Saturday, July 25, 2009

So, Did You Get Your House in Order?

Recent estimates have pegged our National Debt at $11 trillion (that’s the number 11 followed by 12 zeros!). Our interest payment to service this enormous debt now stands at $26 billion…per month. That’s over $300 billion a year that will be sent (mostly overseas) to our creditors instead of being used to upgrade our schools, roads, or national defense. If this were happening in your house, you’d put a stop to it, right? Rational thinking dictates that if it doesn’t work in your house, it won’t work in the White House.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported the following:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics preliminary estimate for job losses for June is 467,000, which means 7.2 million people have lost their jobs since the start of the recession. The cumulative job losses over the last six months have been greater than for any other half year period since World War II, including the military demobilization after the war. The job losses are also now equal to the net job gains over the previous nine years, making this the only recession since the Great Depression to wipe out all job growth from the previous expansion.” (emphasis added)

Now, our current administration is contemplating yet another trillion dollar stimulus package and the largest tax ever levied upon the American people in the form of Cap and Trade legislation. What is more, we are apparently rushing forward to pass a universal health care plan that will undoubtedly bankrupt our system. Thomas Jefferson once said that “[t]he principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” If that weren’t clear enough, he also said that politicians should consider themselves “unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves…

What is going on here? The recent and ongoing economic turmoil is taking a visible toll on most everyone. I believe each of us know someone, if not yourself, who has been directly affected by it.

So, were you prepared?

In the October, 1998 General Conference President Hinckley warned us about todays events by admonishing the “older men” concerning “temporal matters.” His talk, entitled “To the Boys and to the Men,” can be found here. As you may recall, a good portion of Genesis 41 was quoted, which treats Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s iconic dream of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Under the direction of Pharaoh, during the seven years of plenty Joseph gathered up food “as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number” (Gen. 41:49).

Thus, heeding the wisdom of an inspired man, Pharaoh undertook an immense preparation for the oncoming storm – in fact, they stored so much food and provisions that they lost count. That same food eventually fed Jacob’s family when they were forced to flee the famine that “was over all the face of the earth” (Gen. 41:56).

Upon concluding Joseph’s story, Pres. Hinckley then uttered these prophetic words:

Now, brethren, I want to make it very clear that I am not prophesying, that I am not predicting years of famine in the future. But I am suggesting that the time has come to get our houses in order.

So many of our people are living on the very edge of their incomes. In fact, some are living on borrowings. . . . The economy is a fragile thing. . . . There is a portent of stormy weather ahead to which we had better give heed” (emphasis added).

I remember hearing those words. I recently returned from my mission and I was sitting in a chapel in Pleasant Grove, UT, with my father. At the time I had no debt, I was living at home in my parent’s basement, and couldn’t fathom that his counsel would ever affect me.

In my opinion, we eventually saw our symbolic “seven years of plenty” as the U.S. experienced record highs in both the stock and housing markets. Things were looking good up until around the end of 2007, almost 9 years after the prophet counseled us to prepare for this “portent of stormy weather” of which we are currently undergoing.

Our beloved prophet concluded his talk by saying:

I urge you, brethren, to look to the condition of your finances. I urge you to be modest in your expenditures; discipline yourselves in your purchases to avoid debt to the extent possible. Pay off debt as quickly as you can, and free yourselves from bondage.

This is a part of the temporal gospel in which we believe. May the Lord bless you, my beloved brethren, to set your houses in order. If you have paid your debts, if you have a reserve, even though it be small, then should storms howl about your head, you will have shelter for your wives and children and peace in your hearts. That’s all I have to say about it, but
I wish to say it with all the emphasis of which I am capable” (emphasis added).

Clearly, storms are howling about our heads today, and there does not seem to be an end in sight. You may have your job and some sense of security now, but where will you turn if your situation changes and you are left in an unprepared state? Will the government step in? In light of its present actions, one wonders whether the government will have the means to. And if so, at what cost? The uncertainty of how that would work alone is enough of a motivator for me to change my habits. Unfortunately, getting out of debt takes time and discipline.

Are our houses in order? Is it too late to change our current situation, or can we start now and heed an inspired man’s advice and fortify ourselves against this raging storm?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Beer for my Brothers (and Sisters)?

LDS Teachings and the Culture/Doctrine Divide, Part II

In my last post on this topic (see here) I discussed how the line between cultural and doctrinal aspects of the LDS church can often become fuzzy, and such uncertainty may prompt pharisaical behavior. One example used was whether one would violate a commandment by getting a tattoo in light of President Hinckley’s ‘body is a temple’ talk. I personally believe that getting a tattoo would not be breaking a commandment per se; to me the no tattoo rule is simply a cultural position instituted by a wise leader. In fact, in some cultures, tattoos and body piercings are considered not only beautiful, but a sign of devotion to their Creator.

However, as can be expected, many in the Church would be quick to pass judgment on such behavior. As generations pass, they will progressively look at these actions even more negatively because, if for nothing else, they would have been raised to believe that these actions are wrong. This pattern can clearly be seen in the case of caffeinated beverages.

So how does this relate to beer? Well, I submit that this very phenomenon took place with regards to barley-based “mild drinks,” or beer, as outlined in the Word of Wisdom (WoW). In particular, the WoW teaches that “barley,” among other things, should be used “for mild drinks” (D&C 89:17). Mild drinks should be directly contrasted with the prohibited “strong drink” of verse 5, which obviously corresponds to hard liquors as known in 1833.

Beer is produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from grains – the most common of which is malted barley, although wheat, corn, and rice are also widely used. Interestingly enough, verse 17 does not limit mild drinks to a barley-based platform, but further counsels that “other grain” should also be used to make these “mild drinks.”

At the time of the revelation, it was certainly understood that beer was not a prohibited substance. In fact, as recently as 1901, Apostles Brigham Young, Jr. and John Henry Smith argued that beer was not prohibited by the WoW. See Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14:3 (1981) pp. 78–88. In fact, while the original Word of Wisdom as a “principle with promise” was given by revelation, there is no evidence that any Church leader has claimed a separate new revelation, or even a spiritual confirmation, of changing the Word of Wisdom from “a principle with promise” to a commandment. Id.

So, when did drinking beer become a violation of a commandment? In order for any doctrine to be officially binding on the church it must be presented by a unanimous First Presidency and sustained by the body of the church. See D&C 26:2; 107:27-31. It does not appear that this happened for beer.

Instead, it wasn’t until 1921, under the auspices of Pres. Heber J. Grant, that the WoW finally became a test of faith (i.e., temple recommend question). If you know your history, this occurred just after the commencement of the Prohibition movement (circa. 1920-1933). Therefore, one might argue that in the LDS culture beer evolved into a prohibited substance as a byproduct a time when all alcohol was prohibited by law, thereby creating a habit of abstaining from beer and not simply "strong drinks" and creating a situation where that habit was taught as wise counsel. It is notable that even at the end of Prohibition the Saints did not agree that alcohol should be banned. In fact, despite the pleadings of Pres. Grant, Utah became the 36th state, and final vote, to repeal prohibition.

The point I want to emphasize is that our great-grandparents knew that beer was not doctrinally prohibited, per se, just as we know today that tattoos are not doctrinally prohibited. Nonetheless, both beer and tattoos have eventually become “discouraged” by priesthood leaders. Such admonitions as we have seen, although not specifically defined in any canonized work, eventually become binding on later generations. Will we teach our children the evils of tattoos and multiple piercings until one day it ends up as a temple recommend question?

As we all know, LDS Church leaders today teach that the consumption of any form of alcohol, including beer, is a manifest violation of the WoW. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Body Is Sacred,” New Era, Nov. 2006, pp. 2–5. As members of the Church, can we accept this as doctrine based on modern revelation which teaches us that “[w]hether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38)? Or do we note an apparent conflict between the permissive language of the WoW (barley for mild drinks is acceptable), and current doctrine and heed subsequent teachings from church leaders stating that: if something a person says contradicts the scriptures, then we may know that it is false. See “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” in Charge to Religious Educators, p. 111; see also “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, Harold B. Lee” at 66. However, the facts/history listed above raises the question: could someone consume beer and then honestly assert in a temple recommend interview that he/she adheres to the WoW?

In sum, I am not going to change my “no alcohol” policy any time soon (and I hope readers won’t use this as fodder for rationalization). Clearly, the LDS are better off for not consuming alcohol as can be proven by several scientific measures and just plain common sense. I’d be interested in reader’s comments on this topic (e.g. beer, or the broader topic of cultural expectations vs. commandments). Another interesting occurrence that happens as a result of these doctrinal evolutions is that it creates situations where we could possibly judge someone for doing something that is not necessarily contrary to commandments (i.e. pharisee-behavior). Do we run this risk when we give a member or new convert a hard time when we see them struggle with something like drinking beer?

End Note: I'd like to thank Jeremy for his considerable contributions and editing of this post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Predictions of Globalization of the Church

A few days ago, or as President Monson would begin a talk, "Many years ago...", I was chatting with Jeremy over IM at work about random thoughts that we were having. Such occasions are what helped start The Seer Stone. This post is a product of some of the ideas generated during that discussion.

Jeremy and I were discussing some cultural norms about the church and even the LDS blogosphere, where a majority of participants are within a small geographical area. I think that being in Texas as we are makes us a minority in a way. This is even more true when one heads south of Texas and abroad. I think that the church's history can be roughly divided into two parts: 1) The foundational period, roughly 1820-1890, which includes the Restoration as well as an attitude of seclusion from the outside world; 2) includes the modern period (1890 to present) where the church as a whole decided to participate in society and has helped us to a certain extent become mainstream. I understand that I am oversimplifying but it you want to make it easy, then I suggest these dates.

I believe that at some point, it may have happened already or may yet arrive, we will hit stage 3, massive globalization. Yes, I know that numbers of members in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have grown exponentially recently, but ultimately have we seen the influence of this boom yet? I think overall the answer is no. Yes, we did have our first 70 called from Kenya recently, and there are many 70's from Latin America, yet the overall feeling I get is that is that we are still an Anglo-American organization whose cultural norms (not doctrine) still clash with the background of many of our converts from successful conversion areas.

Let me highlight a few conclusions I have come to. Some of these thoughts were sparked by a T&S post recently but I apologize as I don't remember when or by whom. Acknowledgement is appropriate but I unfortunately don't know who to provide it to.

1) Whether we like it or not, we are a de minimus Protestant religion. Yes, we are unique and did not break off from any other sect thus making us Protestant in the conventional way, but the young church inherited Protestant cultural baggage and ideas that existed in the 1800's. We still see them today. Common justifications for the priesthood ban were very much in line with Protestant ideas at that time. What instruments do you hear in church? The piano, harp, flute, etc. You don't hear drums or sacred instruments of an indigenous tribe of the Amazon, right? Our depiction of Jesus is the stereotypical fair skinned Caucasian. Obedient LDS males dress as if they are on the board of a Fortune 500 company. Men should be clean shaven; even the leaders of the church who are foreign are those who appear the most Western/American. (President Uctdorf is almost more American than me sometimes. I swear he told a story about being a young boy on a farm in South Eastern Idaho...). Politically we line up as a whole with Evangelical Christians to a large extent.

If the church continues to grow, and we know it will, I predict that this model will be unsustainable. Yes, there are already many members in these countries, but their influence is minuscule to what Western LDS cultural is producing. What if in a country wearing a white shirt is not considered respectful but disrespectful? It's as if we force converts to confirm to an American standard for church, which is cultural, when they are already conforming to gospel doctrines, which is spiritual. What if the wearing of facial hair is part of the cultural norm as is common in many places? Are priesthood holders who wear something that would be considered business casual going to become the norm when LDS in the US are vastly outnumbered?

2) I predict that it will take more time that when General Authorities are called from other countries that will really begin to influence the globalized church's norms. This leads me to believe that many of our current practices are as they are because it reflects the ideas of our current leaders. It just seems that the leadership doesn't reflect the make up of the membership...yet. I don't mean this as a criticism, just as an observation. When the time comes that 5 apostles are Latino, 1 is Philippino, 1 African and the remainder have never lived in Utah, I think that a global LDS culture will strongly be in place. We will focus less on the handcarts of American ancestors and more on the pioneers in Ecuador, Mongolia, and other places that reflect the true composition of the church and the sacrifices of all and not just the original pioneers.

Will this mean that I can wear a blue shirt without feeling guilty? Will this mean that a member of the bishopric can wear a beard without "special" Stake President approval? I don't know. But I do know, or at least predict, that what Joseph Smith said about the babe on its mother's lap and not knowing anything about our destiny has not come to pass yet, though sometimes we like to think so. In 50 years, the make up of the church will be so vastly different and diverse, that we cannot comprehend it now and it will influence the way that we think as a whole, instead of as Conservative Western Americans, speaking as a whole generally.

One final note, this is not a criticism of leadership, just a commentary on where culture, not doctrine, dictates our practices. I whole-heartedly support the Brethren and believe the Lord guides them to lead us appropriately. I do recognize, however, that sometimes their personal views can seep into our cultural understanding of Orthodox Mormonism, and that is what I expect to see change. Yes, I was referring to Elder McConkie.

The handlbar mustache could make a comeback, no?