Saturday, January 27, 2007

Passivity and Practice

handle's recent and excellent post on architecture raises some connected issues that I've been struggling with lately: To what extent should the church reflect local culture, flavor, etc. and to what extent should it be Mormon? I know this is quite broad, and diahman and others have posted on related questions. The one I want to ask is more specific to architectural and temple traditions.

Are we more invested when we pay for and design our own meetinghouses? And do we understand the temple better and become more engaged with it when we are the ones doing the acting and not actors on a screen? Does a cookie-cutter temple or ceremony imply cookie-cutter practice? Is this what God wants? I am profoundly convinced that architecture (and active participation in ritual) alters the spirit.

In my hometown recently a world-famous architect designed a pedestrian bridge that cost far too much for a small town to afford, and many were justifiably angry about it (although the project was almost entirely funded by private donors). Once it was built, though, it became a focus for the community, a gathering place, and for the first time in my life I felt like there was a community.

I grew up going to a completely non-standard meetinghouse and temple. In other areas of the country I've attended regularly the cookie-cutter types (with one embarrassing story about going in the wrong bathroom because the position of male/female restrooms was one thing they decided to vary.) Now I'm back to a non-standard meetinghouse that sometimes drives me crazy, but it drives me crazy in all the ways the area I live in drives me crazy. In this building the local customs, flavor, attitudes, people are expressed, and in the end it enhances my worship experience. One would have to say the same thing about the "cookie cutter" buildings--not that the people are monotonous in their attitudes, but that their values (frugality, willingness to accept authority, perhaps even desire for unity) are expressed through this architecture. Maybe it says more about me--in both positive and negative ways--that I prefer atypical architecture.

I think similarly about the format of the temple ceremony. I realize that the video format makes it possible for scores more to attend and for more temples to be open, less staffing problems, etc., but likewise something is lost when the patrons aren't the ones participating in the ceremony--delivering the lines, playing out the drama. I worry that there is a trend toward the passive, and that some of the values the Church was built on (local sacrifice and dedication are two I'm thinking of) are fading. As the architecture becomes increasingly unremarkable (and Protestant?), are we?


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mormons and Biblical Scholarship II

Over at FPR, there is an excellent discussion of Mormon biblical exegesis. I am very interested in this topic, but what I wanted to say was more than a comment's worth, so I just decided to post on it. The discussion centers on a recent Church News article by Prof. Kent Jackson at BYU who lays a brief foundation for the principles of Mormon Biblical Studies. I am certainly interested in the examination of the possibility and dimensions of this idea, but I am more interested in what are taken to be the models.

Inasmuch as Mormon Biblical Studies tries to model itself after Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish biblical studies, I think that it is doomed to fail. There are two reasons why. First, denominational biblical studies are routinely ignored by everyone outside of that denomination. Denominational biblical studies are not properly in the field of biblical studies. They are simply parasitic works that reproduce biblical scholarship in a repackaged, often apologetic, way for their audience. There is nothing new or interesting that comes out of these hermeneutical approaches. If Catholics want to translate biblical studies for lay Catholics, and Mormons for Mormons, that is fine, but this is not biblical studies. The result will be a continued marginalization of Mormons from the larger field and simply reinforce and reproduce stereotypes of Mormons who fail to truly engage the broader world.

The second reason that this approach will fail is because is doesn't really represent the nature of the field of biblical studies. Denominational lines are essentially meaningless when it comes to evaluating the quality of other scholars' work. Instead, the fault lines in biblical studies are drawn around ideology and theology, secular and faith-based approaches. You will find all denominations on all sides of these debates. That is to say, there are no real denominational lines in contemporary biblical studies, so why are we trying to enter the field in a partisan way that doesn't map on? We would be better off dealing with the actual ideological tensions in the field rather than creating a new party that has no allies.

That said, the comments at FPR are correct in saying that Mormon Biblical Studies cannot survive outside of BYU. But I think that the reason is not simply the intellectual problems, but because the very model of denominational biblical studies is outdated and seriously flawed. Mormons who do biblical studies are better off engaging the broader field. I do believe that at some point in their careers they have the obligation of translating the wider world of biblical studies for their Mormon kin, but this is not the same as modeling oneself after another set of irrelevant biblical scholars.


Mormons and Biblical Scholarship

Check out a couple of great posts at Faith Promoting Rumor: here, here and here.

Update: See the my follow-up response here.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

What does architecture say about doctrine?

It was recently announced that Frank Gehry, an icon of postmodern architecture, will be designing a mixed-use development in Lehi, Utah. Gehry is famous for his radically shaped buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. His plans for Lehi will surely break the mold of conventional Utah urbanism. Postmodern architecture is rare in the Beehive State. However, this announcement is not altogether surprising given the success of other recent developments such as the Gateway in Salt Lake City and the New Urbanist community in South Jordan (Daybreak). It seems that the predominantly LDS population of Utah is finally generating a demand for alternatives to the ‘cookie cutter’ homes which have, unfortunately, prevailed in Utah’s sprawling neighborhoods.

It is ironic that just as Utahans are embracing the aesthetic appeal of New Urbanism and postmodern architecture, the LDS church is in the middle of an ambitious building program with ‘cookie cutter’ temples as its focus.

The church has good reasons for building recent temples from a single model. By using identical architectural plans for each new temple, the church keeps building costs low and maintains a sort of equality among its members. However, there are also drawbacks to these matching temples, not the least of which is their drab uniformity.

There is a general fascination with the church’s earlier temples that would be difficult to generate for its new ones. People recognize the Salt Lake Temple, even if they don’t always understand its significance. For example, one vendor in London sells the oddest belts - they are blue with small images of European architectural icons, including the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, and … yup… the Salt Lake Temple. Earlier temples have a “spooky charisma,” in the words of Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic with the Los Angeles Times.

While it is not practical for the church to use the famous castellated gothic style in its new temples (and neither is it economically sage to build ornate buildings in remote places) there is a sort of vibrancy that the new temples lack. A temple does not have to be large or even follow a particular design theory to generate excitement; and, of course, God can be worshiped anywhere. But why not allow for more variety in the temples’ design?

Does the church’s architectural development over the years represent an increased drive for standardization? Perhaps there is something significant in the fact that leaders of the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) chose a postmodern design for their temple, whereas the LDS church has consistently used classic modern designs for recent temples.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

How Much Money is Sufficient For Your Needs?

I am interested in the various ways that money gets moralized in Mormonism. While certain aspects of Mormonism moralize money in such a way as to symbolize God's favor, other sets of Mormons value frugality and even poverty as more moral. Added to this complex dynamic are various scriptures in the Book of Mormon as well as the temple. I wonder what most people consider "sufficient" for their needs. How much is too much?

One of the problems with money is that no one really thinks they have enough, no matter how much they have. There is always something out there that they can't afford, like a bigger boat, a faster plane, or ritzier vacation. We can all agree that these people who worry about such things have more than they "need," but where is that threshold? Is it the same in Ft. Lauderdale as it is in Spanish Fork?

Should the question of sufficiency be determined by annual income or by net worth? If it is annual income, how does one determine the morality of that? Should the Mormon CEO who earns a lot more simply only accept a certain amount? Or, is it simply the net worth at which one can retire without needing to work again (approx $1 million for every 10 years of life)?


Monday, January 15, 2007

On my honor I will... shave?

While at BYU I often wondered why "dress and grooming standards" were subsumed under "the honor code". Can someone please explain this to me?

Why isn't dress and grooming standards in a category of it's own? I guess the reason I'm bothered by this was because, as circumstances would have it, I occasionally went off to class having forgot to shave, and was warned a few times about violating "the honor code". I couldn't help but feeling that in essence my personal "honor" was being challenged. Was my 5 o'clock shadow somehow marking me as a "dishonorable" person?

Of course some of the root issues at play here are the relation between appearance and morality, the mediation of appearance between the inner-self and outter society, the social construction of meaning in symbols, and many others.

To see BYU's honor code go here:


Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Mormon Tour Industry

While looking on this morning for something, I noticed a link to Time Out Tours. I have also noticed that Meridian Magazine has its own tour business. I am sure that there are many others out there (I'd be interested in collecting these links, so if anyone knows of one, please put it in the comments). These tours are interesting to me because they deal with not only educational tours to Book of Mormon lands, Israel/Palestine, and Church History sites, but also trips to Orlando, Cancun, cruises in the Mediterranean, etc. I am interested in the value that these tours offer to their customers, as well as the values that they express.

One of the curious aspects of the educational tours is the way that they are marketed. The tour guides' qualifications to lead tours to Israel or Gautemala are usually that they are a BYU Religion profressor or have written some humorous or devotional LDS book. Their education, relevant experience, and publications on the subject matter are never mentioned, presumably because they have none of these things. Their qualifications are that they have held prestigious church callings, are nice people, and enjoy the subject matter.
Some of these tours center around a cult of personality, like the Proctors, who advertise trips as an occasion to hang out and learn from them. I am quite sure that there is not a lack of competent LDS who work, research, and publish on matters of church history, archeology, history, etc who are perfectly qualified to run such trips. Why don't they? What is the attraction of popularizers of LDS folklore as tour guides? Is there not a market for experts (or at least competent guides) for Latter-day Saints?

While the other trips to places like Orlando don't require guides with any training or expertise, I am curious about the reasons that people would want to go to Orlando with a bunch of strangers who happen to be Latter-day Saints. I suppose that I understand the impulse to be around people that share your values and that you don't have to explain yourself or your beliefs to (you are on vacation, after all). At the same time, I am concerned that people try to bring LDS insulation with them wherever they go. Rather than have to interact with the actual location around them, including people, these tours encourage members to protect themselves within a bubble, to never have to leave home, even when you leave home.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Natural Law?

If you haven't noticed yet, we're not big on modernist notions of truth around here. Thus, as you can probably guess, I am not much of a believer in Natural Law. There is certainly a strain of Mormon thinking that has attempted to identify with the Natural Law tradition. Do we do this because there is something valuable about the Natural Law tradition besides its intellectual heritage? Does this actually have anything to offer us Mormons, or is it leading us down precisely the path that the Restoration veered from in the first place?

The problem with Natural Law is that it always seems to be changing. It's representation is always mediated by human beings. However, the risk of arguing that Natural Law is simply a reflection of a particular culture's values is that there is no basis for critiquing another culture's practices. The result is relativism, which for some reason makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I tend to see relativism as simply a fact and deal with it. To me, the wrong response to relativism is to keep asserting that it isn't there.

So, is it possible to disambiguate Mormonism from Natural Law? Is this desirable? Is Natural Law really as dispensable as I assume?


Communal Judgment

This relates to a post I started before going on Christmas break on the topic of idol worship. I do intend to fully respond and revive that particular issue, but in this post I would like to know others thoughts on the related topic of communal judgment. In other words, in the Bible there seem to judgments made against entire groups of people: Sodom and G., the people during the time of Noah, and many of the non-Israelite tribes in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus curses a series of towns, and predicts the fall of Jerusalem. I'm sure we could find similar examples in the BoM.

I think we, as Mormons, still believe in communal judgment, yet how do we make sense of it in light of our sympathetic understanding of other civilizations/cultures/people?

Over the past year I have heard three members (in three different states) relate hurricane Katrina to the wickedness of N.O. Personally I stay far away from such statements, and I think most reading this post do as well, but in light of statements such as, "Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets," from the Proclamation how do we hold to notions of communal judgment withoutlinking something such as the natural disaster to the wickedness of the community it effects?


Monday, January 08, 2007

Is Temple Prep Really Preparation?

I've thought a little about this in the past but I was reminded of it again when I ran across a couple in our ward who had gone through the temple for the first time and when I asked how it went they remarked, "Temple prep sure didn't help."

There is obviously a gap between what we are preparing new inductees for and what they experience. Now, I don't necessarily have many numbers to support such a statement, but having gone through it myself, taught it, and then watched many others go through it themselves, I can't help but notice there is a problem.

So, three questions:
1. Is this problem real, or is it just me?
2. If it is real, where does the problem come from?
3. What can be done to solve it?


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Of Saints and Schemes

I apologize in advance if this post is mostly anecdotal, but I have been concerned for a while about the business practices of some Mormon run companies specializing in door-to-door sales. I have several friends who have taken positions in companies selling a range of things, from pest control services and alarm systems, to knives. For the most part, their experiences have been terrible.

The companies of which I am aware tend to recruit male returned missionaries as their sales force. When they get enough people to sign employment contracts, everyone relocates somewhere for the summer (except for the knife salesmen who are encouraged to sell among family and friends). Then they begin selling. The work days can run anywhere from 8 to 12 hours depending on the salesperson. There is no direct supervision; however the salesmen are usually in competition with one another. Those who make more sales often receive random prizes like Plasma TVs and Ipods in addition to the extra money they make from commission.

Given the incentive to sell, many employees begin to lose their moral compass. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about these companies report that the salesmen are encouraged to lie. Sometimes, the ‘team leaders,’ themselves returned missionaries, will use gospel-oriented motivations, like explaining that more money from sales equals a larger tithe for the church.

What’s amazing is that it seems to work. One person I know makes between 35 and 40K – just selling over the summer! His brother, a partner in one of the companies, has made well over a million dollars over the last few summers. However, for every success story, I have heard of several people who quit or are forced to resign, either because they don’t make enough to pay their rent, or because they dislike having to mislead people in order to make sales.

I know that unethical behavior is practically ubiquitous in many sales based organizations and, therefore, it shouldn’t matter if some Mormon companies engage in the same dodgy practices. But I worry about what it will mean to the church if in ten to twenty years these salesmen begin to assume leadership positions.

Has anyone else had experience with Mormon run summer sales companies? What about multi-level marketing, pyramid and matrix schemes? Ever get a call from an ex mission companion asking you to meet for a “reunion” in Provo?


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Loneliness of the Post-Feminist

JohnR has an excellent and touching entry at FMH on the lack of male feminists in the church. While I am not convinced that not claiming the label "feminist" means that one supports wife-abuse, date rape, eating disorders, or sex trafficking (I thought that Mormons opposed all of those things regardless of whether or not they were feminists...), nor do I think that the Vagina Monologues ritual is really all that great for anybody, I am sympathetic to the sentiment of the post. However, the lack of "male" feminists is not symptomatic of a lack of interest in justice, but a product of the very divisive politics of second-wave feminism.

Second-wave feminism located its ideology in a kind of gender essentialism, where men were men and women were women. Women were uniquely valuable as women. The comments in JohnR's post are filled with these views. Don't get me wrong...this kind of strategic essentialism was incredibly powerful politically and perhaps will remain so for a long time. No doubt there is still a lot to do in the second-wave agenda. However, French Feminism managed to be just as successful as American feminism without appeals to essentialized gender, so I am not convinced that essentialism is necessary for a political agenda.

The problem with essentialism is that it is not descriptive of any reality, but a construct that produces certain kinds of gender binaries. The critiques of this essentialism have become increasingly vocal. Voices from different races, the Third World, lesbians, trans, and intersexed persons noted more and more that "feminism" was not made for them. It had a preconceived notion of who was a "woman" that excluded many others. I suspect that the lack of many male voices in the feminist movement is because of the gender essentialism which excludes their experiences a priori. Third wave, post-feminism, queer theory, and other movements fractured traditional feminism and it is in many ways still trying to find a central voice again.

As it relates to Mormon theology, second-wave feminism posed a number of important challenges to institutional Mormonism. However, it is interesting to note that on the theoretical level of gender essentialism, Mormonism and second-wave feminism are actually quite compatible. The issue simply becomes one of working out what makes up the essential female identity. Many Mormons today are able to inhabit both worlds quite comfortably now. This reconciliation is made possible, I think, because of a shared ideological backbone. Sadly, both still exclude the voices of lesbian, Third World, other races, and others.

If ever Latter-day Saints start paying attention to the challenges of third-wave feminism, it will have to grapple theologically with the central tenant of essentialized gender. The ramifications of such an examination are yet to be seen. Since Mormonism survived second-wave feminism with relatively minor bruising, perhaps it can survive third-wave feminism unscathed as well. However, at least in the academy, second-wave feminism was dealt a powerful blow. If traditional feminism couldn't survive, can traditional Mormonism? For now, we will just have to stay tuned...

Update: JohnR has added a much appreciated post on the varieties of feminism.


Monday, January 01, 2007

Sabbath and Sunday

A refreshing post at BCC asked bloggers what they were going to do for New Year's, given that New Year's Eve falls on Sunday. (Refreshing because rather than debate the requirements of Sabbath observance they actually talked about what they were doing.) This got me thinking again about a question that came up in a class on Christian use of the Hebrew Bible.

The professor, who is a well-known expert in Judaism and early Christianity, said that Christian application of Sabbath regulations to Sunday didn't occur until the Puritans in the 1600s. While obviously Sunday (the first day of the week) as a day of worship was an early idea, the transferrence of "Sabbath" to "Sunday" didn't occur until this particular group of people started grounding their law and society in norms expressed in the Hebrew Bible.

We, of course, are heirs to this tradition, and our vocabulary shows it. It's gone so far that it's not uncommon to talk about the Jews having "their Sabbath" on Saturday. Although I'd like sometime to get into the larger question of our haphazard appropriation of laws of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. we use Leviticus to condemn homosexual acts but not the killing of those who engage therein), today I wonder about the implications of the transfer of Sabbath to Sunday. Is our interpretation and use of Sabbath law generally done by reference to the perceived "spirit" of OT Sabbath norms? My feeling is that we are somewhere between the severity of the Hebrew Bible and the recognition of our distance from this tradition. What say ye?