Elder Russell M. Nelson . . . A Wasted Opportunity

I recently (14 Sep 2014) attended a LDS Regional Conference that was held in the BYU Marriott Center.  At least 20,000 (mostly college-age students) were in attendance, with another 100,000 of the general membership watching in chapels around Utah and Wasatch Counties.  (I was in attendance because my wife was singing in the choir at the Marriott Center.)

Elder Russell M. Nelson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave the concluding speech.  And it was a major disappointment.

As background, Elder Nelson is an “internationally renowned surgeon and medical researcher.”  He has both a medical degree and a PhD.  In other words, he is a well-educated man of science.  At the Regional Conference, he had a great opportunity to deal with some of the real concerns that young people might have concerning the relevance of religion.  Instead, he chose to talk about speculative-angel issues.  Areas that I would consider to be the “mysteries.”

He dealt in some length on the theory that the Archangel Michael is really Adam (from the OT), and that the Angel Gabriel is really Noah (from the OT).  For those of us who would rather believe in science and history, both a literal Adam and Noah are problematic.  Their stories seem more like ancient myths than actual, historical biographies.  How many members of the Church actually believe there was a flood that covered the entire earth?  How many believe that Noah lived to be 900+ years old?  If you believe in organic evolution, where does Adam fit in?

Not to leave mythology alone, Elder Nelson then went on to mention personages who have never tasted death:  John and the 3 Nephites.  So where is all this going?

Elder Nelson’s short conclusion was that there are non-celestial angels among us today.  For example, people who do wonderful things at great personal sacrifice   This is a wonderful message, but it was lost in all the OT literalism and eye-rolling speculation.

Elder Ballard, President Eyring, and others need to start discussing real-world issues.  They have the educational and professional backgrounds to do it.  Church members are looking for leaders who will lead, who will discuss real issues that members are concerned about.  Apostle Widtsoe did this until his death in 1954, why can’t our leaders today deal with relevant issues?  Why is the Archangel Michael/Adam theory important?  It’s not.

Posted in mormonism, Religion, Science, Social Justice | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Mormonism in Africa

Jehu J. Hanciles, Professor of Global Christianity at Emory University at the 2014 meetings of the Mormon History Association, shared his research on the growth of Mormonism in Africa:

Mormonism remains a predominately American phenomenon.  The LDS Church lags behind virtually every other branch of Christianity in the area of inculturation.

The growth of Mormonism in Africa . . . has been quite modest, and compared to other traditions, disappointing.

Hanciles spoke of the advantages and disadvantages the Church has in regards to its missionary program (this summary is based on a post by J. Stuart).  Doctrines and policies conducive to LDS missionary work in Africa include:  food storage, prophetic gifts, gifts of the spirit, and the celebration of family and kinship relationships.

However, Mormonism does a poor job of adapting to local circumstances by requiring local congregations to adapt to a neo-colonial version of a church service.  Things that are not helpful to missionary work include:

  • insistence on using American hymnbooks,
  • not making allowance for local dress and tradition, and
  • not allow for enough participation from the congregants.

I’ve attended LDS Church services in 4 different cities in Uganda (eastern Africa).  I generally agree with Hanciles’ assessment.  His information and conclusions, from my limited perspective, are accurate.

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Let’s Use Drums in LDS Church Services

Let’s face it.  LDS Church services are dull.  The music is rather passive and most organists play the hymns too slowly.  In fact, most congregational hymns sound more like dirges than joyful refrains.

So what can be gone?

We can borrow a page from other religions.  Many forms of worship in the United States are becoming more informal.  According to a recent third-iteration National Congregations Study, this informality is represented by raising hands, jumping and dancing, speaking in tongues, using video projectors, and PLAYING DRUMS.  For example, in 2012, drums were played 46 percent of the time during the principal service, up from 25 percent in 1998.

While most of above activities are far too radical for immediate inclusion into a Mormon Sacrament Meeting, including drums might be a good first step.

According to S. Brent Plate, writing for religiondispatches.org:

[There are a] myriad religious rituals in which drums are played, from Tibetan Buddhist to Muslim Moroccan to Pakistani Qawwali to many Hindu gatherings.  Perhaps none are as engaging as what is seen and heard in the Ethiopian Orthodox church’s use of the kabaro.  Here the drums are one of the most sacred dimensions for Christians and present in all major worships.

I live part-time in Uganda, and drums are an important part of all African social activities and ceremonies.

So why aren’t there more drums in Christian church services today.  According to Plate:

One of the reasons [for there not being more drums] is that as European Christians colonized much of the world they found people playing drums.  Since these “other” communities could not possibly have true religion, drums must be associated with false or heathen religions.  A history of Christian colonization and missionization becomes also a history of destroying drums.

And we Mormons certainly don’t want to look like neocolonialists.

But there are also many practical reasons why drum should be considered for contemporary LDS Church services, particularly those in Africa and Asia.  The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin suggests that “Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent.”  And goodness knows, the Mormon Church has plenty of the “divergent” today.  And drums certainly create rhythm.

Again according to Plate:

Bound to the creation and maintenance of the religious worlds in which we live, drums play a vital role in the existence of people.  Their sounds form a sonic structure within which our bodies collectively live.

But perhaps, most important of all, drums could be used to keep the congregation awake during the usually dry and overly-long Stake High Councilman’s exhortation.  Perhaps, before a major point of emphasis in his speech, the councilman could “cue the drum roll.”  Thereby both waking up the congregants and highlighting a key element in his message.  Playing the drums could be a great job for the Deacons.

You Could Even Put a Scripture Message on the Bass Drum

You Could Even Put a Scripture Message on the Bass Drum

Drums could also be used to highlight a joke.  So after Elder M. Russell Ballard exhorts the sisters to speak up but “don’t talk too much,” he could cue the drummer for a “rim shot.”  That way the congregants would know that he is joking and that its time to start laughing.

Posted in Entertainment, mormonism, Religion | Tagged , | 7 Comments

LDS Leadership: One Step Forward, One Step Backward

Step Forward:  Coming up in October is the LDS General Conference which will be beamed around the world.  In the past, all sermons have been spoken in English.  This time it might be different.  Next month’s speakers, however have a new option:  those “whose primary language is not English now have the choice to deliver their talks in their native tongue.”  For example, a number of LDS leaders are native Spanish speakers.

As Peggy Fletcher Stack points out:

It will be interesting to see if Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the governing First Presidency and whose first tongue in German, will choose that language for his sermons or whether he will continue to speak in fluent English, with a slight accent.

(I’ve always liked the French language; I served in the Franco-Belgian Mission in the 1960s.  We need more French-speaking GAs, or more women GAs with French accents.)

This is a wonderful development and one that should be cheered.  If the LDS Church is to rightly claim that is a global church, then these kinds of enhancements are much needed.

Step Backward:  Elder M. Russell Ballard, at the European Area Sisters’ Conference (meeting with the poster controversy) made the following statement:

We need your (women’s] voices.  They need to be heard.  They need to be heard in your community, in your neighborhoods, they need to be within the ward council or the branch council.

Great, so far.  But then he followed up with:  “Now don’t talk too much in those council meetings, just straighten the brethren out quickly and move the work along.”  That while the comment was probably made in jest, a Sister’s Conference already beset by controversy is probably not the right venue for making a statement like “don’t talk too much.”  Reactions to Elder Ballard’s comments resulted in posts on both bycommentconcent.com and timesandseasons.org.

Posted in feminism, mormonism, Social Justice | Tagged | 1 Comment

President Ezra Taft Benson . . . Really?

Lately, it seems like the leadership of the LDS Church is becoming increasing tone deaf. For example, during 2015, Mormons worldwide will be studying the sermons of President Ezra Taft Benson.  While the LDS study manual places no emphasis on the leader’s outdated paranoid politics or racist behavior, I wonder if he is really the person we want as the current exemplar of our faith. For President Benson, his religion and his politics were deeply intertwined, and in many cases inseparable.

According to wikipedia (which is surprisingly sanitized) :

Benson was an outspoken opponent of communism and socialism, and a supporter, but not a member, of the John Birch Society, which he praised as “the most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping socialism and Godless Communism.” He published a 1966 pamphlet titled “Civil Rights, Tool of Communist Deception.”  In a similar vein, during a 1972 general conference of the LDS Church, Benson recommended that all Mormons read Gary Allen’s New World Order tract “None Dare Call It Conspiracy.”

President Benson also flirted with running for national political office.  According to a write up in the sltrib.com:

Benson never officially committed himself in 1968 [to run for President], but there was heavy flirtation with a third-party run.  A Texas oilman, H Bunker Hunt, gave the Birch Society money to promote Benson at the head of a national ticket, which was to also feature segregationist Strom Thurmond as veep. At the same time George Wallace’s openly racist presidential campaign made no bones about the fact that Benson was high on its list of vice-presidential hopefuls.

In the end, LDS Church President David O. McKay put the kibosh on Benson’s political aspirations.

Let’s acknowledge the wonderful work that President Benson did for the Church, but we need to also consider his paranoid delusions and his flirtations with racism. By glorifying a sanitized version of President Benson’s message, aren’t we legitimizing his severely outdated political and racial beliefs?


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The Nature of God

I started to think about my own concept of God when I read the following comment by Nate on timesandseasons.org:

I think we have a too anthropomorphic view of God, “a God who weeps.  We see Him in our own image, we image Him with the same outrage, the same dogmatism, the same ethics, the same rationality and common sense as humans have.

But I think God is more than this.  He is playful, unexpected God, one who deliberately misleads.  He likes to manifest himself in the form of “stumbling blocks” “rocks of offence,” he likes to call “the weak things, the unlearned and despised.”  He is not an efficient God, but a 40 years in the wilderness God.

I see God as a great, celestial fiddle player, who is constantly sight-reading the music of eternity as it comes before His eyes and making beautiful music out of it, no matter how dark, or how difficult.  I see him as a healer, not as a preventer.  He lets s**t happen, and then makes it marvelous.  He wants us to develop divine Stockholm Syndrome, to say as Job, “though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”

There are so many things to comment on in this version of God, I don’t know where to start.  I think it is interesting that a Mormon would make a comment like “I think we have a too anthropomorphic view of God.”  Isn’t an “anthropomorphic view” what Mormonism is all about, a God of “flesh and bones”?

But when it comes down to it, I somewhat agree with Nate.  Obviously, the eternal nature of a “anthropomorphic” God means that he is substantially different from humankind as we know it.  For example, it is unlikely that God’s bodily functions are anywhere close to anything resembling ours.  But from what I understand, sex is still in play.

But Nate’s description of a Nero-esque God (“celestial fiddle player”) seems truly bizarre.  It reads like a bad sci-fi plot.  In point of fact, his God seems closer to the gnostic creator of the universe than it does a traditional Mormon version of God.

While Nate says that his version of God “likes to manifest himself in the form of stumbling blocks,” my version is nothing like Nate’s or a more typical Mormon version of God that listens and reacts to every prayer.

I’m not sure I believe in God, but if I did here are three things that I would definitely believe:

  1. God is a progressing entity.  For me, this life doesn’t make sense unless there is eternal progression.  And God is very much at the center of this physical, spiritual, and intellectual evolution.
  2. God is standoffish.  For me, He is not up in heaven or Kolob stirring our earthly pot.  Prayer is meditation and little else.  I agree with Nate that God is not a preventer.  But unlike Nate I don’t see him as a literal healer.  Physician heal thyself.  Or in Nate’s case, lawyer heal thyself.
  3. We are co-creators with God.  We are responsible for the impacts we have on the Earth and its inhabitants.  Love thy neighbor, and I would add love the Earth.

Beyond these three points, God is a mystery to me.

Posted in Creation, Environment, mormonism, Religion, Social Justice, transhumanism | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Should LDS Missionaries Indulge in Civil Disobedience?

There seems to be some frustrations with the autocratic way in which LDS proselytizing mission are governed.  Perhaps one way for young LDS missionaries to release these frustrations is through some modest form of civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience in wikipedia is defined as the “active refusal to obey certain laws, demands, or commands” of a governing authority.  It is generally associated with non-violence.

So what might be possible examples of missionary civil disobedience?  How about:

  • Chucking the missionary reading list and developing your own?  One tailored to your specific needs and interests.
  • Doing more volunteer work in schools and hospitals?
  • Indulging in activities that further your cultural understanding of the area where you are working?
  • Taking an occasional vacation to clear your mind and reset your priorities?

So what is the downside of this rebellion?  I suppose the worst case scenario is getting sent home early.  However, would a truly righteous Mission President really send home a sincere missionary who’s only “sin” is helping in a hospice?  But realistically, the MP would probably warn him or her first.  Or who knows, it might actually approve of the activity.

A less severe punishment might be exclusion from hierarchical promotions.  If the missionary doesn’t plan on getting an MBA, this might not be such a bad deal.  I’m not sure a Mormon mission is the best place to learn leadership skills.

And I’m not so sure that the above examples of civil disobedience might not improve a missionary’s chances of “spreading the gospel” or as they say in the current parlance “hastening the work.”

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