At my suggestion, Rick Satterfield's temple website now has all the temple matrons (female) listed along with the presidents (male). This started late last year, but he's very busy. I don't know if my feminist blog posts have had any tangible effect on things within the church, but I know that this suggestion did, so I can die happy because I'm not useless.
Two Fridays ago, a full week before I expected to hear back from them, I got an email from the FSY people saying in part, "We regret to inform you that we will not be able to hire you for this particular job at this time." I was pretty qualified with my teaching experience and they were desperate for male counselors, so I first assumed it was because of my blog and/or social media posts. That was a known risk that almost dissuaded me from applying in the first place, but I wasn't about to lie or censor my true feelings and beliefs about anything. Anyway, while they have a right to try to hire those whose values and believes they feel are in line with their own, the chance that they've managed to only hire young people who agree with the church position on same-sex relationships is zero. Another possibility that occurred to me was that they'd discriminated against me for being socially awkward, but while that was a definite possibility and a thing that has been done to me throughout my life, I gave them the benefit of the doubt because the first option was sufficient and reasonable enough. In either case, though, I assumed they had been spineless and dishonest (albeit no more so than most people) to write "we will not be able to hire you" instead of "we have chosen not to hire you."
But on Monday I found out the real reason. Several FSY sessions have been canceled due to low enrollment. For a moment, that news made me feel better about myself and their honesty. Then it alarmed me. At worst, this means that a sizable percentage of the rising generation is not interested in church stuff at all - and everyone knows the church has a severe retention problem with this generation, but I wouldn't have thought it this severe. At best, it means that the leaders who have been hyping this thing up in vain are out of touch with the youth's actual wants or needs - and that problem has been apparent since Brad Wilcox's talk earlier this year went viral for all the wrong reasons, but I wouldn't have thought it this severe. I think it's a real shame because EFY, the North American precursor to FSY, was a mind-blowing, life-changing experience for me at age seventeen. It's hard for me to comprehend that any young Latter-day Saint who cares about or believes in church stuff at all wouldn't want to go. Granted, being surrounded by thousands of church members wouldn't be the same thrilling once-in-a-lifetime event for anyone who's grown up in Utah as it was for me.
Speaking of cynical young church members, I read this very balanced, very relatable article on "Five Real Reasons Young People Are Deconstructing their Faith." I'll resist the impulse to quote the entire thing and try to just go through each of the reasons. The author notes, "Depending on who’s using the word, deconstruction can be a complete demolition of Christian belief, a critical re-appraisal of one’s faith tradition, or an honest acknowledgment of doubt and questions." For me, deconstruction has been a process of rejecting and trying to replace false paradigms that I was implicitly or explicitly taught in the church. For example: everything spoken in General Conference is scripture, scripture comes straight from God's mouth and isn't filtered through human culture or limitations, scripture and science describe the same things and consequently the latter must be reconciled or rejected, prophets and apostles never make serious mistakes with long-term consequences, the "traditional" gender roles promoted by the church aren't sexist, and same-sex love is less authentic or meaningful than opposite-sex love.
Right now there's a big push within the church from scholars and laypeople alike to deconstruct the implicit paradigm of prophetic infallibility that simply doesn't hold up under any amount of scrutiny and often causes people's faith to shatter altogether. What most of them fail to acknowledge is that these incorrect assumptions didn't just grow up in a vacuum, but have been actively promulgated by generations of church talks, manuals, and magazines. Encouraging members to put exclamation points next to everything the prophet says and question marks next to everything else they hear or read is functionally little different from claiming the prophet is infallible. One article I read recently conflates "fallible" with "imperfect" (a much broader term) and then claims, "When a prophet is speaking or presenting a message in his official capacity as prophet, seer, and revelator, he does so under the direction of the Lord. His imperfections outside of his role as prophet do not limit his capacity within his role as prophet." If that's true, then prophets are infallible. We can't have it both ways. We can't pretend fallibility doesn't actually mean anything. We can't say we don't teach that prophets are infallible, and then claim that prophets have no human limitations in their role as prophets - which, by the way, would reduce them to nothing more than God's ventriloquist dummies. It also leads to the unhelpful circular logic that if a prophet is wrong about something, he wasn't acting within his role as a prophet (but you're not supposed to say so until after he's dead).
Now, getting back to the other article. Point 1: Trust in Large Institutions is Declining All Across the Board. The author notes that this is for good reason, and that "Younger generations appear far more eager to hold institutions accountable for their misdeeds and misconduct than the institutions themselves, especially regarding sexual abuse, sexism, racism, and fiscal irresponsibility." I believe my church is a fundamentally good institution and that most of the people in leadership positions are good, but I still don't entirely trust it. It's let me down before and it will again. It wasn't transparent about its history until the internet and hemmoraghing membership gave it no choice, and it still isn't transparent about its finances. My last bishop gave useless advice about a situation he didn't understand and was less than honest with me. He isn't "the church", but as a leader or even just as a member, he is inseparable from it. The church is the people. Without the people it's nothing. "And since the church claims to hold itself to a higher moral standard, institutional failures and distrust will always cascade and ripple outward." (When this author says "the church" he's referring to "a multitude of denominations, movements, and traditions from all over the world centered around the life and teachings of Jesus," but most of what he says is word-for-word applicable to mine.)
Point 2: We Live In a More Diverse, Accessible, and Global World. The author notes, "In contrast to previous generations, Christians Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to attend school, work alongside, and develop relationships with people who live, look, and believe differently. Relational proximity has massive implications for cultural acceptance, social awareness, and interpersonal empathy." This isn't a bad thing - nobody should believe in a religion for the sole reason that they were born into it - but it is a challenge. Of course, most Latter-day Saints in the world are used to being a minority and have lived with this challenge for as long as they've been Latter-day Saints. I suspect that those are Utah are far more likely to be thrown for a loop as the population diversifies or they venture out onto the internet and encounter different, often openly hostile perspectives. Personal acquaintance with LGBTQ+ friends and family members who no longer have to remain closeted in this day and age is also a huge factor in young people, including myself, rejecting what the church teaches about their lifestyles. From the USU English department alone, I'm acquainted with five LGBTQ+ people who have left the church because it made them miserable, and one who has stayed but whose beliefs are far from orthodox.
Point 3: High-Performance Christians are Simply Burning Out. "No one loses a lot of sleep if the spiritually apathetic or consumer-centric churchgoer deconstructs their faith. But when it’s a popular Christian singer/songwriter, a former missionary, a member of the worship team, or a heavily-involved church volunteer, people start paying attention." Yeah, some of the people who leave and subsequently devote all their free time to ranting about their former religion aren't much of a loss, but the church is also losing some of its best and brightest people. Some remaining members look at their departures as "the separation of the wheat and the tares," which is not only uncharitable but flat-out wrong. The tares in the parable are deceitful and actively trying to cause trouble, and the whole point is that you can't tell which ones they are until Jesus (not you) gets rid of them. I've burned out a little myself. It's impossible to maintain the enthusiasm I once had for sharing the gospel with the entire world when the world overwhelmingly seems to not give a crap.
Point 4: The Prideful Prioritization of Conformity Over Unity. "If everyone in your church is expected to look, talk, think, and believe exactly like you, your church isn’t as welcoming as you assume. Instead, you’ve created a culture that sacrifices unity for conformity." (emphasis in original) Young people want to discuss their legitimate questions and doubts without just being told to study their scriptures and pray more, and they don't care if men wear pastel shirts to church or women have multiple ear piercings. The church has progressed by leaps and bounds in this area but still has a long way to go.
Point 5: The Acceptance of Political Idolatry and Conspiracy Theories in Christian Communities. "It’s difficult to put into words how discouraging it can be to watch the very people who taught you the value of discernment fall into conspiratorial rabbit holes or succumb to inflammatory misinformation. Or, as Carey wrote in a blog post, “When Christians lose their minds, people lose their faith.” (emphasis in original) This. This. A thousand times this. When I see how stupid a significant number of middle-aged American members of my church are on social media, I become legitimately afraid that if I ever get married, my wife will turn into a moron on her fortieth birthday. I don't have much of a desire to affiliate with people who think that Trump is the rightful US president and critical race theory is Communism. Even without the conspiracy theory aspect, I have very little patience for the kind of people I used to be who think their political views are the only ones that a righteous Saint can hold and aren't shy about saying so. I'm not sure what part of "principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties" is so damn hard for members of The Church of Donald Trump of Latter-day Republicans to understand. I think this is much less of an issue in Young Single Adult wards, though I've still witnessed a high councillor's wife get up and bear her "testimony" that "social justice and reproductive justice aren't really justice."
Just one more quote to wrap up, and this is a key takeaway for me since I need to critique myself and not just other people: "Deconstruction without reconstruction is a tragedy. If the path you’re on isn’t making you a more generous, compassionate, hopeful, and merciful person (or, in other words, more like Jesus), then the destination isn’t worth the journey." Ultimately, I only want to believe what's true, so ultimately, I believe that will bring me closer to Jesus. But I know I need to go about it in the right way and I'll keep making course corrections in that regard. I can't not take the journey, though. I was made for it. Everyone should read that article in full, so here's the link again.
Last week in Elders Quorum, the teacher asked us what things we wish we knew about Jesus. I chickened out of sharing my question because it was too weird. My question was this: since we know that the Atonement covers non-human animals in some way, because they will also be resurrected and inherit eternal bliss, did Jesus also experience their lives and all of their pain as He did for us?
This pain is not insignificant. It was a leading cause of Charles Darwin's faith crisis. He wrote, "With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I wish to do, evidence of design & beneficience on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
More recently, militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
Non-human animals deserve to suffer even less than most of us do. And in a way, their suffering is all the more cruel, because they lack the mental capacity that most of us have to contextualize and cope with pain. And yet God requires their suffering as an integral part of their mortal existence, just as He does of us. It seems reasonable to me, then, that Jesus was willing to go through everything that was required of them, just as He was willing for us. And as I contemplate that, I have another question: even though non-human animals are (probably) not accountable when they rape or murder each other, does Jesus still have to pay a price for those violations of moral laws, as He does when humans sin in ignorance?
This is all, of course, just a less considered subset of the problem of evil that everyone knows about. Daniel C. Peterson has said: "Consider... this supremely complacent remark, offered by a vocal atheist critic of Mormonism during a 2001 Internet discussion: 'If there were a God,' he reflected, 'I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me - perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.' Only someone very comfortably situated could be so marinated in smugness about the question of whether or not God exists.
"But the vast majority of the world’s population is not so situated, and, for them, atheism, if true, is very bad news indeed. Most of the world’s population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation, disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life. And such a future life seems to require a God.
"Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims; that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline; that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
"This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great number of other occasions."
First and foremost, I believe in the message of Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead and that all people and other animals will likewise rise from the dead, because without some compensatory afterlife, existence is as depressing and pointless as Richard Dawkins suggested in the rest of his quote: "In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Wanting to believe in a purpose doesn't mean there is one, but if I'm wrong, I've lost nothing. And faith and hope go together for a reason. (I do recognize that other belief systems about the afterlife exist, Christian or otherwise, and there are reasons why I believe mine makes the most sense, but I don't want to denigrate the others by getting into that.)
Things that Stood Out to Me in the April 2022 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The conference opened with a big emphasis on full-time missionary service, obviously in response to the big drop in missionary numbers that hasn't yet rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. It reminded me that my last love served a mission once. So that was a depressing note to start on.
Reyna I. Aburto asserted on Saturday morning, "The Church is more than the buildings and the ecclesiastical structure; the Church is us, the members. We are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with Christ at the head and the prophet as His mouthpiece." I loved to hear her say that because for a few years I've been responding to the false and annoying cliche "The Church is perfect, but the people aren't" with "The Church is the people." This cliche is as nonsensical as "The body is perfect, but the cells aren't." The last time I brought this up, the other person insisted that the Church is Christ. And I said no it isn't, because without the people, it would be nothing more than an idea in Christ's head, and also, the Bible describes it as the bride of Christ, and I'm not sure what kind of weird modalist reading could twist that into saying they're the same entity. Anyway, most members are more likely to listen to Sister Aburto than to me.
Patrick Kearon, I mean Jeffrey R. Holland was on fire during the Saturday afternoon session with his candid recognition and denunciation of abuse. "The abuse was not, is not, and never will be your fault, no matter what the abuser or anyone else may have said to the contrary. When you have been a victim of cruelty, incest, or any other perversion, you are not the one who needs to repent; you are not responsible. You are not less worthy or less valuable or less loved as a human being, or as a daughter or son of God, because of what someone else has done to you." I think Elder Kearon should be an apostle.
Dale G. Renlund gave the concluding remarks in the women's session on Saturday evening. He talked about the Young Women theme. Just a couple weeks ago, a former church member in my poetry class shared a poem about the sexism that was drilled into her in the Young Women program, and it excerpted the pre-2019 version of the theme. A current member recited the theme from memory and a never-member beatboxed along with it, which didn't really work but was funny. The current member mentioned the 2019 revision from "Heavenly Father" to "heavenly parents," and acknowledged, "It's not much, but... it's not much." I respectfully disagree; I think any phrasing in a thing that gets repeated every week and memorized for life is significant. Elder Renlund also fixated on that phrasing and talked about Heavenly Mother. After rumors and reports about him and other leaders, I had some idea what he would say. "Very little has been revealed about Mother in Heaven, but what we do know is summarized in a gospel topic found in our Gospel Library application. Once you have read what is there, you will know everything that I know about the subject. I wish I knew more. You too may still have questions and want to find more answers. Seeking greater understanding is an important part of our spiritual development, but please be cautious. Reason cannot replace revelation."
A lot of people are very upset about that. Personally, I think he did the best he could and I choose to focus on the postiive that he discussed Heavenly Mother at all. I don't think any reasonable person will be able to interpret him as saying that we shouldn't talk about Her or that she's "too sacred" and needs to be "protected" by Heavenly Father. (By the way, I've seen Elder Renlund and his wife relentlessly tease each other in a smaller and less formal setting, so I'm pretty sure he wouldn't relate to that ridiculous and sexist hypothesis at all.) Granted, many members of the church are not reasonable people. But I don't think this talk would have the same chilling effect on discussion as President Hinckley's similar talk in 1991 even if that were Elder Renlund's intention, which I'm sure it is not. The culture is very different. The essay is on the website. And right after the caution that "Demanding revelation from God is both arrogant and unproductive" came an implied openness to receive it anyway: "Instead, we wait on the Lord and His timetable to reveal His truths through the means that He has established."
On Sunday morning, Russell M. Nelson referred to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and actually mentioned the two countries involved by name this time. He said, "None of us can control nations or the actions of others or even members of our own families. But we can control ourselves. My call today, dear brothers and sisters, is to end conflicts that are raging in your heart, your home, and your life. Bury any and all inclinations to hurt others - whether those inclinations be a temper, a sharp tongue, or a resentment for someone who has hurt you. The Savior commanded us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who despitefully use us." And that phrasing really stood out to me because everyone over the age of two without a severe mental disability has wanted to hurt someone else at some point, but we're not supposed to admit it. Only dangerous and scary people admit it.
Dallin H. Oaks' Sunday afternoon talk was so repetitive of his previous talking points that I really and truly thought I was watching an old conference by mistake, and I would have said so, but I was watching at someone's house and switching between a laptop and the TV as the latter kept failing to work, and I realized it was unlikely that she had brought up the wrong conference on both devices. I've been uncomfortable with Oaks' anti-LGBTQ+ talks for years but now my conscience leads me to straight-up disagree on at least one major point. Even granting "that exaltation can be attained only through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman," I do not see how legalized or socially accepted same-sex marriage "oppose[s] progress toward exaltation." Most people aren't choosing same-sex marriage over opposite-sex marriage, they're choosing it over being alone until they die, which wouldn't get them any closer to exaltation either but would probably make them a lot less happy in this life. If same-sex marriage can't be sealed in the temple, then it ends at death and is moot in the long term. I see no reason why the Church needs to keep worrying about it at all. I know that if it does, it's going to continue pushing out its younger members and shrivel up to a shadow of its former self as the older ones die off.
New children of record during 2021: 89,069
Converts baptized during 2021: 168,283
Wards and branches: 31,315
Full-time teaching missionaries: 54,539
Church-service missionaries: 36,639
Temples in operation: 170
Temples dedicated during 2021: 2
Temples rededicated during 2021: 1
Growth has started to rebound from the catastrophe of 2020, but not all the way, and it was in steady decline for thirty years before that anyway.
Following President Nelson's trend, most of these temples are clearly not warranted by membership numbers alone (which have actually gone down in the UK and California in recent years) but will be more convenient for nearby members to attend. Breaking from the trend, one wasn't announced for Utah. Oh no, whatever shall we do? How will we get by with only 28 temples?
Good for Ohio though. Some of my favorite people in the world live in Ohio.
Since life is too short to listen to every song by every artist I'm not familiar with, I often just listen to the one or the few with the most Spotify streams. This is a useful approach, but it can become too entrenched into my mindset. Sometimes I like a song and then I see that it doesn't have very many Spotify streams, and I second-guess whether I should like it. That's stupid. I have to remind myself that I don't need anyone's validation to like something.
I had to remind myself again after I watched one of my new favorite movies the other day. I laughed through much of it - quite an achievement, since I rarely laugh when I'm alone and don't have other people's laughter to trigger me - and then had trouble sleeping because I was so excited about how great it was. And then I looked up more information about it and realized that, while some people agree with me that it's "A little-known cult gem," others see it more as "Land fill fodder the musical." One reviewer on imdb wrote, "If you have a child 6-12 perhaps, with a weird sense of style and fun, this might be something good to put on after they've watched all of Pee-Wee's Playhouse at least 10 times each." Another wrote, "None of the jokes are remotely funny. This movie really hurts and kills brain cells. It can be used to torture prisoners with." Another wrote, "Except for a few moments of unintentional humor this is certainly one of the hardest films to watch that I've come across. It appears to be little more than a Pia Zadora vehicle, and that vehicle is on a collision course with a tree." Another wrote, "I'm not kidding. This one is appallingly bad. Where to start? It really doesn't matter, this movie sucks on every level, so by all means, watch it! Enjoy it!" So anyway, I started to wonder if they were right and I was an idiot for enjoying it.
But I quickly concluded that what we have here is a mismatch of expectations. Patrick Mason has written in a thinly veiled scathing personal attack on me, "Those who are disappointed that church meetings are not as intellectually stimulating or historically nuanced as university classes suffer from category confusion; they would surely not expect or appreciate a sermon from their college professor." Likewise, the people who didn't like this movie obviously expected something different from what they got. I have no idea why. I'll freely acknowledge that it doesn't cater to everyone's tastes, but I think it's pretty obvious at a glance what kind of tastes this movie does cater to. I knew what I was getting and I got it and then some. Tell me truthfully, would you watch this movie with expectations of groundbreaking special effects, phenomenal acting, and a rational plot?
Where Voyage of the Rock Aliens subverted and exceeded my expectations was in the very conscious, deliberate nature of its low-budget cheesiness and weirdness. It's not just a B movie, it's a parody of and tribute to B movies. I first realized this when I noticed that the name of the malt shop was Popular Teen Hangout. And once I realized that, the movie could do no wrong. It thoroughly covered its bases. Clever jokes are funny. Stupid jokes are funny. Jokes with potential but poor delivery are funny. Absurd events are funny. Random musical numbers are funny. Bad dancing is funny. Some of the songs aren't terribly memorable, but they've all got the eighties charm that you'll appreciate if you aren't the imdb reviewer who wrote, "Man, I'm sooo glad the '80s are dead and buried." And this movie riffs not only on sci-fi movies, horror movies, and sixties beach movies, but eighties music videos - which it had the self-awareness to do during the eighties. I may not know much about art, but I know that this movie is it. I'm going to make all my true friends watch it on my birthday after I download it from YouTube and edit out the half-second of nudity in case that offends someone.
The second best thing I watched this weekend was General Conference, which I will probably write about next weekend after taking some time to collect my thoughts and look at the transcripts.
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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.