Monthly Archives: February 2012

Ask Mormon Girl: What does it mean when a Mormon says, “I know the Church is true.” It creeps me out. Help?

Greetings, readers—and I’m pleased to announce the launch of AskJewishGirl by long-time AMG reader Sharon Goldstein. Please stop by and offer Sharon a hearty mazel tov, and send her a question while you’re at it.  Meanwhile, the women of AskCatholicGirl are tearing it up.  Don’t miss their posts last week on why Catholics might stick around despite conflicts with and misgivings about the Church.  Moving stuff, and instructive to each of us who wrestles with our faith.

Now, for this week’s question:

Dear AMG:

I’m a newcomer in a high-density Mormon area. Often, I hear people say, “I know the Church is true,” “I know Heavenly Father loves me,” “I know that families are forever.”  I’m not a religious believer, but I can at least respect a comment that begins, “I believe in God,” or “I believe God is love,”  “knowing” these things strikes me as nonsense at best, potentially destructive at worst.

Do Mormons have a different definition of “knowing” something that non-Mormons.  Do they “know” these religious issues the same way they know their addresses or their names, for instance?  Do you view this as a problem or am I making a big deal out of this?  As you can probably tell from my question, I find it totally creepy.

 Thanks so much for your blog.  It’s helping me come to grips with my new reality.

 PJ

Dear PJ:

Welcome to the Book of Mormon belt!  Enjoy the superior white bread, gorgeous outdoor scenery, and easy-to-navigate street numbering system.  And rest assured that you’re not alone in your discomfort with the robust use of the phrase “I know” in Mormon communities.

A few weeks ago, I was on a Mormon Matters podcast with Phil Barlow, a truly marvelous human being and Chair of Mormon Studies at Utah State University, and Phil said, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt.  The opposite of faith is certainty.”

Food for thought, that.  And still, professing certainty is an important feature of Mormon religious life.  Attend any chapel service (yes, they’re open to the public) the first Sunday of every month, and you’ll see Mormons of all ages line up at the podium to share stories from their lives—some faith-related, some, well, sort of faith related–and then conclude with the words, “I know the Church is true.”  It’s what people say in when they’ve had spiritual experiences they interpret as confirmation of the rightness of Mormon doctrine and the power of Mormon institutions. But I’ve been in wards where kids who can’t even color in the lines yet are led by the hand to the podium as their parents coach them, whispering in their ears, to say that they too “know the Church is true.”

I tend not to use that particular phrase.  By personality, I’m more of an “I believe” kind of person.  But I also tend to avoid assessing what other people actually know or don’t know and trying to hold them accountable for it.  I have enough matters of my own to sweat out in the back pew. If someone says, “I know the Church is true,” I don’t make it my business to second guess them.

But as someone who studies language and culture, I am alert to the history and context of that particular phrase.  For specific cultural values are at work when Mormons opt to say, “I know the Church is true.”  The value of professing certainty is deeply rooted in Mormon history.  The founding story of our tradition is that a young Joseph Smith wanted to know which church to join and so after studying his scriptures went into the woods and prayed to ask God directly.  His prayer was answered with a visitation from God, who directed him not to join any existing churches.  Smith wrote, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.”

Since then, it’s been an against-the-odds story for Mormonism.  We are a minority faith, and a young one at that.  Some of what Momons believe the rest of the world thinks is pure “nonsense,” as you put it.  So professing that one “knows the Church is true”—in addition to being a culturally-traditional mode of expressing belief—can be a way of expressing solidarity with the whole Mormon enterprise. It’s like saying, “I’m in—100%.”

Mormons being humans, using the phrase “I know the Church is true” can also be a way of strengthening one’s position in the community.  It is a way of bonding with other Mormons and perhaps even establishing a bit of authority or status in the community.  A very natural inclination, that is.

What else is happening when someone says, “I know the Church is true”?  The whole gamut of human emotions.  Some people are saying it because they are happy, or sad, or lonely, or angry, or hungry for attention, or feeling uncertain and hoping that stating certainty will get them through another day.  Yes, PJ, there is a whole range of human longing and aspiration bound up in that apparently simple phrase:  “I know the Church is true.”

Given the chance, there are Mormons who will state their beliefs another way.  There are Mormons who will say, “Life is difficult and confusing, but I find comfort in prayer, and I’m humble enough to say I could be totally wrong, but I sure feel like good things have come to my life through prayer, and that’s enough reason for me to place my hope in the existence of God,” or “Mormonism has taught me a great deal, and it’s been an experience I’ve wrestled with, but after a great deal of wrestling, I find myself still here—still learning—still serving.”  Those tentative voices tend not to be the ones that rush the pulpit on the first Sunday of the month. But these voices have always had a place in Mormonism.  Stick around, dial down through the loudness of certainty, and you’ll learn to tune into the quiet ways in which a good number of Mormons—being human beings, after all—live their faith with as much longing, nuance, struggle, and uncertainty as anyone else.

Readers, what do you think? Are you an “I know the Church is true” person?  Or have you another way of stating your beliefs?

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com, follow @askmormongirl on Twitter, or read The Book of Mormon Girl.

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Ask Mormon Girl: What should I do if I see an “immodest”-ly dressed woman?

Howdy, everyone!  Another week, another Brigham Young University Honor Code scandal, another incident of young Mormon women being gender-profiled and publicly disciplined by total strangers for their alleged immodesty in dress.  This time, it wasn’t skinny jeans.  It was a dress over leggings.  And a blistering note:  “What you’re wearing has a negative effect on men (and women) around you . . .”

Sigh.  Back when I was at BYU, when we got worked up about immorality, it was about the first GULF WAR. Someone even organized an anti-war teach-in at the Varsity Theater, and the great Hugh Nibley hobbled up to the podium and weighed in on what a total immoral crock the war was and how everyone should read the Book of Mormon instead. Saw it with my own eyes.

Fast forward twenty years, and modesty—narrowly defined as observance of conservative dress standards—has assumed an entirely unprecedented value in Mormon culture.  Which brings us to this week’s question:

Dear AMG:

What is the appropriate way for progressive Mormon men to respond to immodesty?  It seems to me that if men validate immodesty with attention, we’re lewd pigs.  If we object to immodesty, we’re patriarchal chauvinists.  Does that mean we should just “get over it already?”  If that’s true, then it seems the expected response for males is to not be provoked by the provocateur.  I find that hard to swallow.

I don’t want to paint a picture of men as victims of immodesty.  I find that mentality silly at best and dangerous at worst, since it limits the culpability of people who do disgusting things.  But that makes finding the appropriate response all the more perplexing.  Perhaps I’m being sophomoric, but I sincerely want to navigate a viable path between pig and prude.

—Peter Priesthood

Dear Peter:

First, as a feminist, I’d like to gently object to the way you dichotomize paths of manly response into “pig” and “prude.”  It reminds me of the old “virgin” / “whore” dichotomy that’s gotten us women, well, NOWHERE for the last several millennia.  The logic is the same—all or nothing—leaving very little room for healthy human sexuality.  And we all deserve space for that—men and women.  Stop beating yourself up, brother.  You’re okay with me.

Now, I think we all know by now that the appropriate response to seeing a stranger wearing skinny jeans or a short dress with leggings is not to assume the prerogative to pass her a chastising note or to issue a public humiliation.

What you should do is a question I farmed out to Ask Mormon Girl’s pro-feminist Mormon male allies.  Their answers were so lovely, I’m giving you several here, as food for thought:

“I think it all changes when you start viewing women as more complicated than what appears to your eyes.  Modesty is as much a responsibility of the viewer as the viewed.”

“I’d say silence is the best option.  Men have had far too much authority over female bodies throughout history, so silence is really the best way to go.”

“Sexual attraction is an unavoidable part of who you are. Try to recognize that and make peace with that.”

“Learn to appreciate and focus on people’s faces.”

“My friend Betsy said it best, ‘One should always look upon a woman as if she is looking you in the eyes.  If that feels okay, then you’re probably okay.’  People’s bodies can be, and often are, lovely to behold.  The problem comes from wanting to have sex with every beautiful person you see.  From my perspective, the core of the issues is not with what you see, but in sexualizing that experience.  I learned this lesson from my wife, who sculpted in college (at BYU) and loves the human form as a subject.  She often speaks of the shapes and contours of the human body, and it is completely independent of wanting to get it on.”

“Look elsewhere if it’s going to be a problem for you, and try not to let it be a problem for you.  All the bad advice [about sexual morality and modesty] and thinking patterns the advice engenders don’t just disappear overnight, either.  We should acknowledge that too, I think.”

“Could you take the opportunity to examine yourself?  When you see a woman dressed in a way that triggers you, ask yourself, what past messages you’ve heard that impact how you respond internally and externally?  Use this knowledge to change yourself and your responses.”

I’m gathering that modesty is as much a mode of seeing and being as it is a mode of dressing.   It means acknowledging that sexual attraction is an essential part of being human and learning how to conduct one’s sexuality in a way that is affirming to all involved.  That kind of learning takes time.  It involves reflecting on and unlearning patterns of seeing that are deep-cooked into our visual culture and into us—men and women—from the time we are children.  It involves forgiving oneself (use humor as necessary) for the way the body may unthinkingly respond to visual cues.  But it also involves consciously and reflectively trying to rewire habits of seeing so that encountering a beautiful woman ceases to incite anxiety, guilt, or shame.  I can’t believe that’s how God wants any of us to experience the miracle of human beings and our bodies.

Readers, what do you say?  Other tips on modest seeing?  Can you reframe the modesty question from a progressive male p.o.v.?  (Thank you to all the wonderful men who contributed to this post.)

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com.  Follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.  Read The Book of Mormon Girl.

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A very special letter from the AskMormonGirl mailbag, plus introducing Ask Catholic Girl!

Long-time reader?  Welcome back.  New to Ask Mormon Girl?  Welcome!

Big news today:  I am thrilled to announce that Ask Catholic Girl is live, thanks to Mary, Nadia, and Carmen–offering love and guidance to their fellow Catholics in the trenches.  Nadia is a long-time Ask Mormon Girl reader who made a stunning debut here last week.  She’s joined by two sharp-witted, irreverent and reverent Catholic women named Mary and Carmen.  Long time friends of Ask Mormon Girl.  Send them a question or a friendly hello at askcatholicgirl@gmail.com.   We may not have ordination, but we do have wisdom  . . . and the internet.

Second bit of news:  ever since this story ran at CNN.com a few weeks ago, the mailbag has runneth over with many kind messages and curious questions.   I wanted to share with you one letter that really touched me.  With the permission of the author, here goes:

Hello Joanna,

Although I know many people who are Mormon and had many Mormon friends growing up, I never truly understood your faith.  I also read the beginning of [Jon Krakauer's book] Under the Banner of Heaven but was so upset over it I had to stop reading it.  Truthfully, and I’m sure you’ve heard this quite often, the Joseph Smith story and magic spectacles seemed like a complete joke to me and I couldn’t understand how on earth anyone would believe such an outlandish story.  The “One True Church” belief bothered me too as my thought was Mormons believe their religion and faith is better than others and only Mormons would go to heaven (Can you see my ignorance?).  I will also admit I have been one to connect the Mormon religion to an occult.  (I should note – my husband said I needed to read the entire book as what I read was not a good representation of the the book or the religion – okay, I get that I was wrong).
 
The reason for my email, I’ve been experiencing a bit of anxiety over the presidential race, particularly when it came to possible presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  I was so worried about him becoming our next president because of his Mormon faith.  Honestly, it would almost make me sick to my stomach. (I also know a lot of people had their doubts about JFK and his Catholic faith–which I am as well).  In fact, I had even admitted this fear to my best friend, saying it out loud for the first time.  I think subconsciously I knew how bad this sounded and how ignorant and judgmental it was –two things that are totally not how I view myself.  On the contrary, I consider myself to be very accepting and open but isn’t that what they all say? 
 
Then the VERY next day I was reading CNN.com and came across the article about you, read it, and loved it!  This is going to sound crazy, but I truly believe it was a sign from God.  My anxiety, worry, and bigoted beliefs went away instantly.  I knew right there regardless of the presidential outcome it was going to be okay and I became accepting of the Mormon faith.  I definitely believe it was God’s grace working inside of me.  I have let go of those feelings and have found myself at peace.  I have also taken to reading your blog regularly now as well, as I feel we have a lot in common…doubts on faith, going back to our faith, motherhood, liberal beliefs, Obama supporter, etc.  I have let go of my ignorance and irrational thoughts about the Mormon religion and have replaced them with a search for a deeper understanding of your faith.
 
Thank you for doing what you do.  I look forward to reading your blog and now feel, I am closer to living a life in Jesus’s image…loving and caring for one another, regardless of religion, as we are all brothers and sisters in faith.
All I have to say is thank you–to the author of this letter, to the readers of this blog, and to the bigger forces that make grace, change, and understanding possible.

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I’m a 66 year old lapsed Catholic. I’m not a conventional believer, but I miss my Catholic home. Help?

A funny thing happened last week after this little profile of me appeared at CNN.com:  I started hearing not just from Mormons, but from people of faith of all stripes who recognized in my story something very similar to their own.  Because, friends, it’s not just Mormons who face crises and transitions in their faith.  It’s not just Mormons who wrestle with belief and doctrine and institution.  It happens in just about every faith tradition on the face of the earth.  We are not alone.

Witness this letter I received from a man named Mark:

I’m a 66 year-old “Ex” Catholic. I decided to distance myself from the Church for many reasons:  I believe in married priests, women priests, and family planning beyond the abstinence pushed by the Catholic hierarchy. I’m not at all certain that the Catholic Church is the “one, true church” and that all others, Mormonism included, are somewhat defective since they were not established by Jesus. I believe that other gospels are relevant and good. And I’m not into the belief that the host in Mass is truly Jesus’ body.

For years, I sat in Mass and listened to preaching of the above and more. One day, a couple of years ago, I finally realized that my quietly listening to such talk was being read by others as agreement or submission. I told my wife that I could no longer allow my presence to be misread by priests and others as support for their beliefs.

I feel bad about the disconnectedness from the community that I was involved in for more than 60 years. I feel like a bad person sometimes. But the Church response is that if I choose to be Catholic, I must believe the tenets of the faith.

How would you answer this dilemma? 

I handed this question over to a friend of mine named Nadia, a Catholic woman who, funny thing, started hanging out around the Mormon bloggernacle a few years ago.  There was something in our stories and struggles she recognized as her own.  I was lucky enough to meet Nadia last week in New York City.  The world needs an Ask Catholic Girl, I told her.  She wrinkled her nose.  Late last night, I forwarded Mark’s query to Nadia.  And here is her response.

Mark,

I’d like to let you in on a little secret. I am a 21-year-old progressive Catholic feminist. I long for the day when a woman can raise her right hand to bless the congregation with the Sign of the Cross. I worry that The Church forgets how important the sacredness of human agency is. I’ve read the Book of Mormon and the Quran, and they were beautiful. Some days, I know that those wafers are the Body of Christ, and other days that idea sounds crazy.  You and me Mark, we’re the same.

I suspect that when I sit in the very first pew, smack dab in from of my priest in my New York City parish, he thinks I have it all figured out. I don’t. I go to Mass on Sundays to say, “I ask you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to Lord our God,” and to share in a community meal.

Some Sundays, I lay in bed reading Why do Catholics Do That? because the thought of going through the motions feels disingenuous. Other Sundays, when I am back home in Texas, I sit in my car in the parish parking lot and listen to Mormon Stories podcasts while sipping a slushy from Sonic.  

Let me let you in on a little secret. St. Paul tells us, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” Mark, you and me we were baptized into this beautiful, confusing, mess of a Church and the priests on Sunday, uber-devout fellow Catholics, the Pope himself or our own misgivings can’t change that.

What would happen if you went to church this coming Sunday? I vote you come home. Maybe it won’t be this Sunday. Maybe this year you’ll go on Easter and Christmas. Maybe your first Sunday back you’ll slip out after Communion. You have every right to come home. To sit, stand and kneel, even though Church doctrine tells us people like you and me shouldn’t receive the Body of Christ come up to the altar and say “Amen.” The craziness we carry around with us during Mass is for us to ponder and pray about and for God to iron out.

BAM!  Beautiful.  A community meal, as Nadia says, to be shared in across faith traditions.  And what if the point of a religious tradition is having a place to sort out your “craziness,” as Nadia puts it?

Readers, what do we learn when we listen to the experiences of other people of faith?  What additional advice can you give Mark from your own faithful perspective?  And who has three cheers for Ask Catholic Girl?

Follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.  Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com.  Read The Book of Mormon Girl.

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I’m a mild-mannered Mormon woman. How do I learn to stand up for myself? (plus an AMG apology)

We have a great question in the line-up this week, readers.  But first I hope you will indulge a personal note. There’s a profile of me up this week at CNN.com.  It includes a story from my book The Book of Mormon Girl about the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign, when, in a moment of emotion, I destroyed some Yes on 8 campaign materials.   In the book, I tried to make it clear that I acted out of anger, and that I’m not proud of it.  Let me reiterate that here for folks who just read the profile:  I don’t look on what I did that day as one of my finest moments, and I apologize.  The fact that I was not able to support Proposition 8 does not mean that I disrespect those who did out of conviction or obligation.

And now, on to this week’s question.

Dear AMG:

Growing up in an orthodox Mormon home, it was important for me, the oldest and the only girl, to be nice and compromise. Usually that meant self sacrificing. While I know that everyone has their own perspective, and everyone deserves to own that, it doesn’t mean that I have to get taken advantage of. In the fine art of learning to stand up for yourself, how do I figure out how to do that? How do I figure out which battles are worth fighting?

Sincerely,

Stiffening Spine in LA

Dear Stiffening Spine:

I belong to a group of Mormon women—most of us 40 and older–who converse regularly on-line, and the questions you’re asking right now regularly bubble up to the surface of our conversations.  How was it we learned over the years to give away so much ground?  How do we unplug all those learned habits that mean we are always deferring, always smiling, and yet—whether we like to admit it or not—often feeling bruised, spent, lost, or angry inside.

And it’s not just women in Mormonism.  Oh, no.  I see plenty of self-sacrificing men in the world of Mormonism too.  I see plenty of self-sacrificing people in the wide, wide world who would, I suspect, be better served and better capable of serving others if they would learn to respect and protect themselves.

But how, how to begin?

I wish I had a clear five-step process for you.  I’m sure the local library has a shelf full of self-help books with glossy, airbrushed author photos and clear five-step processes laid out in bullet points.

What I have instead is an actual, messy life, with lots of missteps and things I wished I’d done differently (note above) as I’ve learned what my work in this world is and how to get it done.

One thing that has helped has been trying to discern what my work in this world it.  Have you started started a dialogue with yourself about what your work in this world is?  Try to discern what really matters to you, what brings you the most joy.  It may not be just one thing.  It may be many things at once, and it may include helping other people.  But it does not mean accommodating everyone who asks for something just because they ask.  To illustrate the concept, I’ll use the old Mormon pioneer hymn, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.”  The song says, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along, do your duty with a heart full of song, we all have work, let no one shirk, put your shoulder to the wheel.”  Now, imagine—lots of wheels on the big wagon of creation.  God put you in front of a specific wheel.  It does not help the big wagon of creation roll along when you ditch your wheel and run to push along someone else’s wheel just because they’re fussing about it.  You can be kind and encouraging, but you are here to do the work God sent you to do.  If you know what that work is and feel a sense of sacred purpose in it, you can and will be less available to every one who comes to you feeling entitled to take a little piece of you.

Similarly, I’ve learned that it’s okay not to give away your words, feelings, thoughts, heart, soul to just anyone who asks.  You do not need to explain yourself, give yourself, or apologize to everyone who stops by.  It’s okay to know your own mind, hold your own feelings close, and maintain your boundaries when you are dealing with people who you don’t know well enough to trust, or with people who don’t appear to be wiling to enter into a respectful dialogue of equals.  A healthy reserve fosters dignity, and dignity is a form of power.  You decide when to enter the conversation, and how to participate.  If you find yourself in a situation where the game is set up against you—where you’re pretty sure your voice will not be valued—you don’t need to play.  This may sound like contradictory advice—how can I be assertive if I remain quiet?  There is a difference, though, between the quiet that is afraid to speak and the quiet that knows better than to speak where the voice will not be valued.

Along the way, I’ve also learned to face my own perfectionism.  From one oldest daughter to another, sounds like you’re a perfectionist too.  Gently remind yourself that it is not the end of the world to be wrong.  Everyone has been wrong sometimes.  I sure have—see above, for just one of many examples.  Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves room to learn from them, including you.  When you make a mistake, you can apologize, but you must not treasure it up as evidence against yourself.  God loves you.  Your nearest and dearest love you. And you know I’ll still love you.  It’s Mormon doctrine that we come to this world to gain experience—and not only through perfection or the pretense of perfection, but through choices, better and worse.  When you give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them, you give yourself permission to extend yourself into new situations and new, growthful challenges.

Just as you will be wrong sometimes, you will be afraid sometimes.  I am afraid sometimes.  Okay, let’s revise that.  I am afraid more than sometimes.  I am afraid for reasons I can’t fully explain.  But as long as I am doing my work, I am willing to be afraid.  There are lots of scriptures I recite to myself about how “God has not given us the spirit of fear.”  And I love as well this advice from the African-American poet Audre Lorde:  “We can learn to work through fear the same way we can learn to work when we are tired.” I have learned to work when and even though I am afraid.  When I am afraid, I reach out to trusted friends and share my feelings.  I pray.  I clean my house—yes, housecleaning can be a meditative practice.  I go to yoga (which is very good for the spine, by the way). Then, I start again.  Whenever you are afraid because you are doing your work, remember that you are in good company.

For I would rather have my shoulder to the wheel in the mud with all of the other women and men who make mistakes and are afraid sometimes.  We want you with us too, Sister Spine-builder.  We miss you.  We need you.  The world needs you to do the work you came here to do.

Can I get an amen, readers?  A word of support for Sister Spinebuilder?  Who else has spine-building wisdom to share?

Follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.  Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com.

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