Friday, October 26, 2007

Mothers Who Know...What? A Response to Julie M. Smith

In her opening remarks of that infamous Conference talk, Julie B. Beck quotes 2000 stripling warriors as saying, "Our mothers knew it." To find out what it was that the mothers knew, we must go back to the story in Alma 56, which concludes in verses 47 and 48:

Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.

Here we discover that which the mothers knew:
if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
Sister Beck then states that more than at any time in the history of the world, we need mothers who know. "When mothers know who they are and who God is and have made covenants with Him, they will have great power and influence for good on their children," she says. I believe that the talk which followed Sister Beck's initial statement was one expression of what a mother is. She spoke of the following aspects of motherhood:

  • The desire to bear children and to place the value of motherhood above that of power, position or prestige.
  • Honoring sacred ordinances and covenants.
  • Nurturing, which she equated with homemaking, particularly housecleaning and keeping an orderly home.
  • Leading and planning within the home.
  • Teaching in the home and never being off duty.
  • Choosing carefully to focus more on family activities.
  • Being the very best in the world at upholding, nurturing, and protecting families.

The introduction to Sister Beck's talk was pregnant with meaning, and full of promise. How does a woman become a "mother who knows?" How does she develop a firm faith in God's deliverance? However, Beck follows this introduction by continually stating that "mothers who know" are women who follow one model of motherhood. After reading, pondering, and praying over this talk many times over the past couple of weeks, I have come to feel that Julie Beck's model of motherhood is indeed one way that a woman can come to develop the type of faith exemplified in the mothers of the stripling warriors. It strikes a chord with many women of the Church, and it tends to justify women who have chosen to have many children, stay at home with them, and put much effort into creating a welcoming and organized home life. These women do not have much support in their choices. Indeed, the world does look down upon them for what they have selected to value.

I believe that where I have taken offense with this talk is that I mistakenly took her remarks to imply that women whose paths might vary from those described here are not mothers, or even women, who "know." This, of course, is not true. The testimonies of several bloggers witness to the alternate choices of women who were able to develop an abiding faith and raise righteous and productive families.
Matt Evans wrote that he "grew up in a rather unkempt and cluttered home. We did chores, but there was one mom and seven kids and Mom didn’t enjoy or appreciate housework anyway...But the spirit was there and we enjoyed and loved each other. As I look back on my experience growing up, I don’t look back wishing Mom had spent more time worrying about the house. I’m almost certain that’s not something she would change, either." Jana Remy wrote of her mother, a Stake RS President and mother of 5 who "kept her teaching credential active in each state where we lived, often taking night classes or taking re-certification exams. By the time her youngest child was in the upper-grades of elementary school, she worked full-time as a teacher and was earning her master's degree." After her husband died of cancer, this remarkable woman was able to
support the family with a good professional career and salary. "I guess the upshot is, if Mom had stayed home and had only been a remarkable homemaker, well I don't know that things would've turned out quite so well for her or for us," Jana concluded. Amelia wrote "am i to understand that mothering is the most important work i do, when easily 90% of my time is spent completely apart from children? what does that mean about the rest of my time? is it really all that much to ask that the value of my work and life be acknowledged without trying to shove it through a mother-shaped hole? ...please have enough decency to honor all the work women do, not just the work they do as mothers. don't tell me i am a mother in some misguided effort to make me feel better about the fact that i'm unmarried and childless. instead, look me in the eye and see me for who and what i am: a woman of god who is using the gifts she's been given to make as much beauty and goodness as she can."

Obviously, women in many diverse situations can develop great faith in the delivering power of the Lord, receive inspiration, employ spiritual gifts and attain the status of women who "know."

Although I spent many years pursuing the chimeral image of the woman that Julie Beck describes, I wonder now if my path was the most conducive to my spiritual and emotional health or even that of my family. I wonder what would have happened had I sought the Lord's counsel upon my path, rather than simply to follow the party line of having as many children as possible and staying at home and placing all of my energies there.

Now Julie M. Smith has begun a series of posts at T&S supporting the specific counsel President Beck gave and how to apply it. The first post deals with Homemaking. I'm glad that she has taken up this challenge. Apparently it will become quite popular around the Bloggernacle. But just as I have noted above, the appeal is limited to only a segment of LDS women. I do not read the "Mommy Blogs," and I find no amusement in discussions of childrens' poop. Neither does a detailed analysis of housekeeping skills interest me. I realize that for some, home organization may lead to a fuller spiritual life, but there are others whose testimonies might better be strengthened by a rousing disputation over the theology of St. Augustine.

Julie Smith has prefaced her post as follows: "If you feel the need to vent your dislike of [Julie Beck's] talk, I imagine that you might possibly be able to find a thread somewhere in the Bloggernacle where you can do just that. But you can’t do it here. The point of this series is to discuss the specific counsel that she gave and how best to apply it. All other comments will be deleted." I'd like to provide this space for women who know, women who don't know, and women who wish they knew.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Heavenly Parents in the Scriptures and in our Prayers

Joseph Smith brought the attention of his followers to the plural nature of the Hebrew word "Elohim," which is variously translated in the KJV of the Bible as "God," "gods," and even "angels." It was likely that Joseph wished to promote the idea of a council of gods. But to me, the plural nature of the word Elohim signifies that the God of the Bible is simultaneously both God and Goddess. Some have conjectured that the plural ending for God is used to augment its meaning, rather than to indicate plurality. I believe that the word Elohim both amplifies and multiplies. It is unfortunate that the "-him" ending of the word is confused in the English-speaker's mind with a masculine connotation, rather than the actual Hebrew plural ending "-im."

The word Elohim is a plural formed from the singular 'El (or perhaps 'Eloah) by adding -im to the word. This results in indeterminacy in both number and gender. Elohim is used in the Bible for both male gods and female gods. For example, 1 Kings 11:5 and 33 refer to the "goddesses (elohim) of the Sidonians." An unusual and startling grammatical feature of the word is that it is sometimes used with a plural verb form, in which case it is translated "gods." But other times Elohim is accompanied by a verb in the masculine singular. Translators have become accustomed to rendering Elohim in this case as a singular noun denoting the God of Israel, a singular Deity. However, I advocate the view that this single God consists of a unified male/female aspect. Thus we have verses such as Genesis 1:26: "And Elohim said, Let us make man in our image." I contend that the best explanation for the use of Elohim as the name/title of God is to indicate Divine duality of male and female.

Genesis 1:26 also argues against the conception of Elohim as an all-male, priesthood-holding Council of the Gods. Mankind was made in the image of Elohim, male and female. So this verse speaks either of a Divine Father and Mother, or else a Council consisting of both priests and priestesses.

In LDS theology the Godhead consists of three parts: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In my view what we speak of as "the Father" is in reality a Father/Mother God. I do not advocate the idea that the Holy Spirit is the feminine aspect of the Godhead. Having this conception of Deity, I believe that when we pray to God, we are actually praying to both Father and Mother, though convention dictates that we address prayers to a "Father."

One week ago in Church, my eyes flew open when I heard an opening prayer addressed to "Our Heavenly Parents" in Sacrament meeting. I glanced quickly around the room, but no one seemed to notice. It's the third time I've heard a reference to a Heavenly Mother in public prayer in three months (ok, so two of them were at the Sunstone Symposium :)) This interests me in light of an article written by Margaret Toscano and entitled "Is There a Place for Heavenly Mother in Mormon Theology?" Margaret writes of the role that the general Church membership plays in authorizing Church policy. She gives as an example the many conservative Mormon career women who are reshaping the way the Church views women in the workforce.

In Margaret's paper, she concludes that there is no place for Heavenly Mother in Mormon Theology. The weight of Church practice and authority, she says, are against it. But when I sit in a Church service in a villa in this far-off country, and hear a Filipino priesthood holder pray to his Heavenly Parents, I wonder, and hope.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dumbledore is Gay!

J. K. Rowling, author of the worldwide best-selling Harry Potter series, met some of her American fans Friday night and provided some surprising revelations.

In front of a full house of hardcore Potter fans at Carnegie Hall in New York, Rowling, sitting on the stage on a red velvet and carved wood throne, read from her seventh and final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," then took questions. One fan asked whether Albus Dumbledore, the head of the famed Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, had ever loved anyone. Rowling smiled. "Dumbledore is gay, actually," replied Rowling as the audience erupted in surprise. She added that, in her mind, Dumbledore had an unrequited love affair with Gellert Grindelwald, Voldemort's predecessor who appears in the seventh book. After several minutes of prolonged shouting and clapping from astonished fans, Rowling added. "I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy."

While many gay fans were thrilled at this revelation, others were disgruntled at the timing of the announcement.

"I'm a gay fan and I'm not amused," Griet Verlinde, a 26-year-old psychologist from Belgium, said on the blog, a site devoted to gay and bisexual men in the entertainment and media industries.

"Firstly, how very 'nervy' of her to out him after all the books have come out and it won't harm her sales," she wrote. "Secondly, not a single rumour of this in the books. Nothing."

Other commenters wonder if Rowling made the statement in order to generate controversy, publicity, and more money.

I don't think so. In my opinion, J.K. Rowling wrote Dumbledore's part with the idea in the back of her mind that he was gay. I think it's lovely that she didn't feel she had to make an issue of his sexuality and let him live his (fictional) life as a person in his own right, and not solely as a "gay person." Some readers are greatly amusing themselves by going back through the books looking for references to Dumbledore's homosexuality. Not me. Dumbledore is a great, rich character, who shows readers the power of love, and this new information hasn't changed that one bit.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why Everyone in the World Speaks English

When my family first considered moving, I was concerned that we didn't speak a word of Arabic. "Don't worry," I was told. "Everyone there speaks English." And in fact, wherever one roams throughout the wide world, they will find that it isn't that hard to get along. For many, many people of all nations speak English. In fact, I've noticed that Americans can get quite cocky about that fact. Our pride tells us that we are the leaders of the free world and that people of other countries speak our language because they know of our great influence. Or perhaps because they admire us so much! Well, I have finally realized why it is that so many people speak English. Americans' influence doesn't originate in Washington, D.C., or in New York. No, it all comes from Hollywood.

The people of the world learn English so they can watch American T.V.!

I've long been ashamed of Americans' attitude toward language. In European countries, people rub shoulders with others of different nationalities and languages frequently. Because the countries are small and the borders are porous, everyone learns to speak competently in several languages. Even here where it's more difficult to enter the country, people speak Arabic, English, French, and often another language or two. I watch people on the bus greet each other, and finding they don't speak the same language, switch back and forth until they find a language they have in common.

In the United States there has lately been a fervor over immigrants learning to speak English. "If they want to live here, they should learn to speak English," you'll hear stridently proclaimed. Well, yes. They will. And their children will. But learning a language doesn't come in two weeks. I've been working on my Arabic for over a month now, concentratedly. And I have an aptitude for languages. And I still don't know much more than greetings, counting to ten, and part of the alphabet.

How much more human we would be if we all learned as much of other languages as we could. For those who live in the US: how many of us speak adequate Spanish? The likelihood of encountering a Spanish-speaker is great at this period in our history. Do we know how to ask someone their name, to show them how to fill out a form, to give basic directions in the Spanish language?

I love the way that many Mormons all over the world can speak foreign languages because they served missions. On missions, we actively meet people, we have a message to share, we have a motivation to learn the language. But in our daily life we have little motivation to learn so that we can communicate with the world's people.

How would our motivation change if all television programs came into our homes in different languages?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Missionary Packages

When I was a young missionary in Quebec, Canada, my mom was a perfect correspondent. She wrote faithfully every week and send me several packages. Even though none of my family was LDS, they were supportive of what I was doing and wonderful about communicating with me often. Now that my own daughters are on missions, I'm not doing so well. I've never been a very good letter-writer. I'm great at emailing, so they hear from me each week when they check their email. But I've only sent a handful of letters and one package each. (I made a mini-scrapbook of family pictures and sent it to each of them.)

Today I got an email from my oldest daughter's mission president's wife. What an on-the-ball lady! She is reminding each missionary's parents that packages for Christmas need to be in the mail soon. She wants us to send them to the mission office where they will be held until a special mission-wide conference in December. I think it's a wonderful idea. But I need your help! I can't think of what to send my daughters. One is in Korea and the other is in Italy. I am in Saudi Arabia. So anything Christmassy will be impossible to find here.

Give me some ideas on what to send--and tell me about packages you received on your mission that were meaningful to you!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Mother Who Knows

I Am The Mom

A Powerful Voice

All of my adult life I have longed for a powerful voice. There is a small soprano sound which my vocal cords emit, and this voice does not serve me well. As a swim coach, I need a powerful sound which carries over the splashing. With such a voice as I have, I must earn my authority as a coach slowly and painfully. When I answer the telephone, even today as a woman of a certain age, people ask me if my mother is at home. I have wished for a voice that would command attention and respect.

Here's the comment fmhLisa made when she met me:

And as long as we’re being scary mean uber feminists, can I just say that I’m still a little blown away by how supremely feminine Bored in Vernal is. Her blog voice in my head sounds a lot like a super firm Eleanor Roosevelt, but in person she this tiny little thing, with a very very feminine way about her, and a tiny little girl voice. I was just following her comments around the nacle and trying to read them with her actual voice in my head rather than the “Roosevelt esque Bored in Voice” I’d created for her, and I couldn’t do it. Is that weird?

I was so flattered that my blog voice was commanding.

With my "tiny little girl voice" and less than statuesque height, I have throughout my life confronted and pondered issues of respect and authority. And lately I have wondered what I would do if placed in such a position. My recent blog post, "If You Were a (Female) Speaker At General Conference" was my effort to see what other Mormon women would do given an authoritative placement in the LDS Church. Although this post was read by over 200 people, I tellingly only received 4 willing speculators. Perhaps many are uncomfortable with "aspiring" to a calling. I can sympathize with this feeling, since I have been hurt by accusations in the Bloggernacle of wanting to be a Bishop or usurping the Priesthood. In addition, after I had put the post up, a furor arose over Julie Beck's talk in Conference, and I think many were reluctant to seemingly denigrate her remarks. However, I think it's important for us to define our personal philosophies regarding this issue. The probability that each LDS woman will at some time in our lives hold a position of some small authority is quite high.

The first thing I would do as a high-profile woman would be to choose one or two specific platforms. I think for everyone from political candidates to Apostles it is extremely effective to become known for one or two strong stances. I'd choose something that was meaningful to me and something I think that women could have a strong influence over. I'd strive diligently both for revelation and to get to know the concerns of LDS women worldwide. I'd eschew platforms such as modesty or homemaking in favor of education or literacy or saving the earth. I'd strongly consider service as a platform, though it would have to be more specific and defined than the broad category we now invoke. I think a woman leader must select causes which are universal to women in every circumstance, which cause a great good for the entire world, and have eternal implications.

Next, I would give talks which emphasize my platform in a way that reaches all within the sound of my voice. When a woman gives a talk in General Conference she is speaking to all: women, men and children; members and non-members; rich and poor; mothers, single women, divorced women, etc. Though she might address herself to mothers or to young women, her messages fall upon the ears of the fathers and the young men and give them subtle messages also. For example, a father might pick up from a talk given to mothers that his wife is responsible for the length of their son's hair.

I regret the fact that appearance makes such a difference in the regard in which a woman in the public sphere is held. However, I would recognize that I must present a clean, fit, and professional appearance in order to be taken seriously. This would not preclude my wearing of the quirky items I love on occasion and in appropriate circumstances. I think I'd also wear pantsuits to travel and give talks in (a la Hilary Clinton.) I noticed in a press release about newly called General RS counselor Barbara Thompson that she said she felt more comfortable in pants than dresses. I wished that she would continue to wear her pants often, and to make them more acceptable in Mormon circles.

Finally, I would travel widely and attempt to make Mormon women everywhere aware and accepting of other cultures. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the General RS presidency recently met for lunch with 17 women from African nations. The visitors included a Muslim from Djibouti with whom Beck fasted in honor of Ramadan. I was extremely impressed by her willingness to experience cultural and religious diversity in her calling to serve the women of the world.

Now, the title of my hypothetical General Conference talk: Using Your Education as a Spiritual Force for Good. I'd emphasize the variety of levels of education to which we can attain--some are self-taught, some gain their education through life experience, some through advanced degrees. Some are educated in music, some in physics, some in nutrition. These can all be used as a spiritual force for good in whatever sphere we are placed. I wouldn't address my remarks specifically to the female sex, though I would hope my remarks would resonate particularly with women.

With that, I'll give all you readers a second chance: tell us what you'd do with a powerful voice!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

DH Arrives in the Blogosphere

We have a 2-week Ramadan vacation, and DH has been very busy. He has put up a new blog, Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, which consists of his compilation of LDS missionary quotes. He also plans to blog about missionary work. I think it's his way of doing his part while we are here in Saudi unable to proselyte. In addition, you may have noticed his comments on some of the Mormon blogs under the name of "Dr. B."

I'm not quite sure what I think about DH's participation here. In a way I feel like he has invaded my personal space. I know he won't agree with many of my comments and I hope it won't cause any more friction than is usual. But I don't plan to censor myself.

And, even more important, since we only have one computer now, I don't plan to give up my internet time!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

If You Were A (Female) Speaker At General Conference

Today, Mary N. Cook of the YW Presidency spoke to the youth of the Church about what an influence they could be in their families and in the world. Now it's your chance. If you were a female and had the opportunity to speak at General Conference, what would you choose as your topic? Who would you address? What would you try to accomplish?

Because women seem to gather some criticism about their talks, what they wear, their hairstyle, etc, I've become curious about how others would handle this challenge. Additionally, I wonder how we would handle the high-profile women's callings in general. If you were RS President, what would your focus be? What would be your considerations in calling counselors or a RS board? What would you do first? How would you spend the majority of your time?

Now, the hard one: What would you do as wife of a General Authority? We see the wife of the President of the United States as being high-profile herself. She usually travels quite a bit with her husband and generally has a special project or emphasis that she champions. So, how would you use your influence as wife of our Prophet or wife of one of the Apostles? Are there special causes you would espouse? What would you wear in public? Would you change your hairstyle?

I have many ideas on the above questions, but I want to hear from some readers first. Feel free to send the readers of your blogs over, too. I really want to hear from some LDS women!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Latter-Day Saints Grapple With the Noachian Flood--A Dialogue Review

LDS discussions of Noah and the Flood are fascinating. We are uniquely qualified among religions to debate this subject. On the one hand, acceptance of science as a means to discover truth has a long-standing tradition among Mormons. Brigham Young is quoted thus:

"How gladly would we understand every principle pertaining to science and art, and become thoroughly acquainted with every intricate operation of nature."
On the other hand, Latter-Day revelation confirms the existence of an historical Flood and the reality of the person Noah. As a faith tradition, we often receive mixed signals from our leaders, who are not unified on their interpretation of this Biblical story. Since there is no official and dogmatic position on the historical occurrence of a worldwide Flood, we see much variance among faithful members. Some of the discussions I have enjoyed on this topic are

Duane E. Jeffrey, Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions, Sunstone Oct 2004.

Donald W. Parry, The Flood and the Tower of Babel, Ensign, Jan 1998.

Julie M. Smith, SS Lesson #6, Times and Seasons, Jan 31, 2006.

GeoffJ, The Noah Version of the Creation Narrative (or, ark=uterus?), New Cool Thang, Feb 2, 2006.

lxxluthor, The Incoherence of the Flood, Faith Promoting Rumor, March 8, 2007

Ronan, Your Monday Poll #2, BCC, Sept 10, 2007

These discussions demonstrate just how much faithful Mormons can differ on their understanding of the Biblical narrative of the Flood. This month's Dialogue, which I have featured on my sidebar, contains yet another discussion on the topic of the Flood. "On Balancing Faith in Mormonism with Traditional Biblical Stories: The Noachian Flood Story" by Clayton M. White and Mark D. Thomas is available online at the Dialogue website. White and Thomas assert that there exist several groups of thought among Latter-Day Saints concerning the Noachian Flood:
1. Many members assume that their religion requires them to believe in the Flood as a world-wide occurrence.
2. A sizable group of LDS believe that the Flood story reports a local event.
3. A third group of believing Saints hold that the story is fictional, but valuable as symbolic and containing moral principles.

The bulk of this article seems dedicated to presenting the scientific evidence against a worldwide Flood. While giving lip service to "room for competent opposing opinions," it seems to me that the authors place their credence in an actual, yet localized Flood. The article does a creditable job presenting scientific evidence against a worldwide Flood in a nutshell. The article is readable and concise. It covers the following salient points:

Insufficient size of the Ark to contain sufficient species for the enormous global biodiversity we see today.

Insufficient time to acquire animals from all land masses on Earth

Impossibility of maintaining specialized conditions required for maintenance of fragile species

Lack of evidence that species on islands and continental land masses arrived there from a single point source.

Complications of requirements of marine vs. fresh-water aquatic species

Discussion of problems relating to parasites and microorganisms.

Fossil records of endemic species and/or groups.

Evidences of tree growth rings

Difficulties of transporting entire ecological systems.

Global distribution of life and it's incompatibiliy with repopulation from a single focal point.

Although these several points were well-presented, I felt the article lacked the balance called for by its thesis. There are many unique reasons that a large group of Latter-Day Saints believe in a literal worldwide flood. Some of these could include the reality of Noah in LDS doctrine, the necessity of the "baptism of the earth," and the location of the Garden of Eden in Missouri necessitating a means of transporting the covenant people to the Middle East. There are undoubtedly other strong reasons for a belief in an historical Deluge.

Lack of consideration of these points leads to the veiled condescension which I detected in this article toward those who reject the authors' conclusions. In spite of the authors' assertion that "our aim in this article is to assess the competing claims regarding the historical core of the biblical story of Noah's flood," in fact only one of the three competing claims was thoroughly treated.

Notwithstanding that I share the perspective presented by the authors, I regret that more space was not given to the exploration of the strong bases upon which proponents of other explanations of the Flood stand.

I can agree most wholeheartedly with the authors' conclusion that
"As we seriously explore the historical core of the story of Noah's ark and the flood, we are likely to encounter several possible temptations at odds with John Taylor's open quest for truth, cited in the opening of this paper. These temptations are to abandon either the text, science, or religion in our quest for truth about the story of Noah."
The article is worth reading for its concluding plea to abandon neither science nor religion in grappling with the ambiguity of this powerful Biblical piece of literature.

Additional reviews of this Dialogue article can be seen at T&S, NDBF, LDS Science Review, Adventures in Mormonism.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Preaching a la Paul

Interesting doctrine taught in SS this week--we were studying the 2nd part of Acts and the teacher focused on Chapter 21 where Paul is asked by James to demonstrate his adherence to the Jewish Law by attending the synagogue and purifying himself. (Acts 21:20-26) Paul was accused of being dangerous because of his teachings about the relationship of Christians to the Law of Moses. Paul followed the counsel of "Bishop James," went to the synagogue, and complied with Jewish purification ritual. Brother M. compared this story to our situation here in Riyadh. He said that though most of us have been taught to proclaim the Gospel, here we should follow the counsel of our leaders and maintain a low profile.

I don't disagree with this strategy--I just wonder if we can compare our situation with the actions of Paul. In Acts 21:4 and 11 Paul was being advised not to return to Jerusalem because of the danger he was in. With complete disregard of his own safety (and what the Spirit was directing?) he said:

I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 21:13)

It feels strange to have so many years of indoctrination to preach the Gospel no matter what the consequence, to have the examples of Paul, Alma, the sons of Mosiah, and the early missionaries of the Restoration--and then, when consequences might actually occur as a result of missionary work, to be told to hide the light.

Is speaking of the Church here folly--a blatant disregard of what our leaders have advised, or is it bravery? And what, exactly, was the example of Paul?