Trying to Listen (and feeling shouted at)

Being in The Choir can be nice, and hearing the preaching can feel very comfortable.

In a recent Mormon Matters podcast, Natasha Hilfer Parker commented how, online and in person, Democrats tend to talk to Democrats, Republicans to Republicans, Rabid Bloggers with like-minded Rabid Bloggers (my phrase on the last one, not hers), and we tell each other things we already agree with.

Sigh. Relaxation. It’s like an emotional hot tub.

Feeling nudged to get out of the tub, I immediately went to The Millenial Star to try to find common ground with people who tend to say things I disagree with. This experiment came in 2 parts, and I’ll come to the second in a future post.

First I found an essay from Meg Stout titled A Mormon Princess Defects, and I will admit, this dampened my enthusiasm for my project.

Meg Stout addresses a recent interview on Mormon Stories with Christine Jeppsen Clark, daughter of general authority Malcolm Jeppsen, who left the LDS church as a grandmother in her 50′s or 60′s.

I was concerned with Meg Stout’s analysis as early as the title. Already we know that Ms. Clark is a “Mormon Princess,” implying a pampering and privilege that slants the argument negatively. Soon we find out that Meg Stout doesn’t view Ms. Clark’s story “as a legitimate critique of the Mormon faith,” but instead she paraphrases Spinoza:

“What Christine says about Mormonism tells us more about Christine than about Mormonism”.

Oddly, Meg Stout illustrates the exact same phenomenon, as much of the remaining post addresses what this “Princess” did wrong, and what Meg Stout and other faithful Mormons do right.Continue reading

Christine remembers herself as someone who lived in fear of those who did not embrace Mormonism with the purity and rectitude she held herself to. But she also fails to recount any memories of having a spiritual confirmation that Mormonism was true. She speaks of talking with her Dad and getting advice by proxy from Boyd K. Packer, but she never says anything about going to God and getting her own answers. …

As Christine reviews her past through what I have elsewhere described as puke-tinged glasses, she sees people mindlessly obeying. In effect, she projects onto others what she herself had done for many decades.

What Christine fails to admit in her schema is the possibility that she, as a pampered Mormon princess with access to the highest leaders of the Church, might have missed a fundamental aspect of the faith experience that some of us have enjoyed, in our obscurity.

Some of the rest of us have actually walked an unconstrained walk with God. Some of the rest of us weren’t just parroting the words our teachers taught us. Some of the rest of us have reason to believe in the Book of Mormon as something more than a young man’s invention…. Some of the rest of us have known about the scientific method and applied it to our Church experience from the time we were children.

I confess, I am stunned by the antagonism and condescension in these paragraphs, especially when Meg Stout began her post by commenting that some of her colleagues on Millenial star express their sorrow over individuals leaving the Mormon faith “by attacking,” while “I express this sorrow by performing analysis….”

This is analysis?

Given the God Christine worshiped, it is a wonderful thing that Christine can now love everyone (except possibly the deluded naifs who cling to the LDS faith). It’s a fine thing that she can sip an alcoholic beverage and realized that hell fire doesn’t automatically descend to consume her soul. It’s great that she realizes that individuals can behave in a moral way whether they adhere to a faith tradition or not.

But for some of the rest of us, we never feared our fellow men, but did love them all. We knew that cigarettes or alcohol or face cards don’t transform a person into evil. We knew that “godless” men and women can behave ethically.

Some of the rest of us had studied science, knew that all things must be proved, acted based on what we felt was right even when that didn’t adhere to the general expectation held up for the congregation.

I love the history Meg Stout then shares about her own mother, disappointingly marred by further comparison of all the things that Meg Stout’s mother did right in contrast to every way that Ms. Clark failed. Meg Stout’s mother married an Asian man at a time when it was illegal to do so in Utah, and that helps to establish Meg Stout’s underdog credentials in comparison to Ms. Clark’s “princess” status, but it also is a start to a sequence of vignettes that could almost be a guidebook for how to raise creative, compassionate children:

Christine talks about how she never dared read anything that wasn’t from approved sources.

My mother read widely, and had friends who were feminists, who had been arrested for protesting on the White House grounds. She encouraged us to read and think and explore, and two of her favorite magazines were Scientific American and Exponent II. She told us she would love us if we wished to evade the draft by traveling to Canada and that she would love us if we told her we were homosexuals. She even still loved us when we refused to help with chores on Sunday because we didn’t want to ‘work’ on the Sabbath (though on that count she did admit to wanting to smack us for being self-righteous).

My mother handed me Nightfall at Nauvoo to read when I was a young teenager. And even though that book destroyed my fragile teenage testimony, it caused me to build a relationship with God. And that God encouraged me to remain a Mormon despite my doubts. That God eventually smiled with subdued amusement when I finally realized His request that I remain a Mormon wasn’t just a phase.

Christine raised her children in the same rigid culture she herself had adopted. So it isn’t terribly surprising that her entire family has left the Church along with her.

My mother raised us as though we were God’s children, and accorded us the same freedoms and respect God accords us. As my mother wrote:

 

The Gardener

If you were a gardener, your child the seed,

Your task it would be to garden and weed

‘way wild things that threaten distruction and strife

and prepare the young plant for the rigors of life.

 

But a daisy’s a daisy. A rose is a rose.

The plant must be true to its form as it grows,

True to the form from the maker sent

And not to the will of the gardener bent.

Isn’t that amazing? That is the kind of parent I hope to be, and the openness I feel from Meg Stout’s mother is a jarring contrast to the condemnation implicit in the comparisons made by her daughter. Ms. Clark “raised her children in the same rigid culture she herself had adopted,” while Meg Stout’s mother “raised us as though we were God’s children.”

I have a hard time imagining a more hurtful implication for an LDS parent, than the thought that you failed to treat your son or daughter as a child of God.

Meg Stout closes with this:

I submit that the thing Christine has rejected is a brittle mockery of the Church Joseph founded, or the Church many of us believe in. It’s hard to get beyond a puke-tinged view of the Church, but I do believe there is a future wherein Christine might be as bemused by her current actions as she clearly has been with her rigid days as a Mormon Princess.

I would agree that Ms. Clark has rejected elements of the LDS Church that are a “brittle mockery” of the best that Joseph Smith had to offer, but I repeat that I came away feeling stunned at the antagonism from Meg Stout toward Ms. Clark, for Ms. Clark’s failure to throw off the negative weight of her culture, her failure to receive her own confirmation of gospel truth, and the implied failure inherent in her history as a “Mormon Princess.”

It is almost as if Meg Stout is asking Ms. Clark how, when she had such privilege, she could fail so completely. Meg Stout did just fine in “obscurity,” not merely parroting the words of her teachers, but thinking for herself, using rational thought and faithful analysis. She loved her fellow men and women, she loved science, and she loved her church.

Meg Stout got it right, Ms. Clark. What’s your problem?

I’ll end with a comment from PP that raises his concerns with the essay far more moderately than I feel:

Meg,

There is much to like about your post, and your mother’s poem is absolutely beautiful. But since so many of the other comments received so far seem congratulatory about your post and self-congratulatory about what a wonderful Church we all have, I’d ask that you consider the following points:

1) The tone of this post, unfortunately, degenerates several times into sarcasm and personal attacks, i.e., “Apparently she isn’t aware that sexual sin has long been a matter the Church leaders have worried about…” Is casting these kind of stone really necessary? Are you in a position to cast such stones?

2) You may be right that she placed too much faith in people and the institutional Church. But let’s tread cautiously about judging others and their inward faith. Who are we to say someone hasn’t placed their Faith in Christ? This should be between that person and the Lord. Could we not follow the Savior’s counsel about judging others?

Relatedly, many people in her boat feel betrayed, because the people around them (sometimes even great Church leaders, as her father) explicitly or implicitly taught them to place their faith in men or institutions, rather than the Lord. Yes, the person made a mistake in misplacing their Faith – but they were following the message communicated to them by their church setting (either via the home, their ward, etc.). In some cases, it is undoubtedly true that on some level (personal, local, etc.), those responsible for teaching and counseling vis-a-vis the Church place too much emphasis on trusting imperfect men and institutions rather than the Savior. I’ve seen it personally. It sounds like you were very lucky to not have that problem with your upbringing, but please don’t suggest that everyone should have come to the same conclusions as you, even though they did not have the benefit of such a tolerant upbringing.

The challenge for us as individuals, as parents, and as a Church should be to teach more clearly that our Faith must be Christ-centered. I think its fair to say that often in the Church (not always!), we heavily emphasize cultural conformity. When aspects of that culture end up looking mistaken, many people naturally blame the Church.

Perhaps we need to more carefully consider what messages we communicate in the Church are really about Christ and salvation vs. culture. If they are about culture (beards, white shirts, etc.), then should we be emphasizing conformity to it?

Thanks,

Your brother in Christ

Amen and amen.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to Trying to Listen (and feeling shouted at)

  1. Meg Stout

    Hi Epicurus,

    I wasn’t sure about my post, which is why I didn’t post it for a few days after composing it. My husband said he would read it (he’s a wonderful fellow, and very kind) but he never got around to it. So I sent it to a couple of my other colleagues who gave me the thumbs up.

    There are many tales of disaffected children of high Church officials, but I felt Christine’s story was unique at this time because of the light she is able to shed on the workings of Church administration and discipline, by virtue of the 600 page book her father left behind. My post was a means to provide situational awareness to those who have better things to do than listen to 6 hours of podcast, but who need to understand the facts Christine lays out in her discussion with John Dehlin.

    Christine herself goes to significant lengths to emphasize her privileged position within the Mormon community, being the daughter of a general authority who was best friends with Boyd K. Packer and a member of the Tabernacle Choir. She is definitely portraying herself as one ultimately in the know as she then proceeds to describe the Mormon Church as a construct led by antiquated men desperate to retain power and milk funds from the faithful.

    I’m not saying that Christine is wrong to have taken the path she does take. By her own account, she has been raised in a really bizarre pocket of Mormonism (one of the reasons my daughter absolutely refuses to consider ever moving to Utah). For Christine’s spiritual health, she probably had to shuck off the Mormon culture that had bound her to fear others and blindly obey.

    Where she got my Scottish genes going was her presumption that those who remain in the faith are necessarily as vacuous and blindly obedient as she was. Christine admitted she had never read the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, yet had fought against it. Oh. My. Aaaargh!

    My Scottish was probably already agitated, from an extended comment string with someone who really wants to think there will be eternal polyamory in the heaven Mormons teach.

    I have to admit that I’m a bigot. I have a real problem with stupid people. I am so glad Christine is no longer the blindly obedient Morg she describes herself to have been. I’ve known Morgs, and I have a hard time dealing with them.

    And ultimately, that may be why you got an eyeful of my Scottish, as I reacted to Christine’s many hours of audio implying that all Mormons are Morgs.

    • Epicurus

      Meg, I’m glad you stopped by, and I’m laughing in perplexity as I try to figure out how to respond to your statement that “I’m a bigot. I have a real problem with stupid people.”

      It is exactly this certainty in your perspective that I found most distressing about your original post.

      I have been working my way through Ms. Clark’s interview, and I currently reach some conclusions similar to and some differing from those expressed by her and by John Dehlin, but there is more substance to her experience here than simply an Amazing Grace-like “was Morg but now I see.”

      I worry when we divide the world into “those who agree with me” and “stupid people.” I expect your “Scottish” nudged you to make that distinction more black and white in your writing than you actually believe and live, but from your essay and your comment here, you haven’t left much room for a diversity of perspectives.

      • Meg Stout

        Hi Epicurus,

        I can be so subtle that no one bothers responding to me. I’m rarely as snarky as you see me being in that post and this response. At least not online. I’m even pretty nice in person, now that my husband has had twenty years to tame me.

        For contrast, you might want to look at a post where my husband and I chatted about Ordain Women – there’s a concise text version, then a 40 minute podcast of us chatting about things.

        Once my husband wrote a review of Mormon America for Dialogue. In his initial draft he captured my initial reaction as he read the Ostlings explanation of the Mormon belief in the Atonement, that we just figured that since Christ was such a good fellow, we would become better because of his example. As I recall, I’d exclaimed something like “That’s a piss poor way of becoming closer to God.” I mainly remember saying piss poor. Alas, that’s one of the bits my delightfully subtle husband edited out of his review.

  2. Zeno

    Turns out I was listening to the same podcast on the way home today. What I grow weary of, and it is the main reason I don’t listen to Mormon Stories as much anymore, is the constant framing of things in black and white. Either the prophets speak for God, or they are just making stuff up out of their brains. Either Joseph did everything right or he was a fraud. Either the Church is the one true church or it has nothing unique. Either you’re heroic for staying in church or you’re heroic for leaving.

    I just don’t think life is like that. It’s much messier, in my experience. If the Church is true (whatever that means), I would still expect its leaders to not speak for God sometimes even when they think they are. If the Church is not true and God exists, then I would still expect its leaders to do the will of God sometimes.

    I like that John Dehlin tries to understand both sides of an issue. Many people don’t even do that. The only problem is that most issues have many sides.

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