Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Flight and the Nest

Cross-posted at the BYU Parity blog


I just finished a great book about 'the Woman question' in Mormonism from a historical perspective--which is a convoluted way of saying it was basically a book about the struggle for Mormon women went through for more gender equality through the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is titled "The Flight and the Nest" by Carol Lynn Pearson from 1975 and I highly recommend it.

The book's chapters consist of Pearson's summaries and contextualizations framing meaty quotes from the Woman's Exponent, The Relief Society Magazine, and The Young Woman's Journal. Topics include

  • The general societal undervaluation of women at the time. One of the first telegraph messages in America was of the birth of "only a girl."
  • Mormonism's unique doctrines that taught women that they were eternally to be considered man's equal. I learned that Eliza R. Snow's hymn that we now know as "O My Father" was originally titled "Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother."
  • The propriety of women entering the workforce. Brigham Young once encouraged women to "stand behind the counter, study law or physics, or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house."
  • Women's roles in politics. There's a great 1895 picture of Susan B. Anthony and Reverend Anna Howard Shaw with several prominent Mormon women who were involved in the Women's suffrage movement, plus the classic story of Mattie Hughes Cannon, a Democrat, defeating her husband Angus Cannon, a Republican and president of the Salt Lake Stake, in an 1896 election for State Senator.


The book is remarkable in showing just how progressive Mormon women (and some men) of the 19th and early 20th centuries were. They were adamant and proud to declare the eternal truth that man and woman "will always have need of the other; they will walk together, side by side, and find completeness in each other." This is precisely the message Parity strives to send, for women and men at BYU, in our nation, and around the world.

One of my personal favorite chapters was titled The True Helpmeet about the nature of the marriage relationship. A 1923 Relief Society Magazine article, quoting Frank Crane, spoke of the three ways man can look at woman:

"You can look up and call her (with more or less mental reservation) an angel, divine and ethereal... It is usually temporary and easily slumps into contempt, jealousy, and all kinds of morbidities, for it is in itself untrue and morbid.

"Secondly, you can look downward on her. You can play the autocrat. You can emphasize your lordship and mastery. And no one but a petty soul could possibly enjoy doing this.

"Thirdly, you can look her level in the eye, as your equal, your pal, your friend and companion."

I think the first attitude is quite widely held today among men in the church, to some degree or another, and is therefore one of the more immediate problems we face when working towards more gender equality. Women are not born saints on a pedestal, they are just as susceptible to temptations, pettiness, unkindness, and most all other vices as men are. We are all working towards becoming more Christlike together, and no good can come of pretending like half of us have a tremendous head-start.

I also very much appreciated the "Mormonness" of the feminism expressed in the book. Family always came first in everyone's priorities. While women pushed for the freedom to work in the same fields as and receive equal pay as men, there is a consistent recognition that raising a righteous family is the most important job of any mother. But of course it cuts both ways, and fathers are not given a free pass on family involvement either--both need to work together--and they quoted scriptures to prove it. There was also a wonderful discussion of an enlarged view of the very word "motherhood"--John Taylor spoke of how, although Eliza R. Snow never bore any children, she should surely be considered a "mother in Zion," drawing parallels with George Washington who is called the father of our nation despite his lack of offspring. Leah Widstoe adds that "all intelligent worth-while work for social betterment in private life or in organized activity is but an enlarged Motherhood acting for the uplift of mankind."

There is a lot more I would love to say about this book--the poems, the history, Pearson's final chapter addressed to her daughters, the suffragist hymn to the tune of Hope of Israel, so much!--but this post is already long, so I'll just say this: read this book. We have a rich heritage of gender equality in our religion, and it is inspiring and flat-out awesome. It gives me so much hope to see how much the condition of women has improved in just a century, and I'm excited to see how much farther we can get!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Music

I feel especially Scroogian, as far as my blog is concerned, because my sister has been cranking out awesome Christmas posts daily this month on her blog, and I haven't had anything remotely Christmas related here yet. Plus, her most recent post about Christmas music kind of stole my one idea of what I wanted to do. So I'll just offer up my belated and derivative thoughts on one of the main reasons this season is so awesome: the music.

I was struck again by the power of music in bearing testimony of Christ during my BYU ward's Christmas program two Sundays ago. In particular, two girls I know sang a beautiful duet of "What Child is This?" I don't think I'd ever heard (or maybe just never paid attention) to more than the first verse, which is pretty normal stuff about Christ being born in a manger. The second verse, however, jumped out at me:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.


I hadn't ever realized how scriptural the imagery was in this song. I love the words describing the Word being made flesh, and then that flesh being pierced for us all. Just beautiful. And, as Eugene England said in his great essay Easter Weekend, a spiritual song is most beautiful when performed by those who have a testimony of the Savior about whom they sing, and these girls definitely did.

While I'm at it, I'll just throw out there another phrase that I've always found interesting in the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem," namely "The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight." The hope and faith of millions of people--both past and future--came head to head with their fears in that night, and it was the beginning of the triumph of the former.

So enjoy the many many wonderful Christmas carols to be heard at this time of year (but let's retire those past their prime). There is truly a lot to be thankful and hopeful for during this season. What are the most meaningful Christmas songs for you?

p.s. I think we hear a lot about carols that people find annoying or overdone, but I'd like to nominate "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella" as the most underappreciated Christmas song. Any others you'd like to see sung more often?



Friday, November 13, 2009

Disagreeing on Politics


I was very happy to hear about the LDS church's recent hearty approval of Salt Lake City ordinances that guarantee non-discrimination in housing and employment for LGBT people of that city. I'm now especially hopeful that last year's saddeningly rapid demise of the Common Ground Initiative will be reversed this coming year, especially with Elder Holland giving a measure of support to the idea that common-sense anti-discrimination laws would be a good thing to adopt statewide.

The liberal side of the political world was glad to hear about the Church's public stance, though many decided to see it more as damage control/PR/too little too late (one sterling exception was Andrew Sullivan--a man who has been a gay-marriage advocate for two decades).

But the most intriguing aspect of the recent news, to me, was the reaction from conservative groups like the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based organization with primarily Mormons as members. The Sutherland Institute was one of the main opponents of the Common Ground Initiative last year (watch a great debate between them and Equality Utah at the latter's website). They released a statement after the LDS Church came out in support of the gay-rights ordinances, saying
As a public relations opportunity, the LDS Church’s statement before the Salt Lake City Council may assuage the minds and soften the hearts of advocates of “gay rights” in Utah. As a policy statement, it is problematic.


The statement goes on to argue that including terms like "sexual orientation" and "sexual identity" in laws leads onto a slippery slope that makes it easier for judges and lawmakers to legalize gay marriage. In addition, Gayle Ruzicka, leader of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum and member of the LDS Church, said "We expected the church not to have a problem because they've been carved out of it. The rest of us have not been carved out of it," and that the ordinances "discriminate against people who have personal religious beliefs."

I find these disagreements intriguing because I know many Mormons who disagree with Prop 8 in California and have their commitment to Mormonism questioned for not agreeing with the Church. Harry Reid (who is against gay marriage) recently ruffled many a Mormon feather by saying that the Church should not have gotten into the Prop 8 fight. Now I wonder what the reaction, if any, will be towards those who disagree with the Church's stance on gay rights because it is too "liberal."

I won't try to use the "You're on the wrong side of the Church's stance!" card as a bludgeon to tell these people to change their views, even if it would work to my advantage in an argument, because that tactic is repugnant to me. Coercing people to believe anything is wrong, no matter the goal. Especially in the political realm, we need to understand that everyone will see things a little differently, the Church included. Birth control, abortion, and illegal immigration are other issues where I know there are good members of the Church on both sides of these issues (i.e. more liberal or more conservative than the Church's position) who disagree with the Church's stance. Don't just make appeals to authority to win an argument--if your ideas can't stand on their own, they must not be very good.

If someone doesn't agree with the Church (assuming an honest, non-confrontational disagreement) about something, especially on a political matter, why should that threaten you or me? Let's talk about it, let us reason together. Let's try out that persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned thing. Let's be civil and respectful; Christian.


See also: A great article by Margaret S. Lifferth from the the May 2009 Ensign [how ya like that appeal to authority? ha HA!]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Of Dylan, Tevye, and Heavenly Mother


I was listening to one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs today, Shelter from the Storm, and thinking about how it reminds me of Heavenly Mother.

Aside #1: yes, I know, Dylan most likely wasn't actually thinking of Heavenly Mother per se when writing this song, but one of the beauties of Dylan is that his songs can mean a lot to a lot of different people. Aside #2: I realize that the third verse especially seems to be speaking specifically of a lover, but the other verses make it clear that Dylan is also thinking of a much more broad feminine subject. Bear with me...

There are two clear references to Christ in the song, one being a "crown of thorns" that the unnamed woman takes from the singer gracefully. And then, probably my favorite verse,
In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an' they gave me a lethal dose.
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."

I see this as an expression of our Heavenly Mother's love and concern for, in this verse Christ, but throughout the song for all of Her children. Whether we've been hunted, whether we question, whether we're hopeless and forlorn, whether we feel there's a wall between us and Her, she (alongside our Heavenly Father) is still waiting, loving, soothing--offering us shelter from the storm.

So where does Tevye come in? I watched Fiddler on the Roof today as a cultural experience for my Biblical Hebrew class (which I recommend to everyone--aside #3?) and it came to mind too as I thought about Shelter from the Storm. At the end of that film, Tevye is acting like his youngest daughter is dead, ignoring her completely, because she married a gentile. Now, to be clear, I don't think that our Heavenly Father does that to us when we act against His wishes, but I do think that with our cultural baggage we tend to see father figures as more harsh, cold, and stoic. In the film, it is the momma who is willing to call out to the wayward daughter (and the oldest sister too, let's don't forget) rather than the father. I think it is sometimes easier for us to believe that a Heavenly Mother would forgive us and love us than a Heavenly Father--again, not because that reflects reality, but because our culture conditions us that way in many respects. The idea of a Heavenly Mother helps us remember that God is great, He and She encompass all good traits, whether here in mortality we tend to associate one with 'masculinity' and another with 'femininity.'

That is the feeling that comes through to me when listening to this Dylan song.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

PATRIOT Act Reauthorization Article

I'm an editor for the BYU Political Review this semester (it's a blast, by the way) and also an occasional writer. The latter is the reason for this post. By popular demand (of one older sister), I'm posting a link to my rough draft: read it here. It has some notes and random crap at the end that you can ignore, or not. And just so this post has a little bit of meat to, I'll quote a bit of it here as well:


The government's intentions are noble, and who are these armchair quarterbacks, these backseat civil liberties drivers, to criticize good-faith efforts to protect us? Sadly, the government itself has admitted that mistakes--sometimes small, sometimes serious--have been made in using these powers. One example is the use of the PATRIOT Act outside its intended sphere of use: So-called "sneak and peek" warrants that allow the government to search a home or business without telling the owners for up to 30 days afterwards have only been used 3 times in counter-terrorist investigations; the hundreds of other uses were in drug investigations. Also, the FBI's own Office of the Inspector General testified before congress that the FBI severely underreported violations and irregularities in their requesting of private records. Violations ranged from mundane mistakes to acquiring records beyond what even the PATRIOT Act allows, requesting information without authorization, and requesting records for people not connected to any investigations. ...

America faces real threats to its safety, and the PATRIOT Act gives the government many tools it needs to protect us. As the law currently stands, civil liberties are not sufficiently protected, but there does not need to be a choice between safety and constitutional rights. Senator Feingold (D.-Wis.) proposed the JUSTICE Act which would still give the government the powers it needs to fight terrorists while still respecting Americans' privacy. Sadly it was defeated, and the PATRIOT Act was renewed with minimal added protections for civil liberties. We have missed an opportunity to stand with the founders of our nation, who fought for the right of citizens to be free from broad government searches. Our next major chance for reform will be in 2013, when these same provisions will be up for review again.


So, any thoughts? How can I improve it? Does it explain my concerns effectively? Be vicious; this is a first draft, after all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ear Candy


If you want to hear good music, and I mean really quality music, please listen to Chanticleer. They are one of the most widely acclaimed male vocal groups around. If you own some of their stuff already, I plead with you to get out some good headphones and listen some more because--c'mon--it will be worth it. If, on the other hand, you don't have any of their stuff or haven't even heard them (shame!), then go find something post-haste. I'm listening to their gospel album Where the Sun Will Never Go Down and it is just stupendous. Oh my word it is good.

To paraphrase the words that Richard G. Scott has unfortunately never actually said, "If you have not listened to Chanticleer, I plead with you. Listen to them now. Do not delay. If you have thought, 'That’s not for me,' I plead with you to reconsider. Of all bands I treasure, this one was the first."

So there you have it. They were endorsed by a fictional General Authority quote. The thinking has been done. So go listen!

Monday, September 14, 2009

To bear one another's burdens, that they may be light

I just read an inspiring account of what is right with the Church and its interactions with its gay members. No matter one's political, theological, personal beliefs, I think we can all agree that this is a beautiful thing, and one that I hope is tried elsewhere as well.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Five Love Languages


I think I'm just a johnny-come-lately, but I only yesterday found out about the Five Love Languages (pay no mind to the cheesy website design, they're actually pretty cool--read on!) by Gary Chapman. Basically, he posits that there are five basic "love languages"--ways to express and receive love. The five languages are (in no particular order):

  • Quality Time - You find it really important to spend time with people and be together.
  • Acts of Service - Small acts of service really communicate love.
  • Words of Affirmation - It's important to have love and compliments expressed verbally.
  • Gift Giving - Giving gifts is a major way of communicating love.
  • Physical Touch - A hand on the arm, a back-scratch, an arm around the shoulder, a kiss--these are the best ways to communicate love.

It's important to remember that everyone experiences love in all of these ways, but Chapman contends that everyone has one that is more important than all the others, and that they can be (more or less) ranked for each person--think "good, better, best." Also, although for most people they are the same, it is possible to prefer to give love in one language, and receive it in another.

For me, it was kind of hard to pick my dominant language. I can definitely rule out gift-giving since gifts don't mean much at all to me, and service (while of course nice) is also not very high on my list. But the remaining three were harder. I finally decided on quality time being my number one--I really love to talk to people one-on-one and spend time with friends and loved ones. Words of affirmation are also very important to me--I sometimes can crave verbal praise and recognition, and when I hear them it just feels really, really good. Physical touch is also important for me. I love hugging, back-scratches, holding hands, etc., though PDA is gross. All that was validated by this quiz (no scientificity guaranteed), where I scored 11 on quality time, 8 on words of affirmation, and 7 on physical touch (service was 4, gift giving 0 :) ).

Like I said, I just yesterday found out about this way of looking at ways of communicating love, but I think it's a very useful tool. Just talking to my girlfriend about it helped me recognize a source of what had been some concern for me (that she's not a "words of affirmation" kind of girl) but also helped me realize that she expresses love through physical touch and quality time. It was also good to find out that we're both not very into gifts--phew! (but don't worry, I still give flowers or whatever on special occasions).

Overall I think it's very useful to recognize how family, friends, and significant others give and receive love so that you're not talking past each other. If one person constantly says "I love you" but the recipient of those words thinks talk is cheap and would prefer the other person just pitch in with the chores, you can see how problems could develop and both sides feel hurt. Apparently, you can also work on improving your fluency in love languages that don't come as naturally to you, which is a great goal, and one I'll be working on.

So, were you already familiar with the five love languages? Which one(s) is (are) your primary language(s)? Did you like all those parentheses I needed to make that last sentence exactly tolerant of whether or not you had multiple love languages? Have you ever been in a situation where two people had their relationship damaged by using two different love languages without realizing it? I'm anxious to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

And it breaks my heart

The next time I go to the temple, I'm putting Anonymous on the prayer roll. It will represent both that letter writer, and all the other gay members of the church who have to remain "Anonymous" out of fear.

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." -- Paul

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Editorial on Homosexuality Finally Published

The BYU Daily Universe finally published my article, A Call for Compassion, about homosexuality at BYU. You can read it here. Only took them 5 months :)

I'm glad it got published, though I wish they would have waited till fall semester (or just printed it last winter like they said they would...), but they couldn't guarantee it would get published then so I just figured better now than never. Hopefully it will help out some of the students who think they're alone in being attracted to members of the same sex, and hopefully it will help increase the level of tolerance among those of us who aren't. Time will tell.

Monday, June 15, 2009

History in the Present Tense





Absolutely amazing. Breathtaking. Awe inspiring. I need more cliches to describe this. Iran is erupting in protests over almost certainly faked-election results: the incumbent Ahmadinejad appears to have rigged the election to prevent his defeat by the reform candidate Mousavi (whose supporters wear green, explaining the sea of that color in all the videos and pictures). Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest, and it sends chills down my spine the more I read about it. These people are getting beaten by state police and plain-clothes policemen, people are being killed, but they are standing up and not taking it. It is stunning. This in a country that only a few years ago was declared part of Bush's new axis of evil (though the broad stroke lacked the nuance one might desire from our head of state, he definitely had a point: the country hasn't been doing too much right recently). A country where candidates in presidential elections have to be OK'ed by the unelected religious clerics. A country whose president has denied the Holocaust and called the US a western devil and who knows what all else. This. Is. HUGE. Included below is one of the best raw, powerful videos I've seen yet on youtube of what's going on; it was taken earlier today (Monday) in a large square in Tehran where Mousavi spoke. Huge crowds, chanting, the sounds of freedom.



This next clip shows Mousavi a bit as well:

One of the most important sources of information (though by nature also fragmented and prone to rumor and exaggeration) has been Twitter, believe it or not. Here's a link to a collection of tweets from Iranians (warning: includes two pics of bloody protesters). Yes, they're out of context, they're short--but they're first-hand accounts of the panic and elation that is coursing through the Iranian people right now.

From the videos I've seen, there has been some violence on the part of protesters, though it seems remarkably little compared to the beatings they seem to be enduring. I've seen a few fires burning and some rock throwing, but at the same time there have been amazing pictures of protesters shepherding lone riot police who have gotten caught in the midst of the hostile public to safety (pictured at top--see another similar incident, in video form, here). The Iranians are hungry for democracy, and by and large they are going about it peacefully. If the regime keeps responding with force, though, I don't know how long it will stay non-violent.

Right now I'm praying for a relatively peaceful outcome and for the will of the people to ultimately prevail. And of course keeping up with the latest every chance I get. I've seen amazing coverage from The Daily Dish (actually the same blog that had the great series on abortion I mentioned in my previous post), Andrew Sullivan there has been all over every new angle as it unfolds. FiveThirtyEight.com has also had some great coverage of the statistics of the election, with this post being a great example. BBC and NPR are also covering things pretty well. The perennially superb Big Picture blog also has a great collection of photographs which show protestors being beaten, fighting back, marching peacefully, the aftermath of raids on Tehran University, and more.

Again, this is amazing. We are either witnessing the birth of a much more direct democracy or about to see a regime strike hard against its own people. Let's hope this is more of a USSR falling thing rather than a Burma or Tiananmen Square thing. I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

It's So Personal

There has been an amazing series of posts on Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, titled "It's So Personal." Sullivan has a strong Catholic background and is staunchly pro-life, but in the wake of George Tiller's murder he has opened a discussion on his blog featuring first-hand stories of women (and sometimes their husbands/boyfriends) about their decisions to either have or not have an abortion, with an emphasis on abortions that occur after ~20 weeks--the type of abortion that Tiller was one of only about three doctors in America to provide.

The best part about the series has been the even-handedness of it all. Accounts are published from people who had abortions who regretted it and those who think it was the right choice. There are stories of mothers who chose not to have an abortion and are happy with that decision, even if sometimes the baby only lived a few minutes, if at all. The stories contradict each other, in the sense that they don't all come to the same conclusions or even agree about some of the fundamentals. But they are all real in that you can get a sense, however small, of the heart-wrenching decisions that many women and men go through. The series brings nuance, reality, and detail to a debate that has for too long been characterized by the single word you put after "pro-" in your label. These posts remind us all that this really is not just a black and white issue, no matter how strong feelings are on both sides. [See this Newsweek article that basically says the same thing, more eloquently.]

You can read the first dozen or so posts here, listed chronologically. Since that list was published just earlier this week, there have been a few more published as well. Three that I found very touching were Not Knowing For Sure, A Target of Terror, and, perhaps the most unlikely, A Life Saved By Choice.

My point, again, is this: abortion is a terribly difficult choice. While I don't think it's possible or, ultimately, desirable to outlaw abortion, I also love life and want to see the number of elective abortions drop through promoting adoption, better counseling, and providing much more support for pre-, neo-, and post-natal care, especially for the impoverished. But the bottom line is this: don't vilify and lampoon those who disagree with you. Again, this is not a cut-and-dry issue, so let's all try to do what we can to understand other points of view and try to look with charity on all of our fellow women and men. I'm grateful to Sullivan for helping me see multiple sides of a contentious issue.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Missionary Moment

This is a story from a friend of mine named Chris Gong, who's currently serving a mission somewhere in Taiwan (sorry, I can never remember missions more specific than the country). His emails are generally quite short (this one is exceptionally long by his standards) but poignant is always a good word to describe them. Here is his most recent email, in full. I love it.

Elder Christopher Gong

Early in my mission, I was moved to the rural mountain town of QiShan in southern Taiwan. The branch was small but full of faith and love. One day, after seeking referrals in church, Andy Weng bounced up to us followed by his sister Emily. He said “We know someone who needs the gospel. It’s our Uncle. He just got out of jail on probation because he needs heart surgery. It’s perfect!”A little bit apprehensive, we set up a time for later that week.
I’ll always remember the first time we saw Brother Guo. He was slouched back against his motorcycle, stone faced and chain smoking. He wouldn’t come into the house for the lesson, so we taught him standing up outside by his motorcycle. We shared about our loving Heavenly Father and that through reading the Book of Mormon and praying, we can know He is there and feel his love. Emily shared her favorite scriptures and bore testimony. After loving persuasion from Andy and Emily, Brother Guo reluctantly set another time.
The next time we met, I was startled to see there was something different about him. “You’ve been reading and praying, haven’t you?” I said. “Every single day,” he said gruffly, but his eyes smiled just a little, and Andy and Emily were beaming. My companion and I sat at the Weng family dinner table, listening to stories and trying (and failing) to avoid getting served pig foot soup. Dishes were cleared, and we started the lesson with song and prayer. My first move companion bore testimony of the atonement in his first move Chinese. As everyone listened intently, straining to better understand, an amazing thing happened. The spirit filled the room, and we could tell Brother Guo’s heart was touched.
Over the next few weeks, Brother Guo read and prayed daily. He came to church with his supportive family. He struggled with and eventually overcame his addictions. We saw his heart softened, and the light in his eyes grow brighter and brighter. But because of his traditional beliefs and opposition from other relatives, he was still unwilling to commit to baptism.
As we were leaving after one appointment, Brother Guo exchanged some quick words in Taiwanese with his older sister. She said “Andy told him that missionaries can give blessings. He’s going into surgery this week, and he’s worried. Can you give him a blessing?” He may have been worried, but we were terrified. We could barely communicate, and neither of us had ever given a blessing in Chinese before. We knelt together in prayer. And then, in their broken down storeroom, with our broken Chinese, we performed the blessing.
We saw Brother Guo at church the next Sunday. He looked tired and walked slowly. After church, he pulled us aside. One night after his surgery, he had woken up with throbbing chest pains. Desperately, he prayed for help. The pains subsided. He was grateful and humble, and asked to be baptized.

So that's why I chose Ezekiel 36:26-28. as my mission scripture.

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.

May we all continue to have mighty changes of heart.

Love, Elder Gong

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Utah's Gay RIghts Failure

I recently wrote an article for BYU's Political Review titled Utah's Gay Rights Failure [update: Internet Archive version] about the saddening defeat of the Common Ground Initiative, a set of bills in the Utah legislature that would have granted some basic rights like not getting fired if your employer finds out you're gay, hospital visitation rights, health care for partners, and the standing to sue in the case of wrongful death. I'm just linking to the article on the PR website if you'd like to read it so that you can also take part in some of the discussion going on there.

Also, I highly recommend Ryan Decker's piece from the same issue called Teams With No Winners [update: Internet Archive version] about blind partisanship, and why it's bad; don't worry, he puts it a bit more eloquently :)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ahh, the ghetto that is University Villa!


I live at University Villa, and don't get me wrong: I like it. My roommates are the grapes, my ward is chill, rent is cheap, and cleaning checks are not analistic. But I do have to chuckle sometimes at the ghettoness of the place. (Disclaimer: I know, compared to 95% of the world, I live in the lap of luxury here. I am talking strictly relative to middle-class America when I call it the ghetto)

Half of the walls are (painted) cinderblock. The pool is going to be mostly a big gravel hole without water for another month and a half. And--what really motivated this post--this is a picture of how maintenance fixes leaks in the floor of our bathroom: by putting some caulking down and holding it in place with a board which in turn is held down by two rocks and some phone books. Stupendous!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Random nerdy stuff

Well, I just updated my old grandcentral account to Google Voice. I don't know how much I'm ever going to use it, but it's cool to play around with at least. I even added a little gadget on the right side of my blog there so anyone can call me--and they don't even get to know my number! Hopefully that won't result in anything creepy, but fortunately it's mostly my sister and brother and friends who read this blog (I think) so it should be ok.

Also added a little "followers" gadget on the right-hand side, just for fun.

Yeah, I'm kind of a nerd.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How I Like Music and Remember People at the Same Time

As I listened to the Elliott Smith song "Everything Means Nothing to Me" (the best possible title of the song that follows "Everything Reminds Me of Her") I was reminded of why he's one of my favorite artists. I love the way his voice loops back over itself and the whole feel of the song, but most of all it reminds me of the first Elliott Smith song I ever heard, which was his cover of the Beatles' "Because" from the American Beauty soundtrack. And the reason I love that song is just because a friend of mine told me she loved it. I'd never heard of Elliott Smith before but it was a great song, and since a friend loved it, I loved it too. Then I remember hearing about when he died back in 2003, listening to that song again, and then buying more of his stuff and completely falling in love with his music.

A song takes on special significance for me when it's a friend's favorite. It's just contagious. I used to think I was unoriginal because of that, but I've decided it's my way of remembering people, since I'm pretty terrible at the normal, not-connecting-them-to-a-song way.

And no, this post has no real point, except that you really should just put on some nice headphones and drift away to Elliott's feather-pillow voice sing a classic from Abbey Road:

Because - Elliott Smith

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Happy Pre-emptive International Women's Day!


In honor of International Women's Day this Sunday, I decided I'd make a list of some of my favorite feminist movies. Why? Because I love movies and I love women and I love feminism. So without further ado, and in no particular order:

Fried Green Tomatoes - First of all, this movie is hilarious. Second of all, Mormons should love it because it makes genealogy/family history sound like it would actually be fun to do. And it is a great feminist movie too with lots of strong, independent, and smart female characters. It even critiques the kind-of-weird new-agey feminism and focuses on good old-fashioned real women being who they are and not getting pushed around. Plus there's a great racial equality theme too. What's not to love?

The Hours - Just saw this movie recently, and it's beautiful. The music is also spectacular. It's sort of depressing, but sort of not--I can't decide. But it's definitely a feminist film because of the three great performances from Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Meryl Streep and how it delves deep into the lives of three women in very different situations but with very similar problems. My favorite plot-line is the 1950's one.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Wow. I just saw this movie last week at International Cinema at BYU and it floored me. Joan of Arc is the only female in the whole thing (except for some extras in the crowd scenes at the end) but she makes the film. She stands up to a whole slew of jerk men who are desperate to prove that she is delusional for actually having revelations from God. One of my favorite scenes is when she is in her cell and the judges know she is desperate to receive the Eucharist ("take the sacrament" in Mormon-speak). They order the priest to come in, light the candles, get everything ready, bring out the wafer, and then, when you can just see the anticipation on her face, just before putting it to her lips, they tell her she can only have it if she signs a confession saying that her revelations came from the devil. She doesn't. You go, Joan! And the movie is all the more impressive because the whole thing is based on the actual transcripts from Joan of Arc's trial.

The Whale Rider - Wonderful story set in the Maori culture of New Zealand. Archetypical story of struggling with male-dominated traditions that marginalize women just because they're women. But such a great message by the end! I love it!

Bend it Like Beckham - Women playing football (soccer). Title IX, eat your heart out. Fun movie, great music (thanks for the soundtrack, Diana!), and has one of my favorite lines of all time: [old Indian aunt:] "A lesbian? I thought she was a pisces!"

Those are just the ones that I could come up with more or less off the top of my head. Any other suggestions?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Valentine

Dear Homework,
I know our relationship has been rocky recently. I've been pretty aloof and absent, and you've been, well, abusive, knocking me around pretty good. But I think it's time we made up. Will you be my valentine? I'll spend my Feb. 14th evening with you, and you only.

Thanks. I think we have a bright future together.

Love,
Austin

[with apologies to Brook, who has perfected the blog-letter format]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Heart Sacred Harp

I just got back from Sacred Harp singing, which a group does every second Tuesday in Provo. It is simply amazing. I hesitated to include any audio clips because they simply cannot do it justice; it's an experience. You sit in a big square and everybody sings awesome, old-timey gospel songs at the top of their lungs (no worries whether or not you have any skill, you're just supposed to shout). It's a blast. I wonder if it's just that I haven't heard these songs a million times, but I like 'em more than a lot of the LDS hymns. There's more character and excitement in them. If you're in Provo on the 2nd Tuesday of the month, I highly recommend you come by the Episcopal church on the NE corner of 200 N and 100 W at 7 pm. You won't regret it.

This first song was featured in Cold Mountain, as seen here:

That movie has an awesome soundtrack, by the by. And if you want to hear the whole song without the dialogue and idiot man syndrome, though at maybe a little worse quality, you can listen here:

im going home - sacred harp singers at liberty church

And finally, this is one of my favorite hymns in the Sacred Heart songbook. Though they're all my favorite, really.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Lesson in Diplomacy

I was fascinated by the string of comments accompanying this HBLL Library blog post about their collection of works related to Charles Darwin (happy 200th, Charles!). I've read a fair amount about the religion/evolution debate (my favorite spot to do so) but the interesting part to me of this discussion was the official blogger's responses to Brad's rather mean-spirited (at least in my view) judgments about the propriety of a BYU website talking about Darwin in a non-bashing way. The author's responses show remarkable restraint and maturity.

My favorite part was the response to another commenter, Joe R, who agreed with Brad that a blog post about Darwin is indeed an "honor" to him and stated "I doubt we would see a similar blog entry about Hitler or others of his kind." The author of the post replied simply "Thanks for the comment. For the record last year the blog did mention Hitler and it was not to honor him. He is part of world history and there are thousands of items in our collections that have a connection to World War II and are therefore linked to Hitler." I just find the curtness and simplicity and honesty hilarious there! And the diplomacy is amazing--the author could very easily have gone on the attack herself, but didn't do anything of the sort. She stated the facts dispassionately and laid out an argument for why there's nothing wrong with her actions. The lack of direct retaliation makes her argument all the more persuasive to me--it sets her apart as "above the fray," mature, and composed.

I would take this as a model for discussions of politics, religion, or any other contentious subject. Even as a model for foreign (as well as domestic) policy. Because to me, it's the Christ-like way to go. Don't retaliate just because it would be justified. Transcend the petty arguments. That doesn't mean you don't have to respond or argue your case, but man, it helps if you do it in a way that doesn't make you look like a whiner.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Daily Universe Editorial

As the title indicates, this editorial will hopefully be published in the Daily Universe, BYU's campus newspaper. I haven't submitted it yet, but I wanted to post it here and get any feedback/comments/suggestions etc. from anyone who cares to read it.


Same-gender attraction at BYU
by Austin Smith (austin.smith@byu.net)

My freshman year home-teaching companion, a mission buddy, my cousin--these are a few of the wonderful people in my life who, through no choice of their own, are attracted to members of the same gender. I fear that here at BYU, talking about homosexuality has for too long been taboo. Same-gender attraction (SGA) is not something we can just ignore, wishing it would go away, because it won't. It deserves and demands a mature, respectful, faithful, and open discussion. We cannot allow our silence, ignorance, or intolerance to push amazing people out of the Church. As the recent Church publication for Mormons who struggle with homosexual attractions, "God Loveth His Children," says, "Some people with same-gender attraction have felt rejected because members of the Church did not always show love. No member of the Church should ever be intolerant." Tolerance does not require one to embrace homosexual behavior, but my prayer is that we, as a campus community, can be more understanding, loving and, yes, accepting of our friends and loved ones who find themselves in this position.

One misconception about those who struggle with SGA is that they simply don't have enough faith. In my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. These are people who spend countless hours in earnest prayer, serve selflessly in the temple, magnify their callings as full-time missionary, visiting teacher, or Elder's Quorum President, and meet consistently with both priesthood leaders and professional counselors. These are people who show me what it is like to go forward with faith despite walking in darkness. Some eventually feel comfortable entering into heterosexual marriages, others feel no change in their orientation, but all demonstrate great faith and trust in God.

The men and women in our lives who struggle with SGA have a difficult cross to bear which we cannot afford to exacerbate with our scorn or disdain. However, no one wants or needs pity. Our friends and loved ones who experience SGA need to be befriended, loved, and accepted. They need, just as we all do, support in trying to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to be able to say, as President Hinckley did, that “Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender. We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and sisters.” Put a face on the issue: if a friend of yours were to tell you about his quiet battles with homosexuality, would you turn him away, or embrace him?

To those of you reading this who struggle with same-gender attraction, let me express my unconditional love and support for you. Know that you are not alone; there are many active Latter-day Saints who experience SGA or who have unanswered questions about this issue. One of my friends at BYU who struggles with SGA told me that for a long time, he thought he was literally the only guy in the whole university who had these kinds of feelings. That is a very depressing and unhealthy way to live, and it simply is not true. It's an easy thing to let depression and despair overwhelm you, especially if you have been unsuccessful in trying to change your orientation, but I plead with you to hang on. Remember the words of Nephi, who acknowledged that he did not know the meaning of all things, but nevertheless testified "I know that [God] loveth his children." You do not need to bear this burden alone, there are many resources where you can find help and support. Seek out close friends and family members with whom you can confide and discuss your trials, missteps, successes, and goals. Speak with your bishop, chances are he has counseled with others in your situation. BYU offers free counseling where you can confidentially work through your feelings with an empathetic professional. The website NorthStarLDS.org is a resource and community for Mormons who experience SGA, with the aim of helping them cope with their struggles and stay active in the church. Above all, search out the best in life and enjoy the abundant blessings of the church and the fellowship of the saints.

As a BYU community, it is my fervent hope that our attitudes on the issue of same-gender attraction can be open and tolerant. That does not mean we need to compromise our beliefs or condone sexual activity outside of marriage, but we should always strive to love our brothers and sisters as God loves each and every one of us: unconditionally, no matter our struggles.


Update: You can read the final, published version (which only uses the term "struggle" once, when paraphrasing the words of a friend with SSA) here on the Daily Universe website.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Both Sides Now

I attended a really cool fireside last Monday in Lehi put on by the Matises (or Matis'? I can never pluralize family names that end in s). Stuart Matis was a gay Mormon young man who took his life on the steps of his Stake Center in California back in 2000 during that state's Prop 22 campaign. Now his parents live in Lehi, Utah and do a lot to help Mormons who have same-sex attraction (henceforth SSA) come to terms with it and hopefully still stay active in the church. The speaker was Ty Mansfield, who co-wrote the book In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-gender Attraction along with the Matises. It was published by Deseret Book, and while I haven't gotten to read it, I've heard it's really good. I did read the little prologue at the beginning and it's a wonderful little vignette about the scripture that says the Lord sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. It talks about some really cool symbolism behind that, but you'll just have to read the book to get the whole story.

It was really interesting to be one of the very few straight people there. It gave me a small glimpse into how it would feel every day of your life if you have SSA--everybody else is attracted to people that you aren't attracted to and you don't really understand why. It's obviously a bit alienating, just by default. Fortunately for me, everybody was super friendly and welcoming, plus I didn't even have to worry about anyone shunning me or calling me heterosexual epithets if they found out I was straight!

Ty's presentation was really good, he talked a lot about the pre-mortal life and stressed a lot how short this life is in the eternal perspective. I have heard that a million times, but maybe because it was coming from someone for whom this life is a constant struggle to not act on his homosexual desires that it took on a new meaning for me. I can say that my respect and love for anyone who is choosing to remain celibate so that they can stay in the church grew even more after meeting many of them. At the same time, I definitely don't feel like I'm able to judge anyone who leaves the church over this issue. But the faith and determination of Ty and everyone there was amazing and definitely an example to me in all of my own struggles.

Another of Ty's points was about trying to view this challenge in his life as a blessing in some ways. He talked about how he has been able to help out a lot of other people who struggle with these issues and how it has helped him become more patient, meek, and submissive. I'd like to share the first verse (and chorus) of a song I love from a CD my dad gave me for Christmas; it's called "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell, and I think it speaks beautifully to how one thing can be looked at through very different lenses:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all


Great song, I recommend you go listen to it all ASAP.

It was also fun to hang out with some of the friends I had known before the fireside (as well as some others I met there) at IHOP afterwards. One thing that struck me about that was that at the fireside, it was kind of like the Sunday version of coping with SSA--spiritual, edifying, gospel-centered, etc. Then afterwards, hanging out with all these awesome guys in a totally secular environment was like looking into the day-to-day living with SSA. Just like I don't concentrate on the gospel for three hours in a row on any day except Sunday, they were just friends after the fireside--joking, laughing, sharing stories, talking about school, etc. I think both kinds of support--through the gospel directly and through good friends--are necessary for these guys to stay strong in the church. I have seen how those same two elements have been integral in keeping me active throughout the years, and I'm pretty sure the same thing will help all of my friends from the fireside too.

So, the conclusion: I fear that homosexuality is just a super taboo topic in the church. One friend I met at the fireside told me how just over a year ago he literally thought he was the only guy at BYU who struggled with SSA. I think this subject needs to come out of the shadows, because let's face it: it happens. More than you might think. And it's not just going to go away--these people are some of the most devout, honest, and hard-working Mormons I know, and they still feel attracted to members of the same sex. Their stories of endless prayers to be "changed," their thought process of "if only I work hard enough in my calling and serve well enough in Church I'll be straight" are heart-breaking because despite years of completely earnest effort, they still have SSA. Without any positive role models in their lives, without any friends who can really understand them, it makes it insanely hard to not get pessimistic and depressed.

I wanted to ask anybody who reads this blog, whether you're gay or straight, what thoughts you might have about how to make homosexuality not such a taboo topic among church members. I would first of all encourage you to talk to family and friends about it, just start discussions, try to understand all the points of view, etc. I would also encourage you to watch what you say in everyday conversation, because you don't know if one of your roommates or a member of your Elder's Quorum or your visiting teacher is struggling with this. I was also thinking about writing an article on this subject, perhaps for the BYU Political Review (although I don't want to get into the politics of the subject, so maybe that wouldn't be the best venue for it. Regardless...), to try to increase sensitivity to the topic among straight people and also to let members of the church who struggle with SSA know they're not alone. It is important that they know that there are good, active, temple-recommend carrying Mormons with SSA who they can talk to and get support from and look up to. Any ideas for how to share that? What has been your experience with this subject among church members?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

In Honor of Aunt Janet


I just re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring in honor of my Aunt Janet who just passed away this morning. She was Buddhist and my dad was talking about how peaceful she was as she got all her things in order before she died (she had a brain tumor so she's known for a while that she didn't have much time left) and he credited a lot of that to her strong faith. One of the things I love about the movie is how it shows the cyclical nature of life (and moving on to a higher plane each time around) through the lives of Buddhist monks who live on a monastery that floats in the middle of a lake. The movie is very optimistic and reassuring and peaceful and beautiful. I highly recommend it to everyone. If you want to borrow it, I'd be happy to lend it to you.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Ugh

Just kind of a follow-up to my lengthy rant a while back about the US government's warrantless wiretapping program: in that article I mentioned how the Maryland police had infiltrated and surveilled numerous peaceful activist groups. Well, it turns out it was even worse than originally disclosed. Not only is this just more distressing because the problem was bigger than I thought (they were even spying on Critical Mass, a bicyclists' rights group!), but also just because it is a perfect example of how even when the government is caught doing something bad, it still denies as much as it can get away with. It's just the nature of people in power, no matter what side you're on--if you get caught, you minimize the damage, even if that means not actually coming clean about the extent of the problem. It's this sort of opaqueness and dishonesty that irks me, and at the same time makes me skeptical of things like the US finally admitting it has used waterboarding on prisoners at Guantanamo after years of pressure BUT that it was only used on 3 people. Right. How can you expect us to trust you when you lied about using it at all for years? I'm sorry, but I just can't muster that kind of trust in the government, especially not this administration.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Yes Man

I saw Yes Man in theaters yesterday, and I thought it was a pretty darn good movie to watch on the first day of the year. It's message is what's behind basically all new year's resolutions: live life, don't be afraid to change and do new stuff and be a better person. I would not, however, recommend watching it with your mother, because mine at least was very disgusted by a scene in which Jim Carrey can't say no to an old grandma's sexual advances. Yeah, it was gross, but decently funny. I give it a 7.5 out of 10.

The most interesting part to me was the "covenant" Jim Carrey's character made. Quick summary/spoiler: Carrey is convinced by a self-help guru in front of everyone at a huge seminar to make a covenant with himself that he will agree to every opportunity presented to him. Hilarity and spontaneity ensue, and Carrey's previously depressing life changes for the better. But towards the end, he begs the guru to "take away the covenant" because, as you can imagine, saying yes to everything can cause problems (see above paragraph for exhibit 1). The guru's answer surprises him: there is no covenant. Turns out the guru was just "riffing" because Carrey was going to say no to him and embarass him in front of his audience. The point, the guru explains, is that the covenant is just there to get you started, but you should start saying yes to good opportunities because you want to, not because you have to. This also opens you up to saying no to bad opportunities as long as you generally stay open to new experiences.

I found that part interesting for a couple reasons. First, it's a great way of looking at the Mosaic law, and all "lower" laws in general. A schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, if you will. [random aside: in doing the obligatory two seconds of research (a.k.a. googling) for blog posts, I ran across this article on that verse. I have no idea if it's true, but I hope it is] I also thought it was cool that the word covenant was used in a mainstream film in a pretty similar sense to how us mormons use it [the guru was kind of a God figure]. Of course, we consider covenants to be between us and God, whereas Yes Man portrayed Carrey's covenant as just with himself, but in some sense it's only our half of the covenant that is in question so (if you squint just right) you could consider mormon covenants to be with ourselves too. But not really :)

And finally there is the potentially troubling revelation from the guru that "there is no covenant" basically saying that the covenant was just a made-up thing that didn't really have any power [when giving the covenant the guru had claimed that if Carrey broke it he would be stricken with very bad luck]. I do believe there are consequences for breaking real covenants--they are serious and sacred things--but I think it's not often what we assume it will be. Oftentimes it feels like we want the punishment for breaking a sacred covenant to be righteous wrath of God poured down upon the insolent backslider--we're talking house burning down, spouse leaving, going bankrupt, or something deliciously big like that. The kind of big thing you can make an example out of or say "ha! told ya so!" if it's somebody else, or really wallow in if it's you. But I think our punishment for breaking covenants is much more subtle than that. In fact, the worst punishment is often your own guilt. Or often we just won't be as happy if we break our covenants--there's sexual disease, there's hangovers, there's the emptiness when you spend your life chasing material success instead of serving and loving your fellow men, etc etc etc. If we truly magnify our covenants, I believe we can largely avoid these pitfalls.

So yeah, I enjoyed the movie. There were some pretty good funny parts, but maybe I'm just biased in favor of Jim Carrey. I really must warn you though (in addition to the gross scene mentioned in the first paragraph) that the first half hour or so is really quite crappy--slow and unfunny and blah. But then it gets a lot better. Also, there's some fun music by "Munchausen by Proxy," the fictitious band that Jim Carrey's girlfriend is in [think Moldy Peaches meets David Bowie], plus the Eels.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

4th Time Around

After three false starts, I won my fourth game of minesweeper with a time of 172. Not bad for expert and not having played for a whole year and only having the stupid touchpad on my laptop.

...I am such a loser :)

Happy New Year's! I think 2009 is gonna be great.