Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Be strong, be clean."


     When I heard on the radio that Thomas Monson died Tuesday, I immediately knew who he was, even before the newscaster identified him. Not just for the reason many do—he is cited in a line in "I Believe," a song in the wildly-popular 2011 musical "The Book of Mormon"—"And I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God"—but he also has a cameo in "The Quest for Pie,"
my as-yet unpublished memoir of traveling out West with my boys in 2009. We pull into Salt Lake City and, of course, head directly to the Mormon Temple, where soon we were treated to Monson's take on pornography.

     “Let’s get started,” said Sister Cross, a missionary from Australia, a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered woman with reddish brown hair who looked like an Olympic swimmer.
     “Welcome to Temple Square,” chimed in Sister Sarah, a missionary from Japan, petite and dark-haired. Both wore long skirts, short-sleeved white blouses under sweater vests, kind of a demure 1950s schoolgirl look.
     We had arrived at downtown Salt Lake City perhaps an hour before.
     The young woman behind the desk at the Peery—and wow, these Utah gals are good-looking—tapped at her computer, and happily welcomed us a day early. The boys got their own suite—I had one a floor above. Suddenly, everything was gravy. The car was safely parked—on the street across from the hotel, no parking problems here, apparently—we decided to walk to the Mormon Temple, the lone point on our agenda. Because really, what else is here?
     We walked the six blocks from the hotel—pure blue skies ahead, the streets wide and completely empty of pedestrians. Walking must be an exotic practice in Salt Lake City. Lots of construction going on, cranes everywhere. Kent, charmingly, thought the Mormons were a brand of Jews, since they had a temple, which I only realized after he pointed out a large Jewish star worked into the architecture. I did my best to explain what Mormonism is—a funky outshoot of Christianity, with golden plates and Joseph Smith. Many people consider them strange, but in my view they are only unfamiliar. All religions other than your own are strange when you first learn about them, and it is one of those tragic ironies of human nature that a person can cleave to the most rococo faith, jammed with the most elaborate rigmarole and hushed mystery hoo-ha, which of course are believed sincerely as merely the ineffable will of the Lord God Almighty made manifest, and that person can nevertheless turn with a snarl to mock someone else for belonging to a bizarre cult.
     That’s a big reason religious conservatives are often so hostile to other faiths—not because they’re so different, but because they’re so similar, and it’s a short leap from seeing how ridiculous other beliefs seem to beginning to suspect how ridiculous your own are, too. Thus other faiths must be ignored or trivialized or suppressed because respecting them will, eventually, cast doubt upon the One True Way. It’s easier to burn others than to question yourself.
     Our guides engaged us—a strategy to draw the marks in. What, Sister Cross asked the boys, did they know about Mormonism? I stepped in, offering that I had tried to explain Mormonism to them in the car on the way over.
     She smiled, indulgently.
     "What did you tell them?" she asked.
     I told her I had said that, in the same way Catholicism is Christianity with an overlay of distinctive Catholic trappings—the pope, the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation and such—so Mormonism takes a base of Jesus-worship and festoons it with the specifics of Mormon history: Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Angel Moroni, golden plates, a genealogy fixation. . . .
      She said nice try, but no cigar. The key aspect of Mormonism, she said, is that unlike other religions, it has a living prophet, still, to this day, Thomas S. Monson, the 16th living prophet, who traces his ancestry directly back to Jesus Christ and is in regular communication with God.
     The Visitors Center at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City dwarfs the one in Los Angeles, and is filled with large painted murals from moments in Mormon history and idealized depictions of life—“Our Heavenly Father’s Plan For Families” — with happy white people sowing grain, marrying, teaching their children, their faces awash in joy and light, frozen in ecstasy. It reminded me of North Korean propaganda. Even the occasional black or Asian or Hispanic person thrown in for minimal racial balance looked bled white in this setting. The boys and I delicately picked our way over the place—beautifully designed, Smithsonian quality, with maps and mannequins, artifacts, videos, tableaus, models—then signed up for the tour.
     Sisters Cross and Sarah explained to us how God had led Brigham Young to the present location in the 1840s, where he stuck his cane in the ground and decreed this was the spot where he would build his church.
     We were walked through the enormous hall where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs. Music has always been an important part of Mormonism and, given the chilly reception the idea of Mormonism gets in the rest of the country, the choir is something of a goodwill ambassador, or was when I was growing up. Now they don’t seem as big a deal, or perhaps its presence is just overwhelmed by the rising din of society.
     Kent admired the scale model of Jerusalem—Mormons tend to like Jews, even more, it sometimes seems, than Jews like Jews. Ross—who always pays close attention at museums—strayed from the group, going into the little glassed-in booths off to the side where snippets of taped lectures from Monson, the latest prophet in an unbroken line from Young, were being played on TV screens.
     “Be strong, be clean around such degrading and destructive content at all costs,” Monson was saying, in a talk entitled, “Be Clean.” “I add particularly to the young people, my beloved friends, under no circumstances permit yourself to be trapped by the viewing of pornography.”
     “Of all Christianity, this is my favorite faction,” said Ross.
     The missionaries were obviously poised for us to express interest in Mormonism—maybe whisk us off to a special chamber for further instruction, or that baptism I had waved off in Los Angeles. Yeah right, I thought, that’s going to happen. It’s an insult, really, how these folk expect you to readily drop whatever dogma you’ve believed all your life, and your forebears before you, and accept their faith based on some murals and a few lines of ballyhoo. But I suppose it does happen. Soft-willed visitors must sign up on the spot. I wondered if it goes the other way, wondered how many guys try to corrupt the missionary spokeswomen—that must happen too. At least the attempt must happen; I doubt many missionaries are led astray, though you never know. Not the sort of thing I would attempt, though it was entertaining to ponder the concept—they seem to feel entitled to pressure you into considering their way of life, why shouldn’t turnabout be fair play? Maybe God wants you to do whatever the heck you want.


  1. Here's what Anthony Trollope had to say about Brigham Young:
    I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City. I called upon him, sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an introduction, and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. "I guess you're a miner," said he. I again assured him that I was not. "Then how do you earn your bread?" I told him I did so by writing books. "I'm sure you're a miner," said he. Then he turned upon his heel, went back into the house, and closed the door. I was properly punished, as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name.

    1. That's a great story!
      Trollope is getting a lot of mentions lately.

    2. Yes. Trollope rocks!

      He wasn't the only British novelist who interacted with Mormons by the way. In his 1887 novella "A Study in Scarlet," Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed them as prone to assassinate heretics and non-believers. He later made nice on a 1923 visit to Salt Lake City, claiming he had been misled by published accounts at the time. He had himself gone off the deep end a bit by then in his quest to authenticate claims of 'Spiritualists' that they could communicate with the dead, and he found support for his theories in Mormonism.

      The Mormons, most of them, forgave him, but history of early Mormonism did indeed involve violence, to them and by them. The first mass murder of white people in our country was probably the 1857 'Mountain Meadows Massacre,' when some 120 settlers, men women and older children, traversing southern Utah on the way to California were gunned down by a Mormon militia. Young children were spared and given to Mormon families to raise, and details of the incident emerged when they began to talk . Brigham Young professed innocence of involvement, but not very convincingly.


  2. I once heard of a busload of Mormon missionaries on their way to Florida to convert the evangelicals, at the same time a busload of evangelical missionaries were headed for Salt Lake City to convert the Mormons. Wonder if they waved to each other along the way.

  3. Mormons love Jews so much, they keep converting the ones murdered by the Nazis into Mormons, decades after they died.

    To really learn all about Mormons, find the episode of "South Park", where they explain exactly what Mormons believe in & how they came about.
    For example: Joseph Smith said he found those gold plate & the "seer stones" that allowed him to translate the plates into English. Except every time he retranslated a section of the plates, the translation was different!
    In reality, all Smith, his brother Hyrum & the few other goofs that followed him wanted was to find a "lawful method" that would enable them to fuck multiple women!
    And by the way, Mormons still believe in what they call plural marriage, no matter what their mouthpieces claim, they just believe that that all now happens after death, when each Mormon man gets his own planet to live on & have all the wives he wants. And their god also has his own planet called "Kolbol".
    They also wear "sacred underwear" [Google it], which has "sacred symbols" at the knees & nipples. Except all the symbols were flat out stolen from the Masons!

    On a personal level, almost all are nice & pleasant people, but what they believe in is absolutely insane!

  4. In 1844 two relatives of John Quincy Adams visited Nauvoo, Illinois, then at the outer edge of the American frontier. They met Joseph Smith and described him in less than flattering terms, presenting him as a manipulative, power mad religious fanatic and conman. At one point Smith and his elderly mother showed the visitors (one of whom was John Quincy Adams son) religious relics, including papyrus notes written by Abraham, Moses' signature, and mummies. After the showing of the relics, Smith suggesting a 25 cent donation to his mother, which the visitors grudgingly paid.

    One of the visitors wrote: "For many years I held a trusteeship which required me to be a frequent visitor at the McLean Asylum for the Insane. I had talked with some of its unhappy inmates, victims of the sad but not uncommon delusion that each had received the appointment of vicegerent of the Deity upon earth. It is well know that such unfortunates, if asked to explain their confinement, have a ready reply: “I am sane. The rest of the world is mad, and the majority is against me.” It was like a dream to find one’s self moving through a prosperous community [Nauvoo], where the repulsive claim of one of these pretenders was respectfully acknowledged. It was said that Prince Hamlet had no need to recover his wits when he was dispatched to England, for the demented denizens of that Island would never detect his infirmity. If the blasphemous assumptions of Smith seemed like the ravings of a lunatic, he had, at least, brought them to a market where “all the people were as mad as he.”

  5. We've been put through the paces to varying extents in Nauvoo, SLC and St. George, Utah. It's an interesting experience -- all so pleasant and wholesome-seeming. At first one thinks, "My, these people are friendly," which rather rapidly segues into "Oh, they think we're gonna sign up before we leave." We were really getting the hard sell in the last of these encounters, until they ascertained that we'd been married for 20 years and had no children. Uh, that cooled things down pronto -- which made me feel like we'd played a Get-out-of-jail-free card...

    "It’s an insult, really, how these folk expect you to readily drop whatever dogma you’ve believed all your life, and your forebears before you, and accept their faith based on some murals and a few lines of ballyhoo. But I suppose it does happen." If it didn't happen -- or some version of it, based on missionaries randomly visiting one's home, for instance -- there wouldn't be so many Mormons, in the first place. I've spent an hour or so chatting and debating in my house with a couple "Elders" making their rounds, also. I don't consider it an insult any more than I consider Coca-Cola or McDonald's to be insulting me by creating the most appealing advertising they can come up with.

    "I told her I had said that, in the same way Catholicism is Christianity with an overlay of distinctive Catholic trappings..." Perhaps it's just the Catholic school boy in me bristling, but I'd take issue with that "same way." Whatever one thinks of it, Catholicism has a rich 2,000 year tradition, with most of the significant "trappings" having a basis in the Bible. Mormonism was transparently made up by one guy in 1829. Not that there's anything wrong with that! ; )

    1. It's fun to look up the oft time humble, even crude beginnings of our neighbor's religion, but to search our own spiritual roots can be devastating. The "rich 2,000 year tradition" of Catholicism has given it the opportunity to bring more evil into the world than any other religion, bar none. Even its very first years of establishing rites, procedures and hierarchies were replete with bloody battles over the nature of Christ. Those with incorrect ideas were simply slaughtered. I go to Mass almost every Sunday, but it's like an occasion of sin for me, because I notice every inconsistency in the readings, every deviation from "God is Love" in what is said and not said, and the focus on the bingo jackpot as we leave church. I understand the church's failings and rejoice that I did not have to make the choices that in many cases perpetuated rather than halted sexual abuses. I'm still a Catholic, though not a very good one. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in Good and wish I were better in serving it.


    2. John,

      Your "occasion of sin" line really resonates for me. I feel the same way, and like a huge hypocrite when I go to Mass, though it's closer to just C and E than every Sunday, often based on joining family members. I also am bothered by the many ways in which the institutional Church deviates and has deviated from the core message of the Gospels. In short, I'm right there with you.

      While my comment may have made it sound like I'm cheer-leading for the Catholics, that was not my intent. My intent was to note that making it sound like Catholicism and Mormonism are two equal sects of Christianity that both have weird aspects is disingenuous to me. There are *many* weird aspects to Catholicism that seem rationally indefensible to me. My point was that most of those aspects are core beliefs of Christianity that have been around for 2 millennia and are simply based on belief in the New Testament. "Mere Christianity." Not all, of course. Many of the weirdest aspects featured in the Book of Mormon have no basis in previous Christian thought and are thus of a whole different nature than the "trappings" of Catholicism.

      In my long journey from being a good Catholic to being whatever I am now, some of the last glimmers of thinking "Yeah, but..." involved the argument that there must be *something* to the Gospel story, or how could an itinerant preacher, a bunch of fisherman and then a random Jewish guy named Paul have transformed the world the way they did? And then I think about the Mormons. What the early Christians did, they did in a different epoch altogether. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young managed to build a thriving church, with even more fantastical beliefs, in the 19th Century, with all the challenges that modernity put in their way. So, anything's possible, I suppose. (Take Scientology, please!) ; )

  6. SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

    --Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil's Dictionary"

    1. Putting down another's religion can appear unseemly, but William James once aptly observed that, "using a stigma to beat a dogma is always permissible."


  7. Mr Diety, (Brian Dalton) is a former mormon. And an interview that he did in Utah and a show he did in front of mormons. Just found the latter two. You might want to watch his series.

  8. Of course Christianity itself is a "funky offshoot" of Judaism.


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