America’s Greatest Mystery Novel

Once you strip away all the Book of Mormon’s pretenses of scriptural import, what you have is nothing more nor less than a lusty tale of America’s favorite subject: families and murder….

Murder and ruin are written across the breadth of Joseph Smith’s pre-American panorama, and because violence always demands an explanation or a solution, the Book of Mormon’s unexamined greatest revelation is a truly startling one: As Moroni looks at the blood-reddened land around him, and as he reviews the full reach of the history that led to this mass extinction, it is plain that the force behind all these centuries of destruction is none other than God himself. It is God who brought these wandering people to an empty land, and it is God who established the legacies that could only lead to such awful obliteration. God is the hidden architect of all the killing at the heart of America’s greatest mystery novel, the angry father who demands that countless offspring pay for his rules and honor, even at the cost of generations of endless ruin.

The single strongest instance of blasphemy in the Book of Mormon occurs when a charismatic atheist and Antichrist named Korihor stands before one of God’s judges and kings and proclaims: “Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgressions of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty of because of its parents.”

For proclaiming such outrageous words, God strikes Korihor mute, and despite Korihor’s full-hearted repentance, God will not allow him forgiveness. Korihor is left to wander among the people of the nation, begging for mercy and support, and the people take him and stamp upon him, until he dies under their feet. –Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart

You’ve never read a book quite like Shot in the Heart. Even if you’ve read The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which deals with some of the same subject matter, you’ve still never read a book like SitH, which is a lot shorter and far less boring than The Executioner’s Song (which I am convinced went to press without any serious editing, because it’s such a bloated mess). People admire TES because of the power of Gary Gilmore, the person at the heart of the story, not Mailer’s sloppy thousand-page account of Gary’s life, crimes, death, and notoriety.

Gary Gilmore, in case you didn’t know, murdered two young Mormon men in Utah County on subsequent nights in 1976, for no reason but meanness. He was swiftly tried for one of the murders, convicted, and sentenced to death. He then refused to appeal his death sentence, which enraged people. The most devoted supporters of the death penalty had no interest in killing someone who wanted to die, because that was no punishment; they only wanted to execute people who wanted to live. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was shot to death at the Utah State Prison in Draper (if you’ve ever driven from Salt Lake City to Provo, you went right past it; it’s just to the west of I-15), and became the first person executed in the United States in almost a decade, after the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976.

Gilmore was in Utah because he had family there; his mother was born in Provo. Gary was never Mormon, but his mother and his younger brother Mikal both were, though Mikal went inactive as a teen–he was asked to stop attending when it became obvious just how much he loved girls and rock & roll. (Mikal wrote for Rolling Stone for years and has published a history of rock & roll entitled Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll.) Mikal’s insider knowledge of Mormonism makes his analysis of it all the more compelling. He gets a few details wrong (for instance, misremembers some of Mormon lingo across three decades), but he really nails some things, as when he describes his Utah cousins as “prissy and mean at the same time–in the way that only well-bred Mormon children can seem.”

Shot in the Heart is both a Utah story and a uniquely Mormon book on the one hand, and, on the other, a harrowing tragedy that transcends place and religion. Like the Book of Mormon, it is about love and loyalty and devotion and murder and intergenerational violence and children punished for the sins of their parents. It’s a ghost story and a family history. It’s scriptural exegesis and true crime. It’s an elegy and a polemic about the US prison system. it’s grim and despairing–it’s really hard to be cheerful when your brother is the most notorious murderer in the country–and still somehow uplifting. It’s a work that should help inform the mission and scope of Mormon Alumni Association Books.

It was made into a crappy TV movie in the early 2000s. Skip that and just read the book, even though it’s long. It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius in ways Dave Eggers’ work can only hope to be.

Mormon Erotica, Mormon Romance

Mormon Erotica, the new novel from Donna Banta, is a joyous page-turner that, despite the title, is far more concerned with love and romance than sex. While the book contains plenty of reflection on Mormon attitudes toward sex and marriage, the action depicted is strictly PG. As with so many romance novels, the suspense lies not in whether it will end with its hero and heroine poised to live happily ever after, but what sorts of personal discoveries and growth will make them worthy of that reward. I was always curious about and frequently surprised by the routes the characters forged to true love.

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If you don’t like romance novels, there’s a chance you won’t like Mormon Erotica. To me, this post-Mormon twist on the romance novel is a breath of fresh air, but then, I have a fondness for romance novels, having read dozens if not hundreds of them, from cheap formulaic paperbacks I checked out from the public library when I was in junior high to great classics of English literature like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. For that matter, as a teen I even read a few Mormon romance novels, such as those by Jack Weyland. I think Mormon courtship and marriage make great material for narrative, and I’m glad writers are tackling it in fiction for an audience beyond active Latter-day Saints. It’s especially nice to read a novel that takes you on a good-natured romp through the subject.

One of the best elements of Mormon Erotica is the main character, Jim, who is devout but not fanatical. Jim’s first marriage was disastrous and brief—but his ex-wife still plans to be married to him for time and all eternity, since they didn’t get a temple divorce to go with the civil one. Jim is comfortable in his role as a single dad too lazy and jaded to attempt another marriage—until he sees an old college girlfriend, Sadie Gordon, at a wedding reception. She’s hot, charming, and completely inactive, and she’s written a novel full of Mormons having sex. The title of Banta’s book refers to the way Sadie’s novel is characterized.

Less compelling are a couple of the supporting characters. Jim and Sadie each have a relative who seems like a caricature of the most awful Mormon you can imagine: small-minded, judgmental, and completely unable to understand boundaries. I’m certain there are Mormons like that, but they were so consistent and predictable that I was aghast at their actions without being surprised, a fact made all the more obvious given that Jim and Sadie did surprise me in interesting ways.

Occasional chapters are from the perspective of Jim’s teenage daughter, Julia. I don’t spend enough time around teenagers these days to know if Banta got twenty-first-century teen lingo and social interactions exactly right, but I thought she did a great job making the basic psychology of adolescence interesting for an audience of adults. Julia was so compelling that I’m now interested in reading The Girls from Fourth Ward, Banta’s murder mystery about four girls who hope to go to BYU.

The book is published under the imprint of the Mormon Alumni Association, and the cover art (which, you discover about halfway through the novel, makes particularly good sense) is by Chanson.

Check out “Upper Room Cartoon”

There’s a new Mormon-themed Youtube channel, and it looks very promsing: The Upper Room Cartoon.

Two cartoons have been posted so far. They look exactly the same: five white guys who are leaders of the church (have to admit that I don’t pay enough attention to who the leaders are, so I can only recognize Monson and Uchtdorf for sure) discuss some topic relevant to a problem in the church for under four minutes.

The first is about the horrible new policy punishing the children of gay people. Notable lines:

“But we believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.”

“Yeah, but Adam wasn’t gay.”

and

“Utah leads the nation in gay suicide rates. You think that has anything to do with us?”

“Nope.”

The second is about women, or the “Sisters in Zion.” Notable line:

“Ordain” this, “ordain” that. We just say it didn’t mean “ordain,” and then it doesn’t mean “ordain.”

Obligatory Violence and the Book of Mormon

Like so many people, I have spent the past two days convulsed with grief and horror at the events in Charleston. Also shame: America’s latest accused mass murderer claimed he had to kill black people because they “rape our women,” and it’s as repugnant to me that anyone would murder a human being in defense of mythic white female purity as it was that another angry young man murdered people in Isla Vista 13 months ago because women wouldn’t put out for him.

Just in case anyone of that persuasion is reading this, here’s a message: No. Women, white or otherwise, are not your possessions and you don’t have the right to kill in their name.

I’ve also been really bothered by all the comments I’ve seen about the guy’s mental state. It’s bullshit, part of an overall racist attitude that says that when black people do something “criminal,” well, it’s just part of their nature. No need to dig much deeper.

But when a white guy kills a bunch of people, well, it’s a symptom that something was amiss that made him act contrary to his nature.

Essentially–and it is a matter of essentialism–it comes down to the fact that white America always know that the person in the black hat (skin) is the villain who deserves our fear and scorn, while the person in the white hat (skin) is the hero who deserves our sympathy, understanding and concern–no matter what the actions of each, or who kills whom.

Likewise, I’ve been bugged when people have called him a monster. It reminds me of an assessment I read of World War I:

War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a particularly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime. –Frederic Manning, 1929.

I think the same applies to mass murder. It is committed “by men, not by beasts, or by gods” (unless you really believe that stuff about Noah and the flood).

To call Lanza or Roof or Rodger “monsters” or even “mentally ill” is to miss the extent to which we make killing those we hate part of our story about ourselves as human beings.

All of these were things I said in conversations on Facebook today. And then so many things fell into focus and clarity, via this amazing article by Tage Rai arguing that people are violent because their moral codes demand it:

Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations…. Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.

After all, isn’t that the first lesson of the Book of Mormon, that “it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief”?

Rai’s thesis seems inescapable and obvious to me now that I’ve encountered it. If the mechanism didn’t work, we couldn’t persuade our nice young men and women to travel to other lands to kill other nice young men and women.

But it sure makes the Book of Mormon more repulsive and inadequate as a moral compass. I really, really want no part of it.

Atheists: Less Crime, Less Vengeance, Less Racism

Check out this article in the LA Times about Secular Family Values and how great they are. It’s a few months old, but worth reading and relevant to many conversations held here. The conclusion will reassure many MSP readers:

Being a secular parent and something of an expert on secular culture, I know well the angst many secular Americans experience when they can’t help but wonder: Could I possibly be making a mistake by raising my children without religion? The unequivocal answer is no. Children raised without religion have no shortage of positive traits and virtues, and they ought to be warmly welcomed as a growing American demographic.

Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator: “It’s like religion. Believe what you want. Get out of it what you want.”

I loathe the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator with a fiery passion that is totally dormant as long as nothing reminds me of the test’s existence, which is how I prefer things. Once aroused, the fervor of my loathing takes a while to die down, which is why I’m blogging about it now: this week brought the test to my attention quite a few times.

One way was that on Facebook, a bunch of people were posting this thingy defining the different types of hell for each Myers-Briggs type. (As I say in the post on my blog, hell for me would be having to take the test and act like the results are meaningful.) Another was that in an ex-Mo Facebook group, someone posted a link to the one of the imitation (and therefore free) versions of the test and asked to people to take it and post their types, in the hopes of discovering if any correlation existed between leaving the church and a certain personality type.

This is a group that values skepticism pretty highly. And it was shocking to me that in such a group, there was so little skepticism about the test.

That shock ramped up a notch when I did a bit more googling about the test and found this lengthy December 2012 article in the Washington Post discussing the “cultlike devotion” the test and its results arouses. The quote in the title of this post is from that article.

Certainly there was a hint of such devotion on display in the conversation I participated in. There may or may not be some correlation between certain personality types (what they are and how they should be categorized and tested is another matter entirely, of course) and leaving the church, but given that there is some correlation between business and devotion to the MBTI, and also some correlation between being Mormon and wanting to go into business (that accounting program at BYU, for instance), maybe there is some correlation between being LDS and valuing the MBTI.

For one thing, they both use initials a lot: LDS can take the MBTI and get a designation that is also a bunch of letters, just like RM or RSP or EQP or whatever. Maybe some people really like to be told authoritatively who they are, and maybe some people don’t know how to interact with others unless they know, via some externally applied label, everyone’s relationship to orthodoxy.

Or maybe not. Maybe those are utterly specious connections unworthy of further attention.

But it is worth noting that leaving organized religion doesn’t necessarily mean that you are automatically freed from all “cultlike devotion” or the habit of orthodoxy.

Have something to say about “The Book of Mormon” musical?

For the past few years, a colleague and I have been working to compile a collection of scholarly essays about “The Book of Mormon” musical. We’ve got a signed contract with a press and some really great essays, but there’s room for one or two more. If you have an idea for an essay of 4,000 to 6,000 words critiquing the BOM musical from any discipline, send an abstract ASAP to: bom.musical.interp @ gmail.

My Ordain Women Testimony

The Ordain Women event on Saturday was absolutely wonderful from start to finish.  It was the best Mormon-related thing I have done in ages.

It helped that it was a truly beautiful autumn day, clear and calm, though quite chilly in the shade and downright cold once the sun set.  Salt Lake City was beautiful, so it was just one more reason people were in good spirits.

You can find all sorts of accounts of the event, including something I wrote for Religion Dispatches and this really great Storified account on Exponent II (which includes a great tweet about the infamous garbage truck they parked in front of the door–I hope someone got in trouble for that).  So I don’t feel the need to give another rundown of that sort here.

Things could have turned out very differently.  The church had a number of options.  It could have let us attend the meeting in the Conference Center–not that I ever thought that would really happen. (Though I was the very first person, back in February, to point out that we had to be prepared for that very unlikely contingency.  Before that, everyone worked only from the assumption that we would be turned away.)  They could have let us into the Tabernacle and just had us sit there, out of sight, and then not let us into the Conference Center once the meeting started.  I’m sure there are other things they could have done–apparently the OW planning committee had come up with dozens of possible scenarios.

Once we arrived on Temple Square and were met by Ruth Todd and told, “Nope, you can’t come in,” a lot of people figured we had done all we could.  They were ready to go back to the park and sing more hymns.  Kate Kelly is who said, “No. We’re not done asking.”  She was the one who had us line up and told us, “They’re going to have to turn down each one of us.”

And for whatever reason, perhaps because they were caught off guard, the church let us.

It was…. weird. Shocking. Deeply confusing and utterly intelligible at the same time, this bizarre juxtaposition that caught you off-guard because it was new, but somehow readily recongizable because it mirrored so many other contradictions we were trained to accept.

Many women said that they were surprised at just how much it hurt to be turned away from the priesthood session.  It was strange to see the line get shorter and shorter, to watch woman after woman (and the occasional man) in front of me be turned away, while all these guys just marched right into the Tabernacle.

And yeah, I was surprised at how emotional I was when it was finally my turn.  But part of that emotion was because I felt so empowered.  It was a really big deal to stand there and to force this representative of the church to acknowledge and recognize me on terms I had helped shape.

I looked the smiling, jovial man tasked with turning us all away right in the eye and said, “I have been told that I am physically and spiritually unworthy to attend this meeting, and I am giving you an opportunity to override that immoral and unjust decree.”

He smiled. (He smiled a lot, and it was never a smarny, dismissive smile or a smirk.  He really, truly smiled, for well over an hour.) He told me that he couldn’t imagine who would have said that because I seemed like a lovely person, but that the meeting was only for dudes, so he didn’t have the authority to let me in.

I asked him if he thought that was fair; he said it wasn’t his place to decide.

I told him that Heavenly Father was very disappointed. (I really did.) He just smiled.

I am utterly sincere when I say that I was very impressed that he managed to remain so pleasant after saying NO to well over 100 people. I heard someone say that they overheard him tell someone else that it was one of the most emotionally taxing things he had ever been asked to do in his job.  Not everyone was so good-natured, though: just beyond him stood a grim fellow from Church Protective Operations. (That’s what the church calls its security detail.  Supposedly they planned ahead and had 13 guys, eight of them “under cover,” assigned to monitor Ordain Women. It seems excessive, given that we always said we planned to be well-behaved, but maybe they wanted as many people as were at the Last Supper.)

After that, I walked across the lawn to the bathroom in the Visitors Center because I needed to use it, and I washed my very cold hands for a very long time in very hot water, which felt good, and then I realized how badly I was shaking, and not just from the cold.

I had an hour-long interview with Kate Kelly about a week ago.  She said that she envisioned the Ordain Women action as “a way to assert radical self-respect* and to claim the narrative as our own.”

I figured I knew what she meant: standing up for yourself, claiming your own identity, expressing what you want and how to be treated. It sounded good.

But there was a visceral element I didn’t get at all.  I spent some time yesterday and today trying to process why I felt so different.  And I realized that Kate was right and that the action had radically increased my self-respect.  I felt better, stronger, more connected–in all sorts of ways.

Even though I dropped out of the planning in April because I wasn’t as invested as the women who still go to church, I always planned on participating in the action itself, out of a sense of duty and curiosity and solidarity with my sisters, and because I planned to write about it.  I figured it would be historic and I figured I’d be glad after the fact that I was there. I didn’t expect it to be transformative.  But it was.  It absolutely was.

It was also just fun.  I got to chat with local friends I hadn’t seen in months and catch up with friends from out of town I hadn’t seen in years and meet people I’d interacted with online but never met before in real life.  A couple dozen of us went to dinner and talked, then some of us went to someone’s house and watched and read coverage of the event until the wee hours of the morning.

I am much more hopeful about Mormon women and Ordain Women than I was Saturday morning.  I have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for Kate Kelly.  She has a vision and a clear sense of how to make it real.  She knows what she’s doing, she is profoundly dedicated and unstintingly generous with her time (I can’t imagine how many interviews she has done in the past three or four weeks), and she has a very pragmatic approach to the spotlight she’s in: she doesn’t seem to mind or crave it–it’s just part of what she has to deal with as part of accomplishing this goal.  This really does seem to be about healthy self-respect and not ego.  That’s remarkable and rare.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next.  I still think it will be at least a couple of decades before women get the priesthood.  But things are possible now that were not possible two and a half days ago (I can’t believe it was only 50-odd hours ago!), and the years until women are ordained will be a lot more interesting from here on out.  This is real activism and it will make things happen.  I can’t wait to see what Ordain Women does next–or how the Church responds.

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*After the RD piece showed up on Facebook, someone wrote to let me know that I had actually written “serf-respect,” which neither I nor the editor caught when we proofread the piece.  I was mortified and wrote instantly to ask the editor to fix it–that’s one nice thing about writing for the web: you can always edit typos!  Anyway, after slapping my forehead a few times, I realized that serf-respect was a better name for what the church gave me.  Serf-respect is about all the church lets women have.  If they want self-respect, they have to find ways to create and claim it.

Risky Rescue

I don’t read The Ensign, but I do read Zelophehad’s Daughters.  It was “To the Rescue,” an entry on ZD from last week, that clued me in to an essay by Thomas Monson from the October Ensign called “Our Responsibility to Rescue.” You can pretty much figure out the whole essay from the first paragraph:

For Latter-day Saints, the need to rescue our brothers and sisters who have, for one reason or another, strayed from the path of Church activity is of eternal significance. Do we know of such people who once embraced the gospel? If so, what is our responsibility to rescue them?

About the same time I read that, a good chunk of my Facebook friends posted links to this piece from Robert Kirby about his wife’s decision to leave the LDS church and join another and what that meant for their marriage:

I make it sound easy. It wasn’t. When a shared faith is one of the original pillars of a relationship, it doesn’t get removed without consequences. There were a lot of those, not the least among them was which of us was going to hell now?…

What’s your religion worth to you? Is it something you’d die for? Lots of people say they would lay down their lives for their faith. Would you kill for it? How about your marriage? Would you divorce your spouse over your faith?…

Keep in mind that if you stay, you can’t just agree to disagree about religion. At some point you’ll have to disagree AND shut up about it. No wound — whether emotional or physical — ever heals if you keep picking at it….

In the end it came down to this for me: I believe the most important thing for which I’ll be judged is how I treat my wife rather than my church.

When I saw an interesting conversation developing after a friend linked to Kirby’s piece, I couldn’t help asking what he thought of Monson’s, given that they are in such sharp contrast.  My friend said that he thought that they weren’t as contradictory as I might think, since Monson’s article is about a particular type of person: someone who still believes in the church and misses its influence in their life, not about people who have truly stopped believing and are happier outside the church than in it.

The problem, of course, which we went on to discuss, is that no one and nothing official in the church ever acknowledges that anyone can be happy–much less happier–outside the church than it.  The rhetoric in Monson’s talk might not be quite as condemning, but its basic attitude is not really different from this discussion of apostasy and its effects on marriage from Spencer Kimball:

To be really happy in marriage, one must have a continued faithful observance of the commandments of the Lord. No one, single or married, was ever sublimely happy unless he was righteous. There are temporary satisfactions and camouflaged situations for the moment, but permanent, total happiness can come only through cleanliness and worthiness. One who has a pattern of religious life with deep religious convictions can never be happy in an inactive life.  The conscience will continue to afflict, unless it has been seared, in which case the marriage is already in jeopardy. A stinging conscience can make life most unbearable. Inactivity is destructive to marriage, especially where the parties are inactive in varying degrees.

Religious differences are the most trying and among the most unsolvable of all differences.

The harshness of Kimball’s stance–that if a spouse leaves the church, s/he has basically destroyed the marriage–is one reason that “When He Stopped Believing,” an article by Name Withheld from the July 2012 Ensign about a woman who decided to stay with and love her apostate husband, was such a big deal.

But things like this article from Monson make it difficult if not impossible for Name Withheld to truly accept and love her husband for who he is. Instead she is encouraged to try to change him–told him that it’s her religious duty, in fact, to change him, to rescue him, and that if she doesn’t try valiantly to do so, she’s failing him, herself, her church and her god.

This is why I never believe any official statement from the church about how it respects people of other faiths.  It doesn’t.  It sees them as people who not only need rescuing, but are often too fallen and blind and deluded to realize just how badly in need of rescue they are.

You know what’s really corrosive to a relationship?  A palpable sense that the other person is somehow broken and has to be fixed–and that you and your church are the ones who can do the fixing.

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(It also bugged me that Monson’s article refers to artist JMW Turner as Joseph Mallord William Turner. Yeah, that’s his full name, but it’s not his professional name.  One more way the church can’t let people determine who they are or how they express themselves in the world.)