Sunday in Outer Blogness: Conferences Edition!

This past week there were a lot of great discussion of the sessions of two recent LDS-interest discussion conferences: Sunstone and FAIR. In particular, I think Andrew S really nailed the key problem with Ty Mansfield’s deconstruction of gay identity:

deconstruction goes all the way down. I’d be more OK if Ty’s discussion weren’t so focused on the social situatedness of homosexuality without saying anything at all about heterosexuality.

Because here’s the deal — heterosexuality is also a construct.

And even more importantly, the reason sexualities are constructs is because they are built on a substrate of gender and sex — which are also constructs.

The FAIR conference sounds like it was a barrel of laughs. I particularly liked this bit:

The Book of Abraham has been a blessing for some, a curse for others, and a puzzlement for all. The layers of issues are as thick as a large onion, and just as painful to peel.

*Cough* if you want to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that is…

At Sunstone, J-G W gave the The Pillars of My Faith session, and also wrote a piece on people’s expectations about God:

Everyone (including folks who don’t actually believe in God at all) has some idea about what God is about, what God has done, does, and will do, what God is capable of and what God is incapable of. I have been/am/will be guilty of this as much as anybody else.

As far as the atheists are concerned, I think J-G W’s point is missing some key nuance. Let me quote a representative atheist article from this week (which I heartily agree with):

We are typically successful in finding that unity, and then the human mind tries to call it God, bringing in all the cultural baggage that that word carries. It’s not helpful. It obscures more than it enlightens. We should reject the whole notion of “god” because it fails to clarify.

That said, the atheists earned some criticism recently as Richard Dawkins yet again made an ass of himself on Twitter, throwing the online atheist community into a mess of chaotic bickering. (It must be awesome to be so popular that people continue to take your tweets seriously after how many of these incidents…?)

In church watch, the CoJCoL-dS is building more apartment buildings. A religion professor at BYUI was unwelcomed to the point of resignation (apparently for being over-qualified). Plus there’s more discussion of the prophet’s dementia. In history, here’s an interesting new tidbit about the varying first vision accounts, one on Mormon improvement in Hebrew, and one on Mormons and conspiracy theories. And the family church is still at odds with actual families.

This week’s Old Testament lesson was an interesting personal perspective on the temple. Plus, there was a conversation about a discussion.

In fun, Heavenly Father is such a tease and correcting Moroni’s grammar.

In random life stuff, Uomo Nuovo made a connection on Castro Street, Roger Hansen is making swing-sets in Peru and Ecuador, Froggey photographed glass art, Knotty is adjusting to life in Germany, and come see what Heather is up to.

Were any of you at either of these conferences? Anything interesting to report?

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Intellectual Exploration Edition!

The ripples “Swedish Rescue” continue to spread! Some Europeans described their experiences with information and the CoJCoL-dS and the faithful continue to seek strategies to blame the doubters and/or head off doubt. Some Mormons have identified “Correlation” as the problem, yet seem to think the solution is to have doubters get individual interviews with unofficial apologists rather than creating a climate where open discussion is encouraged. The Tapir Times gave a historical parallel explaining the problem with this solution:

Why would they be against writing it? Seems like the logical thing to do, right? Because having an oral set of guidelines has its advantages. To phrase it gently: it is flexible. To phrase it bluntly: you can make stuff up depending on the situation, in order to best try to help those who come to you with spiritual dilemmas (or to best suit your own needs, unfortunately). But once you start writing things down, they are set in stone. You lose the flexibility. If you try to vary from what is written, people will point to where it is written and call you out on it.

The problem isn’t simply the existence of the dumbed-down “correlated” curriculum (which members have no say on), but actively preventing open discussion from going beyond it:

And then in the early 1990s something happened. Whilst I was bogged down in my PhD research, ping-ponging across the globe, independent study groups were apparently banned. That was how we heard it. We knew nothing of symposia or Sunstone. Members who had been getting together to study and talk about doctrine and other church related subjects stopped doing so. From now on, only the correlated programs were the appropriate place for that kind of thing.

And speaking of symposia that the faithful are not supposed to be participating in, Sunstone Symposium just wrapped upI wish I could have been there!! What I’ve heard sounds great, and I hope people will post more about the various sessions! (Please feel free to leave comments here about any of your experiences at Sunstone!)

Of course, maybe the CoJCoL-dS doesn’t want open discussion because it’s issues all the way down. Some issues that aired in blogspace this past week include the increasing creepiness of teaching modesty to toddlers, what the young women are learning, the practices of the CoJCoL-dS roundly condemned by the Book of Mormon, miscellaneous discrimination, Mormonism and capitalism, Joseph’s wives, and Moroni: historical figure or registered trademark?

Not to mention the brand-new film that premiered in a Mormon temple near you!

This all leads to the biggest problem with doubt:

The intent of the site was to allow people a place to tell their stories, and get support as they figured out how to stay active and involved in the church, while not believing some or all of it. I thought maybe this would be a good place for me to figure out how to navigate the stormy waters of doubt. As I read other’s stories, however, I realized that I didn’t want to be where they were. I didn’t want to continue to be an active, albeit non-believing, Mormon. This wasn’t the place. But, there were links to other sites that seemed more fitting for my situation. And, as I read, I came to a startling realization. For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to think the most blasphemous words I could have ever imagined. What if the church was not true? And I was okay?

(The biggest problem for the church, that is…)

And what happens after leaving the CoJCoL-dS? You may deal with depression or have your concerns dismissed in insulting ways. Maybe you just can’t stop tracting! Maybe you’ll wonder how to interact with faithful Mormon colleagues or tell your story (in a new book) or discover new wonder and curiosity:

When I look at something amazing, like the Grand Canyon for example, I no longer have the easy answer of “god made it.” And I find myself wanting to understand how exactly it was made.

And in community notes unrelated to Mormonism, the Overeducated Housewife is moving into a new place; others have discussed problems with righteous rants and homeschooling.

Good luck with that doubt, and happy reading!!

Thursday in Outer Blogness: Sunstone Edition!!

Hey folks! I’m back from Sunstone and had a fantastic time!! If you want to know what you missed (or a review of what you saw), here are some recaps. I met lots of very very very cool people and posted my presentations. John Dehlin explained why he stays and presented some interesting data on LGBT Mormons. Plus there were some people I sadly missed, because they were either not there or I didn’t find them. The Mormon Alumni Association book distribution co-op is off to a good start — we sold a few hundred dollars worth of books during the three-and-a-half-day symposium, one of our authors was interviewed by City Weekly, and another is doing a book-signing event at the King’s English Bookshop. If you’re also getting over a relationship with the church (and maybe you’re liberal or feminist), you might want to go next year!!

Now let’s get back to the rest of the Internet! There are some interesting updates in LDS-interest podcasting. John and Zilpha (who organized the mass resignation) have a new project: the White Fields Educational Foundation. Some folks are putting together a huge Mormon Quote Database. Also, a cool, new all-over-the-belief-map blog was announced: Worlds Without End (actually, I met a lot of these cool bloggers at Sunstone as well…).

One theme in Outer Blogness this week was goodness. Hackman lists Christians he likes, William Kempton lists positive things about Mormonism, and Froggie writes a beautiful creed. Paul Senzee talks about the humanity of missionaries, and Kevin Dudley the gift of sight through organ donation.

Meanwhile, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not smelling so rosy, embarrassing financial questions and unhelpful advice for families. And it turns out that the Amish are the fastest growing religion in the US. Can you really will yourself to believe?

To counter the invisibility of men’s service to the CoJCoL-dS, the sisteren of fMh remind us that “LDS Men are Incredible!” (with a little help from the Children’s Friend).

Then there was this crazy dust-up with Chick-fil-awhere you can support anti-gay political actions with the purchase of fast-food. The Boy Scouts have a similar problem. Why is same-sex marriage the “moral issue” so often singled out for this stuff?

Now that my Summer vacation is wrapping up, I’d like to get this weekly feature back to normal — that is, move “Sunday in Outer Blogness” back to Sunday. Of course this coming Sunday is only a few days away, so the next SiOB will be on the 12th. See you then!! 😀

Reclaiming Our Stories

This is the presentation I gave for the panel Who gets to say what former Mormons are like? which I organized at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.

I could see that she didn’t know what she was talking about just by the description of this book!

Author needs to do her research first!

I have only read the description of this book and I realize that I might not really understand the content, but the Mormon church is not like what is being described.

The author does not have the least bit of correct knowledge of the Mormon religion. Her portrayal could not have been more grossly inaccurate.

If you would like to know what the Mormon church, (correctly named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints*) believes in and stands for, this book is NOT the source to choose. Visit Mormon.org or talk to a Mormon you may know.

All of these are quotes from online reviews of someone’s personal memoirs. The book is not billed as anything other than one person’s life experiences — certainly not as a source-book on Mormonism.

I know, you can find anything on the Internet. But still, it’s interesting to see several people confidently post that they are more qualified than the author judge the accuracy of her recounting of her own life, simply because her experience with Mormonism was largely (but not entirely) negative.

The advice to “talk to a Mormon you may know” is perhaps the most poignant part because of the unspoken assumptions it carries: That obviously the author can’t be considered “Mormon” if she’s no longer a believing, practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that if she’s not “Mormon” by the CoJCoL-dS’s standards, then she has no business talking about Mormonism at all. Even experiences from her own life — it’s as though she has no right to claim them anymore.

If you dont want anything to do with the LDS faith, then why allocate so much of your time talking about it??

That’s our “Frequently Asked Question” on the community blog Main Street Plaza. No other question comes close in frequency.

I try to be patient with this question because — no matter how many times I’ve answered it — it’s new to each new person who comes by to ask.

It’s not a malicious question. It’s that the CoJCoL-dS teaches that “apostates” are miserable and bitter, and have no further connection with anything Mormon — except to angrily try to tear the church down. And if you’re surrounded by people who believe that, it’s not unusual to have simply never questioned that claim. I’m glad to have the opportunity to expose people to a new and unfamiliar perspective.

The truth is that if you were raised Mormon or have practiced Mormonism for a significant amount of time, that experience is part of what shapes the person you are. That component of your life doesn’t suddenly become invalid or irrelevant the day you stop believing in the truth claims of the CoJCoL-dS. That’s why our book distribution co-op is called the “Mormon Alumni Association” (see here for the origin of the name).

Former Mormons typically have strong mixed feelings about Mormonism. Some negative opinions, naturally, but also lots of positive associations and memories as well. Rarely indifference.

It’s normal for former Mormons to want to join in discussions about Mormonism. It’s normal that those who feel inspired to write stories include Mormon characters and Mormon themes, as I did in my novel ExMormon. You write what you know. And if you look at our book collection, you’ll see that our portraits of Mormonism are complex and varied — not one-note diatribes. For some of our stories Mormonism isn’t even the central point at all, it’s more background scenery.

In his March 15 Washington Post column Michael Otterson argued that journalists are not really qualified to cover Mormon-related stories unless they:

Drop into our services, talk to our people**, have dinner with a local leader, spend a family home evening with a family, be present when a young soon-to-be missionary opens his or her call letter and learns where they will be spending the next couple of years. Join with us on a service project. And then, when you have scratched the surface in this way, closely observe the transformation of peoples lives outside the church as missionaries teach them and they go through the conversion process. Watch those who transition from attitudes of hopelessness to lives of purpose and meaning and learn new ways to follow Jesus Christ. Talk to a Mormon bishop –our version of the local pastor, but who is unpaid for their volunteer work –as he helps people grapple with problems of addiction or shaky marriages or unemployment.

He also gives a list of publications that are extremely laudatory towards the CoJCoL-dS as examples of good journalism.

Michael Otterson (the managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is the intellectual leader behind the new mantra “If you have any questions, go to lds.org!” Any time a news story diverges one iota from the party line found on lds.org and the LDS Newsroom website, the church PR machine exclaims that the journalists didn’t do their research properly. This includes interviewing faithful Mormons like BYU Professor Randy Bott.

I wish faithful Mormons would be willing to apply the same standards to themselves, and realize that Sunday School lessons like Beware the Bitter Fruits of Apostasy represent tearing other people down — real live people like you and me — whose lives the faithful Mormons aren’t qualified to describe.

One positive aspect of the “Mormon Moment” is that it might help people like Otterson get the message that it’s not reasonable to expect journalists to quote exclusively from your company’s official spokespeople and press releases, and not seek any other sources. But even if it doesn’t, we former Mormons can find our own voices through blogs and books, etc., and reclaim our own stories.

* Unless the reviewer mistakenly thought the memoir was about growing up in the Strangite branch, the correct name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” not “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”.

** I imagine Otterson means to exclude people like me in the category “our people.”

Criticism

This is the presentation I gave for the panel “Do Good Online Fences Make Good LDS Neighbors?” (which Andrew S and I organized) at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.

Criticism. Sometimes it tells you more about the critic and his own personal issues than bout the thing being criticized, doesn’t it? Other times criticism gives you valuable information about real problems that should be addressed and solved. And sometimes it’s a little of both — you can pick some nuggets of useful data out of an otherwise unpleasant rant.

I bring this up in response to J. Max Wilson’s claim that organizations like Sunstone are parasites that harm and weaken their host (in this case: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or CoJCoL-dS). But all Mormon discussion groups depend on Mormonism for their existence. That includes “Nothing Wavering” — their group depends on the existence of Mormonism too.

So the question becomes: Which groups are doing their “host” the most harm?

I argue that shielding the CoJCoL-dS from all criticism — including criticism from strongly interested insiders — does more harm that allowing criticism to be aired and discussed.

If you take the attitude that all criticism is unfounded — and that the solution to criticism is simply to get the critic to shut up — you create a situation where many problems won’t get acknowledged, hence won’t be analyzed, hence won’t be solved.

I hear complaints all the time that all these exit narratives are so predictable. They all hit the same notes. Well, if you’ve got thousands of people defecting, and their explanations all have a lot of the same elements, that’s valuable data. I’m sure some of the similarity is due to the stories influencing each other, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it.

J. Max claims that when faithful Mormons post complaints to the Bloggernacle, it’s like taking your marital problems down to the pub. I find that a very interesting metaphor. The problem is that all these faithful members — who do have a profound and intimate relationship to the church — don’t have the equivalent of a living room or bedroom where they can talk to the people who make church policies and expect the leaders to listen to them and take their perspectives into account.

Telling people that it’s OK to have issues — but please only work through them privately with friends and local leaders until you find a way to put your issues on the shelf — that doesn’t cut it. And when there’s a real problem, that doesn’t solve it.

Even minor issues — refusing to address them can grow them into major issues.

At the blog Main Street Plaza our goal is to have an engaging discussion of LDS-interest topics such as current events and Mormon culture. We absolutely do allow criticism of the CoJCoL-dS and its leaders. I believe that the feedback and critical perspective we provide is at least as helpful to the CoJCoL-dS as it is harmful — and it’s possibly a good deal more helpful than harmful.

But that’s beside the point.

My goals (and I’m not speaking for anyone else in the community, but), my personal goals are not about helping or harming the CoJCoL-dS. I just think that Mormonism is a fascinating topic, and I enjoy discussing it and hearing different viewpoints.

As I said in my earlier panel, we have additional goals like reclaiming our stories: allowing former Mormons to define their own experiences instead of standing by and letting the church invent the “apostate” narrative, according to its own agenda.

But I don’t want to be too earnest and take myself too seriously here. I’m mostly in it for the camaraderie and fun — and because it’s less stressful than discussing the serious problems facing the world.

You can see how our commenting policy reflects these goals. People are welcome to argue any position and present their evidence. Even (especially?) to criticize our policies and tell us when they’re not working, and what needs improvement. And in my weekly blog round-up I link to interesting posts from blogs all over the belief map.

But people who just want to pick a fight — to polarize and reframe the discussion into the familiar paradigm of “the church and its enemies, forever locked in mortal combat” — I have no patience for that. (I generally post a follow-up comment reminding people that “if you wont/cant make your point in a clear and reasonable way, then it only makes your own position look, well, questionable.”)

On principle I don’t fault J. Max for wanting to marginalize viewpoints that he thinks are wrong or harmful. In a society that values free speech, using your own speech to try to push certain voices to the fringes works better than actual censorship.

To take some extreme examples, think of Holocaust deniers or the anti-vaccine movement. You can legitimately argue that their speech is dangerous. We see babies dying of new outbreaks of diseases that vaccination had kept at bay for more than a generation! But censoring such viewpoints actually gives them a weird new credibility, like “These guys must really be onto something if Big Brother is so threatened by letting them speak!” It’s better to make the case for why such viewpoints aren’t mainstream.

I simply disagree with J. Max about whom he’s choosing to marginalize. Criticism can be constructive.

Because the Need to Understand a Relationship Often Doesn’t Die When the Relationship Does

Not surprisingly, one of the best parts of Sunstone for me involved Main Street Plaza. After the closing banquet (which included a terrific talk by Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union about the efforts of the ACLU to protect the religious rights of members of minority religions, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims and Mormons), I headed to Squatter’s brew pub downtown, where I hung out with Chino Blanco, Chanson, her brother John H., Andrew S, Donna of Ward Gossip and her husband, and Barbara H. for a bunch of hours.*

We closed the place (it’s been a while since I’ve done that), which gave us time to discuss many important topics, including what happened at the Sunstone and how weird it is that people spend so much time talking about some guy named J. Max when he’s not really that relevant.

To continue that trend, I want to point out one reason he’s really not that relevant: he’s completely wrong in a basic assertion about Sunstone’s relationship to the church. After Chanson invited him to participate in a panel she was putting together on boundary maintenance between various LDS blogging community, he wrote a long post about why he was going to refuse to her invitation.** He insists:

The fact is that the church doesn’t need Sunstone at all. If Sunstone were to suddenly fall apart and disappear it would have zero effect on the church. Sunstone, on the other hand, is completely dependent on the church for its continued existence. If the church were to suddenly fall apart and disappear, Sunstone would be completely obliterated.

I’m pretty sure that all three of those sentences are wrong. Re: the first: The church needs organizations like Sunstone to keep it honest, and it should be darn grateful that it got some practice dealing with all sorts of questions from members before the internet came along.

Re: the second: If Sunstone were to suddenly disappear, the church hierarchy would likely breathe a sigh of relief: it would be rid of a major forum in which its three greatest enemies—you know, feminists, homosexuals, and so-called intellectuals—talk about the various ways they do or don’t want to challenge or support or change the church; or present research that they later publish in various Mormon studies journals; or meet a bunch of people from the Community of Christ and realize that they can do Mormonism in an official way that involves a lot less homophobia and misogyny. If something like Sunstone had no effect whatsoever on the church, it wouldn’t have had to issue a statement on symposia (some scrolling required) counseling members against participating in a forum that discusses the church so openly, concluding

There are times when it is better to have the Church without representation than to have implications of Church participation used to promote a program that contains some (though admittedly not all) presentations that result in ridiculing sacred things or injuring The Church of Jesus Christ, detracting from its mission, or jeopardizing the well-being of its members.

But more importantly, if the church were to suddenly disappear because a meteor took out Temple Square or Jesus appeared and not only told everyone that the Book of Mormon was fiction but asked how so many people failed to notice how badly written it is, Sunstone would suddenly become one of the most relevant Mormon organizations on earth.

If the church disappeared tomorrow, there would be all sorts of confused, distraught people going, “What the hell just happened to me?” There would be people mourning an overwhelming loss, wondering what will happen to relationships based on this thing that had become a huge absence rather than a major presence in their lives, trying to process the investment they maintained for decades in the church (was it wasted? Still valuable? How does it translates to the investments I might want or need to make next?), trying to formulate a new code of ethics now that their moral judgment wasn’t so reliant on the pronouncements on a bunch of old white guys in Utah, and angry as all hell that this organization they were told was the surest way to happiness in this life and the next was not, after all, able to adequately guide their choices or support their lives.

And once they worked through at least some of that, those people deprived so abruptly of a church—and thus a major frame of reference for their lives—still might like to get together from time to time with people who also once owned a CTR ring and suffered through the MTC and always tear up when they sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints” and remember how weird it was to discover, after decades of exhortation to the contrary, that coffee is awesome.

In other words, if the church disappeared tomorrow, every faithful member (well, every faithful member who wasn’t in complete denial about what had actually happened) would experience a crisis of faith, and would need all sorts of resources and support to deal with it.

The need for organizations like Sunstone would be huge. Thousands rather than hundreds would attend the symposium. Were it not for the fact that print is dead, subscriptions would skyrocket. (Thank goodness there’s already an electronic subscription available.) There would be a Mormon Stories community in every single town with a Mormon meeting house. And Main Street Plaza would become the biggest Mormon blog on the freaking planet.

Anyway, the church is not going to disappear suddenly, though it does seem intent these days on committing a messy, slow suicide, and causing as much misery as possible to everyone around it as it goes. But however the death happens or how long it takes, it’s pretty remarkable that people like J. Max miss really important elements of the big picture, to the point that they can’t see that the need for organizations that support Latter-day Saints as they deal with a loss of faith would increase exponentially if the entire faith were lost.

 

 

*Hey everybody! It was super fun. Hope that no harm or danger befalls you as you travel home. :-)

**J. Max claims that he was “contacted by the organizers of the 2012 Sunstone Symposium” which just isn’t true—he was contacted by the organizers of a panel at the Sunstone symposium, which is not the same thing. The organizers of the 2012 Sunstone Symposium had little idea that he exists.

Liveblogging Sunstone: day 0!

Tuesday afternoon: I arrive at SLC airport to find a sea of smiling faces on folks wielding bunches of balloons and banners saying “Welcome Home Elder So-and-So”. I immediately think to myself: This is the right place!

Tuesday afternoon (continued): I arrive at the campus guest-house, and set up the computer my brother lent me so I can write SiOB before Sunstone begins (or, more precisely, TiOB).

Tuesday afternoon (continued): I realize that it is, in fact, Pioneer Day, and it would be beyond lame of me to read about it on the Internet from my room when I could go see it in person!!

Tuesday afternoon (continued): TRAX system: very cool, but surprisingly confusing for a tram system with only three lines. For example, since the name of the nearest stop (as listed on maps and in the tram) is “Fort Douglas”, it would have been helpful if the name “Fort Douglas” were posted somewhere on/at the stop itself.

Tuesday afternoon (continued): I take the tram downtown to Main Street Plaza and Temple Square. The familiar sign that graces our masthead was there, but nothing about Pioneer Day at all. No one in pioneer attire, and no apparent posted signs indicating when/where/whether there would be a Pioneer Day celebration.

Tuesday afternoon (continued): I decide: It must be at “Pioneer Park”, so I set off for the park, passing through the lovely new mall.

Tuesday afternoon (continued): At the park: still nothing. Well, nothing except lots of friendly homeless people sleeping under trees. Some sort of concert stage is set up, but there’s no indication that it has anything to do with Pioneer Day. I begin to wonder whether it really is Pioneer Day.

Tuesday afternoon (continued): I walk back to the tram stop, where the vacation schedule lists today as “Pioneer Day”. I wonder if the celebration was only in the morning or if there will be something later tonight. Don’t care enough to come back later to check.

Tuesday afternoon (continued): I go back to my room and hole up like a hermit writing TiOB.

Tuesday evening: The only restaurant in the area is a student cafeteria. I fear the worst. Result: could be better, could be worse. I hope to find a better restaurant tomorrow.

Tuesday evening: Done with TiOB, still hermiting. I vow to be more social tomorrow. Anyway, I’m kind of a morning person…

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.

Sunstone and Mormon Alumni Association Books!!

As you may know, the 2012 SLC Sunstone Preliminary Program is online — and I’d like you to especially feast your eyes on page 37!!!

Mormon Alumni Association Books

As you can see, I’m planning to test out a little cooperative book distribution network for the books I’ve discussed on this site. I’m also planning to add a book page (to replace the “reading” section of our sidebar) in order to highlight more LDS-interest books that deserve more attention than they’re getting.

If you have written a book that you think should be on this ad — don’t worry! This is basically an initial experiment, and if it goes well, we’ll expand.

Also note: Since I live in Switzerland, if you live in North America, the symposium might be my only opportunity to meet you in person. I hope our recent preview discussion whets your appetite to attend!! 😀

Sunstone 2012 Preview

Comments on Andrew’s recent Why are Ex-Mormons So Angry (and other questions)? Part II thread discuss a possible MSP presence at Sunstone 2012, and wonder when it will be.

It’s scheduled for July 25-28 at the Olpin Student Union Building of the University of Utah campus. After quite a few years of being held over the first weekend in August, it was changed to the last week of July, so as not to coincide with the Outdoor Retailers Convention, which sucks up almost all the available hotel rooms and parking spaces in Salt Lake City. Plus if you show up to 2012’s symposium a day or two early, you can enjoy all the Pioneer Day shindigs, and who wouldn’t be down with that?

The theme will be “Mormons and Mormonism as a Political Force,” and yes, I thought of it. That’s right: the person the bloggernacle thinks is single-handedly ruining Sunstone came up with the themes for both 2011 and 2012.

I knew there would be plenty of people who saw immediately the vast possibilities of this theme — after all, pretty much every panel ever presented at Sunstone could be shaped to fit and support i t– but I was surprised by the men (and they were invariably men – perhaps because women who go to Sunstone are already familiar with the whole “the personal is political” argument) who reacted with irritation at how “narrow” the topic was. So I wrote this to explain its broader application:

Think beyond senators, governors, and candidates for president. Ask yourself: how do Mormons deliberately try to shape the social fabric that covers us all? How do they cooperate among themselves and with others to get what they want? What is the political and social fallout when Mormons organize, canvass, and vote in order to make an entire state or country “choose the right”? How do Mormons exemplify the feminist adage that “the personal is political”? In short, how do Mormons exercise, submit to, challenge, and understand power? (And can you really be both Republican and a good Mormon?)

Check out page 46 of the 2011 final program for an awesome illustration of a power fist sporting a CTR ring. Wouldn’t it be cool to have that on a t-shirt with the slogan “It’s personal. It’s political. It’s Mormon. Its Sunstone 2012.”?

To be clear: sessions need not fit the theme to be accepted. There are always a few requisite panels on polygamy no matter what the theme is. But it’s sort of cool to have a conversation about a particular topic, and to see how Sunstone can help shape and expand the discourse happening about it.

No official call for proposals has been issued yet, which means there’s also no deadline, but it will probably be around April of 2012. Mary Ellen has a folder for early submissions, and you can send her something right now if you want — I already did. :-)