My most bizarre interfaith interaction

This is something that happened to me when I was about 11 years old, and it has stuck with me all these years because it was just so dang weird. As you can tell from the title, I do not mean to imply that this is at all typical of interactions between Mormons and (non-Mormon) Christians.

Back when I was 8 or 9, the movie Grease with Olivia Newton-John was the coolest thing! My favorite cousin — a devout Mormon about my age — loved the film. We all sang to the record together when our two families visited. I think that’s why my parents didn’t really have a problem with the film — it was a fave with other trusted Mormon family members. And — while we were very active Mormons, and pretty strict — we were far from the strictest Mormons in the ward. My parents were strict but flexible.

Anyway, when we moved to Minnesota, a Christian girl from my neighborhood quickly became my best friend. Her family was stricter than mine. She wore skirts to school and was forbidden from wearing jeans (specifically “double-seam pants”). I’ve never met anyone before or since who had that particular restriction.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before another Christian girl moved into the neighborhood. I’m not sure whether they went to the same church, but the new new girl was quickly BFF (to use an anachronism) with my best friend — whereas with me, we had kind of a tolerating-each-other standoff.

One day I had my two friends over for a slumber party. Yes, in those days, that was totally typical for Mormon kids. In those days, there wasn’t even a whisper of a hint that slumber parties were something good Mormon kids should avoid.

One of the components of an early-80’s slumber party was renting a VHS film. I don’t recall whether my friends came along with me to “Mr. Movies” where the film was selected, but the film for the evening was Grease. And we all watched it without the slightest indication that anything was amiss. We then spent the rest of the night playing board-games and dress-up, as was the custom of the time.

The next school day, my two friends walked up to me together during recess. They explained to me — with much gravity — that if ever I were to throw a party again where the film Grease would be shown, then I should tell them, so that their moms could come pick them up and take them home.

This was, sincerely, one of the weirdest things anyone has ever said to me in my life. Because of course I told them the film was Grease before I put it in and we all watched it. And how insulting of them to imply that — if they had objected to watching it (which they didn’t) — that I would have insisted on putting it in, and they would have had to call their respective mothers to be driven three blocks home, and I would have watched it alone.

But the coda of the story was even more bizarre!!

They then told me that next time I should show them a more wholesome movie, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. This stuck with me because it was just so random. I mean, I had never seen this film (still haven’t), but I’d heard of it, and naturally I would have been fine with selecting that as the film of the evening — if they’d have suggested it.

It was very clear that they’d gone home and told their mothers that they’d watched Grease, and then they came to school and recited to me wholesale exactly whatever nonsense their mothers had said to them about it — without attempting to filter it through their own brains in the slightest.

Needless to say, one corner was soon cut from this friendship triangle. (I’ll give you one guess who it was…)

This whole story came back to me recently when I learned that — not only is the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a story of forcibly abducting women and holding them against their will — it actually has a catchy song about the joys of rape:

As questionable as the film Grease is, it absolutely floors me anew to realize that those strict Christian parents found the above to be more appropriate fare for their 11-year-old daughters!!!!

SUNSTONE’S Motherhood Issue

This entry is cross-posted at Self-Portrait As.

I recently edited issue 166 of SUNSTONE magazine, aka “the motherhood issue.” I am proud and happy to announce that it is SUNSTONE’s most popular and best-selling issue. It has far outstripped all other issues in terms of people ordering individual copies, while other people (including my own father) who let their subscription lapse have renewed and asked that their resubscription start with issue 166.

I worked very hard on this project and am very proud of the contents, which include personal essays on topics like miscarriage and post-partum depression as well as scholarly articles on Mormon midrash and Mother in Heaven. A somewhat curmudgeonly SUNSTONE constituent commented to the office staff that “the essays in it were truly inspiring, instead of just whining as sometimes is the case at the symposia.” And someone sent in an anonymous note on three-by-five cards saying, “Artist Galen [Dara], the cover front & back of the March 2012 edition (#166) of SUNSTONE is worth the price of a three-year subscription CONGRATULATIONS!”

I admit I am in love with the art, which I think is not just beautiful but important. Shortly after editor Stephen Carter asked me to do the issue, I started thinking about the cover. I could not execute it myself, but I knew what I wanted, and I knew who I wanted to do it. I have been a fan of Galen Dara‘s work since long before I learned that her mom was my mom’s visiting teacher or that our grandparents were good friends in Tucson back in the day.

Anyway, I knew that I wanted a gender-bending version of Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel depicting the creation of Adam. As I wrote in my introduction to the issue,

Michelangelo’s depiction of God animating Adam with a single touch of his divine finger is one of the most famous images in all of art. In the 500 years since the fresco was completed, it has been reproduced, reinterpreted, and even satirized. But as far as I am aware, it has never before been re-imagined as a way to depict the power of the Goddess. I’ve been told of a belief in Gnostic circles that the Goddess is the figure under God’s left arm–but that figure is still off to the side, still secondary. Our depiction here puts the divine feminine and the human feminine–as well as the relationship between them–front and center. The image was created as a celebration of the unique, nourishing, and powerful doctrine of Heavenly Mother. Mormonism is one of the only places in Christianity where such an image could find resonance.

I want to make a couple of things clear: one, I didn’t go rogue on this; I got permission to have a depiction of a pretty robust Heavenly Mother animating a naked and bosomy Eve before Galen and I got started. Two, even still, I had to fight for it–and I did fight for it. Michelangelo’s original image is very horizontal, and SUNSTONE needed a vertical image. There was a point where we were playing with a close-up image of Heavenly Mother lifting up the chin of a forlorn Eve holding an apple, and I put my foot down. Many email discussions ensued with different people, and some different versions. In one, God the Mother and Eve occupied the same position as in Michelangelo’s painting, but Mother God was handing Eve an apple. I wrote,

I still don’t like it, and here’s why: having God the Mother give Eve the apple puts both of them in the position of following patriarchy’s script. It turns Heavenly Mother into the serpent. And maybe she is…. But before we change the story that way, and explore what it means for a feminine deity to be the source of human wisdom (in defiance of her husband’s commands), we need to first establish and legitimate both these female characters as powerful, in their own right, through their own beings and essences.

In Michelangelo’s painting, God and Adam offer nothing but power. They don’t need props, because their power is self-evident, thorough, and innate. They express their power and identity merely by showing up.

If God the Mother and Eve have to express their power and identity through the possession and use of props, they are secondary and subordinate to male gods and human beings.

It might not be as fun as changing a lot of elements, but the most subversive and provocative thing we can do is to show God the Mother as the equal, in every way, of God the Father (except maybe fierceness–he does look pretty mean). She has just as much power to animate human beings with a mere touch of her finger as her male counterpart does. She has just as much interest in human life. She recognizes human women as an expression of her divinity and power, and she doesn’t need to give them anything but life to make them extremely powerful and wonderful.

The final product, because it had to be something the postal service would deliver and that SUNSTONE could stand by, involved getting permission and agreement from several people. But permission and agreement were obtained on some pretty terrific points. You’ll notice, for instance, that Eve’s breasts are bare, because we agreed to expose them instead of covering them with her hair (though we agreed that she couldn’t be very nipple-y). You’ll notice that there’s a black Angela Moroni in the upper-left corner. You’ll notice that there are two lady angels initiating a fairly intense embrace in the upper-right. you’ll see that there is an inter-racial same-sex angel couple holding hands at the right edge of the image just below Heavenly Mother.

We also had A LOT of fun coming up with illustrations for essays by noted feminist scholars Janice Allred and Margaret Toscano. I’m pretty sure it was originally Galen’s idea to depict Heavenly Mother in four different manifestations, and she wanted some sort of way of unifying them. My suggestion: “one thing that struck me was the similarity of the four images you propose with the queens in the tarot deck.” Galen didn’t limit herself to a strict adherence to what the suits represent or how they’re expressed, but that was useful. We played with different ways to Mormonize the images–one easy thing was to add a beehive to each. But the most fun was to make the Goddess of Cups, the “Mother Nurturer,” a hot blonde pioneer woman in a prairie dress offering you a long cool drink of water while a wagon train passes in the distance behind her.

My favorite of those images is the Goddess of Swords, or, as she’s called on the banner beneath her portrait, “Mother Protector.” She’s sort of a cross between Galadriel and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior.” My second favorite is the Goddess of Coins, or our “Mother Teacher,” a four-armed black goddess reading the gold plates. She has a traditional goddess symbol, the triple moon, above her head, and is in a building that we imagined as a Mormon meeting house, though the details that would have demonstrated that were too fussy and disappeared.

This is what I was working on when the whole Randy Bott thing erupted. One of my friends wrote to ask me why I hadn’t weighed in on it. I said I was too busy, but that what I was busy with would provide some commentary on it all. I think that depicting a Mormon goddess of wisdom as a black woman reading and teaching from gold plates is a pretty good response to all that nonsense.

If you haven’t seen the issue, I hope you will check it out. And if you like the art, you can purchase it on everything from a maternity t-shirt to a shower curtain to a plain old poster at Sunstone’s cafe press page for this collection.

And if you’re coming to the Sunstone symposium this year, there are two sessions about Heavenly Mother I’m organizing. Session 131, Thursday 26 July, 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., “Images of the Feminine Divine,” is inspired in part by the art in this issue, though it will encompass other topics. The other, Session 171, Thursday, 26 July, 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., “Heavenly Mother and the Letter of the Law,” is a session in which people will read letters to Heavenly Mother since we can’t have a prayer or testimony meeting devoted to her. You can find abstracts for the sessions in the Sunstone preliminary program online.

Troy Williams @ Sunstone 2011: Thoughts on the Sacred and Profane

Troy tried to buck me up after my latest mini-meltdown over l’affaire Lyman and it reminded me that I need to remember to catch Tabloid (91% “Fresh”!) at my earliest convenience. Here’s Troy riffin’ at Sunstone (go show their Youtube channel some love) on his role in the Errol Morris documentary and his thoughts on the Broadway Book of Mormon:


Moral Nostalgia and the Movies

This post was inspired by A teenager speaks on new movie standards.

In her recent discussion of the current state of movies, and particularly award winning movies, Camila B. states that she is concerned about “movies throughout the decades and the negative changes that I have noticed.” She then goes on to lament that “the corruption viewed daily by millions of people is disgusting.”

The remainder of her post is pure nostalgia for the “good old days” when “movies portrayed beautiful messages, filled with great acting and baroque orchestral pieces that penetrated deep in to your core. These movies brought laughter with wit and romance with subtlety; they brought morality. It saddens me that we have lost that throughout the years.”

She closes with “My only request is to come out of a movie theater without feeling awkward, confused, and dirty. I would love to feel refreshed and glad to have watched something that has inspired me for once. For now, Ill just stick to the movies of previous decades until something new comes along.”

After reading her post, I am left to wonder, 1) should I really believe the word of a teenager about what was or wasn’t true in the world of movies and entertainment “throughout the decades,”, 2) is moral nostalgia part of human nature, or is it more a function of social and religious conservatism, 3) really, no uplifting movies in the past 5-6 years of her short life, and 4) what is about the movies that gets Mormons all tied up in knots?

What is moral nostalgia? It’s simply the view that life and society was more moral in the past than it is today. Unfortunately, moral nostalgia simply isn’t true. It’s not true of society in generally, and it’s certainly not true when applied to Hollywood.

Movies have always pushed the boundaries of what is socially acceptable even the 40s and 50s, those days of social conservatism that so many Mormons wish they were still living in.

Consider the following list of movies, all of which were nominated for best picture in the 40s and 50s (winners in bold, controversial themes in parentheses):

All About Eve, A Streetcar Named Desire (homosexuality, nymphomania, and rape), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (homosexuality, frank sexual dialogue),The Apartment (adultery, suicide), A Place in the Sun (murder, using sex to advance ones social standing),From Here to Eternity (beach sex scene), Anatomy of a Murder (rape/murder).

All of these movies were controversial to some degree or other, because of content that was felt to be outside of social norms. Yet, today they are considered fairly mild, even by Mormon standards. In 1939 censors even pushed to change the line, Frankly my dear, I dont give a damn. Yet, Camila and other Mormons forget this, because the movies appeal to their sense of what is moral, at this time.

A few years ago there was a great discussion here about the nature of sex and violence in the movies (Rated R ‘just for violence”). And just this week a discussion about the use of F-word in The King’s Speech at Wheat and Tares (The Kings F#!$@ Speech). While these discussions don’t rely upon moral nostalgia to make any points, they do reflect the importance of movies in society. As well as the importance of choosing the movies we, and our children, subject ourselves to. They simply reflect how movies affect us in the here and now.

That’s the beauty of movies (and other art); no matter when they were created, they can have an effect upon our present. And that’s what’s wrong with moral nostalgia and the movies, we project our current morals and standards on movies of bygone eras and say, “Look! These movies are uplifting and contain nothing objectionable. Why can’t they make movies like that anymore?” But we forget that morals and standards have changed, and that in 50 years people will look back at The Black Swan and say, “They don’t make movies like they used to, do they?”

(n.b. Kuri, a frequent commenter here, posts his own rebuttal of Camila B. as well.)

Im with shuck face

Shuck Face Shirt

The Salt Lake Tribune reports: Deseret Book wont carry Utah authors latest novel

This latest book from James Dashner contains language some of our customers would find offensive, said Gail Halladay, managing director of marketing at Deseret Book …

The Scorch Trials, the story of teenagers trekking across a dystopian landscape …

includes words such as damn and this sucks, as well as the phrase shuck it.

So far, 38 44 readers like this Trib comment:

“But they’ll carry Glenn Beck’s bound toilet paper?”

Cue facepalm* and what the holy scrud? … soundtrack courtesy of the Sons of Provo (available at finer Deseret Book outlets everywhere):

*Then again, Dashner attended BYU and currently lives in South Jordan City with his wife and four children. How the heck could he not know the G-rated lexicon of permissible Utah non-profanities? Whatever. His bannination is still shuckin’ bullfit (say that ten times fast).

The Book of Mormon: The Musical


God loves Mormons and He wants some More

The Book of Mormon - The Musical

Trey Parker & Matt Stone discuss Mormonism at TAM5:

“When you read the beginnings of Mormonism, when you read the Joseph Smith story, you’re just like ‘Wow … wow, really?’ The idea of anybody like Joseph Smith, who can get people to give him money and let him have sex with their wives, I know ‘respect’ is the wrong word, but there’s something incredible about that. I want to know more about *those* guys. That’s just fascinating.”

All About The Mormons? (Commentary by Trey Parker & Matt Stone):

That South Park episode spawned an apologetic website ( South Park Mormon ) and garnered a mention at the LDS Newsroom:

When the comedy writers for South Park produced a gross portrayal of Church history, individual Church members no doubt felt uncomfortable. But once again it inflicted no perceptible or lasting damage to a church that is growing by at least a quarter of a million new members every year.

I think I’ve still got some old “Yes on 8” signs lying around somewhere that I can repurpose for the protest I’ve planned. Any suggestions for pithy signage? Someone suggested “Joseph Smith died, Matt & Trey lied” but that seems awfully morbid. For anyone planning on catching the show who’d like to show up a half-hour early and join us on the sidewalk, please remember white shirts and ties for the guys, Sunday best for the gals, cheers!

Tickets go on sale to the general public November 19th. Previews begin February 24, 2011.

Update: New York Times Arts Beat blog:

Book of Mormon Announces Cast and Designers:

Josh Gad, a correspondent on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and Andrew Rannells (Jersey Boys) will play Elders Cunningham and Price, a pair of mismatched Mormon boys sent on a mission to a place thats about as far from Salt Lake City as you can get, as described in a press release. Other cast members include Nikki M. James (All Shook Up), Rory OMalley (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and Michael Potts (Grey Gardens) …

Previews begin at the Eugene ONeill Theater on Feb. 24, with opening night set for March 24.

Local Utah TV reports on Same-Sex Attraction in the Mormon Church (Part Two)

Dottie City Weekly Cover

KUTV interviews Sister Dottie S. Dixon: Former LDS Homosexual Says Church Shouldn’t Ask For Change (who writes these headlines?)

How much longer before mainstream Utah news orgs adopt the same frame as the rest of the country, namely: LGBT folks often grapple with their received religion for good reason (i.e., it’s time to give up the bass-ackwards framing that suggests we’re all somehow born religious and then proceed to “struggle” to varying degrees with the “burden” of sexual orientation).