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Blessing the Sacrament in a Purple Tie

16 Dec

ImageI need not summarize the saga of the Pantspocalypse; if you’re reading this, you probably know it already. What is relevant is that after last week I decided I would be wearing a purple tie to church meetings on Sunday. My decision came as a result of my sympathies with imperfectly gender-conforming women (and men) who are often marginalized, the desire to show solidarity in the face of recalcitrant and exaggerated norms of gendered dress and behavior (as well as death threats), and the conviction that cultural change often starts with the culture in question – and that culture lags behind Church pronouncements. Also, my purple tie is one of my favorites.

Of the arguments arrayed against the latter-day bloomers, however, I found the most thought-provoking to be that of not marrying “political statements” with sacred ordinances like the Sacrament. Would not knowledge of a grassroots event simmering among Church members distract the congregation from the object of the meeting, Jesus Christ? If I cared not for the sanctity of the ordinance and the value of not distracting from it, I actually would have worn my dishdash (the white, robe-like formalwear of Arab men). Since I did care, however, I was left with some reservations about my violet neckwear, though not enough to dissuade me from wearing it.

Almost immediately after entering the chapel of my YSA ward I was approached and asked to help bless or pass the Sacrament. I intentionally took the spot on the stand next to my roommate, the only other purpled man in the room. There were no trousered women. I’m not sure why I did that so deliberately. I placed a feminist critique of latent, baseline patriarchy into the locus of patriarchy in weekly worship – the Sacrament.

I’ve blessed the Sacrament countless times before, but today was different. I was extraordinarily self-conscious, aware of every single one of my thoughts. As I knelt, I knew that I, with my concerns, worries, and stresses, was coming before the Lord on behalf of the congregation. And as I read, I pronounced the words more slowly and with much more precision than my average. Wearing a purple tie had made me hypersensitive to myself and, in turn, the Spirit, whose presence I found myself seeking more fervidly than I have for a long time in Sacrament meeting. Under this influence, I noticed several things:

“Oh God, the Eternal Father …”

All of worship is humans coming to the mercy seat, laden with their own burdens to be relieved. Some of our burdens might be socially acceptable and widely recognized, but others are not. Some women feel marginalized by the sometimes strict gender roles and norms assigned to them by their fellow Saints (stricter, often, than those embodied in modern Church proclamations). Some do not. A myriad of statements are made tacitly every week in the clothes we bear, statements that, though often not part of a wider movement, nonetheless have some political content. Further, we are constantly negotiating the boundaries between minimalist divine ritual and totalizing cultural trappings.

“…we ask thee …”

Though we partake of the pieces of bread and cups of water each individually, we all are parties to the prayer offered to consecrate them. We – the old and the young, the man and the woman, the new convert and the descendent of pure pioneer stock, the patriarch and the feminist, the conservative and the liberal, the straight and the not-so-straight, the pants and the dresses. All of us together implore God to sanctify unto our souls the emblems of the Sacrament, to soothe the wounds our fallen natures cause with the healing balm of the holy.

“… in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ …”

Not only do we all come before God, but we come before Him explicitly as disciples of Jesus Christ, in representation of Jesus Christ, in our strivings to be Jesus Christ: the friend of women of ill repute and the nemesis of men of good repute; the political radical and the prince of peace; the king of kings and the servant of all. We have made covenants to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those that stand in need of comfort, as He did. While it is problematic if we expect the Church to institutionally affirm every facet of our identities, it is necessary that we empathize even with the most other Other. If we find we cannot empathize with people’s experiences that are wholly different than ours, we are not fulfilling our covenants. Yes, we come to meetings in order to worship God, but we do it in a community in part to be disturbed and humbled by those around us, to serve them in their specific anxieties and infirmities that we probably don’t share. Our efforts to be Christlike require a dedication to diversity; people can be disciples of Christ, oriented toward God, and differ in a million other ways. It would seem that beauty and variety are also values Divinity wishes would adorn Zion’s unity of heart. And given that we seek to convert the world, we had better be ready for diversity in our membership.

Unlike any other time in recent memory, I returned to my seat pondering the Sacrament and its symbolism, all because I, through my purple tie, had bared a bit of my soul before my fellow man and my God.

That didn’t stop me from smiling, though, when I noticed that all the chapel’s upholstery was purple.

Cross-posted at the author’s personal blog.

Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture

3 Apr

Michael Haycock, who has his own blog here, joins us again with this insightful piece.

In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.

While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”

My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base?  Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.

Here is the church house, here is the steeple...

Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)

Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.

You should see it with a Hollywood marquee. Yup.

(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)

Continue reading

Picturing the Female Body, Part II: A Historical View

27 Aug

Last week, I went to the exhibition “Books and Babies: Communicating Reproduction” at the University of Cambridge Library.  The exhibition is a collection of prints, anatomical drawings, comic books, novels, and science texts from the medieval period to the present that attempt to understand human reproduction.  Looking at them is a marvelous reminder that the way that we think about the body has changed over time. Continue reading

Picturing Female Body Parts

25 Aug

One of the things that is unavoidable in London is the Evening Standard, a free newspaper hawked by dozens of men and women standing in tube stations.  Walk past King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, or Euston at any time during the day and someone is going to try to hand you a copy.  Today on the train to Cambridge I grabbed a copy so that I had something to read on the approximately hour long journey. One of the articles was a fun yet nuanced look at the popularity of art depicting vaginas.  Although I get squeamish even writing the word, I appreciated the artwork that was showcased.  Continue reading

Girl-Culture Wars, the Young Women General Meeting, and Sacred Time

29 Mar

I went to the Young Women General Meeting with my mom last Saturday night. I left feeling more frustrated than hopeful or edified. To improve my negative attitude, I tried repeating, “This is a net positive,” to myself. The LDS cultural and doctrinal view is better than many others to which young women are being exposed. The value of experiencing structure and support from a church organization and being exposed to strong female leadership shouldn’t be underestimated.

Still, I was disappointed. The most interesting moment of the meeting was when Ann Dibb, the second counselor in the general presidency, quoted Charlotte Bronte, illustrating Jane Eyre’s integrity. I appreciated the themes of chosenness, obedience to God’s law, temple preparation, and the gospel of Christ being a source of light in darkness. But the messages were not presented in what to me would be a meaningful or thought-provoking way. Continue reading

Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day.

14 Feb

“Now they tell us we should not vote because we have not the time, we are so burdened that we should not have any more burdens. Then, if that is so, I think we ought to allow the women to vote instead of the men, since we pay a man anywhere from a third to a half more than we do women it would be better to use up the cheap time of the women instead of the dear time of the men. And talking about time you would think it took about a week to vote” (Anna Howard Shaw, The Fundamental Principle of a Republic).

Thanks, Ye Olde Facebooke, for This Classic Weather Report

22 Jan

Condi Rice at BYU

13 Jan

What do you do with a grad student when she stops being a grad student? What does she do when she retires? That is what I have been asking myself since I completed my master’s coursework in December. I followed the trend  of moving back in with my parents until I figure out “what comes next.” And, for lack of anything else to do besides troll the internet for job opportunities, I drove to Provo to hear Condoleeza Rice speak at a university forum. Continue reading

What Men Want

18 Sep

I just read “Why Standards Night is Substandard,” written by Kathryn Lynard Soper and posted at Patheos.org. It’s a good article. But her experience did not resonate with mine at all. Although I may have fancied myself physically attractive from time to time, I think I have consistently underestimated the power that my attractiveness might have over men. Continue reading

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