Monday, December 17, 2012

Mormon Matriarchs and Inverting Our Worldviews

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, I had a dream about attending a family reunion which was hosted by the many great matriarchs of my family.  My grandmother was preeminent among them, but she was surrounded by many of my great aunts.  (Almost all of these great matriarchs except one --  my Great Aunt Helen -- have all passed on to the other side of the veil.)  They were teaching us various arts and crafts.  I was working on a history project, writing about some great early twentieth-century Mormon apostle.  Someone like James E. Talmage, though I couldn't clearly remember his name.  But as I sat in the arts and crafts room where my family was being taught by my grandmother and all my great aunts, I realized that the wife of this apostle, a woman named "Cornelia Roads West," was actually a much more important and influential figure in early Mormonism, so I decided to re-focus my historical research and write about her instead.

That was Sunday.


This morning I had a rather different dream.  It involved some blockbuster movie with grand special effects and a heart-warming story that everybody in the world wanted to go see.  I call it "The Green Movie," because it was a fantasy film whose color pallet was predominantly green.  Göran and I were on our way to see the movie, though I had a story collection project that I was working on all along the way, writing and collecting people's stories.  I worked on the story project on the bus on the way to the theater, and then in the theater lobby while we were waiting to be seated.  Finally we went into the theater and started watching, but I realized that I had left my story-telling work out in the lobby.  I got up and left the movie and reclaimed my work project and started working on it.

I left the theater and took a long journey on an isolated road, until I reached a cottage in the countryside where there were lots of LDS Church members who had gathered to talk and share stories.  It was a place full of life and warmth and love.  I realized, this was where I needed to be to do my project.  I stayed there for a while until two guys dressed in Mormon missionary suits arrived, to tell us how homosexuality could be overcome or transcended.  But I realized they were fake missionaries.  Their suits were the wrong color (grey) and made of polyester, and they didn't have name tags.  After they left, I caught up with them and spoke with them some more.  I realized they were longing for human contact, so I hugged them, and realized that they were starved for physical affection.

I went back to the movie theater where I had left Göran, but found myself on the other side of the screen.  There were quite a few people gathered there.  One of them was a friend of mine who is a performance artist (who happens to be Asian American and a woman).  We could see the images of the Green Movie being projected onto the screens, but we saw the inversion of them because we were looking at them from the back.  From there I could see that the images weren't green, but black and white.  Through a hole in the screen, I could see my husband Göran and some gay Mormon friends of mine raptly watching the film.  I started waving to them, and managed to get their attention, and was trying to encourage them to come over to my side of the movie screen.

That was this morning.


These were very different dreams, but I think they were about basically the same thing.  Both dreams addressed the question of how I need to live my life and tell my story.

Both dreams were about the beauty and wonder of life, first of all.  Both dreams took me to settings that were home-like, places full of people who interacted with each other as family, loved each other, and spent time together socializing, telling stories and creating art.  In the first dream, that place was the home where my matriarchal family reunion was taking place, and in the second dream it was at the cottage in the countryside where members of the LDS Church had gathered to socialize -- away from the hustle and bustle of the city and a blockbuster movie.

Both dreams were also about authenticity, and the challenge of finding authenticity and living authentically.  In the first dream, the great examples set by the matriarchs of my LDS family helped me realize that I was trying to write the wrong history of the Church, that I was focusing on a popular male figure when I should in fact realize that true understanding of Church history would be to see it through the eyes of his wife, "Cornelia Roads West."  ("Roads West," I think, is an allusion to the pioneer trail that shaped early Mormonism.  Is "Cornelia" the female version of the biblical "Cornelius," the figure who represented the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles?)

In the second dream, there were two "inauthentic" stories I found myself debunking: a worldly blockbuster movie that entranced everybody with special effects and that was supposed to be all about life (filmed in a green color pallet), but in reality was superficial, 2-dimensional and grey.  It was a counterfeit of the real life people were supposed to discover outside of a movie theater.  There was a second "inauthentic" story of how homosexuality could be overcome or transcended, presented by two Mormon-missionary-like characters who turned out not to be real missionaries, and who were starved for real, authentic human affection, which I offered them in the form of physical hugs.

In that second dream, real life was to be found in live human interactions among other Saints, and "on the other side of the movie screen" where we could be actors, not passive viewers of a counterfeit version of life that's sold to us by popular culture.


Many people harshly criticize me for my desire to be actively involved in the Mormon Church.  But I continue to insist that involvement in the Church is the single most important commitment I make as a disciple of Jesus Christ because living the Gospel is about real human relationships.  The Church is not some abstract notion.  It is real relationships with real people, and with a real, living God who has interacted us within the confines of human history.  When we commit deeply to those relationships in the Church, we enter into a journey of mutual learning with our fellow Saints.  A "journey of mutual learning" is how I would characterize the entire Plan of Salvation.  So the Gospel is about the Church and the Church about the Gospel.

I think the reason people are upset about my commitment to the Church is because there are false narratives/inauthentic narratives floating around that present particular ideas of what the Church is and/or is supposed to be.  In embracing the Church, do I embrace false narratives about the Church?  Absolutely not.  At the heart of the Gospel is the task of sorting truth from error, of finding the real narrative.  My second dream in particular reminded me that there are multiple inauthentic narratives.  Some originate from popular culture, some from within the Church. Rejecting one inauthentic narrative doesn't necessitate embracing another.

Please note that the "false church history" in my first dream was a story that I was writing.  It's not that the Church was false, or that "Church history" generally speaking is somehow "false."  It is we who create false understandings and narratives, we who are in need of correctives that come to us from life authentically lived in the Spirit.

Do I know what the "true" narrative is?  I think the answer to this is a resounding "No."  The real narrative is not a narrative per se, but life itself.  The real, live relationships with other human beings.  We learn the truth in the doing, in the being, in the loving.  The inauthenticity in the story of the fake Mormon missionaries was revealed in a human hug.  The inauthenticity in the blockbuster movie was revealed by going to the other side of the movie screen, the part of the stage where people become actors instead of audience.  The inauthenticity in Church history I had been trying to write in my first dream was revealed through the creation of art that the matriarchs in my family were teaching me.

We learn the truth, in other words, by staying lovingly committed to one another.


Arlo said...

Kudos for staying close to the gospel, for refusing to give up on an imperfect institution manned by imperfect people, but headed by a perfect example of love for all of God's children.

I taught the Elder's Quorum lesson, and it was about forgiveness. I talked about you, and the strength that you must have had to stay with the Church that excommunicated you. You must have had a lot to forgive as you went through that experience.

May the Lord bless you and yours always.


J G-W said...

Arlo - Thank you so much for your kind words... It's folks like you in the Church who are helping to validate my trust that the Spirit is at work, making a way forward for all of us. May the Lord bless you too, and all of us!