Friday, March 16, 2012

Why I didn't say "amen" in church this week.

So, this past Sunday was Stake Conference.

(For my non-Mormon readers:  what this means is that instead of a typical worship service with one congregation, several congregations will meet together in the same building and listen to various sermons, with hymns sung in between.  There are no Sunday School classes; the whole thing is just in that one same room.  Attendance percentages are typically lower than usual - many probably feel like it is a less personal worship experience because it is just so big, and because of the lack of sacramental ritual, or what most churches call "communion" - but there are maybe an average of a thousand people in attendance?  I'm bad with big numbers.  Anyway.  It's large.)

In my opinion, because Stake Conference is so large, it's extra important that the speakers preach true and good things from the pulpit.  Maybe that's the consequentialist in me speaking, but I figure the more people are listening to you, the greater your responsibility to share insights that ring eternally true (on the other hand, the deontological rule at play here is that even if just one person is listening to you, every time you speak in the name of God you had better be speaking as He would speak).

And if you don't teach entirely true principles, then I won't say "amen."  It's a small gesture, and probably doesn't make any difference, but it makes me feel better at least.  One of my many New Year's resolutions was to say "amen" only when I truly and completely agreed with what was said or prayed for.

Now, don't get me wrong:  five days ago when I sat there and listened to the messages that were given, I felt spiritually uplifted most of the time.  And I felt like most of the things said were in accordance with what God would want to have taught in His name.  So I said "amen" to most of the talks... until the very end, that is.

The discourse in question was given by a lovely man whom I won't name here.  And certainly, a lot of what he said rang true.  Then, towards the end of his remarks, he started going off on "the media," and "the world," and all the terrible things "they" want to do to us, all the terrible things they want to teach to our children.  He presented an awfully black-and-white picture of the world, and by so doing unfairly demonized scores of decent human beings, though none by name of course.  His comments reinforced an unhealthy thought process that is prevalent in Mormon culture:  the "us and them" mentality.

I hate the "us and them" mentality so much.  It's a painfully oversimplified way to look at things.

We Mormons think too often that it is us against the world, that everyone else is out to get us.  But that is simply not the case.  Virtually no one actually wants to see family values destroyed, or the Temples burned to the ground, or God dethroned, etc.  We live in a world surrounded by people who, in a lot of ways, are very much like us:  people who want to be happy.

Did anyone watch the 84th Academy Awards show that recently aired?  There was a man who won an award (and I'm embarrassed to admit, I don't remember who he was or what he won - I know, I'm a bad blogger!), and when he got to the stage, he primarily thanked his wife, to whom he'd been married for many years.  Without hearing him mention anything else, the entire audience applauded.  The fact that he loved his wife and stayed with her was reason enough for all those actors and directors and writers to put their hands together and smile.  But why?

My roommate looked at me after that moment and said something like this:  "Sometimes we accuse Hollywood of wanting to 'destroy family values' or whatever, but really these people love family values.  Just because they want gays to have rights doesn't mean that they hate families."

And he's right.  Hollywood isn't full of demons possessed with some malicious plot to drag the rest of us to Hell.  Hollywood is full of human beings (again, just like you and I), who are trying desperately to tell good stories - stories about love and loss and learning.

Furthermore, I'd argue that the best stories, the stories that get the most critical acclaim, actually support eternal truths that you'd find in the scriptures.

For example, what are some "Best Picture" winners?  I haven't seen "The Artist" yet so we'll have to skip a year.  Back in 2010, the award went to "The King's Speech," a beautiful story about faith, friendship, courage, living up to your responsibilities, and the power of communication.  What about the year before that?  The main message of "The Hurt Locker" was that war is a drug, a psychologically and morally damaging disease:  sounds like a topic that the Book of Mormon spends, oh, about 54 chapters dealing with.  The previous year?  We get "Slumdog Millionaire," a story about conquering all obstacles to save someone you love.  And the year before that?  The Coen Brothers' twelfth film, "No Country For Old Men," a beautifully tragic tale about the incomprehensibility of evil.  Tommy Lee Jones' character in that film reminded me of Frances McDormand's character in "Fargo" (also a Coen Brothers' film), who embodied innocence and the sentiment that you don't have to understand evil.  Sometimes it just is, and sometimes it is absurd, but if it is truly incomprehensible, then maybe that says something good about you?  The character's confused innocence in the face of evil reminds me a lot of Nephi, who never really understood his brothers (I have more thoughts on the Nephi narrative to come in a later post).

(A side note:  I know my most recent blog post condemned an award-winning film pretty harshly, even calling it "pornographic," but I was very careful with that review and I watched every frame of the film in question.  I don't think it would be fair for me to say any of what I said without actually seeing the film and judging its objectionable content in its full context.  And even after watching, I had to think long and hard about my reaction.  To dismiss the entire piece of work casually or without thought would be to show great disrespect to the many men and women who, in my opinion, simply failed in their thematic goals when all was said and done.  Saying a film failed in its ideological aspirations is different than saying that the whole media industry is intentionally trying to bring down righteous principles in our society.)

Of course, maybe I'm reading some of those films wrong (especially the Coen Brothers ones - I won't pretend to understand their work completely; all I know is they somehow make great films).  But I don't think the film industry ever really congratulates hidden messages glorifying adultery and murder and blasphemy.  And, though this isn't meant to be as cocky as it sounds, I might understand film a little better than those who stand at a pulpit and condemn all of the media, all at once for allegedly "trying" to preach godlessness.

The speaker on Sunday demonized more than just the film industry:  he demonized any story, in any medium, that "makes you feel bad."  The general thesis of one of his paragraphs was something like, "if it makes you feel good, it's of God, and if it makes you feel bad, it's not."  And I'm hoping that's not really what he meant to say.  But nonetheless, it's what he said.  I won't condemn him for his word choice, but I will correct him on it, because at best it was terribly misleading.

"Shindler's List" is a film that makes me feel bad.  It ought to.  It's about the Holocaust.  And it's horrifying.  But it's also indescribably uplifting and watching it was one of the most spiritually worthwhile couple of hours I've ever spent in my life.

Beyond film, though:  even in the scriptures there are many, many stories that will make you "feel bad" but are nonetheless good, worthwhile, inspiring stories.  We shouldn't condemn the gut-wrenching stories of war or damnation in the Bible or Book of Mormon just because of the way they make us feel.  They make us feel bad for a reason, and it's an edifying reason!  Again, this is probably not what he meant, but it's what he said.

The media isn't out to get us.  And other religions aren't out to get us, either.

It's not us against the world.  It's us and the world, hand in hand, trying to see what we can accomplish together, trying to get back to God together.  What do we have that they don't?  Well, the Priesthood.  The ordinances. In short, the Restoration.  But that doesn't mean that they don't have things we don't.  We're all in this together.  We're all part of the same family, on the same team, and inter-faith dialogue will never be effective until we realize that.

I cannot say "amen" to any talk that teaches, explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or accidentally, that the world is some sort of battleground on which our enemies are our neighbors.  I believe that my neighbor is my neighbor, and that my enemy is in my own heart.  That's what Jesus taught.  He hung out with "publicans and sinners," remember?  And he was criticized for it by devout Pharisees and scribes, the same sort of people who today would want Mormonism to be a microcosmic bubble-society, separated from the rest of the world.

The Church leaders in Salt Lake have tried very hard in recent decades to preach a doctrine of acceptance and worldwide teamwork.  In the mid-nineties, Gordon B. Hinckley taught us to approach missionary work with the invitation:  "bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it."  This is wonderful.  And it directly opposes the attitude of the more rigid, argumentative, and antagonistic rhetoric we heard in the sixties and seventies.  However, we still have a little of that old mentality left over in our culture.  We still want to "Bible-bash."  We still want to argue.

And maybe it's cultural leftover from our persecution in the 1800s.  For whatever reason, we're still on the defensive.  But we don't need to be.

We need to join with others on this Earth and collaboratively try to be edified and exalted together.  Remember what Joseph Smith taught:  "one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may."  So let us receive truth.  Let us vigorously seek it, like the 13th Article of Faith claims we do.

With this goal in mind, I am starting a new blog soon, called "Finding Zion in Babylon."  It will be at, and I will let you know here when it is officially launched.  On that blog, I will focus on combating closed-mindedness, and on championing nuggets of truth that I find outside of Mormonism - in other religions, in psychology, in philosophy, in film, in literature, and elsewhere.  I have a copy of the Koran, and I've recently acquired a copy of the CCC, both of which I intend to dive into for cross-religious research purposes for the new blog.

It will be a grand adventure, and I hope to see you there.

In the mean time, thanks for reading "Food For Thought" (which, by the way, isn't going anywhere, I assure you!  It'll stay, and I'll keep updating it from time to time).  Thanks for being patient with my ramblings.  My writing abilities, like my powers of observation and my reasoning skills, are a work in progress.  And I appreciate your support every step of the way.  Even if you disagree with things I've written (which is likely).

If you do disagree, however, I urge you:  do not say "amen."