The Faith of Our Fathers

While chatting with a new LDS convert recently, he asked how long I had been a member of the Church. I told him that I’d actually been one from the very beginning—that my parents had been practicing members of the faith when I was born, and that I had been raised in a more or less orthodox household. In fact, I mentioned, much my family’s participation in the Church ran back some five or six generations, when early forbears made the choice to embrace the faith and let it completely transform them. As a result, the threads of Mormonism now make up much of the warp and woof of our family identity.

[Read more...]

Going to Church in Exile..or Why Denominations Still Matter

As I have moved farther and farther away from the Independence, Missouri headquarters of the Community of Christ (RLDS church) over the past decade, I have attended increasingly smaller congregations. First, it was church with 30 people in Iowa City during grad school. Then it was church with 20 people in Worthington, Ohio when I took my first academic job. Third, it was church with 15 people in Freeport, Maine. And now, I live in an area of upstate New York without a Community of Christ congregation—the nearest one is two and half hours away in Connecticut. Consequently, I have been a constant visitor among the congenial and progressive Methodists in Saratoga Springs. But something has been lacking.

Don’t get me wrong. The services at my new UMC congregation are wonderful. The pastor preaches thoughtful, challenging sermons filled with themes of social justice, inclusivity, and Jesus. The organ music is rather amazing. The people are friendly. And there is good mix of young and old.

What, then, has been missing? Well…I could rattle off a long list, but for this column I’ll just highlight one primary area: key texts and their concomitant ritual enactments. [Read more...]

Foodism?

I am excited to read the new collection of essays on food and religion in North America (Religion, Food, and Eating in North America), published by Columbia University Press and edited by Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Nora L. Rubel. We don’t know nearly enough about the intersection of food and religious practices and religious identity. And this extends beyond institutionally based religious identity and to the intersection between food and what Catherine Albanese would call cultural religious identity. For instance, where I live in the Pacific Northwest, food is an important part of regional identity, and beliefs, practices, and dialogue around food have religious resonances. This focus on food is part of the diffuse nature religion of the region. The food carts and the wine industry are probably the best-known aspects of this “foodism” outside of the region, but there are plenty of other facets. “Locally grown” and “organic” are buzzwords that appear everywhere and drive a thriving network of farmer’s markets throughout Oregon and Washington, particularly in urban areas. Regional chains of grocery stores use these concepts to promote their products and stake a claim on ethical high ground. This doesn’t even get into the restaurant infrastructure that helps to fuel the regional economy. One local magazine recently announced on its cover: “25 Sandwiches that Will Change Your Life.” And I’m leaving out diet-based subcultures of vegans, paleo-eaters, gluten-free enthusiasts. Each of these aspects of the regional food focus intersects with the others and each could be the subject of an entire book!

The way folks in the Northwest talk about, think about, and eat food is complicated, but many aspects resonate with Albanese’s description of nature religion: nature is seen as an expression of divine will and power and a place where humans can experientially connect with the divine. Food as a facet of nature is potentially an important part of this connection. By the nineteenth century in the U.S., we have wellness movements centered on food and based on this set of assumptions. The Northwest regional focus on locally grown and organic taps into these assumptions about establishing a direct and authentic connection with nature. I’ve noticed a foraging culture in the area—the local paper has even published a year-round foraging calendar for those who want to take advantage of the bounty of the wild! Here, foragers go back to the most pure and unadulterated of nature’s bounty as they eat as if they existed in an Edenic time before the establishment of agriculture.

I could go on and on about the interesting manifestations of food culture of the Northwest and how they intersect with Albanese’s notion of nature religion and how they complicate this notion. But food here is also about participating and creating a regional identity in an area that, from a Euro-American point of view, has a short, diffuse, and pluralistic history. We have found a place of commonality in food. This, of course, is deeply implicated in economic strategies of the region’s culture-makers, something that I’ve written about in a previous column on nature religion in the West. Agriculture and tourism are the major economic engines of the region, so it makes sense for industries and individuals to promote food as a draw. But they are also, perhaps unintentionally, feeding the need to find a regional identity, at least in public discourse and dialogue. This is what makes the Northwest food culture so powerful. It fills a real need. It provides a place of commonality, practice, and discussion for individuals to share powerful, biological and emotional experiences with each other. I wonder if this applies to the country as a whole, in the end. Has food become part of the consumerism that is a foundation for American cultural religion? We don’t agree on politics or religion and come from very different ethnic backgrounds, but we can all understand food and communicate about our common experiences around food. Do we find—or at least seek—some kind of universal, ultimate meaning in the ritual and experience of consuming food? Have our American millennial and exceptionalist assumptions been condensed and universalized into this moment of experiencing abundance? Is this one of the reasons, perhaps, that we are always searching for more and better foods or things to consume? The experience is fleeting and never perfect, it rarely fulfills our expectations. If so, what does this mean for us as individuals living in this culture? Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Probably a bit of both. I love the connections that people make as they eat and talk about eating and enjoy those experiences. Yet I worry that food as ideal and reality has taken on more weight than it can bear and that the physical and psychological consequences for us as Americans are great.

Emma, My Daughter in Zion: A Preliminary Study of D&C 25, Part 2

In the preceding post (part 1), I work through a set of exegetical preliminaries to any theological engagement with D&C 25, the revelation to Emma Smith. I take as my task now to begin addressing the revelation at that more interpretive level. I’ll give my attention to three isolable themes in particular in the course of this post, each with clear implications for feminist interests. [Read more...]

Emma, My Daughter in Zion: A Preliminary Study of D&C 25, Part 1

This and the post following it (part 2) are pieces I wrote a few years ago as a guest blogger at another Mormon-themed blog. I’ve reworked them a bit, but I’ve largely left them as I originally wrote them. I think they’re worth a revisit now for a host of (largely obvious) reasons I won’t go into. I’ll say that my having written them in the first place and my posting them now shouldn’t be construed as either supportive or critical of any positions being taken on relevant issues. My aim in these posts—when I wrote them and now—is just to understand a text that seems to me crucial for getting anywhere on the kinds of questions being raised.

At any rate, the text I’ll deal with here is section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants, that unique revelation to Emma Smith. I offer nothing more than a preliminary study of the revelation. As is my wont, I take as my first task—in this first post, that is—to say a bit by way of exegesis, addressing the historical setting of the original revelation, changes made to the document between 1830 and 1835 (the text has remained stable since 1835), and, very briefly, the basic structure of the revelation. I’ll take each of these in turn in this post. And then I’ll turn to theological questions in my next post. [Read more...]

No More Strangers

One of my most familiar childhood religious memories is waking up at the end of the General Conference broadcast, sprawled full-length on the floor with the marks of the carpet in my cheek. “This has been the [ordinal number] conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the familiar voice intoned over the postlude. As the camera panned around the trees at Temple Square, I would pan around the living room to get the lay of the land. My father was asleep. My mother was asleep. My four brothers lay comatose amidst scattered colored pencils and scratch paper.

(To be fair to my parents, especially my mother, they were probably awake for most of the session, but as we all know, even the most faithful and committed Saints may succumb to sleep during Conference. That’s why the talks are printed in the Ensign afterward.)

Perhaps this is why I don’t have a very clear memory of very many General Conference talks that I watched as a kid. And yet I do remember the familiarity of that music, those images, the way that the leaves waved in the wind and the bright sunshine, the people bustling back and forth across Temple Square. I knew that this was the time when members of the church came together to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to listen to the Prophet speak, to fall asleep, and to watch the beautiful leaves at Temple Square flutter in the breeze. These were my people, and this was my church.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in a variety of Mormon communities around the world, each of them with its own distinct character. If I had to sort them in my mind by giving them “Best in Class” awards, I might begin with something like this:

[Read more...]