Sacred Music Sunday: How Far is it to Bethlehem

DSC_001117Do you have a favorite Christmas carol?  I have too many to name just one.  You probably do, too.  For me, Christmas music is the best thing about this season.  This month the music that’s most on my mind is the English carol “How Far is it to Bethlehem.”  I memorized it because I’ll be directing a dozen kids in singing it for sacrament meeting next week.

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A Review of Walking With the Women of the New Testament

51Hil65oDaL._SL500_AA300_Walking With the Women of the New Testament by Heather Farrell contains 60 meditations on women of the New Testament.  All the named women in the New Testament are featured, as well as many who are not, such as Jesus’ sisters and the mother of the man born blind.

At 291 pages the book has heft to it, and this tangible fact relays one of its main messages: that women in the New Testament were numerous and real, with “real lives, real feelings, and real problems.”  Each entry begins with the scriptural passage telling the woman’s story and artwork depicting her story, and is followed by a 2-3 page meditation by Farrell in which she frames the story in terms of its historical context and/or the possible feelings and motivations of the woman in the story, and then a reflection on a spiritual lesson to be gained from the story.

For example on the Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), Farrell writes,

“We don’t know if this young man’s death was the result of a long drawn out illness or an unexpected accident, but no matter how she died, it is likely that his mother’s grief was fresh.  She may have only had hours to process the news of his death and all the implications that came with it.  As a widow, with no male to take care of her, this woman’s plight might have been hard indeed.  The newness of her grief makes Christ’s tender words, “Weep not” (verse 13) all the more powerful.  He was telling her that even though her grief seemed unbearable, she wouldn’t have to mourn much longer.”

Farrell then explains the etymology of compassion (“He had compassion on her.” (verse 13)), and notes that “in the accounts we have of Jesus raising someone from the dead, all of them are done in the presence of, and usually on behalf of, women.”  This is an interesting insight I’d never thought of.  Farrell continues,

“Raising a person from the dead is an incredible miracle for anyone to witness.  Yet I can’t help but feel that it has special meaning for women, whose bodies create mortal life and who spend so much of their time nurturing and shaping lives.  It seems to me that Christ wanted to demonstrate to women that He had power over the grave.”

I think the meditation on the Widow of Nain is reasonably representative of the other entries in the book.  It’s a heartfelt and faithful reading that reflects Farrell’s original impetus in studying the scriptures with a focus on the women’s stories.  She writes, “I wanted to gain a better testimony of God’s love for women and better understand women’s roles.”  So she kept a journal as she read, which gave rise to this book.  She encourages readers to do the same: read while reflecting on suggested questions, read between the lines, and rely on the Holy Ghost.  She acknowledges that the details about these women are scarce, and that “while there is much truth in the Bible, some of it is missing, and if we want those gaps filled in, we don’t have to turn to outside sources.  The Holy Ghost can enlighten our understanding and teach us.”  While I agree that the Holy Ghost is the unparalleled teacher of truth and wisdom, I would also have liked if the book delved deeper into other historical and scholarly work that has been done on the subject.  I generally prefer exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text, or reading “out of” a text), and this book includes quite a bit of eisegesis (an interpretation that expresses the interpreters ideas, or reading “into” a text).

I feel I must point out that while Farrell’s book is a thoughtful and comprehensive meditation on the women of the New Testament, it is not what I would consider a feminist reading of them.  It does not challenge current gender roles in the Church or attempt to stretch the understanding of roles that women in the New Testament may have held.  For example one of the questions she suggests readers reflect on in their scripture reading is, “What type of influence would she [the woman in the story] have had on those around her?”  She writes of current times:

“I think the problem is that in our society we often don’t see women.  Too often we take their influence in our lives and in society for granted.  Similarly in the scriptures, we simply don’t see the women.  The pages of the scriptures are filled with their stories and their influence, but too often we skip right past them, not even realizing they are there.”

Seeing women in the scriptures and in the world is something feminists have long fought for, but when the focus is on their “influence” I think we lose the perspective of their being agents unto themselves, not just an influence on the other actors or agents in a story.  Too often in the Church praising the “influence” of women is done as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that they hold so little actual power.

That said, this book acknowledges the women of the New Testament as being more present, both in numbers and in significance, than some would suppose.  I think it would make a good addition to Church member’s libraries (it is definitely written from an LDS perspective) and would be a great resource in preparing for talks and lessons as a way of finding examples of gospel principles in the lives of women in scripture.

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If you’re not part of the solution…

imagesForeign policy analyst and academic Anne-Marie Slaughter made the decision to turn down a high level government position in 2011.  Her decision inspired her to write a widely-read article in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  A year later she gave a TED Talk in which she argues that caring for family members is a human problem, not a women’s problem.  She says when people who work for her take time to attend to urgent family problems the work still gets done, and gets done better than if they were made to stay at work at the expense of their families.  She says breadwinning and caregiving are both necessary for proper nurturing of human life, and notes that while American culture has given women permission to do both, it remains for men to be allowed as much freedom of choice. She also talks about the barriers to gender equality and the costs of that inequality, asking:

“If breadwinning and caregiving are really equal then why shouldn’t a government invest as much in an infrastructure of care as the foundation of a healthy society as it invests in physical infrastructure as the backbone of a successful economy?”

Why, indeed.  It’s because of the deep and pervasive belief that caregiving is the problem of women.  While that belief is very old and people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds ascribe to it, I’m calling out Mormonism as contributing to the problem of undervaluing caregiving when it should be part of the solution.  But before I go further, what does Slaughter mean by an “infrastructure of care?”  She doesn’t spell that out in her TED talk, but I think things like paid maternity/paternity leave, family tax credits, subsidized preschool, and health care for children are all under that umbrella.

Why is Mormonism part of the problem?  Because it explicitly states that caregiving is the purview women:

“By 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. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” [1]

Why should Mormonism be part of the solution?  Because it also explicitly says that both breadwinning and caregiving are very important.  Our leaders take pains to say women and men are equal (but usually with the caveat about different roles).[2]  Fathers and mothers are “equal partners.”[1]  This is a foundation on which to build an argument for a better infrastructure of caregiving.  But it turns out that the majority of American Mormons are economic and political conservatives who tend not to favor policies and programs that support caregiving.  Why is it that American Mormons so consistently privilege the well-being of businesses in their politics?  Why are infrastructures of care dismissed as too costly, or too intrusive to the private lives of families?  Why are people who use social services condemned as leeches?

I think the answer lies in the very real costs that come from siloing women and men into roles determined by gender.  Those costs include the personal happiness of women who may feel trapped by the daily grind of caregiving or men who may feel equally trapped by the thought of being chained to the corporate gallows.  But there are economic and social costs as well.  And if caregiving is forever the personal problem of women, then why would governments, corporations, or other institutions support infrastructures of care?  They wouldn’t.  And in the United States, where the that belief is quite common, they really don’t.  There is no mandatory paid maternity or paternity leave in the U.S. and relatively small tax credits for having children [3].  For example, compare the U.S. where the Child Tax Credit is $1000 per child per year to Australia, where an ordinary family would be eligible for about four times that amount, and paid maternity leave is mandatory [4].  In addition, there is virtually no help for people getting back into the work force after taking time off to care for children and there is no Social Security for the unpaid work of caregiving.  There is very little social support for men who opt into a primary role of caregiver.  It’s still the case that for men who fail in the home, other successes more than compensate, and the reverse is not true.[5]

But Mormonism has the theological foundation to counter that worldly idolization of the bottom line.  Mormons see children as “an heritage of the Lord.”[6]  “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness.”[1]  “Families Can be Together Forever.”[7]  And “The Family is of God.”[8]  Mormons practically make an idol of the nuclear family, but in making nurturing the primary responsibility for women (but not for men) the Church contributes to the social problem of forever privileging breadwinning over the other needs of families.  There is just no way to gather the political will to seriously support infrastructures of care if the problem of caregiving is forever the personal problem of women.

If political expediency, even for a cause as worthy as helping families, were the only reason for doing away with siloed gender roles in Mormonism, then I would not support it.  But, as I’ve argued elsewhere,[9] nothing in Mormon theology adds up to women and men possessing separate but equal spiritual attributes that would necessitate them being in forever separate-but-equal roles.  In fact just the opposite.  Both men and women strive to acquire, through the grace of God, attributes that are godly and indistinguishable between genders.

Mormonism rightly understands caregiving to be at least as important to the human condition as breadwinning.  It could become a small but important part of the solution to intractable gender inequality in the world if the Church made these few revisions:

By divine design, parents are responsible to raise their children in love and righteousness, to nurture them, and to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.  In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

Of course, undervaluing caregiving was a problem before The Proclamation was written, and eradicating separate-but-equal gender roles from the Church wouldn’t suddenly make the U.S. a world leader in support for caregiving.  But shouldn’t the Church show moral leadership wherever it can?  By teaching that women are primarily responsible for nurturing the Church puts the problem of caregiving primarily on women’s shoulders.  If it were seen as a human problem rather than a women’s problem I think we’d start to see more support for caregiving overall, which would be to the benefit of everyone and be more consistent with true principles of gender equality.

 

[1] The Family: A Proclamation to the World
[2] “Men and women are equal in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the Church, but equal does not mean that they are the same. Although responsibilities and divine gifts of men and women differ in their nature, they do not differ in their importance or influence.” Melvin J. Ballard at BYU Education Week, August 20, 2013.
[3] That’s only a meaningful comparison in context of the overall tax rate, so I compared countries that have tax rates that are roughly the same as the US: Australia, Germany, Japan, Canada, China, and South Africa.  In all cases family tax credits are income-tested.
Here are approximate tax credits for those countries:
US - Child Tax Credit of $1000 per child per year
Australia – Family Tax Benefit estimated about $4,000 per child per year.  It’s a complicated calculation.
Japan – Kodomo Teate Law estimated about $2,700 per child per year
Germany – Kindergeld, averaging about $3,000 per child per year
Canada
– Canada Child Tax Benefit estimated about $2,700 per child per year.  It’s a complicated calculation.
South Africa - No family tax credit
China - No family tax credit
[4] Quimby Masters kindly provided me with a detailed explanation of the Australian Family Tax Law.  Taking an example of a school teacher’s family with an income of $66,000 AUD per year, if that family had five children ranging in age from 5 to 15 they would receive $26,832 per year in family tax credits, bringing their actual income to $92,832, of which they would not be taxed on $26,832 of it.  In addition, every employed woman is entitled to 6 months paid maternity leave, paid at minimum wage.  Individual employers may add to this.  All women are also entitled to 12 months off work, with the guarantee that they will get their job or an equivalent back if they return to work at the end of 12 months.
[5] “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”  David O. McKay.
[6] Psalms 127:3 
[7] Families Can Be Together Forever 
[8] The Family is of God
[9] I wrote about this in “The Attributes of God Point to an Egalitarian Priesthood,” Exponent II, Vol. 33 No. 4 (Spring 2014).

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Forms of Grace

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And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.

Poor Joseph. Birth order and his father’s feelings were not his fault. He was only 17. But still, you’d think common sense or modesty would have warned him off of telling his brothers about his dreams. They weren’t terribly nice guys, for instance Simeon and Levi had murdered all the men in Shechem’s household as they lay recovering from circumcisions. Clearly Joseph underestimated his brothers’ hatred for him, and would have been murdered himself if Reuben hadn’t stepped in and gotten him sold into slavery instead. (Reuben, who may have felt he owed their father some form of apology after he’d slept with Mama Bilhah). Joseph was apparently still peeved at his brothers many years later, because when they showed up in Egypt he “spake roughly unto them” and put the fear of God into them by framing Benjamin for theft before revealing his identity and insisting that they all move to Egypt, reuniting the happy family. All this is of course a prelude to the enslavement of the Israelites and their dramatic exodus back to Caanan (a land flowing with milk and honey–no going back to Egypt to buy corn [1]).

This story is about forging a covenant people. It’s such good drama that Hollywood, Broadway, and Disney have all had turns at telling it, and like all good drama, the story involves flawed characters whose motives aren’t always admirable. Here we have a cast of sinners motivated by jealousy, retribution, and the will to survive, whose lives turn out to form an enduring story of faith. God works in mysterious ways.

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Relief Society Lesson 21: Proclaiming the Gospel to the World

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manuel coverWhat does it mean to “proclaim the gospel to the world?” Since I am only one person, I don’t know how to proclaim something to the whole world. But sharing the gospel with people I know sounds like something I can do. I would start this lesson with that simple adjustment in focus, bringing the scope down to the personal.

Here are four main points you may wish to discuss (condensed from five in the manual).

1. Gratitude for truths we’ve learned in the gospel, and opportunities to share what’s most meaningful to us

Lessons about sharing the gospel sometimes focus so much on ways to get people excited about talking about the Church, that they bypass the “why.” Invite the class to first think about the good things, the joy, that spiritual truths have brought to their lives.

• Ask the class: What gospel principles mean a lot to you right now, as in today, or in the past week?
• Invite them to silently answer this question: Is there anyone you might like to share that with, as a way of connecting with someone? Perhaps a sister, a friend, a parent, or your journal?
• Ask the class: What gospel principles have meant the most to you in the past year? Have you had conversations about that with people you know?

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