A profile in extreme courage

A profile in extreme courage

I don’t have too much to add to this beautiful piece on Olympic gold medalis snowboarded Torah Wright. I just encourage everyone to read it. Sister Wright is an active, passionate and articulate member of the church and she conveys the importance of her beliefs quite well. In the incredibly hedonistic snowboarding culture she maintains her values. This is a must read!!

What I found even more incredible in this article was the fact that Wright passed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships in order to fully live up to her values.

“”We’ve definitely knocked back approaches in the past from energy drink companies, given that Torah has a position on excessive caffeine consumption, and that’s been a big area where Torah could certainly have made significant amounts of money, but she’s stayed solid in her beliefs.”

I was a bit amused by the articles conflation of  the traditions or beliefs of Wright’s specific family with the church on the whole. Wright’s family, for instance, practiced homeopathy and avoided modern medicine and so of course the article says

“In line with the beliefs of the Mormon Church, Marion Bright, a nurse, ensured that her children lived virtuous lives. This meant rules such as no lollies or junk food, and no pharmaceutical drugs – not even so much as a Panadol for a headache.

I guess it is inevitable when a member is profiled. Even though our church is the fourth largest in the country, there is an assumption that all members are identical in their practices. Many faithful members do drink caffeine (Including President David O. McKay) and certainly we have several general authorities that served as doctors. We are not a tradition that discourages sweets or fun though things should be in moderation. I guess I should take such a positive article and just be satisfied, but these inconsistencies stood out to me.

Kites or Balloons?

I had a conversation today with a good friend of mine who as struggling spiritually after having read Nietzsche for one of her classes. Nietzsche’s arguments against morality and religiosity were intellectually compelling for her. I prepared a lesson this past weekend on free agency which had me thinking about the nature between keeping the commandments and remaining free. A metaphor that I’d over heard over the summer came to mind. We are like a kite flying in the air. We are lifted higher as the person with the string releases more and more. If the string holding the kite up is cut, the kite falls precipitously to the ground. In contrast, we all know what happens to a balloon cut loose. Balloons tend to fly higher and higher (eventually popping, but lets keep that out of the metaphor). If we consider the string to be our connection to God or our sense of morality, then the question is which of these metaphors more accurately describes mankind.

In my view, the answer is that we are more analogous to the kite than to the balloon. I take this view for several reasons. First of all, I have seen the personal effect in my life of loosing that spiritual mooring. I’ve felt the downward cycle even as it deceptively slowed to resemble a natural dip. I don’t view my self as exceptional in this regard at all. Instead, I feel that humans cut from their moorings tend to collapse. I also look to the status of societies taken to Nietzsche’s ideal more fully. I consider the status of Nazi Germany a culture which idolized his ideal. I consider Randian libertarianism and its corrosive impact on American morality. These things combined make me believe that moral grounding of some sort is absolutely necessary to keep us up. Our sense of regard for others and intuitive morality does not hold us back but rather keeps us suspended like a kite.

Of course, the counter argument would be to look to European societies where faith in god is decreased while social utility increased. Yet, I would certainly argue that the traditions of compassion and community have their rooting in thousands of years of strong religious community. Moreover, they are about as far away from a Nietzchian ideal as humanly possible. We can have a totally different discussion about whether God is necessary for the development of said moral sense or merely its proximal cause. Yet, it is hard to argue that the kind of morality that Nietzsche views as repugnant is absent from these highly structured welfare societies.

“The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance”

I feel a little late to the party in writing this post since a lot of other bloggers have written about and reviewed “ The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance” by Elna Baker, but I just finished the book after reading it non-stop in one sitting. I’ve not been so enamored by a novel in a long time. It was a sincere and true to life take on single life in the church. Most importantly, it as even handed and honest without being bitter and self-loathing.

Last semester I wrote a term paper for a class on Mormon plays focusing on homosexuality and read the full gambit of bitter ex-Mormon drama. The major problem with these plays was that it was hard to see what initial appeal the church held for these individuals through their spirit of contrariness. When Steven Fales in Confessions of A Mormon Boy derisively calls the church a “Socio-economic-tax-exempt-multi-national-corporation posing as the kingdom of God on Earth,” it is clear that he has lost sight of the spiritual good that church membership brought him or brings others. His thoughts are clouded by anger and he can see no shade of nuance in his derisive attitude towards the church.

Elna instead holds a much more nuanced attitude that truly felt rewarding as a reader. Elna describes candid spiritual experiences within which she prayed to the Lord for answers. She describes feelings of spiritual doubt and also epiphanies of clarity. Despite moments in which she is uncertain about her spiritual future, Elna never puts down or downplays the spiritual power in the church. She is deprecating and mocks some of the most absurd aspects of Mormon culture, but never rejects the core spiritual beauty. Because of this fact, this memoir still maintains its wholesome naivety despite a cornucopia of profanity and situations that would make your bishop blush. In some ways this book is noticeable for its omissions. Despite mentioning homosexuality briefly, the book does not deviate into talking about gay marriage or politics at all. In this way, Elna focuses on the core coming of age story of growth and discovery.

I admit that I am not the most qualified to truly comment on the intricacies of Elna’s writing. I am male, only twenty-two and a recent convert to the church. I didn’t grow surrounded by LDS culture and I’ve yet to become overly saturated by the obsessive focus on marriage. As such, so many of the experiences are foreign in many ways. Yet, I could relate strongly to her story. As an overweight child that was mocked for my size, I found her constant thinking about weight and body image to be realistic. I felt that her descriptions of awkward dating experiences were both cuttingly realistic and downright hysterical. I especially appreciated the self-conscious awareness of the little acts of relationship suicide. Moreover, Having been on the other side of the (somewhat) inactive member/ atheist relationship, I kept hoping against the odds that her Atheist lover would have a miraculous conversion: Heck it happened to me!

Elna’s criticism of single church life is spot on. Her depiction of Mormon singles activities and dances is pretty accurate. Actually, individuals of any faith that have been involved in church singles activities should be able to relate. Jewish youth activities were just as awkward except with copious amounts of smuggled alcohol and weed involved. Indeed, the same archetypes, such as Amber Cunningham the girl that is holier than thou and full of constant judgment, are ever present in order denominations. Yet, the unique balance in Mormon life between church callings and social life is illustrated with gusto. The effect our unique marriage theology has on unmarried single women is explored and painfully drawn out,

I have to add my critical comment in regard to the last chapter of the book. It is so woefully unnecessary in story line terms and ultimately leaves the reader with too much tortured ambiguity. :Spoiler Tag: After the ending of a marriage bound relationship and the beautiful realization that “ A document from a patriarch could not tell me how to be happy, I was in charge of my own destiny,” the story could have been concluded in an affirming yet open way. The last chapter of the book details a desperate trip to Africa to chase down the atheist boyfriend that got away. Elna seems out of character here as she goes to great length to try to sexually seduce the male. She lies and pretends that she has left the church in order to win him over. In the end, he rejects her because he knows that sexual activity would be emotionally painful for her and he does not want to cause such pain.

The last page describes Elna’s struggle to choose between the two worlds of New York and Mormonism. Yet, the pages up until this point have to a great degree given the reader hope that a balance can be found between the two. Elna manages to land successful jobs and describes a great number of close non-member and member friends alike. She seems well adjusted for the most part and capable of representing her views. Moreover, the very idea that leaving the church is a real option for her seems to be out of character. Throughout, she has bordered on sexual deviancy, engaged in minor Word of Wisdom violations and questioned her faith exceedingly. Yet, she has also held a steadfast determination of the value and truth of the church in her life. I can’t know the current spiritual status of the author, but this epilogue was pessimistic in contrast to the upbeat tone of the rest of the book. Ultimately it left me feeling conflicted more than anything else that I’d read.