Jan 2002
Home Up





VOLUME 8, NO. 1 January 2002





What Mormon women have--in plenty–are descriptions of and prescriptions for their lives. What Mormon women don't have--and desperately need--is "A Safe Place to Talk." This is the conclusion of Becky Johns, Ph.D., assistant professor in Weber State University's Communications Department.

Becky will describe both what she taught this class and what she learned from it at the Mormon Alliance's quarterly meeting, Tuesday, January 15, 7:00-8:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake City main library, 209 E. 500 South. The meeting will be held in the story room on the second floor, adjacent to the children's library.

With the coordinator of Weber State’s women's studies program, Becky recently co-taught a course on life issues for LDS women: the images, role, and spiritual options Mormon women have. Creating a safe place to talk was one of her goals in the class, but she was startled that it turned out to be perhaps the most important issue for the students.

"They brought their questions on theology and all kinds of things to this class because they literally had no place else to take them," Becky describes. "Sometimes they'd had these questions for twenty years, unasked. `I couldn't tell my mother this.' `My family doesn't have any idea that I think this way.' Where can women find themselves in the official discourse that dominates the world of Mormon women, and what do they do with the insistence on `happy-face' presentations of the self when it doesn't match their reality?"

She will explain how she and her team-teacher conceptualized the class, then organized the readings, beginning with historical women and moving to contemporary women, to deal with issues of leadership, temple worship, priesthood, motherhood, employment, and education. She will also provide copies of the reading list that the class used.

The class, though small, included an amazingly "wide range" of students, ranging from a recently temple-married woman pregnant with twins to current but marginalized Mormons, to former Mormons, to women of other faiths who were curious to find out more about Mormon women's lives.

Weber State's course is the first to provide an academic overview of the roles, expectations, and realities of Mormon women. The only class resembling it was one on official "pulpit" rhetoric about Mormon women by General Authorities, taught at the University of Utah during the 1980s by Vella Evans.


Meditation on a Broiled Fish
Elizabeth Sebastian

It was another tough day in church. As usual, all the talks and lessons were aimed at reinforcing the "Follow the Prophet" and "Obey the Commandments" mantras. Not a single word of the good news of the gospel, the easy yokes or the light burdens. Not a shred of spiritual food. Instead, I watched all these good people try again with all their hearts to live up to the endless demands and expectations of the organization, apologizing for being unable to do it all, feeling bad that they had failed again. I saw the yokes settling on their shoulders and their burdens getting heavier. Mine, too. We were all starving spiritually.

I came home and told my husband I just had to have some spiritual nourishment on this Sunday, that I couldn't let it pass like this. We tried reading from a favorite book and a scriptural passage, but nothing calmed me until we sat down for our Sunday meal, which featured broiled fish. As I looked at that piece of broiled fish, I remembered after Jesus' resurrection, a time when his apostles were still confused and disoriented, so much so that all they could think to do was go back to what they knew--fishing. "I go a-fishing," said the apostle Peter and they all followed him. They fished all night and caught nothing. The story is in John 21.

In the morning, Jesus appeared on the shore, but they didn't recognize him. To help them see, he led them through a familiar and comforting fishing ritual, the one that had convinced them to lay down their nets and become fishers of men in the first place: He told them to let down the nets on the right side of the boat, and sure enough, they caught more than they could land. At that, Peter realized who it was on the shore and "he girt his fisher's coat unto him (for he was naked) and did cast himself into the sea" to swim ashore. The others followed in the boat, dragging the loaded net. "As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there and fish laid thereon, and bread." Jesus had breakfast ready and waiting, knowing they would be hungry.

Why did this story make me feel better? Because I see in it the true relationship between God and his people. The last one-on-one contact Peter had had with Jesus was to deny him repeatedly on that awful night of trial and scorn. Peter had every reason to hide in the boat or swim to some other shore to avoid facing Jesus after that terrible failure. But he didn't run and he didn't hide. Instead, he was so excited to see Jesus that he threw himself into the water and swam to shore to meet him. He wasn't afraid to go to Jesus because he knew that they could work it out. If he could approach God with that hope, so can we all.

And they did work it out. Jesus for his part gave food to his hungry people as a matter of course. Feeding the starving is his job. Then, through the famous "Feed my sheep" conversation that followed, he led Peter through a personal process of absolution that erased those three denials and put Peter on a new path of spiritual hope and strength. In the same way God meets us all right where we are and deals with us in ways we understand. He can always bring good out of evil and failure. We go to him for healing and strength, not for guilt and condemnation.

Why do I never hear these words of grace and comfort on Sunday in my ward?

WWJD, Inc.
Gene Mahalko

The LDS Church has been criticized for running very high priced hunting preserves, particularly a bird preserve on Utah Lake, where "missionaries" have been planting grain to attract the migrating geese and ducks. While such actions are clearly legal, there have been grumblings about the propriety of a Church running an operation to kill animals for fun and profit. Let's try the "What Would Jesus Do" test for the LDS hunting preserves. Does your Jesus sound like this?

Hey, Simon Peter, let's rethink this "fishers of men" job I gave you. I think it would be a good idea if you went back to regular fishing. We could use most of the fish as a freebie for people who show up at the sermons. You can't count on a loaves and fishes thing every weekend, but we're going to get millennias worth of free publicity out of it. You can't buy that kind of ink.

Anyway, here's the deal. We take some of those fish and use them as fertilizer on the wetlands across the Sea of Galilee. Plant barley and wheat. That'll draw the ducks migrating to Egypt for the winter. We get some army surplus bows and arrows, and set up a really expensive exclusive hunting preserve for Roman fat cats. Just look at this place! Most of the land is pathetic. We'd have the only decent birds this side of the Danube, and lots of 'em. Men will pay big sheckels for a chance to actually look like they know how to hunt, even if they couldn't catch a cold in real life.

The funds would allow us to buy some chariots and wagons, and cut out this walking stuff. Your feet are a mess. And frankly, this riding-a-donkey business is not going to make anybody want to be one of us.

Besides, this would give us some some really good private face time with the movers and shakers of the Roman Empire. We could make a pitch about how good Christianity would be for the empire. Fat cats need to be saved as much as anybody else, and it wouldn't hurt us any to get some gazillionaire members. Win-win situation if ever I saw one. If we get Rome, we're in the big leagues. Major media, tax subsidies, even military support! You pull this off, there'll be churches and cities named after you the world over. Think you're up to it, Pete? Good. Consider yourself called on a fishin' mission.

Oh, and Matt, can you set up a spreadsheet and run some numbers, and see what it would take to get the Olympics? That whole Greek venue is sooo overdone and passé. Of course, we'd call them the Jewish Country Games, but all those "JC" banners flying in the wind would be great subliminal marketing.

John, you do book deals and movie rights. Nobody got squat for royalties on the Old Testament. Dumb, dumb, dumb. See if you can get David Lynch to do something with that manuscript you've been working on. I can't make heads or tails of it, but there's gotta be a movie in there somewhere.

Judas, I don't have any specific projects for you to tackle, but you can see where we're going with this. See what you can come up with.

I came to change the world, and this really could do it. Is this a great planet, or what?!"

Worshipping Idylls
John Sebastian

I am a grandfather. A new grandfather, to be exact, and the rather shocking realization that my no-longer-little daughter and her husband have added another limb to the family tree has triggered all kinds of reactions. Careful inspection in the mirror assured me that I've no more gray hairs than before, and I don't feel very much older. On the other hand, there is only one more child at home, a junior in high school. My family is no longer father/mother/little children. The patter of little feet changes when those feet wear size 12.

So "family" is a word fraught with complex and tender emotions for me. On a subject that is less related than you might think, our stake has announced that the theme for next year's ward conferences will be "FAMILY," all in caps, of course. Unfortunately, the thrust of the conferences will completely miss me--and most of the other people in the stake. Like every stake in the Church, ours includes singles (divorced with or without children, the never married, and the widowed) as well as couples. And many couples no longer have little children at home. Yet the model we constantly see is father/mother/10-year-old boy/7-year-old girl. No colicky infants, no hyperactive two-year-olds, no surly spiky-haired teenagers. It is assumed that the presence of both parents in a home with children will produce the serene family life of Church videos.

Between those videos and the Proclamation on the Family, an idyllic traditional family life is not just presented as an ideal, but defined as the norm--and those who don't live up to the norm are somehow faintly tinged with unrighteousness. Sure, those videos feature cameo appearances of single parents (preferably whose former spouses were abusive) and the obligatory two sentences of "no blessing will be denied" consolation, but these nods in the direction of marital diversity are conspicuous by their very rarity.

One of great discoveries of life is finding out that parents are human. At some point, they become both more and less than parents: they become friends. One of the great discoveries of my own "grandfather-hood" has been to notice that, as my own kids have grown, they too have changed from children to friends.

In the eternities, we are assured that we will all be in the flower of adulthood. In other words, we will all be in somewhat the situation of my adult children and me--not only parent-to-child but also friend to friend. The "Families are Forever" part of that relationship will be defined more by love than by genealogy.

So why do we have so much emphasis on the man/woman/young children family? Well, it's good PR, and it does help develop important relationships. But it also seems to show the institutional Church acting like a parent, telling us what's good for us, sometimes even after we've learned the lesson well. My kids have outgrown that phase of life: They no longer need me to tell them what to do. In fact, they would resent it if I did. What they do need and appreciate is my advice when they face something new, like raising children or buying a house. In short, my role as parent has metamorphosed into a very pleasing sort of friendship that carries the hope of an eternal relationship. I wish the Church would stop treating me like a willful child who doesn't know very much. After all, I'm a grandfather now! Isn't it time that the Church, too, stopped acting like a parent, and started acting like a friend?



An unusual awareness of world events, a boost for Christian living themes, and "tinkering with the terminology" were themes that emerged from the semi-annual Conference Critique in October.

Much of the discussion focused on the response of conference speakers with the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, since "it's unusual to have much response at all to contemporary affairs, let alone direct and explicit discussion." While discussants generally found President Hinckley's talk on the topic an important statement, they made a list of items that were conspicuous omissions: there was no praying for enemies, no expression of concern for the Afghani people, and repeated references, by President Hinckley and others to "this nation" that ignored the Mormon members in the other 150 nations of the world. "I think many members were looking for some prophetic indication of how these events fit into the last days," observed one participant, "but except for a general reference that our generation and our children still had much work to do, there was not even an indirect reference to the Second Coming."

Another participant found frustrating "double-speak" in President Hinckley's quotation of "quite apocalyptic scriptures" juxtaposed to his statements that he was "optimistic" and "not alarmist." Another observer found President Hinckley "somewhat hawkish" but conceded, "you don't get invited to the White House by the President with all of the nation's other major religious leaders and then come home and raise tough ethical questions. You come home and tell your people that the president has their unwavering support."

Still another was troubled by the polarized thinking in statements about "rooting out evil." How do you define "evil?" she queried. "History shows that when you create a category of people who are evil, a lot of innocent people suffer. I could wish that the prophet of Jesus Christ could talk about loving your enemies, not creating new enemies, and also the standards of a just war." Nearly all participants were touched by the prayer and blessing that President Hinckley offered.

Candidates for favorite talks were:

1. President Boyd K. Packer's "eloquent and personal" address on the Book of Mormon. One observer queried whether his story about President Hinckley's inability to use Packer's scriptures because "everything is crossed out" was actually a joke as much as it was an oblique criticism.

2. Elder Wayne Peterson's discussion of not reacting or retaliating.

3. President James E. Faust's warm talk on the atonement as covering the needs of victims as well as sinners (even though there was some dissatisfaction with his insistence on, in one participant's words, "grace as a matching contribution."

4. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's "passionate" talk on reasons for paying tithing, "bookended" with seldom-heard reasons: as an example to the children and grandchildren who are growing up without remembering the days of special assessments and fund-raising in the Church and as a way of "giving back" to God. One participant saw "internal tensions" among the reasons, however: if one reason for paying tithing (Holland's second-cited) is for the blessings of prosperity, then it seems to contradict the third reason, which is to assert that material things are not the most important thing. "And how, if tithing is an obligation, can it also be a gift?" This talk and others referring to tithing, along with President Hinckley's appeal for funds to keep financing the Perpetual Educational Fund and his assurances that the Church would not go into debt even if it had to curtail its programs, generated considerable speculation about motives. The Church is certainly not continuing to make the same return on its investment portfolio since the recent economic downturn, and the blow to the nation's economy inflicted by the terrorist attacks likewise means that Church members are among those who have lost or will lose their jobs.

5. Elder M. Russell Ballard's plea for neighborly acceptance and espousal of the Alliance for Unity (even with conspicuous omissions, such as representatives from the gay community), was received enthusiastically. "I really like their mission statement," commented one observer wistfully. "If only it could be applied within the Church as well as outside."

There was no opposition to the nomination of Elder Ross Workman's denunciation of "murmuring" as Worst Talk of Conference. (See sidebar.) "Basically, he criminalized questioning," pointed out one participant. He identified it as the first step, followed by "rationalization" and "slothfulness," in the dread condition of "murmuring" which leads to "disaster" and "calamity." Listeners objected to his equation of sitting closer to the front at a priesthood leader's request with the parable of the unbuilt watch-tower, the Israelites' failure to enter the promised land, and Laman and Laban. A separate sore point was the "patronizing" example he used of knowing that his wife would be "obedient" about accepting their mission assignment but wondering if she would be adequately enthusiastic. (She was.) One commentator identified, as "the most annoying element of this approach, the assumption that obedience is always justified. Instead of asking why people are dragging their feet, it authorizes leaders to nag and threaten, to put more pressure on them."

Elder Ballard's talk, like Dallin H. Oaks's and David H. Burton’s, explicitly instructed (itself a departure) members not to use terms like "nonmember" and "non-Mormon," "missionary work," "missionary tool," and "tolerance." These terms thus join "free agency" (now "moral agency"), "plan of salvation" (now "plan of happiness"), and "inactive" (now "less active") on the scrap heap of obsolete terminology. One commentator point out that some of these changes were almost certainly prompted by a desire for a less offensive vocabulary during the Olympics but that it is psychologically sound to use different terms as a way of changing thinking that may be limited or counterproductive.

Sheri Dew's insistence, repeated both at the women's meeting and in general conference, that motherhood is "loving and leading" rather than bearing children, was taken to a rhetorical extreme when she defined motherhood as the "essence of who we are" as women and as comprising women's "eternal identity." Taken to an equal interpretative extreme, pointed out one participant, "there is no reason to retain the word ‘woman,' since ‘mother' covers all females."

Dew's talk in particular generated questions about "why the only woman in any general auxiliary presidency who simultaneously had a career" would choose to "define herself as a mother, especially when she's not?" Speculative possibilities included an assignment to show her public conformity to the Church's official mandate for women (by analogy with having Elders Maxwell and Oaks take the hardest anti-intellectual lines), a rising inactivity rate among Relief Society women, a falling Mormon birthrate, a strong reaffirmation of traditional roles lest untraditional activities become too popular, or (most positively) a way of communicating the desirability of what the Church wants women to do instead of using guilt and threats to keep them away from what the Church doesn't want them to do.

Candidates for Most Wildly Mixed Metaphors were Mary Ellen Smoot, who exhorted women to remain "steadfast and immovable," even as they "moved forward, leaving footprints on the hearts" of those they influenced, and Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who asserted that "the drumbeat of sensuality chilled the tastebuds of conscience."