A flutter

The year of the “Great Disappointment,” when Jesus didn’t return in 1844, Joseph Smith was gunned down by an angry mob in Missouri; apparently they didn’t much appreciate his ideas about plural marriage in part because some of his would-be “wives” were already married. Smith was, by all accounts, an exceptionally magnetic and good-looking guy so it was sort of like if Brad Pitt came to town and put out a shingle that said “wives needed.” Otherwise sensible ladies might have been compelled to shove a few belongings into a purse and yell, “catch ya later!”

Smith was killed in June of that year, just a few months before Jesus missed his October cutoff date. How abreast Smith was of the prevalent messiah deadlines is unclear, but it’s a safe assumption that he was at least in tune with the popular anticipation and died believing Christ’s return was eminent because much of his church’s theology hinges on this point.

After the service, we break into smaller groups for further discussion. The men stay in the main chapel for their meeting, some of the women gather to go over charitable duties, and the rest of us are invited to join study groups. It’s a beginner’s class for me, and down a long hall to a back room with rows of plastic school chairs and a teacher expecting twins soon; she has a hard time getting close enough to the chalk board to write.

I am given a copy of a thin book called “Gospel Principles,” comprised of 47 short chapters designed to introduce the faith to newcomers. Today we discuss the chapter called “Signs of the Second Coming.” It outlines all the usual stuff like war and pestilence.

Flipping through the booklet, I notice photos of regular people doing boring, everyday stuff peppered with over-the-top illustrations of Jesus and intergalactic cloud bursts. The artwork perfectly captures Mormon’s dualism: earth-bound responsibilities side-by-side with celestial fantasies.

Only a single hint of something exotic occurs the entire day. It’s during the service at the blessing of a newborn. In a frilly bonnet and ruffled dress, she looks like a doll. Her father carries her to the altar and a group of men gathers, each putting a hand to the baby. Together, they wish only good things for this precious life, but something about the sight of a fortress of men surrounding a tiny girl sends a tingle up my spine—whether for being creepy or just odd, I’m not sure. I’m reminded that men in this denomination are considered priests during their human incarnations and that beyond this life they hope for a powerful promotion.

For a second, it’s like the diaphanous drape flutters open and I get a quick glimpse of the quirky ceremonies that supposedly take place in the hidden chambers and back rooms of Mormon temples everywhere. From what I surmise, believers act out momentous occasions; they might pantomime death, make believe meeting God, and pretend to travel through the afterlife. These rituals are the elaborate secret handshakes in a cosmic clubhouse. The baby remains motionless for the duration, then the men return to their seats and the curtain closes and everything is normal again.

Smith encouraged people to make up their own minds. In his writings, he instructs anyone who is unsure about a topic to plant a seed of a question in their hearts and observe the answer that grows. This would seem an invitation to any divergent opinions that may arise, even a change as radical as ditching a central principle of the faith. Smith must have understood that faith isn’t something one can set like concrete. The history of Christianity, especially on these soils, is an endless series of modifications to create practices more meaningful or palatable to contemporary tastes. Over and over again people have taken the parts that work for them, and discarded those that don’t.

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14 thoughts on “A flutter

  1. Corinna, your final paragraph is curious to me. I certainly haven’t noticed that the present day Mormon Churches are a hot-bed of free-thinkers. In fact, it seems just the opposite. In your research have you found any divergent opinions that have spawned changes in the Mormon principles or practices in the recent past?

    You comment that Smith understood that Faith isn’t set in concrete…..while this may be true, principles and practices can be. In my experience with many Christian churches, when a a group of people find disagreement with the church organization—their beliefs or practices or the way they are governed—the groups do often break out and form “new” churches. These “entrepreneurial” churches often give themselves a name (New Glory Church) and are non-denominational in nature…..or they are the “New” or the Second” or something. Haven’t seen this in Mormon Churches. Also, as an educator, I have worked with many Mormon families and their youth, and I have never seen any evidence of this questioning, divergent behavior in the individuals. Nice people. Easy to work with, for sure, as long as you don’t rock their boat. J. Smith might have had understandings that do not show themselves in the present day Church structure. That is certainly a possibility.

    But your final words left me wondering. Merrill

    • Hi Merrill, I think Smith’s advice to explore topics for oneself and see what the answers are is more personal/individual (and the degree to which modern Mormons follow it or not, I’m not sure). Of course, there is the plural marriage change. But I also I think the degree to which some of the more “cosmic” aspects of the faith are downplayed among everyday Mormons could be a result of this…I don’t know that the concept of “Kolob” and man-to-God transformations resonates all that much with ordinary Mormons today. I think for many Mormons, it’s a more ordinary Christianity that they have in mind when they worship. Sometimes I wonder how many are even aware of some of Smith’s more fantastical thoughts.

  2. Corrine, I think one of the common threads running throughout your posts about nearly all of the denominations you’ve visited is discerning the point where the rules become more important than the faith. A lot of teaching seems to be schizophrenic: “You have free will, so you can decide for yourself, but if you don’t think like we do, you can’t be part of our team and you’re going to hell.” While I think churches have every right to choose their methods of worship, being ostracized and condemned should not be the price of choosing a different path. The Anabaptist tradition of shunning may be an extreme example, but there are plenty of others. Certainly, the LDS church isn’t known for its tolerance of dissent. I often wonder what Jesus thinks about all of this. All he wanted to do was explain to people why treating each other decently and being humble brings us closer to the Kingdom than worshiping according to a set of rigid rules can. How such a simple message morphed into the multitude of denominations and cults we have today is beyond imagination.

    • Hi Tim, I have to agree: the one thing that absolutely rubs me the wrong way is the concept of “shunning.” I feel like I have an expansive ability to appreciate many aspects of different faiths and ways of worship, but the practice of shunning I don’t get at all. It feels like the opposite of what religion is about to me. I know many groups do it, but I hope I never reach a point where that practice makes any sense to me.

  3. Corinna, I think that is true, as you have said (that faith isn’t set in concrete), for the Christian faith at large. Each generation certainly brings a new and slightly different perspective and culture does impact the faith. It’s so interesting to me because had Jesus not come to earth when he did, so much would have been different. His timing was perfect for what he came to do. Often his experience seems horrific to us, though. But he came at a very unique time for language, government, and travel.

    Your sense of the blessing of the baby being a diaphanous moment for you made me smile. Those are “inside” thoughts. That is, from within the faith the view is much different than from the outside. You had a moment when you saw what they see. Whether it is Mormons or Christians, believers have that sense of eternal, spiritual connection and reality. Sometimes our beliefs and actions can appear strange to others, even ridiculous and not well thought out; but that does not mean they are not deeply thought out by the individual believer.

    I’m wondering now that you have explored several religions what you think? Are you drawn to any one of them? Have you stepped back from your quest and drawn any “big picture” conclusions? Would love to hear.

    Blessings, Ginger

    • Hi Ginger, In many ways, I feel I’ve just scratched the surface, as I still have other faiths besides Christianity to explore too. However, I’d have to say there is much I am drawn to in Christianity in general and also that every denomination–even ones that I can’t imagine officially joining–has offered some aspect that I can see beauty in. In each, there has been at least one moment where I suddenly became acutely aware of myself as a little human and filled with wonder at how amazing creation is. I could see things from a sightly shifted persepective and I felt immense gratitude. My “big thoughts” are brewing…I know that for sure. I feel my heart opening to religion and getting a true sense of why we have it.

      • That’s good. I’m glad to hear that you are drawn to Christianity. When you decide to take the plunge, go for it 100%. It’s an amazing journey with an amazing King and a stunning destination. Hopefully kings don’t trouble you. 🙂

        Hope your weekend is full of smiles.

  4. Two thoughts occurred to me when I read your blog. One was the Lutheran concept of “Every priest a believer and every BELIEVER a priest.” The other was about the men and the baby. Is this the Mormon version of a baptism? Because if it is, it bears a much stronger resemblance to the Fairy Godmothers issuing blessings than to blessing a child with the presence of the Holy Ghost!

    Sorry. I cannot seem to keep myself from being irreverent when it comes to Mormonism. And the presence of real belief in a blessing ceremony IS a matter of reverence. I think that Ginger is absolutely right about that sense of the eternal and that there was great connection on the part of the believers there.

    I have just connected with what bothers me so much about what you have described. There is no “hearing of God’s word”, i.e. scripture in what you are describing. These moments seem to be only bounded by human actions and human words without the overshadowing of scripture.

    In the class you attended, was scripture studied? I am curious.
    Yours in Christ

    • Hi Patti, The booklet we studied “Gospel Principles” (which I was invited to take home), uses select Bible snippets to support the various subjects in the chapters. Also, many people were carrying the Bible (bounded with the Book of Mormon) and some people were opening this and reading along from there when a bit of Bible verse was mentioned. So the Bible was certainly present, but its use was highly directed and limited–at least when I was there.

  5. Corinna, you were in rare form on this one! Brad Pitt, huh? Are you looking to sign up??
    I also believe that Jesus’ return is imminent (ie, he might come back at any time); however, he said that no one knows when that will be, not even he. Such waiting on a specific date (eg, 1844, 1914, etc.) is really interesting, but ultimately damages trust in what God has said. In my thinking, such date setting encourages us to think more about escaping this world rather than making the most of the life we have been given. I have an exciting hope of being part of the resurrection and living in the new earth, but for now, I’d rather learn what Jesus’ agenda is for the here and now, and be engaged in extending hope, justice, and mercy to people here, for example, combatting human trafficking, etc.

    Churches have generally always become very institutionalized (with all that that implies, good and bad). As such, change is very difficult and threatening.

    • Walt,
      Interesting that you say what your hope is (“being part of the resurrection and living in the new earth”) because that is exactly what my hope is if I die before Armageddon. If I still am alive at Armageddon, I hope to be among the “great crowd” of Armageddon/tribulation survivors of Rev. 7:9,10,14, and never die at all. JWs believe these will grow to perfection, as our first parents were before their fall, during the thousand year rule of Jesus Christ and his anointed ones. Just as it took Adam 930 years from his creation until his death as a result of his disobedience, it will take the biggest part of the 1000 year rule of Jesus to bring the survivors and resurrected ones back to human perfection. Does this make sense to you? In that sense, Adam really did die in the “day” of his disobedience–a thousand year “day”. (2 Peter 3:8).

  6. Corinna, I am wondering how you are reacting to some of these replies. Living forever? Never dying at all? Give your heads a shake, fellas! I’m actually amused – some of these are HILARIOUS!!!

    • Hi Carmen, Thanks for being here and commenting. I find the discussions fascinating and illuminating. I’m glad to have the range of replies because I think it probably fairly accurately reflects the thought spectrum among the population in general. Honestly, I want to know how people–especially those with whom I might not ordinarily have much contact–think about these issues. I mean, we obviously see things in different ways, but we are communicating and trying to understand one another. I think it’s a positive step…what do you think about it? Also, I LOVE to laugh and never want to take myself too seriously, so I’m happy for the humor of it all. I’m not sure I could make this journey if I didn’t put my tongue in cheek throughout. That’s just me being me!

  7. Corinna, I think you struck the right phrase with, “. . taken the parts that work for them, and discarded those that don’t” – I think that’s what all of us do, eh? (I’m Canadian and wanted to enforce a stereotype). Furthermore, if it works for you, go for it! Personally, I have discarded quite a bit. For instance, I think God’s a spirit (non-gender) so it works for me to refer to “Goddess” if the mood strikes me. If women had written the Bible, I might even be right, eh? (I just couldn’t resist. . . )

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