Monday, October 10, 2011

Mormon Encounters: Part 3 - Going to the Mormon Church

Entire Mormon Encounters series
Part 1: First meeting       Aside 1, Aside 2 
Part 2: Reading the Book of Mormon 
Part 4: Mormon Battalion & General Conference
Part 5: The Missionary Sisters
Part 6: A Talk Among Friends
Part 7: Adam & Free Agency
Part 8: To the Investigators
Part 9: To the Missionaries

Well, having missed the first invitation to the Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints AKA LDS) church I made good on my second chance, invading one of their San Diego area wards with my new Mormon friends (sans the Garanca-look-alike one, it seems she is a sister trainer and was just visiting for the day when they last came round). As you can see, even a hard-headed 'atheist' like me isn't above agreeing to go to church when accompanied by cute and highly attentive lasses!
Apparently my two missionaries weren't allowed to, among many other things, give me a ride, so they arranged for a regular Mormon girl who lived nearby to chauffeur me to their church functions instead. As it turned out, my ride was in the process of preparing to leave town for a missionary stint of her own... in one of my former Midwestern hometowns!

The building isn't all that remarkable looking from the outside. Walking into the sparsely decorated interior, however, I was surrounded by the very conservatively dressed crowd of extremely friendly people who zoomed right over for a hug and a chat. I suspect that that was meant to be a warm welcome, but it had the effect of making me feel like an escapee from the petting zoo. It was nice if vaguely creepy in a smothering sort of way.

The sacrament meeting, as the Mormons call their Sunday church service, took place in the church sanctuary, and it is quite different from what you'd experience at a Christian church. First off, instead of everyone sitting in the same area facing the same way toward a preacher on the podium at one end of the room, there are actually 2 seating sections. On the stage seats facing the rest of the congregation from behind the podium sat rather stern looking church leaders who spent much of their time scanning the audience from their perches.

The 'sacrament meeting' began with the singing of hymns (they seem to always sing every verses instead of just picking one or two, so each hymn went on for a while). Everybody dutifully sang (I didn't, though. I'm not a Mormon even though everybody there seem to assume that I am or will shortly be). Some, like my driver/escort (I think I'll call her Sister-to-be Harriet), sang quite beautifully, though a definite zest is missing from it all. I've never felt any urge to attend any Christian church after turning away from that religion sometime in 1999-2000, but I remember that at least the singing there usually was quite spirited. Here, it just sounded.... confined and controlled (heck, they even have a resident chorus master conducting every hymn from her stage seat). 

Spontaneity was tacitly checked at the sanctuary doors, apparently. Nobody aside from the little kids made any noise in between the musical numbers and even during and between the testimonies aside from some hushed 'Amen' after a prayer. (They don't have a trained clergy to give Sunday sermons like the Christians do, instead the pre-selected church members seated in the front row of the stage took turn giving their 'testimonies' AKA speeches at the podium). A testimony isn't quite the same as a sermon, but rather a personal talk about one's experience as a Mormon.... and sometimes just an elaborate announcement that one's either about to be sent on a mission or had just returned from one. I always feel a bit claustrophobic after a bit in this sort of setting. Such a packed house and often emotional series of speeches that produced no banter or audience reaction whatsoever. It felt as if the whole place was under an omerta one doesn't dare break because one is always conscious of being visible to the church leaders.
The sanctuary of the Mormon church I visited after the October 2011 Stake Conference. Have a look at the lady in black's scripture books! The Mormons regard as holy scriptures the KJ Bible (annotated by Joseph Smith), the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price.
Having been to this church 3 times now I'm seeing a strange pattern with all these testimonies. The speakers seem to do just fine during the meat of their fervent talk. Some take a few minutes longer to get comfortable, but they all looked and sounded comfortable enough after a while, then they would get to the closing with the very formulaic 'it is my testimony that this is the true church, that Jesus is the savior and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and I say all these things in Jesus' name. Amen,' and many of them could hardly get through it without breaking down. I'm not sure what so shook them up about having to recite that ending; because they were emotionally overwhelmed in a good way or because they didn't truly believe everything in that formulaic closing themselves and were shaken by their own subconscious recognition of the spiritual dishonesty in the act of professing to believe what one doesn't actually believe. Whatever it is, it makes for an odd pattern for the outsider me. thinking

But why would I even suspect that those good people may not actually believe what they profess about the truth of their church or their founding prophet? I would freely confess that I can occasionally (especially when in a religious setting) be a bit paranoid, but from all the time I've been spending with my nice missionaries and their more normal Mormon numbers it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that the LDS dogma is much more enthusiastic about rites and rituals than it is about people's spirituality and integrity.

Everything is choreographed and ritualistic. When they visit, the sisters pray before their meal, before beginning the 'discussion', and after it. Churchgoers take sacrament/communion every Sunday, and the procedure is as choreographed as those you'd see in the rites-loving Catholic services. There's something idolistic about their notion of priesthood and their exclusive ability to perform soul-saving  procedures like baptism or temple sealing or endowment (naturally, they don't seem to regard Christian priests or clergies as having valid office). There's a strict dress code for church members (and even stricter one for missionaries), and even a dietary code. I already mentioned how everyone ends his/her testimony with the same closing formula. Heck, even the podium height is choreographed to match each speaker! It seems like a lot of emphasis is placed on appearance and not enough on what the person feels inside.
Robot by Felipe Micaroni Lalli & Odder
But on a more serious note, the biggest turn off I'm getting from my contacts with the nice Mormon folks is in what is preached in successive testimonies from church leaders and in what my otherwise-quite-nice missionaries are trying to drum into me: obedience is the greatest of virtues (and there is no use in asking, 'Obedience to what???' They just don't answer that question); the prophets/church leaders speak for god; god/prophet would never lead us astray (though the missionaries will know nothing about when LDS prophets actually did lead the Mormons astray: Kirkland Banking Society, United Order communism, polygamy, the Kinderhook plates fiasco, falling for Mark Hoffmann's forged documents, etc); we must build more temples so that people can be blessed (you can't get to the highest level of heaven and be with your 'forever family' if you haven't gone through certain rituals - sealing and temple marriage - that can only take place in a temple) so we must all work harder on our church callings and proselytize more to the gentiles and pay full tithe (10% of your gross personal income) to fund temple building; it doesn't matter if I don't believe in Elohim or Jehovah or the divinity of Jesus - I should just keep saying prayers to the Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus and all this repetitive 'work' will lead me to faith in the end. After all, 'a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it' (how's that for personal integrity, ay? They're basically advocating lying to investigators in the hope of convincing themselves. If there is a god, I doubt that it is so morally corrupted that it would approve of such tactic).
                                                       praying  
As dodgy as all of them are, the last one really quite bugs me. The sisters successful coerced me into saying a prayer last week after I made the mistake of offering one of them a CD of operatic prayers for her birthday. She read me as a softie that I am and pleaded for a prayer as a special birthday treat... A stronger person than me would have resisted, but the lass was a 1,000 miles away from home on her birthday and she looks exactly like Elina Garanca... (well, perhaps not in this exact same sort of props), so after much grumbling I said a short grace wishing them safety and lots of interesting experiences on their mission. It perked them right up about as much as it filled me with shame. sad smiley #342 I meant every bit of the well-wishing part, but the formulaic parts (Heavenly Father .... in Jesus' name) that sandwiched it was completely bogus. 
"I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe."
 - Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
They tried to get me to say a prayer again yesterday after the Stake Conference. I said no and told them that the honest way of going about such thing is for me to first believe in their god and the divinity of Jesus, etc, and then pray as an expression of my belief rather than to mouth off insincere prayers in the hope of gaining faith from the sheer repetition of it. The former is intellectually and spiritually honest, the latter is none of the above. I was very disappointed in the lasses for making such a moral/ethic-corrupting demand on me no matter how well-intended they were, but I was more disappointed with myself for complying even once. Sometimes being kind isn't such a virtue... The good lasses deserved honesty rather than indulgence, I realize. But I'm curious to know, though, what would you have done?


What sort of church would pressure their missionaries to prioritize acquiring more tithe-paying labor-giving Mormons over showing investigators (those the missionaries try to convert) exactly what the LDS dogma is about so that they can make an informed decision about joining or not joining the church? I've ran into car dealerships that are more honest than the LDS organization!

Don't get me wrong, though, I really like these missionary sisters. I had been in a similar place to where they are now once, and I understand the many different things that can compel someone at their stage in life to hang desperately onto a religious dogma. It is a sort of experience that is priceless to have providing that one can escape from it before long. I'm very certain that these gals mean to do good for others, even though the methods they have been taught to use by their trusted church do grave disservices to their integrity. I hope they learn much from their missionary life and think their way out of the spiritual trap they are in once they realize the folly of judging things by emotion. (Perhaps emotion here is a wrong word by me... It's just that they often beseech me to use my heart rather than my head in judging the veracity of the Mormon scriptures. I mean the word here in that same sense).

13 comments:

dadsprimalscream said...

I can't tell you how spot-on you are with the following lines....

"nice if vaguely creepy in a smothering sort of way."

"it just sounded.... confined and controlled"

"Spontaneity was tacitly checked at the sanctuary doors, apparently."

"It felt as if the whole place was under an omerta one doesn't dare break because one is always conscious of being visible to the church leaders."

"I'm not sure what so shook them up about having to recite that ending; because they were emotionally overwhelmed in a good way or because they didn't truly believe everything in that formulaic closing themselves and were shaken by their own subconscious recognition of the spiritual dishonesty in the act of professing to believe what one doesn't actually believe."

"the LDS dogma is much more enthusiastic about rites and rituals than it is about people's spirituality and integrity."

Ahab said...

"...it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that the LDS dogma is much more enthusiastic about rites and rituals than it is about people's spirituality and integrity."

I'm an ex-Catholic, and Catholicism felt the very same way to me. I've mentioned over at Cognitive Dissenter's blog that Mormonism and Catholicism have more negative things in common than either realizes.

"There's something idolistic about their notion of priesthood and their exclusive ability to perform soul-saving procedures like baptism..."

Two words: Catholic clergy!

Smorg said...

Hiya Dad: I'm both relieved and horrified at the same time. Relieved for making accurate observations, and horrified that the observations were accurate. :o(

Hiya Ahab: It's a weird thing, ay? So similar and yet so hostile toward each other they are. I got a kick out of reading about the 'great and abominable church' in 1 Nephi... The sisters wouldn't admit outright that that stands for the Catholic church (as if there was any other church that came right out of the apostles after Jesus' crucifiction), but they clearly thought the same. :oP

I guess at least the Catholics don't seem to worship their popes as much as the Mormons do their prophets, though. But then the M had only been around 200 yrs or so...

You know, the more I think of it the more I think that had the Romans not crucified Jesus, his 'religion' would have died out on its own since the longer he had lived the more human he would have seemed to his followers and sooner or later they would have realized that he wasn't all that divine. They same goes for Joseph Smith Jr. The mob that killed him did a lot for the growth of his church and the fervor of his followers. :o(

Thanks for stopping by!

Drew80 said...

Fascinating.

Those girl recruiters sound pretty tenacious. I don’t think they are going to give up on you easily!

All organized religions have certain rituals that, over time, become hardened and stale. I have never attended Mormon service, but I can attest that much of the Presbyterian ritual is hardened and stale, too. My father says that enshrined church ritual, such as it is, is meant to offer comfort in life’s difficult times, and often does so.

I did not know, until reading this, that Mormon churches lack the Sunday sermon standard in Protestant churches. It would seem to me that listening to the “testimonies” of other church members would become unduly repetitive—and insufferably boring—after about week three or so. (Of course, Protestant sermons quickly become repetitive as well—but perhaps not as early as week three.)

Cognitive Dissenter said...

How interesting to read your perspective! You are too much of a critical thinker to be a Mormon (obviously!).

You have several excellent insights here but this is one of my favorites:

"What sort of church would pressure their missionaries to prioritize acquiring more tithe-paying labor-giving Mormons over showing investigators (those the missionaries try to convert) exactly what the LDS dogma is about so that they can make an informed decision about joining or not joining the church? I've ran into car dealerships that are more honest than the LDS organization!"

What sort of church ...? As a former devout member of that same church I would call it a cult, but some might consider that loaded label politically incorrect. To me, it's the honest truth.

Great post!

Smorg said...

Hiya Drew: I hope my missionary sisters don't give up on me easily, too. The more hours they spend being utterly evangelically unsuccessful with me, the less hours they have to coax someone else not as immune to cults of personality into joining the church. ;oP I plead guilty!

I must say, though, these Mormons are a really patient and forgiving bunch toward anything Joseph Smith and other LDS prophets. Not only are the testimonies boring, so are their readings!

I will admit that the General Conference speeches were not as boring as I expected, though, but in mostly alarming ways. You can watch all of them at http://lds.org/general-conference/sessions/2011/10?lang=eng (A lot of 'you must obey, obey, obey - stuff along with Boyd Packer's anti-same-sex-marriage and some rather imperialistic thing from Whitney Clayton, et al). They also provide text transcription of the speech, but I wouldn't trust the text if I were you. Seems the church sometimes leave stuff that was actually said out of the text version...

Hiya CognitiveD: I'm sure glad you escaped! Thanks very much for your blog, too. I have to say, I sometimes worry about the mishies - I rather like them - but having googled around a bit and running into insightful ex-mormon blogs like yours I feel better about the girls' future. Perhaps they'll escape, too, after a while.

eyesometric said...

Escape? They may need your help!
I'm in great awe of your insightful writing in this series, Smorgy. Really interesting and thought provoking.

Smorg said...

Hiya Eyes: Thanks! :oD I'm glad you and others aren't finding this a boring read yet. Proof-reading the thing I worried that 1 Nephi has been rubbing off on me with the longwindedness... But then I remembered that I was longwinded even before I started reading the BoM. :o( No excuse there!

Georg said...

Bonjour Smorgy,

Just finished reading Part 4 and 3 and thought it might be a good idea to say 'hi'.

I think you enjoyed yourself, it was food for your little grey cells and the company of some girls .........

What about proposing them a kind of competition. They talk about what they belief and you give them your idea of the picture. Who will be the first to transform Saulus into Paulus?

Other peoples' religions have always something hilarious, kind of strange practical joke.

Cheers Smorgy, keep up the good works.

Georg

D-Train said...

"It seems like a lot of emphasis is placed on appearance and not enough on what the person feels inside."

This comment really stuck out to me as being 100% accurate of my experiences with Mormonism.

I love reading about your experiences with the missionaries having spent two years converting immigrants along the Texas border before realizing I did not believe any of it and abandoning religion.

Smorg said...

Hallo Georg: To be honest, I'd love to help these missionaries escape from this controlling religion... But I think they're stuck between a rock and a hard place. It seems their entire families belong to the church, and it is a big stigma in that community if someone fails to complete his/her mission. :oP So I'm not trying too hard to deconvert them at all.

I think I'll just keep defending my disbelief when they make their pitches and hope that some of the thought nuggets stick enough that once they are done with this missionary thingy and can access non-LDS websites and reading materials (right now they can't... They even have to only use church email, and can only send emails to their immediate family once a week) they'll look up actual LDS history (rather than the church-sanitized one) on their own. :o) I'll be happy with just giving them a little incentive to do an actual unbiased study of their own church and prophets. Doing more might have the reverse effect instead...

Hiya D-Train: Thanks!

I'm glad you escaped! How hard was it abandoning the LDS church? I have never joined it and already I'm uncomfortable just sensing all the peer pressure applied to church members. It must have been tough being immersed in that culture and breaking out of it!

Anonymous said...

So do you still keep in touch with those missionaries? Some must have been released by now?

- Sam Jenks

Smorg said...

Hi Sam:
Not really. :) They all dropped off the face of the earth. Not a bad thing. I'm sure they're all busy and have too many friends to keep up with... and I already know enough about Mormonism to not care for more. I still drop fruits or other goodies off for the active missionaries at one of their historic sites in town every now and then, but I turn down all invitation for any more discussion or missionary visit. One can be good neighbors without agreeing with religion or other things, I think. :)