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TV–Choice or Necessity?

January 22, 2008

by BiV

A number of years ago, when DH and I were setting up our household, a big question for young parents was whether or not they would have a TV in their home.  Technology had progressed to the point that almost every family could afford a television, but whether or not we wanted its influence in our home was still a big question.  This, along with the related question, “Should we get cable?” has been hotly contested between my spouse and myself for 25 years.  In the early days of our marriage, and for a few years after a move, we were TV-less.  But for many of those 25 years it has occupied pride-of-place in our living room.  What advantages and disadvantages does a television hold specifically for Latter-day Saints?

Family Life

I believe TV has a huge effect on family life.  During the years we did not have a TV, our family played games together.  The kids went outside and played, and we went with them.  We went to parks, we went swimming together, we visited friends.  The family ate dinner together more often, and we talked more.  With TV, many of our family home evenings became watching TV together (the same thing we did every other night.)  Once a television enters our home, we find it difficult to control.  We will start with rules like: No TV except on weekends.  This becomes: No TV until homework is done.  Later, we wake up one day to find that all rules have vanished. 

Consumerism

When my children were growing up with no television, they were happy with whatever cereal I brought home.  They asked for one or two things for Christmas, often toys they could play with outside, like a football, or a baseball glove.  I felt that this had the effect on my LDS family of making us more sensitive to how we could help others with our resources, instead of having so many things that we “needed” placed inside our heads by TV commercials.

Time

We don’t realize just how much time the TV sucks out of us until we live for a while without one.  With the Mormons and all we have to do, time is at a premium.  Suddenly we find ourselves doing our home and visiting teaching more often.  We read scriptures every evening before bed.  We have time to do homework and review the times tables with our kids.  There is time to read together as a family, and everyone gets hooked on books.  We spend more time on our callings. 

Being Informed

This is one area in which there are advantages and disadvantages to having a TV.  On the one hand, with a TV you are kept up-to-the-minute on what is happening in the world.  Programs on the History channel and other cable offerings have much to teach that is not available in any other way.  And what about sports???  On the other hand, you are more swayed by politically correct opinions than if you search out your news from a variety of sources, including internet, newsmagazines, newspapers, NPR, etc.  With a TV everyone in the home is bombarded with secular points of view and specifically Mormon teachings we are trying to instill can easily be eclipsed.  DH always campaigned for a TV by citing how convenient it was to watch Conference at home.  But now we can do this online — no TV needed.

I still don’t spend much time in front of the television (guess where I am while the rest of the family is watching “So you think you can dance?”).  But I still wonder how important this media choice is to Latter-day Saints today.  What do you think?  Does television make a difference in the quality of your life?  Do people still make a conscious decision, “will we or will we not have a TV?”  Or is it simply a given that when you set up house you will get a toaster, shower curtain, and TV? 

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Thou Shall Not Watch Rated-R Movies

January 21, 2008

by the narrator

I grew up believing that all rated-R movies were pornographic. I don’t recall ever actually being taught this, but the rhetoric and taboo from my family and through church implied and ingrained this into my mind. It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen that I saw my first R movie. I remember it well. I was at my best friend JR’s house for a sleepover where we stayed up late and watched Terminator 2.

Now it has been a long time since I had last seen that movie, but from what I remember, the movie was awesome (at least from the perspective of an adolescent) and there wasn’t anything offensive. I don’t recall any gratuitous violence, sex, nudity, or vulgarity. What exactly was it that I had been sheltered from for all this time? It was certainly not pornographic (as a teenage boy, I would have certainly remembered that). There wasn’t any gore. This wasn’t snuff. I’ll admit that it wasn’t necessarily the most morally uplifting film, but on the other hand, it wasn’t the opposite either. The movie didn’t preach or support immorality (unless helping a bio-cast cyborg from the future to protect the future leader and savior of mankind from a mimetic polyally android is immoral).

Since this introduction to the world of rated-R movies, I would not be surprised if I have seen more R movies than any other rating. In fact my current DVD collection probably has a 2:1 ratio of R to non-R movies. While some rated R movies certainly could be called pornographic, so are many PG-13 movies. In fact, I would say I have probably seen more PG-13 movies that I have found offensive or immoral than R movies.

So with that brief introduction to my relationship to the R. Here are some thoughts on Mormonism and R-rated media.

1. There is no Mormon commandment or standard against rated-R movies. A few days ago, two of my aunts left comments on my family’s website celebrating a recent Mormon American Idol contestant who apparently boasted that she had never seen an rated-R movies. “She told them that she was raised differently–had never seen an r-rated movie, etc. She told them that they couldn’t bring her over to the “dark side.” Bet you couldn’t guess what religion she is!” “The judges thought it was pretty weird for a married young couple not to have seen R-rated movies. Well, there are many of us in this country who have the same standards.” It seems wherever I go in Mormondom, there is the omnipresent appeal to this Mormon prohibition of the R. Where did this come from?

In an April 1986 general conference address, President Ezra Taft Benson speaking directly to the youth of the church encouraged them to avoid lewd media. Rated-R movies were among the list of things he encouraged the youth to refrain from. Since that address, any sort of call to avoid the R has been limited to 2 or 3 lines from seventies who usually just quote President Benson – the last of these occurring in 1993. The general membership of the church has never been instructed to avoid the R, and contrary to most myths, the Church’s Strength of the Youth pamphlet/booklet has never contained instructions prohibiting the youth from watching rated-R movies.

But President Benson said so! First of all, this talk was directly given to the Aaronic priesthood youth, so to turn it into a general claim is going beyond the scope of his talk. Furthermore (and this is part of a much bigger issue which I’ll leave out), the statements made by a President of the Church – even in general conference – are hardly grounds for determining LDS doctrine or commandment. There is a long list of statements made by Church Presidents in general conferences that have never become become Church commandment or doctrine. For example, Brigham Young’s Adam-God Doctrine or Spencer W. Kimball’s October 1978 conference talk against hunting.

2. The myth of the prohibition of the R prevents Mormons from seeing some very good movies. In his unsatisfactory book, What Is Mormonism All About?: Answers to the 150 Most Commonly Asked Questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, author W. F. Walker. Johanson begins his answer to the question of why Mormons don’t watch rated-R movies with the rhetorical question “Why would anybody even want to watch a rated-R movie?” He then continues to provide a caricature of the R nothing more than violent and pornographic trash. It became quickly clear that he was simply an ignoramus who has never seen a rated-R movie, nor is willing to recognize that an R movie can have some value.

Not only are all R movies not simply trash, but some of the movies that have most impacted my life in a positive way have been rated R. One of the first movies I saw after my mission was the beautiful and powerful theatrical translation of Stephen King’ The Green Mile which deeply moved me and gave me a whole new perspective of the immorality of the death penalty and our prison system (King’s The Shawshank Redemption did much of the same). War movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Glory, and the recent and amazing Letters from Iwo Jima are must-sees in this age of wars and rumors of wars. Historical depictions such as Schindler’s List or Munich help us learn from the mistakes from our past so as not to repeat them. Not only are many R-movies morally uplifting, but many (though perhaps not having a moral message) are just powerful works of art. Children of Men, Sweeney Todd, No Country for Old Men, Gone Baby Gone, Kill Bill, and The Passion are just a few recent R’s off the top of my head that excel in their artistic story-telling – whether or not the R rating was warranted.

3. The myth of a Mormon prohibition of the R leads too often to self-righteous holier-than-thou judging. Back to W.F. Walker Johanson’s lacking book. “Why would anybody even want to watch a rated-R movie?” When you create a false commandment, you create a false sense of righteousness resulting in false and ignorant judgments of others. Growing up, I thought people who watched rated R movies were sinning.

4. The R prohibition is no standard to judge the contents of a movie. While growing, the R was strictly prohibited in our home. If we were watching a PG-13 movie, my dad would have the vcr in hand, ever ready to depress the fast-forward button in case something were to show up on the television screen. It was embarrassing in front of friends.

The prohibition of the R is very much akin to the modern revision of the Word of Wisdom, the biggest difference being that the latter has an actual official position. With the modern Word of Wisdom we find all too many Mormons who won’t touch a Coke because of the unhealthiness of caffeine, but continue to stuff already obese bodies with fats, sugars, and cholesterol. They spare on meats about as much as Mitt Romney spares on lacking integrity. Similarly, I see many Mormons who frown on any rated-R movie (while even recognizing that there may be nothing wrong with the movie besides its rating), but have an an anything-goes policy with offensive hyper-sexualized PG-13 movies simply because it does not have the scarlet R. Like the Pharisees of old, they have placed a false fence as a standard of righteousness and have failed to recognize what was that that fence surrounded.

Now I don’t think that all R movies are for everybody. I don’t think any movie is for everybody. (I also think that most LDS-films are for nobody. Nor do I believe that ratings should be simply ignored. More than not, the MPAA ratings (which are very problematic) give a somewhat appropriate guide to helping us make a decision. However, that rating should not be the sole guide, but rather a sign by which we should then proceed to make further inquiries. If we see a PG-13 or R rating, we should find out why such is the case, and then determine if those things can appropriately fit within our own personal guidelines, sensibilities, and gospel understanding.

* On a side note, Richard Dutcher’s new movie Falling, billboarded as the first rated-R Mormon-film is crap. Seriously. Don’t see it.

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Women’s Education is Not A Safety Net

January 20, 2008

by Guest Poster fmhJanet

In a 2001 address, President Hinckley counseled girls to:

Choose the things you would like to do, and educate yourselves to be effective in their pursuit. For most it is very difficult to settle on a vocation. You are hopeful that you will marry and that all will be taken care of. In this day and time, a girl needs an education. She needs the means and skills by which to earn a living should she find herself in a situation where it becomes necessary to do so.[1]


The prophet’s chosen title and his subsequent remarks heavily imply that he does not view schooling solely as a safety net for women to fall back upon should tragedy befall them. But his remarks strike a familiar refrain. Most LDS commentary of women and education falls upon its own rhetorical safety net, insisting that girls need education “in case something happens.” Surely our leaders must tire of adding this caveat. I know I tire of hearing it. Maybe my interstitial line-reading has gone awry, but I sense a note of tiredness in the prophet’s observation that girls want to “be taken care of.” Instead, he goes onto say, they should fully develop their talents and be “qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world” regardless of marital status.

So why the consistent qualifier? Surely it has potential weight, considering that many women never marry, that between 13 and 24% of LDS marriages end in divorce, and that 1/3 of widows become such before their 50th birthday.[2] In my own decade of marriage, I’ve watched as 6 friends have been catapulted into the confusing world of widowhood, often without the boon of life insurance or an education. The last friend lost her husband only a week ago, and I’ve wondered how she will support four children with a dearth of marketable skills. Cast into her lot, I’d fare rather poorly—I have an unfinished PhD in a market with 7 applicants for every job. I’d have to trust the marketability of my ability to type 70 words a minute or suddenly compose a Harry Potter-esque hotcake of a novel.  Despite my own paltry safety net, I still feel as though I’ve followed the prophet’s dictum to educate myself, because the contributions that education offers me, and which I can thus offer, far outweigh my earning potential (thank goodness).

So exactly what “significant contributions” might outweigh the panic room existence of education? Are our leaders trying to scare girls who would otherwise wheedle away their time trying on wedding dresses and dreaming of a domestic bliss composed of sponging off a hubby without offering substantial contributions of their own? Let’s be clear: the contributions I see, and which I believe our leaders see, aren’t just greenbacks paying the rent or paving the way to a be-curtained Wizard of Oz where worldly stuff is unveiled as just…stuff. Monetary contributions don’t compose the brunt of education’s utility. Nor does the inarguable fact and oft-repeated mantra that an educated woman has a few extra tools for teaching any kiddos who might pinwheel into the picture, demanding why the sky is not purple and too pigheaded to settle for “God likes it like that.” The contributions education offers an LDS woman, and which an educated woman offers the world, are far bigger than a fat wallet or the embodiment of Baby Einstein.

An educated woman contributes a better self. To herself, for herself. To others, for others. To God, for God. While the “safety net” might be our most common metaphor for education, I like the idea that it is the air, the tightrope, the net, the woman walking the wire. An educated person becomes the embodiment of her learning—education is not just something you “get” or consume the way you buy a new handbag. It is who you are. It frames the way you see the world, offers the ability to distinguish between a disagreement and a fight, to make connections which unify the different components of God’s world. Education makes you independent at the same time it teaches you how utterly dependent you remain upon others within your immediate and extended circles of influence. Grasping such a healthy paradox helps us parse the balancing of responsibilities to self and community, of individual spirituality mitigated by the needs of a Zion-aimed group. It gives you much more than the ability to procure employment, for as Dallin H. Oaks says,

Education is more than vocational. Education should improve our minds, strengthen our bodies, heighten our cultural awareness, and increase our spirituality. It should prepare us for greater service to the human family.[3]

Oh sure, we’ve all encountered (or been) the girl who just “wants to be taken care of.” But despite that, or the outside world’s alarming tendency to envision LDS women as uneducated drones,[4]  things aren’t as dire as we may sometimes think. Yes, educational inequity remains along gender lines: far more Mormon men finish degrees than do Mormon women. Still, that gap narrows when taking into account graduate education,[5] and would narrow further still if sociological research reflected the extra-collegiate education women gain in learning the practical necessities of running a household or caring for kids (and they should count, thank you).[6] And while LDS women do cite the “safety net” and “better mom” arguments for pursuing education, they also identify mind-enriching pursuits as inherently useful for self-edification, a step-up from ages past. [7] And here’s a honey of a tidbit: research reveals not only that LDS women are more likely to seek post-secondary education than are women from other religions which emphasize the primacy of women’s maternal role, but that the education itself may serve as a predictor of continued spiritual growth and activity in the church.[8] Makes sense. We embrace John’s counsel that those who follow God’s laws internalize His doctrine, and LDS doctrine holds that God’s glory lies in intelligence.[9] Learn more, become more, become like God.

Does an LDS young woman need to build herself a safety net? Sure she does. But more than that she needs to embrace the notion that “our sacred regard for each human intellect, [requires that] we consider the obtaining of an education to be a religious responsibility. … Our Creator expects His children everywhere to educate themselves.”[10] She needs to know that education bolsters rather than impairs spirituality. (I’m betting Laurels and Mia Maids are not deaf to the implications of the phrase “so-called intellectual” or to some of the cultural scuttlebutt that paints educated women as snobs who do not love their children.) She needs to know that God’s command to fulfill the measure of her creation includes more than maximizing her reproductive capacity. She needs to know that the more education a woman accrues, the more she has to offer her community, her family, and herself. But especially, she needs to know that refusing to approach the world expecting or desiring “to be taken care of” means that when she gives all she has as an offering to God, she will offer a more substantial self.

So here are my questions: do we need to drop the “safety net” rhetoric in order to get our YW to focus on the weightier stuff of education? Or does the potential apathy of YW require the refrain’s emphasis? Will our YW respond to inspiration rather than fear?


[1] “How Can I Become the Woman of Whom I Dream,” Ensign May 2001, 93.
[2] “Divorce and the LDS Church.” http://www.religioustolerance.org/lds_divo.htm; Holden, Karen: Tabulations from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), 1984-1997. University of Wisconsin, 2002.

[3] Women and Education,” Ensign, March 1975, 57.

[4] At the close of their article “Higher Education and the Negotiated Process of Hegemony: Embedded Resistance among Mormon Women,” John Mihelich and Debbie Storrs admit their own preconceived biases and, in light of their findings, suggest other sociologists view LDS women as more than “mere dupes.” (Gender & Sociology 17.3: 404-422)

[5] Stephen J. Bahr. “Mormon Statistics.” http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/daily/social_eom.htm

[6] Please note that this post does not refer only about formal education. The gospel preaches unification of body and spirit, so while conversance in Sarte and DeCarte (or Derrida and Boethius) it isn’t the whole of education. You need to know how to care for the other half of the soul. Which means you need to know how to cook more than refried beans from a can.

[7] Mihelich and Storrs, 416. 

[8] Keysar, Ariela and Barry A. Kosmin. “The Impact of Religious Identification on Differences in Educational Attainment among American Women in 1990.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34.1: 49-62.

[9] John 7:17

[10] Ensign, Nov. 1992, 6.

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Do we really believe that education is just as important for women as it is for men?

January 18, 2008

By Steve M.

Education plays dual roles in Mormondom.

On the one hand, its pursuit is an act of devotion that makes men and women more godly. President Hinckley has instructed members, “You have a mandate from the Lord to educate your minds and your hearts and your hands” (Cite). The Doctrine & Covenants includes an injunction to “[s]eek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), and states that “if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life . . . he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19). Indeed, mortal life is an educative experience, and we often speak of eternity in terms of “learning” and “progression.” The sanctity of education is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the doctrine Joseph Smith enumerated in the King Follet Sermon: “you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves,” he instructed the Saints (emphasis added). From this perspective, it would seem that education is equally vital to both men and women.

On the other hand, the importance of education is often grounded in practical, rather than spiritual, concerns. We don’t talk a whole lot about the intrinsic value of an education, but its practical benefits are always at the forefront of our discourse. As one General Authority said to an audience of BYU students, “It is important that you do something that allows you to earn a good living, because you have to provide for a family; and that is what education is all about, in my opinion” (Cite). Similarly, in encouraging church members to “get all of the education that you possibly can,” President Hinckley reasons that “[l]ife has become so complex and competitive. . . . [The] world will in large measure pay you what it thinks you are worth, and your worth will increase as you gain education and proficiency in your chosen field” (Cite). In light of quasi-scriptural proclamations that “[b]y divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families . . . [and m]others are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” (Cite), one logical conclusion may be that education, the stuff of which lucrative careers are made, is more central to men’s familial role than to women’s.

Read the rest of this entry »

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More Than an M.R.S. Degree

January 15, 2008

by BiV

As I approached this topic, I wondered why education for ‘Mormon’ women should be any different than education for any other woman.  Are Latter-day Saints concerned that higher education might lure women into the workplace and away from traditional feminine responsibilities?

The following words promoting education for women were written by Daniel Defoe:

And herein it is that I take upon me to make such a bold assertion, That all the world are mistaken in their practice about women. For I cannot think that GOD Almighty ever made them so delicate, so glorious creatures; and furnished them with such charms, so agreeable and so delightful to mankind; with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men: and all, to be only Stewards of our Houses, Cooks, and Slaves.

And Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Christian theologian, said that woman was “created to be man’s helpmeet, but her unique role is in conception . . . since for other purposes men would be better assisted by other men.”

One might think that since Mormon women have been encouraged to stay at home, conceive many children and fulfil traditional roles, higher education for women would be discouraged among the Saints.  Thankfully, this is not the case!  Beginning in the very early days of the Church, education for women kept pace with and even outstripped opportunities for other women in the United States.  In October 1873 Brigham Young announced that women would be sent east to be educated and trained in the medical field with the objective of returning to Utah to serve as physicians. Accordingly, Romania Pratt enrolled in the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the fall of 1874. The following year Margaret Curtis enrolled in the Philadelphia school but after a month returned to Utah and her family because of homesickness. (She later returned to complete her degree in 1883.) Ellis Shipp was chosen to take her sister-wife Margaret’s place and eagerly set out for Philadelphia on 10 November 1875. Though she left behind her three small children in the care of her three sister-wives, she graduated with honors and later established her own medical practice.  She remained an active and devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served on the general boards of the Relief Society and the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association.

Since that auspicious beginning, education has been valued among Latter-day Saint women.  Prominent women in the Church including the leaders of the Auxiliaries and the wives of Prophets and GA’s have long encouraged the education of the female mind.  Camilla Kimball was a strong advocate for higher education and often advised women to gain as much formal education as was available to them. 

…I received a letter from a sweet young girl from Colorado asking, “Sister Kimball, since the Church stresses so the importance of a woman’s role as wife and mother, do you think it is necessary to have a college education?” You may be sure that I sent her a very detailed letter of the importance of all the education that a woman can acquire. A well-rounded education will be a great help in a woman’s important role both as wife and mother.

Sister Kimball and other Church leaders have stressed that higher education is an appropriate and desirable goal for Latter-day Saint women.  The skills of child training, economics and management, nutrition and nursing can directly complement women who follow traditional feminine roles.  Beyond this, formal education plays a role in helping women develop their talents and interests. 

Barbara B. Smith, General Relief Society President said that Latter-day Saint women are taught from their youth to get an education to prepare for marriage and homemaking as well as for a vocation, noting that “LDS women also fulfill societal roles such as physicians, lawyers, professors, homemakers, administrators, teachers, writers, secretaries, artists, and businesswomen. Additionally, many serve in community, political, and volunteer capacities.” 

Gordon B. Hinckley, our current prophet, stated that “in revelation the Lord has mandated that this people get all the education they can.”  In fact, Latter-day Saint women have been so successful in their pursuit of educational programs that the Prophet is now concerned that young men are falling far behind.

Education for the Mormon female is plainly more than just an M.R.S. Degree.  However, it does not seem to me that higher education has impacted Latter-day Saint women in ways that would keep them from fulfilling their responsibilities to home and family.  For example, the educated woman of today is more likely to breast-feed her children.  She is more likely to have skills that allow her to work from home or creatively manage work time so as to spend more time with home and family.  What do you think?  In your opinion, is higher education for women more or less conducive to women being able to perform their Church-defined gender roles?

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Be a bad man/woman

January 13, 2008

“Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone” was on  tonight.  I got to thinking how I preferred the old Dumbledore  to the new one.  Unfortunately the death of Richard Harris was what necessitated the change.  Perhaps Harris’ role could have been Samuel L. Jackson playing Dumbledore in the persona of his Jules Winnfield character from “Pulp Fiction”.

For me humor is something that I use sparingly, or I should say, with discretion.   I like to joke around but have learned there are time when doing so is in really bad form.   I have learned that laughter can cheer a soul more then most things I know of.  But I decided to have some fun with this week’s post.

So if you have need a good laugh, click here.  It ain’t Harry Potter.  But I think it’s funny.

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The Interplay of Culture and Doctrine

January 11, 2008

By Steve M.

Because M&M’s thoughts on goal-setting and New Year’s resolutions are so similar to my own (and you guys probably thought we never agreed on anything), I’m going to write on the topic originally scheduled for this week–which is, as our one-week-behind sidebar indicates, “Nevertheless they are to be used sparingly.”

As most readers of this blog probably recognized, that phrase comes from Doctrine & Covenants 89:12, a verse in the revelation that has come to be called the “Word of Wisdom.” Verse 12 states that while the “flesh . . . of beasts and of the fowls of the air” are “ordained for the use of man,” they are “nevertheless they are to be used sparingly.” Verse 13 elaborates, stating that “it is pleasing unto [God] that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”

As the Word of Wisdom entry in the lds.org “Gospel Topics” section indicates, the revelation is commonly described as the “law of health revealed by the Lord for the physical and spiritual benefit of His children.” That webpage succinctly describes the law as it is understood in the modern church. It prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and “hot drinks” (i.e., tea and coffee), implicitly forbids illegal drugs and other addictives, and encourages the consumption of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Notably, the entry specifically points out that the revelation also prescribes the “sparing” consumption of meats, but does not mention the part about times of winter, cold, or famine.

Of course, modern Mormons aren’t particularly known for their “sparing” consumption of meat. We may be known for not smoking or drinking, but we can’t claim quasi- or partial vegetarianism as one of our distinguishing characteristics.

I believe that Section 89, particularly its counsel regarding meat consumption, is one of the best examples of how culture affects the meaning of what we consider a divine revelation (in this case, one that is partially delivered in the voice of God). While Latter-day Saints accept as God’s literal words the proclamation that “[w]hat I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself” (D&C 1:38), we have nonetheless used Section 89 as a mere starting point for subsequent interpretations and reinterpretations of “the Lord’s law of health.”

History tells us that Section 89 probably had a different meaning to the Latter-day Saints of the 1830s. Its prohibitions fit well with the temperance movements, which cautioned against consuming substances such as tobacco and alcohol. These movements even debated the health implications of drinking liquids served at elevated temperatures (which, of course, included tea and coffee). As one society wrote, “Cold water clears the head; and though it does not regenerate, it greatly unwraps the heart.” The Temperance Society, which also preached against the use of “all ardent spirits as a beverage,” was often called the “Cold Water Society” by outsiders (see here). In this context, the statement that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly” (D&C 89:9) would not have been ambiguous. Likewise, moderation or abstinence in meat may have been linked to the temperance movement; a subsequent temperance-oriented movement in England regarded meat as a stimulant, and described abstinence from it as “the higher phase of temperance” (see here). Thus, the endorsement of “sparing” meat consumption also may have been unsurprising. As the Kirtland Temperance Society had succeeded in closing the city’s distillery during the month prior to the reception of the Word of Wisdom, temperance was likely at the front of the Kirtland Saints’ minds. While the extent to which the movement influenced Joseph Smith or the revelation itself is up for debate, nineteenth-century views of health would have informed the early Saints’ views of the Word of Wisdom.

Although the revelation was not solidified as a requirement for temple attendance until 1921 (during the Prohibition era, appropriately), and in its present form is still introduced with the words “not by commandment or constraint,” it is one of the most seriously taken commandments in Mormondom. However, to modern adherents far removed from the cultural context of nineteenth-century America, the original import of the revelation text is less clear. To us, “hot drinks” has always meant tea and coffee, and it is widely believed that the rationale has something to do with the beverages’ caffeine content (although hot chocolate, a “hot drink” not forbidden by the Word of Wisdom and widely enjoyed by Mormons, has about the same caffeine content as green tea–see here). The belief is implicitly backed up by the Church, as its temples, universities, and other outlets do not serve caffeinated beverages (even the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is largely directed at non-Mormon tourists, only serves decaffeinated coffee). Beer is decidedly a prohibited substance, even though the original revelation endorsed the use of barley for “mild drinks” (verse 17). And, as hinted at above, the injunction to partake of meat “sparingly”–preferably only in times of cold, winter, and famine–although clearly stated in the revelation, is almost universally ignored. Thus, while a cup of tea will keep you out of the temple, consuming six Big Macs per day won’t. We ostensibly believe that the revelation–the whole revelation–is inspired, yet our modern conception of the Word of Wisdom is, in many respects, at odds with the actual text of Section 89.

Culture is probably at least partially responsible for the evolution of the Mormons’ understanding of the revelation. As mentioned, it transitioned from “inspired counsel” to “binding commandment” at a time when alcohol was prohibited in the United States. As illicit drugs became a concern in the twentieth-century, they were added to the list of the revelation’s prohibited substances. As concerns related to “winter, cold, and famine” shrunk and meat was cemented as a staple of modern Americans’ diet, the revelation’s counsel regarding meat consumption apparently faded into insignificance.

Some Mormons apparently experience some cognitive dissonance as they observe the gap between their own diet and that originally prescribed by the revelation. Gramps responds to the concern with an explanation I’ve heard on several occasions–that the first comma in verse 13 was originally lacking. Apparently, it originally read: “And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Hence, according to Gramps, the verse was intended to convey the opposite meaning–that it pleases the Lord when His people don’t confine their meat consumption to times of winter, cold, and famine. Of course, this explanation ignores the context established in the previous verse (“sparingly”), and fails to consider that the addition of the comma may have been intended to clarify the verse, and to make its “true” or original meaning more apparent. It also ignores nineteenth-century interpretations of the verse, such as Eliza R. Snow’s “In Our Lovely Deseret,” which celebrates that the children of Deseret eat “[b]ut a very little meat.” This cognitive dissonance may also be apparent in the scriptures cited in the footnote to the word “sparingly” in the current edition of the Doctrine & Covenants, each of which endorse the use of meat rather than elaborate on the word “sparingly.” Perhaps springboarding off of the gap between nineteenth-century and modern interpretations of the Word of Wisdom, the Sugar Beet has toyed with the idea of applying the meat restriction in the same manner that the revelation’s other mandates are presently applied: “Excess Meat Scandal Rocks Seminary Presidency.”

In a recent VSOM thread, one commenter said the following: “There is a difference between Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine. The doctrine is there to guide us and help us be more Christ-like, but unfortunately the culture lags behind what the doctrine teaches.” I don’t entirely disagree with the statement, but in many (if not most) instances, I tend to agree with the Narrator’s response: “Doctrine is defined by the culture. If a doctrine isn’t accepted by the culture, it fades on the wayside. (See Adam-God, ancestry of Native Americsns [sic], priesthood ban doctrines, immorality of birth control, etc etc etc). On the other hand, when a culture largely embraces a teaching it becomes ‘doctrine.'”

As discussed, culture has most likely influenced the evolution of Word of Wisdom understanding in Mormondom, thus affecting the manner by which we define doctrine and expected behavior. While “doctrines” are widely described as “universal” or “unchanging,” the disparity between the Section 89 text and contemporary interpretations of the law it introduced evidences the fact that our conceptions of “doctrine” change. As is often the case, the line separating cultural norms from universal truth, human from the divine, is fuzzy. In the black-and-white world of Sunday School and the Correlation Committee, such a proposition may be discomfiting. But embracing it accommodates a more nuanced, flexible, and realistic approach to the origins, function, and development of revelation and doctrine in Mormonism.