American ingenuity

Religious critic Harold Bloom calls Mormon-founder Joseph Smith, Jr. “the most gifted and authentic of all American prophets.” Bloom explains that Smith didn’t just passively read the Bible, but “drowned” in it and “came up with an almost near identification with the ancient Hebrews.”

Smith believed his time was a vital piece of the Biblical story, as was his country. In his world view, the Bible’s Garden of Eden was actually located in western Missouri and Noah built his ark to survive the swelling of the Mississippi river. Smith taught that after Jesus was crucified and rose from his tomb he roamed the American continent to preach directly to its inhabitants before ascending to heaven. All this and more Smith learned from a collection of golden tablets created by Native Americans, who he believed were actually descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. They committed these secrets to the tablets and then tucked them away on a hillside near the farm where Smith grew up in New York. Smith claims he was led to them by an angel named Moroni and that he translated their message by looking through a set of “seer stones.”

I find it fascinating that an otherwise ordinary New York farm boy took a centuries-old faith and made it so utterly his own, inserting himself into the story and making his land the backdrop for important plot points. If this doesn’t scream “American ingenuity” I don’t know what does.

The Book of Mormon and Smith’s other writings are like a bridge connecting Biblical locations and times to here and now. Together with the Old and New Testaments, they are the Mormon holy books, bound into one tome that is striking in its girth. I spied several people lugging it around during my visit to the church. Stand on it and you’re at least a foot closer to God. The fact that Mormons carry it as one giant book is as telling as their church’s official name. Jesus’ time and today are not separate entities, but one continuous era in which we are now in the latter days.

For all the specificity of Smith’s vision, at its core it speaks to the same sources of suffering that Christianity has addressed since the beginning. For those of us grappling with our worthiness, Smith taught that being born as a human on earth is a reward for proving ourselves faithful to God in the spirit world. Though we may not remember it, each of us on this planet has demonstrated our value and is currently enjoying the prize. What a lovely solution to the guilt we might feel even subconsciously that we’ll never do anything good enough to deserve our lives: we’ve already done it.

Smith also taught that death is a return to our true nature as ever-lasting, cosmos-dwelling spirits. If anything, death is an event to welcome because greater challenges lay beyond it. Our earth-bound incarnation is simply an opportunity to demonstrate our ability and desire to be fathers and mothers of our own celestial kingdoms, where we are “sealed” for eternity with our loved ones.

To Smith, plural marriage was an indispensable tool for achieving this goal.

Even though its importance is downplayed by church leaders today, some religious critics including Bloom agree that Smith’s writings make it clear how essential he considered polygamy to his doctrine. While most Mormons have distanced themselves from the practice, Bloom speculates that at the upper echelons and in secret chambers many are more committed to it than they let on publicly.

If this true, I opt not to be scandalized. As long as adults are making their own choices, I don’t see a need to pass judgment. How a person draws closer to God is a private matter, and plural marriage seems equipped with its own hardships.

Commercials

The woman makes a beeline for me.

I’ve been standing in the crowded chapel for fewer than five seconds when her eyes lock on me from across the room; she turns in my direction with the single-minded intensity of a cougar stalking a chipmunk. I force a smile that says, ‘I taste awful.’

I am surprised at how quickly she recognized me as an outsider. For the first time ever, I actually looked up, and then followed, the dressing suggestions on the denominational website. It says ladies generally wear skirts or dresses, so I dug deep into the back of my closet. I even dusted off a pair of old tights. Maybe I’m a bit on the jumpy side because of my preconceived notions of Mormons as a somewhat closed society.

“I saw the commercials,” I screech defensively. I had been planning to worship with the Latter-day Saints all along but they’re not listed in the Worship Directory so I was feeling reluctant. Then I began to see the commercials on television.

I don’t know if it’s a national marketing campaign, but the commercials have been in heavy rotation where I live. Each one has a similar format. The camera focuses on a face and flashes different scenes of the person going about his or her day like a mini-documentary about an ordinary, yet somewhat interesting, individual and just when you’re wondering what the heck this ad is for, they spring it on you: the person says “I’m a Mormon.” It tells you to get more information at Mormon.org.

The ones I’ve seen feature a young Chicano dressed in a shirt buttoned at the collar and baggy pants and sunglasses. In Los Angeles, he is what you might call a “homeboy.” The camera follows him riding his tricked out bicycle with the handlebars way up. Then it shows him giggling with his mother and the voiceover goes, “My name is Valentin and I’m a Mormon.” The first time I saw it, I was like, “No way. Valentin? A Mormon?” The other one that’s caught my eye highlights a big dude with a bald head and full mustache; he looks like he runs with the Hell’s Angels. But, no, his name is Allan and he’s a Mormon.

It is a very effective marketing strategy because it increased my confidence about attending services at the meetinghouse. I mean, if Allan and Valentin are welcome, then I shouldn’t be a problem, right? At the very least, it signaled to me that Mormons are looking to change perceptions regarding their inclusivity.

“That’s great!” she says about the commercials. Up close, she is surprisingly young. I was fooled by how mature she looked from afar. That’s the thing about Mormons: they look and behave like grownups very early. They seem to avoid the angsty pitfalls so many of us experience in our 20’s and 30’s. We Nones are lucky to approach middle age having developed the emotional capacity and patience to share our personal space with a pet and perhaps another human being. By then, Mormons have a bundle of children and marriages going on 20 years.

I’ve been admiring and rubbing shoulders with Mormons for most of my life. It began when I would sit in front of the television as a tiny kid, enthralled by the Donnie and Marie Osmond Show. Since then, I’ve had Mormon landlords, coworkers, and acquaintances. I’ve watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform Christmas carols on television. I’ve visited Salt Lake City and walked around the temple complex, their most sacred collection of buildings. I’ve marveled at the basic story of these pioneering people who trekked across the country, got kicked out of a lot of places, and finally settled in Utah. But until now, I had zero knowledge about their belief system.

Some of Joseph Smith’s ideas were so cosmic, so not bound to earth, that I struggle to wrap my mind around them. His vision was of a heaven filled with billions of spirit children “begotten” by “Heavenly Father” and “Heavenly Mother” in a celestial world near Kolob, the name he gave a theoretical star in the universe. The human forms we experience now are but a mere step, a brief incarnation, on an epic journey toward perfecting our spirit existence…

The meetinghouse

This story seems to keep circling death like a vulture. Is mortality ultimately what religion is about? Imagining elaborate solutions to save us from our creaturely fates? In a sense, I welcome any evidence that a fear I have experienced so intensely and privately, that has made me feel terrified and alone, is shared by so many. People gather to indulge in identities that will live on and on forever. We think up ways around death and disease, giving ourselves unspoiled bodies or spotless souls endlessly, which, in a sense, is to acquire the characteristics of God.

Because what is God if not flawless and eternal? It seems most believers, regardless of what shape their almighty takes, can agree on at least those two characteristics.

Although stating plainly this underlying desire for humans to achieve God-like qualities seems to be frowned upon, making the clarity with which it is expressed in Mormon theology almost a relief. Joseph Smith, the founder of Latter-day Saints, made no bones about it: man is on an epic quest to become a god. He was equally clear about the flip side of this equation: God, the Heavenly Father of this world, was once an ordinary man.

Technically, the building I’m visiting this morning is not called a “church.” Mormons refer to their places of worship as “meetinghouses.” In many larger metropolitan areas, Mormons also have “temples.” These are usually big, elaborate buildings on a hill with smooth stone surfaces and tall otherworldly spires. Sometimes they’re lit at night so that you can see them from faraway, like the headquarters for some fantastical Oz. If you look closely, you might see a figure at the tippy top of the tallest spire. This is the angel Moroni, who visited Joseph Smith Jr. and led him to the golden tablets from which he translated the Book of Mormon. A lot of times the statue is gold and holds a bugle.

The temples are the sites of special ceremonies and baptisms, not ordinary Sunday services. Every region has access to a temple even if you have to go a ways. The closest one to me is about an hour and half drive. But regular weekly services take place in the meetinghouses, which often look like regular churches.

One day I drove past a newly constructed Mormon “meetinghouse” about eight miles from my house. The fancy-looking church building seems to have sprung up overnight behind an Office Depot. I was curious so I pulled into the expansive parking lot and got close enough to read the simple stone placard: The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Then and there, I made up my mind: this is where I wanted to attend Mormon services. It was so pretty and new. The only task was to determine what time to show up on Sunday.

I discover Mormonism doesn’t work like that. Unlike other denominations where you can decide where you worship based on a whim, where and what time on Sunday you attend Mormon services is tied strictly to the location of your home. Online at the official Mormon website, I type in my street address and zip code and up pops the identity of my small geographical zone, or “ward.” From this I can find out which meetinghouse to attend and at what time. The bad news is I’m not assigned to the one behind Office Depot, but to a much older place closer to my house. The good news is my meeting time is not until 1 o’clock. I can sleep in.

Maybe I can have my brunch and be a Mormon too!