathetic and less valuable than a mosquito's, and I failed to do so before the meeting closed. I couldn't just say any old rude or angry thing because that would play right into their hands. They wanted to get reactions out of people. And in the days since, I've grappled with the curious fact that this appears to be the entire extent of their motivation. The only reason I can think of for grown adults to ruin a complete stranger's Zoom lecture with pornography and racial slurs is that they just get a thrill out of being turds for the sake of being turds. They weren't well-written villains at all. And perhaps the greatest mystery of the universe, I thought to myself, is what Jesus saw in them that was worth dying for.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.