31 January 2009

Missionary Position

Missionary Position would not pass Correlation. It would probably offend virtually every orthodox Fowler Stage Three Mormon and anyone who's squeamish at seeing temple clothes outside the temple, or can't tolerate multiple, if discreet, references to the sort of intimate encounters that Prop 8 backers like to pretend don't exist. But thicker skinned types who watch knowing its author's background and perspective will find it among the quickest and most enjoyable 90 minutes they've ever spent.

In Missionary Position, playwright and sole actor Steven Fales tells the story of his mission, plus glimpses of pre- and post-mission life. Jitters and prayers just before opening the call letter that he wouldn't be sent to North Dakota, secret wishes he could run off to theatrical auditions while on layover at JFK en route to Portugal, stories of a renegade mission president's rewards of diamond-studded lapel pins to uber-baptizers with the result that drunks, street kids, and unwilling relatives were regularly pressured into baptism in order to keep up the statistics, struggles with faith and doubt and a closeted gay companion, it's all there. As is a poignant depiction of the innocent Elder Fales in the temple just after his own endowment, talking with the Steven Fales of 20 years later, more worldly wise and completely changed in his faith, probably the high point of the piece. It ends with Fales talking of his desire to take his kids to Portugal one day and dragging them about to all the areas in which he served. Here, he'll tell them, is where Daddy grew up.

Fales pulls no punches in stating his current perspectives on the Mormon religious culture. He is not a gratuitously abusive critic, but his disagreements with what he sees as indoctrination and efforts to squelch independent thinking are very clear. And any honest and spiritually mature Mormon will acknowledge these are indeed hallmarks of growing up in the Church and of much official Church instruction. His opinion of Joseph Smith and senior church leaders is not particularly high, but I've heard and read a lot worse on countless Web sites. His insights into the missionary experience are perceptive, accurate, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious. A refreshingly fallible human spin on the sanitized picture-perfect version that the official Church so often touts.

Missionary Position is a mosaic of faith, good intentions, zeal, experience, disillusionment, maturity, education and self-discovery. If you're an active Mormon, you must have a fairly thick skin to watch it. But if you do, you'll find it a unique portrayal of one missionary's journey that shows all missionaries' journeys have things in common.

29 January 2009

Another Baby Step, And The Myths Live On

I almost laugh about it now, it was so easy and such a nothing event, but for some time I'd wondered if I could ever actually do it. I would walk past and think "How could I possibly? Everybody would know! My secret wouldn't be secret anymore!" I imagined a huge scarlet G blossoming instantly on my shirt and snarky comments from cashier and onlookers in the queue.

Somewhere, though, it appears I've picked up some self-confidence, because tonight when I brazenly pulled a copy of The Advocate off the bookstore shelf and paid for it, the cashier didn't bat an eye, I was smiling all the while with head up and not a single flutter in the gut. And nobody in the queue even seemed to notice. Another milestone passed! I might even subscribe.

I chuckle thinking about taking it to church and reading it on the back bench before Sacrament Meeting just to see if anybody even recognizes it (I doubt they would), but probably won't. Why kick a beehive. Hey, that's actually quite the appropriate metaphor, isn't it.

Speaking of church, last Sunday after I finished teaching the lesson in Priesthood meeting, I was chatting with a new guy who'd felt prompted, he said, to sell his business and move his family to Utah because "alternative education" was coming to his state and he didn't want his children exposed to it. He didn't elaborate but I could guess what he was trying to avoid. He pronounced Provo "absolute heaven" and said his family was blissfully happy there.

One of the other guys in the quorum congratulated him on his move and mentioned with ominous tones and furrowed brow how the plague of "alternative education" was spreading, how fortunate the Californians were to have dodged a bullet by passing Proposition 8 because if they hadn't, all those poor innocent California children would have been force-fed "the gay agenda" and taught in schools that same-sex marriage was okay and the Mormons would have been forced to perform such marriages in their temples. They both harrumphed over such depravity and seemed quite satisfied that they'd managed to remain untouched by it.

Out of deference to our visitor, and recognizing that it would have done no good in the circumstances to say anything, I kept silent. But the teeth marks on my tongue are still there. To paraphrase Voltaire, "there is nothing more durable than a favorite myth." And Augustine: "O Lord, make me intelligent, but not yet, let me cling to my prejudices for just a while longer."

Sheesh. Patience, Alan. The tide is turning.

28 January 2009

Rant Number Two

Having cleared some of the vitriol out of my system with Rant Number One, it's time to revert to type (I hope) and be a little calmer, more pensive. Rant Number Two is also the product of some frustration, but my purpose is not to bust heads, it's to point out positives.

No gay Mormon who's remotely serious about his faith will deny that he faces unique and daunting challenges if he stays in the Church. Believe me, I get it. I wish I didn't.

But the purpose of Rant Number Two is not to belabor that. In fact, I'm not even sure I should call this a rant. It's more like a pep talk, I hope. Prompted by lots of genuinely angst-ridden discussion about the difficulties we face, I thought it was about time for a counterbalancing look at some of the positives. I think there are lots, and seems to me we should be reminded of them once in a while. So here goes. I know not all of these will apply to everyone, but I'm speaking in general categories here.

1. We get to have all the fun of being guys while also having (in most cases) a capacity for increased sensitivity to thoughts, feelings, and the finer things in life to a degree that often escapes the straight. We can play and appreciate sports, whip up a six course gourmet dinner, discuss fine art, music and literature, decorate our own homes to a professional level, work and compete hard in our jobs & professions, instinctively know who needs hugs and kisses and not hesitate to dole them out. On average, I doubt this type of balance is as common among straight guys.

2. Coming out can mean instant community and family. Not in every single case, but there's a good chance if you know where to look. I can still scarcely believe my good fortune in finding so many almost instant friends after I took my first furtive, nail-biting steps outside that door. The relationships I've found, almost for the asking, have become among the most important in my life and are a continuing source of happiness and strength. I wish I lived closer to so many of you and could express my love and appreciation in person every day with big backbreaking rugby-strength hugs. How many straight guys are lucky enough to have this kind of thing in their lives?

3. Chances for unique service. Nobody but us can bring the insights we have to others in our group. We get to help, support, encourage, uplift, and love each other in ways the Church and its straight members can never do. I know that a huge amount of private one on one counseling, encouragement, commiseration, backstopping, crying together, back-slapping, venting and listening, and just being there for one another goes on in real life throughout the MoHo community and in private correspondence, out of sight of the Queerosphere. I am sure God smiles as He watches and is pleased as we care for each other. How common is it for Mormon straight guys to have time for such stuff when they are burdened to exhaustion (but too proud to admit it) with work and kids and wife's demands (wives of MoHos who know and stay married are classed with the angels and thus outside this comment) and Church callings and mowing the lawn and being guilted nearly every Sunday for not doing more of everything else on The Mormon Boy's Life Map? Not very.

4. Every sports event is eye candy. It's everywhere and practically thrust in our faces with no apologies. Woot woot! Straight guys don't have anything like that and usually get slapped if their wives even think they're looking at a cheerleader for more than half a second.

5. We know how to dress for everything from formal occasions to extreme hiking adventures without having to run like a 6 year old to wifey or girlfriend for instructions.

6. We know what we're doing when we pick our own colognes, thank you very much.

7. We have the fun of presenting an impossible theological dilemma to a Church whose culture thrives on cut & dried answers.

8. We are automatically exempted from any Church calling that requires lots of thankless hours or sitting on the stand pretending to be awake and alert all the time.

9. We can sing under our breath alternative hymn lyrics like "Behold a royal army Of blue shirts and green ties, Who keep the faith while none suspect They're all in love with guys" or "Praise to the man who attracts my attention, Chiseled and buff, with a voice as smooth as silk," etc.

10. We will never find Arnold Freiburg paintings outdated or boring.

11. We are eager to serve missions for even more than all the right reasons.

12. Being misunderstood and sometimes ill-treated ourselves, we can more easily develop charity and the pure love of Christ for others of our Father's children whose hands hang down and whose knees are weak. We are more often forced into circumstances that give us the opportunity to render the kind of service that will be the subject of everyone's Exit Interview: Not what church callings did you have or what was on your resume, but what did you do in your life to show My love to My other children?

There's more, but this is enough for now I think. Amidst the challenges, let's not forget that we have a lot to be grateful for.

27 January 2009

Rant Number One

I don't rant too often, but hold tight because I'm about to unleash a couple. This post is the first. The second will be nicer, I promise. I am going to unleash about a couple of topics that I seem to have noticed a lot of blogging and news attention to lately. I don't know why I've noticed this, these things have probably always been there. But there are a couple of things I just have to get off my chest. So here goes.

This is The Ick Factor Rant. An equal opportunity blast at (1) every straight person who thinks that being gay is all about hedonistic sexual perversion, and (2) every gay person who focuses on sex at the expense of other parts of life. To both groups I say Grow Up Already. You're both wrong.

To Group Number One, the Ick Factor is what they feel every time they imagine two people of the same sex Doing It. To Group Number One, I say this. Your perspective is uninformed and shallow. You can't get past the sex thing and you do not understand what a healthy same-sex relationship is about. You may refuse to believe there could be such a thing as a "healthy same-sex relationship" but that would be just your belief, and it would be incorrect. The aspects of a healthy relationship are the same regardless of gender. The things that make a healthy heterosexual marriage are also what will make a healthy same-sex relationship. For anyone who is mature and has a handle on their hormones, it is fundamentally an emotional and spiritual thing, it's not about the sex. A person's heart will tell them where they "fit" best. Until you, Group Number One, realize and accept this, you won't be able to comprehend why those on the other side of the fence get so angry when you tell them that you "love them BUT" you also rally to finance and push legislation that would deny them equal legal protections and the ability to choose for themselves where they fit best, a freedom you have never had to question. Think how you'd feel if the roles were reversed.

To Group Number Two, the Ick Factor is what you generate when others who don't agree with you look at the way you live and think "this is what being gay is all about." To Group Number Two I say this. Get a life! No healthy relationship is built on a physical buzz. Promiscuity is a dead end. You are chasing a shadow you will never catch. Stop contributing to the stereotypes that make it harder for the rest of us to find acceptance in American society. Control yourselves and turn your energies toward making things better for everyone. Selfishness doesn't lead to happiness. Selflessness does.

Thanks, I just had to shout all that stuff out to whoever has too much time on their hands and reads this blog. Actually I don't think that anyone who really needs to read this will actually read it, but it's good to get it off my chest regardless. The next one will have lower blood pressure, I promise.

Off soapbox.

21 January 2009

"My Little Factory" Cut From Primary Song List

In keeping with the mission of Scrum Central to bring its readers the most riveting news stories around, the following appears thanks to The Sugarbeet's tireless efforts to keep the Saints informed of everything coming out of The Great And Spacious Building (a.k.a. 50 East North Temple):

By Paul Allen

SALT LAKE CITY, UT-The General Primary Music Board announced today that it has removed the song "My Little Factory" from consideration as it compiles its list for proposed updates to the Primary Songbook. Said Eva Cushman, spokeswoman for the Song Selection Appropriateness Committee, "We just felt that it introduced a spirit of inquiry in Primary that our Sharing Time teachers were not prepared to handle. 'What does the factory produce? Why does it run out? How do you start it up?' I ask you--who wants to deal with that in a group of CTRs?"

The songbook update is intended to include songs that not only teach gospel themes but also Church standards. Songs such as "I Will Never Let My Navel Show", "White Shirts and Snappy Ties", and "One Piercing, Enough For Me" are intended to remind children of the importance of appropriate dress and grooming, while "Never Ever a Boozer Will I Be" reinforces the theme that the Word of Wisdom is a sacred commandment. While "My Little Factory" was said to have had support at the highest levels of Church leadership, many in the Primary organization are grateful that The Brethren ultimately listened to those who work directly with the children.

Other songs that were deleted early from the list of suggestions included "Missionary to the Moslems" (which included references to hand grenades and surface-to-air missiles) and "Joseph and Emma and Fanny and Lucinda and Luisa and Zina and Prescienda and Agnes and Sylvia and Mary and . . ." (the Committee was concerned that the latter would become the Mormon equivalent of 100 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall). Two songs, "Froot Loops and Sacrament" and "I'll Baptize All The Dead One Day" survived an extra round of vetting, being okayed message-wise but rejected because their tunes were judged to be "too jingley" and "too somber," respectively.

18 January 2009

This About Sums It Up

A guy called Greg Wert (whom I don't know) is obviously pretty smart, he's written an open letter to anti-Prop 8 pastor Rick Warren, with whom the LDS Church recently made common political cause. This letter should be sent to LDS HQ in Salt Lake too because it responds perfectly to so many of ProtectMarriage.org's objections:

"Dear Pastor Warren:

I am going to take you and President-Elect Obama at your words and look upon your selection to lead the invocation at his upcoming inauguration as a way to open dialogue between two groups that don’t see eye to eye on everything.

I am a gay man. And frankly, I take offense at some of the things that you say, and that you apparently believe, about me. Things that are just not true.

You say that even if science were to show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that being gay is an innate thing, it would still be wrong, and that we should reign in those impulses. You say you have a natural impulse to have sex with every beautiful woman you see, and that you have to curb that impulse. But you DO get to have sex with one woman, right? (I am assuming you are married.) The obvious implication of what you are saying is that those of us who have a “prediliction” toward homosexuality should reign in those unhealthy desires and, I guess, never have gratifying sex at all. “Delayed gratification”? “Maturity”? To never have sex in your life because you were born a certain way?

I will tell you that being homosexual is NOT a choice. It’s NOT a “lifestyle.” It’s certainly NOT a “lifestyle choice.” Science is starting to prove this out, but any gay person will tell you, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we were born this way. Created this way by God, some would say. An excellent book which I would recommend to you (Crisis, edited by Mitchell Gold) contains stories of 40 gay people, both famous and unknown, and the difficulties they faced growing up gay in America . There are common threads in all these lives – the dawning recognition that they were different, the realization that they had to hide this difference, and the pain and torment it caused. This could be my story and that of thousands, perhaps millions, of others.

You seem to imply that being gay automatically makes you promiscuous. That is, of course, nonsense (as is any attempt to define any group by one certain behavior). But how are you encouraging what to you would be considered more acceptable behavior? By denying us access to the very structures that encourage stability in a society, that encourage faithfulness to one partner, you are actually encouraging (forcing) the opposite for those of us born gay. [Emphasis added. Why does nobody on the pro-Prop 8 side seem to get this?] Most of us are not going to delay gratification for our entire lives. Would you?

I am sure that you feel that you have a Biblical basis for your views on homosexuality, but I will tell you that there are many, many other Christian pastors, theologians, and Biblical scholars who do not interpret the Bible the same way as you. What if your interpretation is wrong? You speak hurtful words and destroy lives based on your interpretation. You are an influential man, and violence against homosexuals springs from your kind of attitude, because people who listen to your words take those words to heart and for some of these misled people, the next logical step is to “kill a fag for Christ.”

And I cannot help but feel intense sorrow for the children in families who so strongly believe, and teach their young, that homosexuality is evil and wrong. Some of those kids are going to be gay! Think of the harm being done to these innocent children. They are going to be so conflicted, so at war within themselves – and many of them will attempt to take their life, and some will succeed. Many more will turn to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain in their lives. This all springs from faulty teaching and unenlightened social attitudes. Some will manage, somehow, to “curb their impulses,” at least for a while, and get married and have children – then get picked up in a public bathroom for lewd acts when their “curbed impulses” jump the curb.

I am 58 years old. I cannot help but wonder what my life would have been like had I been able to recognize and accept my own gay-ness when I was young, and had the acceptance of society at large. How much different my life might have been. I am one of millions who made, and make, life choices based on having to hide an important aspect of our very being. Their potential, their possibilities as God’s children, are greatly diminished when faced with such odds.

So, please listen to our words with an open heart and open mind. And, yes, congratulations on being honored by your selection [to pray at President Obama's inauguration]."

The original is here.

17 January 2009

Rocks Rock

Having recently been benched for the rest of the rugby season by an injury, I have allowed myself to slack off the workout routine, primarily because much of it is off limits till the doctor says otherwise. I can still do cardio but the pain of recuperation has dampened my enthusiasm for even that. So I owe serious thanks to Zinj for inspiring me to get off my arse, not wait for full recovery, and start some serious, strenuous, push-yourself-to-the-point-of-pain movement. Once I got out there, I realized how much I'd missed it, even for just a few weeks. So thanks Zinjer for pushing, even if you didn't intend to.

This morning the sun rose to find me hiking up the slope of the tallest mountain for many miles around, one I'd vowed a while ago to conquer but never made the time for. Today was the day. Lots of metaphors along the way, too. The trail a lot like life, steep and sometimes very rocky. Who knows what lurking along the way (bobcats, rattlesnakes, etc.) that can sometimes strike out at you without warning, so better think ahead and be prepared. Take something along to lean on and steady your progress (a hiking stick in this case, draw what comparisons you will). Don't forget to stop and admire the view and review your progress from time to time.

Once past the foothills and up onto the steeper slope of the mountain, suddenly I began to feel very unsteady. Though I love hiking, I'm also a bit acrophobic. Naturally there's no guard rail along the trail rim, just an unpleasant drop down the mountainside. I hug the inner part of the trail as much as possible. Brain says "you're going to fall, you're going to be hurt." I stop. I'm about 3/4 of the way up the mountain and it's getting steeper, the mountainside slope more sheer. I look up toward the summit. Should I be satisfied with the miles I've hiked so far, and turn back?

No, I tell myself. How can I face myself or my kids later if I can say only that I went most of the way up but then turned back because I was scared? Keep going. So I focus on the trail, don't look up or out toward the trail's edge. You're not going to fall, I repeat over and over. And if you do, you won't be hurt much. Focus on the trail. Still rocky but safe. Trail slopes upward, corner after corner that looks from below like it just ends in blue sky. I can't see what's ahead. Brain still dizzy. But I force myself to keep going anyway. I don't dare look out at the view to my left. As I reach each corner that looks like it dead ends way up in the middle of the air, nowhere, I see that it curves round and keeps going. So do I.

Before I know it, the summit is in sight. I'm feeling better. I've weathered the crisis, haven't given in to the fears. I stride up the last few hundred yards of the trail to the top of the mountain. I am rewarded with three things.

One, a 360 degree view of indescribable beauty, I can see other mountain crests that I know are close to 100 miles away. The Mahler 8th Symphony playing on the iPod--one of the most magnificent pieces of music ever written--matched the views and my mood.

Two, increased courage from not giving into any fears and pushing myself to keep going even when part of me wanted to stop.

Three, the surprising realization that the nervousness about being up so high was actually gone. I stayed up on the mountaintop for a while, slowly walking about to take in different views. Such amazing beauty. Then descended the same way I came, with no dizziness or fears of the height whatsoever. The sunlight, the fresh air, the fragrant vegetation, the exhilaration of exertion and pushing myself to climb up and over all those steep and rocky slopes, Mahler's trumpets and triumphant choruses ringing in my ears, all made for an exhilarating experience. I actually ran down the last part of the trail at full speed, as the Mahler came to a crashing roaring close, same elated feeling as running on the beach with Beethoven's 9th as soundtrack. I wanted to fly, soar through the air.

Life's full of rocks. Sometimes they hurt a lot. But I'm glad they're there, they force us to push ourselves, and they can be beautiful to look at too, sometimes. Zinj has talked about being on the bench, which really sucks, I know exactly what he means. I don't have the answers. All I can do is keep moving forward doing the best I can, climbing over the rocks, trying to have faith that I won't fall and even if I do, I won't be hurt too badly. Push myself forward even at the risk of pain. Savor it when it happens, because it's better than not being able to feel anything. I don't know where I'm going or where I'll end up. But I hope that when I get there, I'll find the acrophobia has disappeared and the views and understanding are worth the difficulties along the way.

P.S. In order to keep this post from totally obnoxious loftiness (pardon the pun), I should also point out the humorous irony of me using the Mahler 8th as soundtrack for a story told to this particular blog audience. Mahler wrote his 2 hour 8th Symphony essentially as a love song to his wife--who thereafter completely flaked out on him (I know how he feels) and left him for another man. Another shining example of a traditional marriage. But at least the music is wonderful.

14 January 2009

Sounds Have Colors

And now for something completely different. No, not a man with three buttocks. Sorry Python fans (of which I am one). This is really different.

Ever heard of synesthesia? Most readers of this blog will understand about thinking "you're the only one" about something or other for a while, wink nudge. But this is another thing that for a long time I thought I was the only one with. I grew up seeing colors when hearing music, getting whiffs of scents while looking at pictures. How do you explain to somebody the colors of an A flat major chord? I guess it's one of those things like a testimony: words are never sufficient, and the only people who will understand your efforts are those who already know what you're talking about. I know that online tests are often more plaything than serious science, but this one was kind of fun and I am curious to know if any readers or blogmates see/hear/smell the same way I do. LMK.


Utah To Ban Comic Books

Well, no, it hasn't happened quite yet. But with Chris Buttars leading the charge for Purity, Decency and The American Way in the Utah Legislature, you can bet he'll try something after he reads about Thom Creed, the world's first gay superhero, soon to be threatening traditional families from televisions and newstands across the country. I can only imagine the next few years' worth of lessons in LDS Deacons Quorums.

13 January 2009

Ciao - The Review

I have become accustomed to, if not completely comfortable with, being a walking bundle of unresolvable contradictions. I like subtle, understated things, enjoy savoring irony and bittersweetness, and I'm also a sucker for some kinds of over the top satire and happy endings.

Ciao, the movie, caters to that first half of me, to the black turtleneck-wearing, irony-savoring, bitterness is sweet crowd, but ultimately without success or satisfaction. It moves at the pace of the laziest of lazy rivers, with virtually no music in the soundtrack, and long stretches of out-and-out silence, especially at the beginning, no doubt emphasizing the emptiness and desolation of Hero #1 Jeff's sudden loss of his best friend & roommate Mark, with whom he was secretly in love. He discovers after Mark's death in a car accident that Mark had struck up an online relationship with Hero #2, Andrea, a guy in Genoa Italy, who had already bought a ticket to come visit Mark in Dallas for a couple of days. After reading through some of their correspondence, Jeff e-mails Andrea and says why not come anyway. He does.

The movie is mostly the story of their 2 1/2 days together. Most of the time they talk about Mark, but the film does a good job of slowly building an undercurrent of attraction between Andrea and Jeff. By the second night--before the morning of Andrea's scheduled departure, they end up sleeping together. But this isn't a euphemism for twisting the sheets. The scene is quiet and tender and wordless as they kiss and hold each other close. And that's it. Then they actually sleep together. No sex whatsoever. It is refreshing not to have to say "well, if you can look past this and that part, etc., etc." This was the sort of intimacy even a reluctantly obedient MoHo would enjoy seeing.

The next morning, however, we're back on track with the savor the bitterness agenda. Though it's clear these guys have feelings for each other, Andrea leaves on schedule. Long shots of each walking away from each other through the airport build some suspense--will either one turn around to follow the other? Naah. Not a single backward glance. I guess the writers/directors thought anything optimistic would be too formulaic, or else they prefer senseless, unexplained separations and partings over showing the potential for a happy relationship.

The movie poster is deceptive. Those two still shots you see up above there are the sum total of actual intimacy between these two, and those scenes comprise maybe 5% of the total screen time, max. Other than that, the film is a quiet, slow-paced, nihilistic and protracted meditation on impermanence. Nobody even raises their voice. The subtext is that not only does nothing last forever, but that we should expect people to walk away from a chance for happiness without any explanation. I'm sorry, I don't agree. So much of the world conspires against finding any joy in life that I think if you have a chance for it, you should grab on with both hands and never let go. Sure much of life is bittersweet but why celebrate the pain? Watching those two walk away from each other, for no reason, both obviously not wanting to, was profoundly dissatisfying. If there'd been a purpose, it would have made sense. But there was none. Just choosing to be alone for the sake of being alone, apparently. I spent most of the movie learning to like them and hoping they'd both find that happiness together could overcome their grief. I left thinking they were both stupid.

Overall grade for this movie: shoulder shrug and "whatever." It could have been a lot better.

09 January 2009

Milk Shakes Things Up

Dustin Lance Black, exec producer and screenwriter of the new biopic of Harvey Milk, has given a very interesting interview about the movie and about growing up gay in the LDS Church. Well worth a listen. Click here.

07 January 2009

Happy Birthday Francis Notre Frere

As readers of Scrum Central know, here you'll find not just hypnotically compelling social & theological analysis, outrageous humor, brutally realistic sports stories, and a huge amount of time-wasting fluff, but also the rare bit of useful information that might actually make your life a little nicer. Scrum Central hopes this post falls into that last category. So if you are a mindless juvenile schlub uninterested in self-improvement or raising your cultural awareness, might as well stop reading right here because I guarantee you'll stop reading in the next paragraph.

One of my chief delights is introducing friends to new music. Sure, everybody knows the Beatles and Death Cab and Coldplay and Jack Johnson and Ben Folds and The Fray and 100 other groups I could name. But how many of you know Francis Poulenc?

[sound of crickets chirping as we wait]

That's what I thought. If you don't know this guy, you are seriously missing out. And here's why.

Today is Francis Poulenc's 109th birthday. Now, before you say Why should I care about some dead guy and then click away to your latest Facebook ping, give me just a minute. You might learn something here. After all, you're reading this blog which means you already have above-average intelligence. So indulge me. You might be very glad you did.

Poulenc was an openly gay French composer at a time much less tolerant than ours. So you gotta respect him for that alone. But beyond that, he wrote some amazing music. Personality-wise, he's been described as "half hoodlum, half monk." A fascinating, self-contradictory combination of devout Christian and outrageously cynical and humorous party animal. And the cool thing is that his music reflects those contradictions. You can actually hear these parts of his personality coming through, often in the same piece. He was a member of "Les Six," a group of French musicians who rebelled against Romanticism and Impressionism in the early 1920s. How many of you, dear readers, have felt like rebelling against the social conventions of YOUR time? You know who you are, and I do too—and you know what I'm talking about don't you. Well, then you should consider Poulenc a kindred spirit. His music has wonderful melodies and covers the entire world's worth of emotions, from wit and playfulness to melancholy and profound spiritual contemplation.

Imagine the most moving piece you've ever heard in a General Conference broadcast suddenly breaking open into jazz and ragtime and Broadway show tunes, then back again to deep spirituality. Yet somehow it all fits together wonderfully. That's Poulenc.

So if you have reached a level of maturity sufficient to be comfortable without electric guitars and a throbbing drum beat, and you can actually sit through a piece of music longer than 3 ½ minutes, let me introduce you to the music of Francis Poulenc, one of the 20th Century's greatest composers. I guarantee that he will be remembered and his music will still be played decades and even centuries from now when Coldplay and The Fray and Jack Johnson are footnotes in some obscure encyclopedia.

Here's a sample, in which you will hear some of his sparkling wit and the sudden, unpredictable, and delightful shifts in key and mood that typify his music:

If that delightful piece intrigued you, this one's even better, it runs through the entire range of emotions and mood, from hysterical laughter to sadness to deep contemplation and back again to sparkling playfulness (and notice that the soloists are definitely of the Coldplay and Green Day generation):

So if you have half a brain in your head and would like to hear more of this genius's amazing music, go to Amazon and check out the following titles by Poulenc:

Concerto for Piano & Orchestra
Concerto for 2 Pianos
Stabat Mater
Sonata for Flute & Piano

Happy birthday Francis! You are an example and an inspiration to us all. Our world is much better because of your courage and your talent.

Scrum Central now returns to its normal programming of useless navel-gazing and mindless drivel.

05 January 2009

All or Nothing

That's what Austin says he was taught about the doctrine of the LDS Church: either it's all true or none of it's true. If you're going to believe any of what the church teaches, you have to believe all of it. So he wondered how anyone could acknowledge any degree of homosexuality and yet maintain active membership and faith in a church that remains hostile to that characteristic (despite its protestations to the contrary). I promised him some follow-up thoughts.

All or nothing is a folk belief based on a false premise. Its main problem is that the "all" is impossible to define other than by the LDS scriptures, our yardstick for measuring everything else in the Church (see Joseph Fielding Smith quote below), and as shown below, the Scriptures are vague, ambiguous, and even silent on a great number of doctrinal issues. In the past, leaders of the Church have taught or advocated a wide variety of doctrines that neither the Church nor its members currently believe and in some cases now stay well clear of. The 9th Article of Faith's declaration that we expect more revelation and more knowledge suggests by implication that some things we now believe are at best incomplete (that is, not entirely correct).

Everybody is a "cafeteria Mormon." Everyone picks and chooses which doctrines and principles of the gospel they wish to focus on. Nobody obeys all commandments consistently or perfectly, else there would have been no need for a Savior. Things which are easy for some are a huge trial for others. Everyone construes the Scriptures in their own way, according to their own best understanding. The temple recommend interview questions are broad and general, and leave much to individual discretion.

Joseph Smith taught that what "is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another" and that "the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted" is "revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed." His own example was the "doctrine" that "thou shalt not kill" yet the Lord commanded Nephi to kill Laban. Obviously what is "doctrinal" in one setting may not be in another.

Thus, both doctrinally and theologically, the LDS Church is amazingly flexible as compared to other Christian churches which are tied to fixed creeds and don't believe in modern revelation. Culturally and socially, however, Mormons in "The Corridor" are often much more narrow and strait-laced than this. Much of the socio-cultural characteristics of Mormons from Rexburg on down to Mesa still reflect the insular persecution complex of the Utah Pioneer experience. The "all or nothing" folk belief is an example.

One of Satan’s many weapons is the “either-or” dichotomy in which he presents two bad choices as the only possibilities. Which do you choose, he says: the tyranny of communism or the terrible inequities of amoral capitalism? The Spanish Inquisition or Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries? Intolerant bigotry in the name of orthodoxy, or amoral relativism in the name of tolerance? The red rose or the white? In a gospel context, the "all or nothing" attitude would compel someone to believe either an "all" which is impossible to define clearly, or else a "nothing" which would shut them out of eternal possibilities. Because of this, I am wary of anyone who says "you have only two choices." Rarely if ever is that actually true.

Austin's question may reflect the fact that Mormons often fail to distinguish between their own quasi-doctrinal pop culture (e.g. compulsory white shirts, WoW = no caffeine, "no R-rated movies", etc.) and the actual, fundamental principles of the gospel stated in the scriptures. President Joseph Fielding Smith said that if his words or the words of any other member of the Church, "high or low, . . . do not square with the revelations [already in the scriptures, then] we need not accept them. . . we have accepted the four Standard Works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine." Thus, anything taught anywhere in the LDS Church which does not find support in the Standard Works need not be considered either orthodox or binding on anyone else. Again, the "all or nothing" idea is an example of one popular perspective which actually has no such support.

There are a great many things in life and in the Church on which the Scriptures do not give a full or clear picture. This includes many doctrinal issues. For example: What is the celestial kingdom like and how does it operate? What does it mean to be exalted? Apart from the fact that the Savior said so, why is the physical ordinance of baptism universally necessary? Why do women not receive the priesthood as men do? How do the steps of repentance vary case by case or person by person, as they invariably do? Why did the Lord allow the priesthood to be withheld from our African brethren for so long, when there is evidence suggesting that the "ban" may have resulted more from early Church leaders' personal attitudes than from actual revelation? Why must the sacrament prayers be repeated verbatim? What is the symbolism of the temple clothing? The questions are endless. All involve doctrine and on all, our understanding is incomplete.

We therefore have an individual responsibility to study such things out in our own minds and seek our own understanding and even revelation on them. Individual understandings will therefore differ. That's unavoidable! There can't possibly be an "all or nothing" standard in such circumstances. How could we even define what the "all" is, when the only universally applicable yardstick is the Scriptural canon, which is open and subject to change, and when the prophets themselves allow for individual perspectives and interpretation?

Stephen L. Richards, one of David O. McKay's counselors in the First Presidency, confirmed that all members of the Church should "hold individual views and express them with freedom so long as they are not seditious to the basic doctrines, practices, and establishments of the Church…if anyone holds views and gets satisfaction from them, I say let him have them, and I for one won’t abuse him for them…I fear dictatorial dogmatism, rigidity of procedure and intolerance even more than I fear [any of the] other devices the adversary may use to nullify faith and kill religion. Fanaticism and bigotry have been the deadly enemies of true religion in the long past. They have made it forbidding, shut it up in cold grey walls of monastery and nunnery, out of the sunlight and fragrance of the growing world. They have garbed it in black and then in white, when in truth it is neither black nor white, any more than life is black and white, for religion is life abundant, glowing life, with all its shades, colors and hues, as the children of men reflect in the patterns of their lives the radiance of the Holy Spirit in varying degrees…Truth and love will save the world. May they be our portion."