Monday, June 13, 2011

Decoding "I Believe" from the Musical "The Book of Mormon"

This particular entry is less a story and more a service project directed at you non-Mormon lovers of musical theatre. Mormons are big (one might say immense) on performing service. For my act of service, I'll decode the song "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon.

The Tony Awards were presented last night, and The Book of Mormon won a slew of awards, including the one for best new musical. Since there is so much profanity in The Book of Mormon, there was a lot of guessing before the awards about which number from the show would be presented as the showcase song during the televised ceremony. It turned out to be "I Believe," a touchingly funny song sung by Elder Price after he reclaims his faith and recommits himself to his missionary work. As is true for many things in the musical, this particular number is a lot more enjoyable (and a lot funnier) if you understand the references. The creators of the show (who are not themselves Mormon) clearly did their homework, and in this particular entry I'll do yours for you (think of it as reciprocal service - yours to me can be sharing this post). Below are some of the more inaccessible lyrics from "I Believe," with explanations (and explications) straight from Sunday school (yes, Mormons have Sunday school as part of their three-hour block of meetings on Sundays).

I believe that the Lord God created the universe.
I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

The first two and last lines are pretty straightforward, but it's nonetheless worth noting that, whatever mainstream Christians may think about the soundness of Mormon doctrine, Latter-Day Saints do literally believe that God is the creator and that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, who took upon him the sins of the world and atoned for the sins of all mankind. But it's surely the third line that catches the attention of most folks. That third line is a reference to The Book of Mormon (the book), which purports to be a record of ancient Israelites who, guided by God, crossed the ocean and landed in the Americas. The book opens around 600 B.C. with a prophet by the name of Lehi (pronounced Lee-hi) who, inspired by God, leads his family out of Jerusalem to the Promised Land (that's what America is, after all). According to Mormon belief, Native Americans are in part descendents of these Israelites. Incidentally, the name of this blog you are reading comes from an L.D.S. children's song called "Book of Mormon Stories" that talks about these ancient Isrealites crossing the sea. It is sung to the beat of a pseudo-Indian (that is, Native American) drum rhythm. In retrospect, the actions that we were taught to do as we sang the lyrics when I was a child were a bit offensive. We patted our mouths quickly with one hand and held two fingers up behind our heads like feathers whenever the word "Lamanites" (prounounced "Lay-mun-ites," with the stress on the first syllable) came up in the song. Laman (Lay-mun) was a son of Lehi, and Mormons believe his tribe is the one from which Native Americans are descended.

I believe that God has a plan for all of us.
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.
And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

The plan of which Elder Price sings is the "Plan of Salvation," a central component of Mormon theology and a mainstay of the "discussions," or lessons, that Mormon missionaries present to "investigators," or those interested in hearing about the church. The Plan of Salvation maps out where humankind was before the creation of the earth, why we come to earth, and where we might go after death. In short, there was a war in heaven, and everyone who is born on this earth chose the side of Jesus over the side of Satan (who revolted against God and his firstborn son, Jesus). Because we chose the side we did, we are born and gain bodies. We are tested here on earth by having our memories of the preexistence removed from us. If we live by faith and do our best, then we may, because of Jesus's sacrifice, have our sins atoned for us and, in a resurrected state, return to God. There are different levels of glory after this life, and the best of the best (those who end up in the highest level of glory, called the Celestial Kingdom) may continue to progress throughout eternity, until they reach Exaltation. That is, they may at some point be exalted to become gods and goddesses themselves. Mormons believe that marriage between a man and a woman is so important because only through eternal couplehood is Exaltation possible. God, a loving father, wants his children to have all that he has. Since he has created worlds (including the one we happen to live on), the most faithful of his children might, at some point in the eternities, have that opportunity as well. If exalted, Elder Price (along with his eternal companion, his wife) would in fact get more than just his own planet; he would create his own worlds, his own humankind, and his own Plan of Salvation. Mormons know about all of this because there are, since the restoration of the true church by Joseph Smith, living prophets who continue to speak to and for God. Thomas S. Monson (Mormons are big on including middle initials or middle names when referring to church leaders) is the current mouthpiece of the heavens.

I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.
You can be a Mormon, a Mormon who just believes.

In fact, people of African descent could be Mormons before 1978, so Elder Price's line to the African warlord about his ability to be a Mormon would have been true even in 1977. Before 1978 black people could be baptized into the church and attend Sunday services. But until an official church proclamation in 1978, black men could not hold the priesthood (which is a lay priesthood, meaning all worthy male members hold some office of it), and black people could not enter the temple (the place Mormons go for the most holy rituals, such as eternal marriage). In other words, those of African descent had second-class status in the eyes of the church, and the greatest promise of all, Exaltation, was not available to them. The proclamation that did away with this inequity was issued by Spencer W. Kimball (note the middle initial), who was the president (and prophet) of the church in 1978. His proclamation is included in all post-1978 editions of Doctrine and Convenants, the book that contains modern-day (or latter-day) revelations (Joseph Smith's revelations make up the vast majority of that book). Black folks were singled out because they were believed to be the cursed descendents of Cain. Other peoples of color were not singled out. In fact, Native Americans and Latin Americans have historically been sought out by Mormons, since it is believed that these groups have the diluted but real blood of Israel in them (see above).

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
If you believe the Lord will reveal it.
And you'll know it's all true; you'll just feel it.

Joseph Smith did teach that God, who is an exalted man, has a physical presence (one we mortals can neither see nor truly comprehend), and that the closest planet to him is one called Kolob (pronounced Coe-lob, with the stress on the first syllable). For the more precise of you out there, you should note that Joseph Smith never taught that God lives on Kolob itself. Incidentally, there's a really beautiful part of Zion National Park (in Southern Utah) that is called Kolob Canyon. If that's what heaven looks like, sign me up for some Celestial glory (but don't make me take a wife!). As for the bit about Jesus having his own planet as well, I have to admit that that particular line confounds even me. Either these non-Mormon writers know something I don't, or they just went a little overboard. I will say that Mormons believe that God created many worlds (and many universes), and that Jesus is a co-creator. So maybe it's something to do with that. And now for the really interesting part: Missouri. Yes, Joseph Smith did teach that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Jackson County, Missouri, specifically in and around the town of Independence. (Obviously the flood that Noah survived moved things around a bit, and postdiluvian Old Testament events happened in ancient Israel. So Lehi and his family were really just getting back to their roots by crossing the ocean to the Americas.) When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden they ended up in a place Joseph Smith called "Adam-Ondi-Ahman," which is in Daviess County (a few counties over). This area, which is today owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is rolling farmland with a river running through it. I went there on a church history trip as a teenager, and it was there that I first saw fireflies (there are no fireflies in Utah), so it's a pretty magical place in my memory. The name "Adam-Ondi-Ahman" is supposedly from the ancient "Adamic" language (that is, the language that Adam spoke), and its meaning is usually given as something like "the place where Adam dwelt with God." Both Independence and Adam-Ondi-Ahman were gathering spots for Mormons in the early days of the church (they were forced from place to place a lot; Missouri was particularly unkind to the Mormons, with the governor of that state declaring war on them). Mormons believe that the Saints (that is, members of the church) will again gather in Missouri when Christ returns. Independence, in Jackson County, will be the New Jerusalem (this in addition to already being the childhood home of Harry Truman). And how, might you ask, can Mormons believe all this? Well, Elder Price gives a solid missionary answer. Mormons believe that you can pray to God and ask whether these teachings are true. He'll reveal it to you through a warm feeling, and when he does you'll know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that his teachings are true. You'll know that the book of scripture he brought forward, The Book of Mormon, is the word of God. You'll want to join the church he established. And if you want to go hardcore (converts are always the worst...), you'll probably want to prepare for the Second Coming (of Jesus) by purchasing land in Missouri, which could offer an incredible return on your investment: a whole planet of your own!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: Moving Through the Ranks - Children

There are various organizations and ranks within the Mormon church, and each member belongs to an organization or holds a rank based on gender, age, and activity. Below are the organizations and ranks for children (yes, even children have ranks; the only people who escape classification within the church are infants up to 18 months, who stay with their parents for church meetings).

Nursery: This is where young toddlers from 18 months up to three years of age go during the first two meetings of church services (parents pick up their toddlers for the final combined meeting, called Sacrament meeting). Adult members are asked by the lay leadership of the congregation to help out in Nursery as their assignment. (In Mormon speak, the previous sentence would read as follows: "Adult members are called by the bishopric of the ward to serve in Nursery as their church calling.") Think of it as being asked by God to babysit for your neighbors. For the toddlers, Nursery is a one-and-a-half hour time of toys, snacks, and stories about Jesus (or about hungry caterpillars - it depends on which will make the majority of the kids stay quiet). Parents (ok, mostly mothers) of naughty Nursery children are summoned out of adult classes to come tend to the more serious problems.

Primary: At three years of age, little Mormons enter Primary. Boys and girls are kept together for Primary, but they are divided up by age groups, which are assigned various names. Like Nursery, Primary also stretches across the first two meeting times (about an hour and a half) of Sunday church services (which last three hours altogether). Part of Primary brings all Primary-aged children together for singing time and lessons from the Primary Presidency (adult women who are called by the bishopric to lead the organization because they are good with children - or because they deserve to be punished) about things like sharing your testimony (that is, your belief in the church). But children are also split up (for age-appropriate lessons) into groups according to their age, as outlined below. Each group has an adult teacher (male or female) who is called to sit with the group during combined Primary singing and sharing time and also much teach a lesson during small group time.
  1. Three-year-olds are called "Sunbeams." There's a terrific song that all Mormon children love to sing called "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." When I was young, I'd shout out the syllable "beam" in the word "sunbeam" and jump in my seat on that syllable when singing the song. Others followed along. It was irreverent fun, and I was scolded for doing it. I did it anyway.
  2. The next groups are all called "C.T.R." groups, which stands for "Choose the Right." There are various divisions of C.T.R.s, so you move through a numbering system as a C.T.R. for four years (until the age of eight). It used to be that when you became a C.T.R. you received a cheap little adjustable ring that had a green shield on it with the initials "C.T.R." It was considered a real rite of passage and a special gift. Boys weren't normally allowed to wear jewerly where I grew up, so I was over the moon with excitement when I got mine, and I wore it like Liberace. Now many adults where bulky silver versions of the rings. Even old, conservative Mormon men wear these adult versions now. Times do change.
  3. At age eight, you become what is called a "Valiant." This is also the age at which a person may be baptized. Like C.T.R.s, Valiants remain Valiants for a few years (until the age of 12), progressing through a ranking system (Valiant A, Valiant B, etc.). The name "Valiant" confused me when I assumed it. I had only heard it as a name for a prince in a Disney film, and I thought that if I received a ring when I became a C.T.R., perhaps I would receive a principality upon becoming a Valiant. No such luck.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Talk like a Mormon: The Smell of Intensifying

I've decided to supplement my bimonthly stories with short vocabulary lessons that will appear between the stories. This is the inaugural post of these vocab lessons, which I'm calling "Talk Like a Mormon."

There is an idiosyncratic (and fun) way Mormons in the Intermountain West (Utah, Southern Idaho, Western Wyomong, Northern Arizona, etc.) intensify an adjective in a statement: the word "stinking." Although an adjective itself, "stinking" doesn't behave like an adjective (and definitely doesn't describe the smell of anything!) when used this way. Instead, it behaves like an adverb, intensifying the (usually positive) adjective it is placed before. Think of it as synonymous with the word "very." When pronounced, it loses the "g" at the end.

As in, "That Laura Ashley dress she wore to church was stinkin' cute." Or, "He is so stinkin' smart, those Jehovah's Witnesses don't stand a chance in a debate with him."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

If They Don't Drink Coffee, How Do They Wake Up?

Mormons don't drink coffee. The reason they don't is something called the "Word of Wisdom," which is the name given to the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants, which also requires some explanation. Doctrine and Covenants is a book of teachings and revelations received and written down by Joseph Smith (with a few notable exceptions at the end that have come from Latter-Day Saint prophets after Joseph Smith and have been added to the collection in subsequent editions). Yes, besides translating ancient scriptures from gold plates buried in the ground near his childhood home, Joseph Smith also wrote brand new scripture from scratch. His teachings and the revelations he received from God are compiled in Doctrine and Covenants and treated as modern scripture by Mormons, who proudly note that God is still speaking to man.

Smith's writings contained in the 89th section of Doctrine and Covenants begin by identifying the section as a "word of wisdom," and through popular synecdoche those words have come to mean for Mormons all the teachings about food and drink contained in the section, along with the clarifications on those teachings that subsequent church leaders have given. The prohibitions include alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Actually, the section itself says that "hot drinks" are prohibited, but church leaders after Joseph Smith have made clear that "hot drinks" means coffee and tea. "Hot drinks" doesn't mean soup. (A friend of mine once told me that she met a Mormon who wouldn't touch soup because of the Word of Widsom; I had never, ever heard of such a thing before.) Coffee and tea are prohibited, regardless of the temperature at which a Mormon might wish to drink them. The color in which they come doesn't matter, either - green and white tea are still tea, so they're out. Herbal teas, which don't actually contain tea, are fine.

Coffee is the one that throws most folks for a loop when they hear about the Word of Wisdom for the first time. Inevitably someone will ask why. Mormons will try to come up with pseudo-scientific reasons, but I think the best answer to that question is simply that God (or at least Joseph Smith) said so. Another common question is, "What about decaf?" The answer to that one is, "Avoid even the appearance of evil." Besides, neither Joseph Smith nor the leaders of the church after him have ever officially said, "You can't have caffeine." You probably find this confusing, and so do Mormons. On church-owned properties, such as Brigham Young University or the Missionary Training Center, no caffeinated soft drinks are sold or dispensed. A lot of Mormons take that to mean that caffeine is a no-no. But it ain't necessarily so. You can, for instance, find hot chocolate (which contains some caffeine) on church-owned properties. A lot of Mormons won't drink caffeinated sodas, but plenty will, and there are no privileges of church membership lost by doing so. Indeed, there's a joke that "jack Mormons" (think of the term as the equivalent of secular Jews) and in-the-know non-Mormons love that drives this point home: "What's the difference between members and non-members? The temperature at which they drink their caffeine." Lots of Mormons drink Coke. There's even a rumor out there that the church owns a lot of stock in Coca-Cola. And in the rural valley where I grew up, plenty of Mormons drank Mountain Dew - especially the young men. Mountain Dew was, in a way, a sign of rural Mormon masculinity, much like driving a truck jacked up high over gigantic tires, complete with a gun rack in the back window. In fact, the can of Mountain Dew would finish the look by being placed in the truck's cup holder. In my house we weren't allowed to drink caffeinated sodas. Well, we weren't until I was a teenager, when somehow or another my mother discovered and became addicted to Diet Coke. Then we were allowed. I myself went through a serious Dr. Pepper phase in my teens. And I was still allowed to pass (and, later, bless) the sacrament.

Since Mormons aren't supposed to drink coffee, it can take on the same kind of forbidden coolness that cigarettes or alcohol can for other teenagers. In high school, I belonged to a somewhat rebellious crowd, and we'd signify our cool (if careful) rebellion by casually mentioning to our peers that we drank coffee. A favorite place to go was the Village Inn (or V.I., if we wanted to sound especially cool), a chain of diners down in the city below that were open late. You can hardly imagine the kind of responses that would be elicited by a bit of conversation that sounded like this: "What did I do last night? Oh, some friends and I went out for coffee at the V.I." The listener's eyes would grow wide and breath would be sucked in, and the edginess and cool factor associated with the speaker would rise considerably. Coffee was bad enough to make you cool, but not so bad that you were written off altogether as one who had gone hopelessly astray.

I myself threw out the claim of drinking coffee a good number of times in high school, but the truth is I never really developed a taste for the stuff, and I still don't drink it. My preferred poison back then (and even now) was iced tea. In an area that was at the time probably something like 99% Mormon, I managed to make friends with the one bona fide non-Mormon in my age group (she came out as a lesbian right after high school, so my seeking her out was probably inevitable for a number of reasons). She was of Catholic stock, although her family didn't seem to practice any kind of religion. Why she and her family ended up in Utah, let alone rural Utah, is still a bit of a mystery. But one glorious mystery they did reveal to me was the pleasure of iced tea. This family took a special sinners' delight in providing me my fix each time I went over to their house. Once, when I was grounded, my friend even sneaked a big plastic mug of the forbidden drink to me. I convulsed the whole time I sipped it alone in my room, but my shakes were probably due more to my fear of being caught than any caffeine deprivation I was experiencing.

So, if Mormons don't drink coffee (or tea), how do they wake up in the morning? Why, with family prayer and scripture reading, of course. That's how we did it in my house. We also had herbal tea or Postum. (Now off the market, Postum was a coffee-like instant warm drink make from wheat. It was a hit in my family, and my parents still have a stockpile of it in their basement fruit room.) And on those truly bad mornings, when the eyelids won't open even for scripture reading, there are Mormons who might just start the day with a can of Coke or Mountain Dew. They just hope that the scripture reading doesn't involve section 89 of Doctrine and Covenants – or, if it does, that their caffeinated soda is ice-cold.