Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To stay and build up the kingdom

By the time Elder Beaverton and I got back to our apartment, it was past 18 heures (6 p.m.), so p-day was officially over, and it was time to get back to work.

The cool thing was that our work for the evening was hardly work. We finally had a referral for once -- in fact, better than a referral, one of the local members had invited us to dinner to give the first discussion to her sister. Read the rest of the story ->

Monday, September 28, 2009

My First Sunstone!

Remember that Sunstone Symposium I went to last month? (If you don't remember, go here, here, here, and here for a refresher.)

Anyway, I've written a new post about my first Sunstone over on the Sunstone blog!

Also, there have been some cool carnivals lately: The chaplain recently hosted the 126th Carnival of the Godless, and my post on Why I love 'Here Comes Science' was included in the 43rd Humanist Symposium! :D

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tales of a gay Mormon male staying obedient to the Mormon authorities

If you're gay and Mormon, you're highly motivated to figure out what you really believe about the "truthfullness" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are a few obvious choices:

1. Conclude that the CoJCoL-dS is true overall, but wrong when it comes to homosexuality, and hope the leaders will one day revoke your group's cursed status, as they did for the blacks.

2. Conclude that the CoJCoL-dS is wrong, period.

3. Conclude that the CoJCoL-dS is true, and that the leaders are right about homosexuality.

Door #3 is not only a painful choice, but also an incredibly thankless one, considering that the leaders just won't stop making pronouncements that are not only hurtful but are obviously false. And don't expect much sympathy from your gay-friendly friends, either. They're about as likely to support your decision to stay in the LDS church are they are to encourage you to stay in any other abusive relationship.

I recently read a novel about what life is like behind door #3. I normally put book reviews here on my personal blog, but since I think this book will inspire some serious discussion of the issues involved, I've posted my review on Main Street Plaza instead. You can read it here: What the church really offers to gay male Mormons: Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The last P-day of my mission

I was back home fishing. The morning sun was filtering down the canyon as I rowed my boat out to the middle of a calm lake and started preparing my lines...

Not really.

But in my mind I was already gone. Anywhere but wasting the last P-day of my mission watching the rest of the missionaries of my zone playing basketball.

At least my companion Elder Beaverton was having fun. He was doing great -- he was all over the court.

Elder Beaverton was really into basketball. It always annoyed him when people would ask him about hockey, just assuming he loved hockey since he was from Canada. Read the rest of the story ->

Monday, September 21, 2009

A little game...

For fun, I’ve submitted one of my sample games (Ladybug Maze) to BlackBerry App World. This is mostly an experiment to try out how BlackBerry App World works — I doubt many people will pay $2.99 for this simple little game. But who knows? ;^)

If you do try it out, please tell me if you find any bugs in it. (No pun intended.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bordeaux Mission begins Tuesday!!!

It's getting to be time for the last novella of the novel Exmormon: Bordeaux Mission!!!

"Bordeaux Mission" is the story of a young Mormon guy who is basically a good person -- and wants to be righteous -- but struggles on his mission. In Spencer's case, it isn't a problem of faith vs. doubt. The problem is that being on a mission is hard. Mormonism is a one-size-fits-all religion, but (as you might guess) it fits some better than it fits others.

To my LDS readers: You can read this story without fear -- it doesn't violate any standards. In fact, if it weren't contained in a collection called "Exmormon", I daresay you might not even guess that it was written by a non-believer.

Before we begin, I'd like to talk a little about how the criticisms in Holly's Mormon Lit theory post Story, Wikipedia, Story apply to this novella, and to Exmormon in general:

In a nutshell, Mormon writers just can't stop pausing the story to give wikipediesque asides explaining Mormon culture and jargon. (eg: I was talking to the bishop of my ward [Dear reader: a "ward" is like a congregation and the "bishop" is like its pastor].) The trick is to write a story that uses Mormon culture in a natural way -- without these annoying asides, and without leaving non-Mormon readers confused about what's going on. It's not easy.

The first segment I wrote, Youth Conference, was inspired by Walter Kirn's "Mormon Eden" (as I explained in Challenges and Pleasures of Mormon Lit). Like much of Mormon lit, Kirn's story gives off a strong vibe of "I'm gonna tell you what Mormonism is like!" and "Youth Conference" responds with "Now I'm going to tell you what being a Mormon teen is really like." So, yes, "Youth Conference" probably has a bit of a "Story, Wikipedia, Story" feel to it.

However, my style evolved over time, so the segments I wrote earlier (especially Lynn's story Youth Conference, BYU, and Temple Wedding) are more self-consciously explanatory than the segments I wrote later (such as Saturday's Warrior, Bordeaux Mission, and Young Women's). Actually, after writing "Temple Wedding," I basically decided that I'd finished explaining Mormonism. So Mormonism became the setting of the story, not the point of the story, and I feel like with Saturday's Warrior I first succeeded in doling out the Mormonism in a need-to-know basis that is both natural and clear. You can go read it and see if you agree. ;^)

With "Bordeaux Mission," there's the additional wikipediesque aspect that is found in almost all memoirs of foreign LDS missions: the cultural notes. On this point, I disagree with Holly. The cultural explanations in LDS mission memoirs can definitely be overdone, but I don't think it's quite the same thing as cultural explanations about Mormonism. When you're a Mormon kid -- swimming in Mormonism -- you're hardly conscious of it, or of how others' cultural experiences are different. On a foreign mission, you're absolutely aware of having learned a new culture and you're conscious of the fact that you're using what you've learned. It's a big part of the story. Then there's also the tension between the "missionary culture" and the ambient culture. (The LDS missionary culture was described in the comments here as being the most cult-like aspect of Mormonism.) That's a huge part of the missionary's experience, and it's absolutely central to the story of Bordeaux Mission.

So, I'm responding here to the lit critics who have complained about the fact that I've included an entire dialog in French, with translation. I haven't broken the rules out of ignorance. I broke the rule deliberately, for a reason, and that reason wasn't "to show off how amazingly fluent I am in French." ;^)

That said, I'll admit that the story contains specific details about France and Bordeaux in particular that I learned from personal experience and from talking to real-life mishies who were serving their missions in Bordeaux. (See my blog topic mishies for all of my real-life adventures with the LDS missionaries in France!)

The accuracy of the illustrations is limited only by my limited drawing skills. Re-reading the story (to prepare to post it) really made me miss that place! I hope you'll feel the same. :D

Friday, September 18, 2009

Why I love "Here Comes Science"!!!

My Nico would rather watch science videos than do just about anything else. The astronomy ones were his favorite for a while, but lately he's taken an interest in human body systems, especially the digestive system.

So, to listen to on our road trip, we got Space Songs: an album by Tom Glazer and Dottie Evans from 1959. I've had friends who actually remember this album from their childhood, but I learned about it through the more recent They Might Be Giants cover of "Why Does the Sun Shine?"

The problem with "Space Songs" is that some of the stuff is wrong. For example, on another science album (by the same artists, from the same period), they say "every living thing is either plant or animal." OK, well, maybe that's what people thought in the fifties and early sixties, but it's wrong. (That's the trouble with Science -- you have to keep updating!) Similarly, there's the famous opening line from "Why Does the Sun Shine?": "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas."

Only... it's not gas, it's plasma!

Enter They Might Be Giants with their fantastic new album Here Comes Science!

The album comes with a DVD containing animated videos of all of the songs, and they are amazing! It's like a modern version of Schoolhouse Rock (which my kids already love), only better!

After their adorably old-fashioned version of "Why Does the Sun Shine?" they follow up with a charming modern response -- which opens with "the Sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma" and goes on to explain about different states of matter.

The songs that explain current scientific theories (like "Meet the Elements") are great, but I'm even more impressed with the way they explain how science works. There's a lot of concern these days about scientific illiteracy, rooted in misunderstandings (and misinformation) about science itself. This album is the antidote. Just have a look at the song "Put It To The Test" or at the first song, "Science Is Real":

The first thing to jump out at me was the following:

A scientific theory isn't just a hunch or guess -- it's more like a question that's been put through a lot of tests. And when a theory emerges -- consistent with the facts -- the proof is with science; the truth is with science.

Some people might see this as indoctrination, but really it's just a simple explanation. I am absolutely disgusted with the "Intelligent Design"/Creationist movement exploiting the fact that "theory" means something different in colloquial speech than it does in a scientific context -- using their "Evolution is just a theory!" battle cry. It takes only a few seconds to explain what's wrong with that slogan. And if people apparently have difficulty taking those few seconds to understand it, then why not simplify the task? An upbeat song to explain it is just what the doctor ordered! :D

Then there's the other controversial bit:

Now I like the stories about angels, unicorns, and elves. Yeah, I like the stories as much as anybody else, but when I'm seeking knowledge -- either simple or abstract -- the facts are with science; the facts are with science.

This is what I was trying to explain in my post I believe in Santa Claus. Basing your picture of reality on evidence doesn't in any way detract from awe, wonder, or imagination. Quite the contrary.

When you're not constrained by thinking a made-up story is real, you can let your imagination run wild with it, and invent more! And, on the other side of the coin, things that are real are awe-inspiring. The animations in the song illustrate beautifully how awesome it is to follow your curiosity and explore reality!!

My kids were thrilled by all of the different scientific theories illustrated in the song, such as using a prism to separate light into the color spectrum and looking at a cell under a microscope. Nico was especially excited about the part where the kid takes a bite of an apple and you can see it travel into his digestive system. Leo has been interested in magnetism lately, so he liked those parts. Personally, I liked the way they illustrated gravity. Unlike most cartoons, in this one the kid accelerated as he fell to the ground. I'll bet they actually had him going 9.8 meters per second per second. :D

Watching this DVD has been their reward lately for after they get their homework done, and it has been a great motivator. It's full of their favorite subjects and ideas, richly and imaginatively sung, accompanied, and illustrated.

Note: Our family got to see TMBG perform these songs live this past weekend! For pictures, see my Rational Moms post here!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

It never rains but it pours on Main Street Plaza!

At the end of my road trip, I found that none of my co-bloggers at Main Street Plaza had posted anything between my last two weekly community roundups.

No biggie -- it's not the first time it's happened. The surprising thing is what came next!

We had a blue-ribbon week of great posts, starting with ProfXM on Mormons and Credit Cards, then Jonathan's extensive list of signs you might be in a cult (with some great discussion of varying degrees of cultitude, even in non-religious organizations), then Joel McDonald's touching personal story about God and Being Gay, then Hellmut's logical-yet-heartfelt personal journey through Mormonism, then Saganist's quandary about what you can say in church, and then Chino gave us a piece to repost regarding the same-sex marriage question in Maine. And we've got more fantastic material coming up!!

Is is luck, or are my recruiting efforts finally starting to pay off?

My friend M wrote me recently to ask if I had any suggestions for co-bloggers on his new blog Latter-day Skeptics. Naturally, I told him that whenever I find such people, I try to recruit them to write for MSP. ;^)

But it would be fantastic if cultural Mormon blogspace is blossoming into a big enough community to support a network of inter-linked group blogs! I just recently noticed some groups I hadn't noticed before: Mormon Expression and USU SHAFT.

And to think I thought that blogspace was slowing down! Nope, looks like it was just the Summer doldrums. :D

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Mormon Jungle: "Latter-Day Cipher," by Latayne Scott

With its death oaths and blood atonement, Mormon cultural history provides plenty of raw material for a murder mystery. Remember how Brigham Young decreed death on the spot for interracial mixing of seed? Did you ever wonder what would happen if someone decided to carry that out?

If so, look no further than Latayne Scott's Latter-Day Cipher. It's an exciting mystery as well as an intriguing trip through Mormonism's dark history. As a fan of portraits of different cultures, I particularly liked how the author contrasts Utah Mormon culture with the Tennessee Christian heritage of some of the characters. The book also introduced me to a fun bit of Mormon history trivia (that I'm surprised I'd never heard of before, given my fondness for invented languages): the Deseret Alphabet.

This book is probably the most "anti-Mormon" work of fiction I've ever read, aside from A Study in Scarlet. I'm a little wary about making a statement like that because I think that the "anti-Mormon" label is extremely problematic, especially applied to literature (see It’s Time to Play: Anti-Mormon… Or Not?). However, in this case, the author has explicitly compared the work to The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin (in terms of using fiction to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism), so I think it makes sense to analyze the author's criticisms of Mormonism. I'll tell you my reactions, and please feel free to re-analyze my analysis. ;^)

The book's central point about Mormonism is that the bad parts of Mormonism's past are smoothed over, but are still there, right under the surface. The author's key metaphor is that of a the gas fumes that still linger around the site of a plane crash that took place in the distant past. In Mormon terms, this corresponds to doctrines that are simply deleted from one edition of a manual to the next (see, for example this post on the new Gospel Principles).

This is a very real problem within Mormonism, which I think the author illustrates well: When a Mormon leader teaches doctrine X, and then doctrine X is not mentioned (neither confirmed nor disavowed) in General Conference or any official LDS church publication for several decades, that creates a situation where some Mormons are still actively teaching X as doctrine while other Mormons claim that it's a pernicious lie to suggest that Mormons believe X. And both groups -- those that believe X and those that think essentially no Mormons believe/teach X -- are innocently honest and sincere in their (incompatible) beliefs. We've discussed this problem at MSP in the post Why not denounce Brigham Young’s racist statements?

To use the popular metaphor, defining Mormon doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. No matter what you say about Mormonism on the Internet, some Mormon will come by and say "That's not true!" And, while each individual Mormon commenter is sincerely trying to clarify the given point of doctrine, the aggregate of all of these conflicting claims is really, really, really annoying for an outsider (or even an insider) who is sincerely trying to figure out what Mormons believe.

The lingering doctrine that Latayne Scott dwells on most is blood atonement. Some major plot elements hinge on the idea that some Mormons might feel they need to be bloodily killed to atone for their sins. For example, a Mormon who sinned by drinking and driving, and accidentally killed someone as a result, might believe that he has to atone for that sin with his own blood in order to be saved. As someone who was raised Mormon, I find this incredibly bizarre and far-fetched. Most modern mainstream Mormons have never heard of "blood atonement", much less believe in it. And when you read about blood atonement from the days in which it was practiced, it seems a lot more like a threat to frighten "apostates", not something people would ever think they require themselves. I would suspect that some people who carried out the "blood atonement" felt they were doing their victims a favor (in accordance with Brigham Young's famous sermon on it, immortalized in the Journal of Discourses), but I'd be very surprised if anyone, ever seriously believed they needed to be on the receiving end of Mormon "blood atonement". (There's one claimed case mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, but that one looks a little suspicious.)

That said -- I as explained above -- one Mormon's experience isn't a good measure of what Mormons (in general) believe. For all I know, maybe some congregations are still teaching blood atonement, particularly in the Mormon fundamentalist churches (which figure prominently in Latayne Scott's book).

I suspect that the reason for the focus on blood atonement in this book isn't just because of the doctrine's deadly potential for abuse -- it's also because it's such a terrible heresy for Christians to suggest that anyone would atone for their own sins under any circumstances (as opposed to relying on Christ's atonement). In my personal opinion, this book suffers from the usual bias that Mormonism is wrong because it contradicts Evangelical Christianity. That's obviously not the only problem the author has with Mormonism, but I get the strong sense that the author sees it as the root problem.

One point in particular stood out as being typical of a Christian take on Mormonism. One character (who was raised Mormon) stops believing in Mormonism because she's upset by the doctrine that Heavenly Father was human and had a father. The character wanted a God who is far above all that. Again, as someone raised Mormon, I find this scenario bizarre and alien. To me, there's nothing strange or upsetting about the idea that God is a "Heavenly Father" who had his own "Heavenly Father." When the character gets upset about this doctrine out of the blue, it was (to me) as though she'd suddenly become disappointed that her parents have their own parents, instead of there being one true set of parents for everyone. (Note: I'm an atheist, but I strongly disagree with the belief that Christian monotheism is more natural or logical than polytheism, see here). By coincidence, another post appeared in the Bloggernacle just the other day (here) about how some people find the Mormon concept of an embodied parent-God deeply spiritually appealing.

I know, it's fiction, so anything is possible. And since I have an example in my blogroll of someone who was Mormon yet felt profoundly drawn to pagan-style polytheism (see here), it's clear that sometimes people do make this sort of dramatic shifts. Still, you shouldn't bank on it, and I feel like the book illustrates the standard misconception: You want to believe that other people -- deep down -- know that your concept of God makes more sense than their own concept of God. But it's just not the case.

So, overall, the book is engaging as a murder mystery, and -- as a warning story to illustrate the dangers of Mormonism -- at least it raises some interesting discussion points.

Note that the author will be give a talk about this book at the 2009 Exmormon Foundation Conference.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A kid's dream adventure: visiting Peoria, Illinois!

If your kids are astronomy geeks, that is.

Here's Venus of "The World's Largest Complete Scale Model of the Solar System"

For the rest of the promised road trip pics, see my post at Rational Moms!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Road Trip!!!

I think I don't have to tell you guys how much I love traveling by train. (If there's any confusion, please review my trains topic.) However, in the interest of allowing my kids to form their own opinions, we decided to take them on a good old-fashioned American road trip!!!

At my last job in Switzerland, my American colleague and I used to love to swap culture notes with our Swiss colleagues! We explained to a Swiss colleague that getting a used car and driving around the U.S. is a popular adventure for young adults to take, but that the dream -- if you have a little more money -- is to fly to Europe, get a rail pass, and backpack all over. He told us that they have an equal and opposite adventure for young adults in Europe: normally you get a rail pass and spend a few months exploring all over Europe, but the dream -- if you have a little more money -- is to fly to the U.S., buy a used car, and drive cross country!

Naturally, I shouldn't be surprised. Getting in the car for a road trip was the economical family vacation I remember from my childhood, whereas (for me) railway travel was an exotic adventure! I guess it kind of depends on what you grew up with.

Why not take a road trip across Europe? Well, they don't have the (socialist) interstate highway system like here, so it's not nearly as convenient. It's the same as the reason why nobody dreams of exploring America cross-country by train: it may be theoretically possible to do it, but good luck! lol

I've heard that one of the motivations for setting up the (socialist) interstate highway system was a strategic one. Upon realizing how easy it is to wipe out a compact city with a nuclear bomb, the U.S. government decided to deliberately encourage sprawl in order to spread out the potential targets. This is a very real consideration, BTW. For example, if someone managed to take out Paris entirely, France would be in very serious trouble. That said, the disadvantage of the sprawl strategy is now becoming painfully clear: transportation through the sprawl net is incredibly inefficient, so if your energy supply is in question, then you're in very serious trouble.

Military strategy aside, our family's road trip was loads of fun for us and the kids (details and pics soon!) and we've arrived in our little apartment-for-the-semester in New Jersey.

p.s.: Sorry for being AWOL from the Internet while on the road. I didn't mean to post something controversial just before setting off, but I should have known that if I post any remark that's even obliquely critical of homeschooling, woah Nellie, watch out! ;^) But seriously, give me this evening to relax and get my family settled in, and I'll read all of the comments carefully tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Meet the second cousins!

We're currently visiting my cousin Aerin and her family. Nico is learning to play with his second cousin, Goose...

Nico: I can't play with her -- she just won't do what I tell her to do!
Goose's dad: Well, she's used to being in charge.
Nico: [incredulous] So she bosses you around too?
Goose's dad: Yep.

And they played happily after that. Goose's dad laughed about the exchange all day, and last I saw Nico, he was helping Goose try shoes on her doll...