Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fly Paper for the Soul

One of the more poignant aspects of reframing what my Mormon heritage means to me has been coming to terms with the fact that I don't truly have a place at the table of mainstream Mormonism as my complete self. There's no going back to being the limited version of myself. There's no going back to conforming to the narrow range of acceptability in modern Mormondom. I just have to find my way forward.

I know how to wear the constricting, suffocating mask of the good Mormon boy, take my proffered seat at the table and mind my manners. But I hate it. I'm serious. I really hate it. Most people would describe me as a polite person. But it's really difficult for me to endure the mind-numbing conversation at the table of conventional Mormonism. If I don't wear the aforementioned mask, I'm seen as a mere fly pestering the faithful as they sip their lukewarm herbal tea and eat their cucumber and white bread sandwiches at their genteel Victorian picnic. Many of the guardians of that bucolic setting swat at me like a fly because they fail (or refuse) to see me for what I am:  a real-life person hoping to contribute something to the big potluck, even though it may be seasoned differently than others' offerings.

A lot of us are in this position. If we can make it through the repellant that's sprayed to ward off the intellectuals, the feminists and the homos, we're shooed away from the table. Some of us quickly go find another place to sup with more welcoming company (who are often more fun anyway). Some of us end up landing at the table, only to get stuck on the fly paper we thought was shiny varnish---at least for a while. Most of us get unstuck eventually. But even though we may come to realize that it was fly paper for our souls, the pain of exclusion and vilification doesn't fade quickly. And for someone like me who used to be in church leadership, it's even more complicated. I hope I never did anything that could be taken as shooing people away, or directing them to the fly paper.

In modern Mormon culture, a major aspect of this spiritual/emotional fly paper is the requirement that every experience in life be affixed to a narrow interpretation of the scripture "be still and know that I am God." (For some of the more authoritarian-minded leaders in the LDS church, the implication is "be still and know that I speak for God, whether by His own voice or mine it is the same, so follow, follow, follow, lest thou be smitten and cast out, yadda, yadda, yadda.") Like everyone else, I need to be still sometimes. But life is mostly about movement. I thrive more in the dynamic rather than the static. I like the process of working through the question more than arriving at the answer. Quiet reflection is a vital part of human existence and usually teases out the meaning of all the vivacious movement. It's just that I prefer not to live my life as a potted plant waiting for water.

Early Mormonism was vibrant, energetic, and on the move---both figuratively and literally. The early church couldn't stay in one place very long. Despite its failings, and those of its early leaders, the church used to be more elastic, adaptable and inclusive. Once the church became rooted in the "Valley of the Everlasting Hills," the institutional imperative sucked the life out of individual spirituality. It became rigid, stony and exclusionary. Power has been, and continues to be, systematically consolidated. Spiritual discovery has been replaced with spiritual compliance. The LDS church may be a racially and linguistically diverse global institution, but it is culturally monolithic and organizationally hierarchical, with all things great and small emanating from Temple Square. In almost every way, the City of the Great Salt Lake has become the source of "salt of the earth," having replaced the savory collection of individual experiences and epiphanies. Rather than exploring the depths of human spirituality, the modern church merely floats on the surface, barely moving at all. Swimming, struggling against the resistance of the water in that salty lake-church, is not encouraged. Instead, floating with the current is rewarded.

Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if exploring spiritual depths and bringing genuine and interesting nourishment to the "table of the Lord" were rewarded in modern Mormonism? It seems to me that doing so would be a pure expression of acting with our "free agency." The obsession with compliance, superficiality and definitive answers may be good cultural glue, but it keeps us stuck when it comes to spiritual and emotional growth. Because of this, many of us forge our path of free will independent of the church and Mormon culture.

I freely and quickly acknowledge the many good things I gained from my experiences in the LDS church. But it has come at a high, and sticky, price. I respect the fact that the church, its doctrines, its policies (is there a real distinction anymore?) and the general culture of Mormonism work for some people. It gives them a foundation and a structure. For me, it became a prison. It became fly paper for my soul.

Nearly all Mormon leaders at all levels focus on adherence to "gospel principles" when what they really mean is "church standards of conduct." As important as basic rules of conduct are, fulfillment comes from something deeper. A "gospel" (as in teachings that challenge the status quo and attempt to elevate the mind and spirit) isn't about conduct. A "gospel" deals with the innermost parts of the human soul as well as the interactions between human beings without being obsessed with conduct for its own sake. Having been immersed in Mormon culture for most of my life, I testify that the gospel gets plenty of lip service. Keeping up appearances wins every day, and twice on Sunday. Ostensibly, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the core of Mormonism. In reality, the core of Mormonism is to "Let your light so shine that men might see your good works...," for the glory of the church.

Modern, true-believing, stalwart, active, temple-worthy Mormonism is, most commonly, not so firmly rooted in the full gospel of Christ as it is stuck in a mire of muddy doctrine, sappy superficiality, syrupy politeness and sticky self-absorption. From afar, the modern church looks as slick and polished as the PR/correlation apparatus that created it. Up close, it's a bowl of pretty wax fruit surrounded by fly paper. It's not all awful. There's still some good underneath. Some people are able to dig in and find it. If the church works for some people, that's fine. It doesn't work for me. 

I'm far from being enlightened, but I'm no longer stuck. And I'm learning to use my most assuredly non-insect wings.


  1. I can say that it did, um, some good for me during the first 18 years of my life. I'll be thankful for that, but yeah, otherwise, I'm not so convinced that being trapped longer than needed is healthy. I guess, more than anything, I've "Graduated" from Junior High Spirituality.

  2. Great post, Paul. I like this: "The obsession with compliance, superficiality and definitive answers may be good cultural glue, but it keeps us stuck when it comes to spiritual and emotional growth."