Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The scarlet thing in you...

Inspired by D-Train's last post at Unofficial Manifesto (I've really enjoyed UoM's recent renaissance, by the way), I will attempt to explain something that I'm still not quite sure I understand.

I apologize in advance if this sounds too Times & Seasony (you know what I mean).

For a long time I've struggled with the fact that my most profound, happy, and transcendent experiences have all been non-church related. Music, literature, and relationships have been the primary catalysts for these experiences. I can't just come out and say what these things are because there is something extremely personal and proprietary about them. Also, they would sound lame if I tried to explain them.

Even so, I will try to give an example of what I mean. Even though I'm a former English major, music has always affected me more sharply and immediately than books. I remember being a teenager and listening to certain songs that could just cut right through me. Most of them still can. I basically have three categories of music: stuff I don't like, stuff that I enjoy as good music, and finally, music that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It is this third category that I find so important. If I want to connect with something greater than myself, I need only put on some Morrissey or Radiohead. This is when I am happiest.

Music is only one example of these transcendent experiences. It's difficult to explain, but I feel like I am who I am because of these things. Perhaps it's just a part of how we construct our own identity, but I feel like these experiences are the reservoir of the REAL Ned. People can see and interact with Surface Ned, but I am firmly anchored by my secret inner life.

I said that there were no church-related experiences in the reservoir. I think for that reason, I don't feel (and perhaps have never felt) intrinsically Mormon. If you strip me down to my essential personality, there is no Mormon-ness there.

I will go one further. The church experiences I've had have felt almost like a counterfeit of my true happiness. Nothing I've ever felt at church can compare to the rapture I've felt, say, listening to Depeche Mode or reading a great book. I've had spiritual experiences but they seem to fade as soon as they're gone. The warm and fuzzies I've felt in church contexts have occasionally been nice, but they always seem freighted with too much baggage to enjoy. I can remember feeling good at Church, but never truly happy.

What does this tell me? Well, first of all, it tells me that perhaps it is unwise to look for the source of happiness in a place that doesn't provide it to you. The church is a source of great happiness to a seemingly large number of people, which is great. They know what is in their own reservoirs, not me. Secondly and more importantly, there isn't anything wrong with me if I don't experience my happiness on the church's terms. I think that's the hardest lesson to learn. Don't twist yourself into pretzels to please the church, but make sure that whatever the church is providing you is indeed good. Its incompleteness is not the problem. I believe it was wise commenter Ann who said, "It's just church."

The church hasn't touched my inner-self, and perhaps no church ever will. There's no point in beating myself up in guilt over that. If there is a God, he has created us each to experience joy in our own way.


D-Train said...

Great post, Ned. I'm glad you're enjoying our rebirth. I hope it continues - I enjoy blogging, the people I meet blogging, and the discussions that ensue.

I think your view is equally applicable to my life. I feel the same way about OU sports, the St. Louis Cardinals, and Tori Amos as you do about Depeche Mode and Radiohead. And, like you, my best, most spiritual, most joyful, most anything good moments haven't been at church.

I kind of mentioned this in my last comment on the "Shame" thread. At church, I just can't be me. If I am, I'll get mad at someone or say something offensive or maybe (shock) use profanity. At minimum, whether I have to or not, I'm never myself at church. It's just easier to sit there, crack a few snide remarks, and slip out the side door. How can I expect to feel spiritual acting like that? If I'm not being myself, I can't expect the Spirit to touch me --- especially not when my primary activity at church consists of erecting barriers to the Spirit, the nosy EQP, stupid speakers, stupid Mormons, the Spirit, Americans, J-Dubs, and the Spirit.

With the other stuff, I can just be me. Most of the other stuff I try to do alone. I've never listened to a Tori album with anyone and I usually try to go to OU games alone. There might be 85,000 people there, but I'm there by myself.

I think the reason for all this is a combination of two things. First, you're right that God wants us to enjoy things our own way. It's pretty unreasonable to expect every single person to love Sunday School, especially once the lessons start getting recycled. Also, though, I think the Church is kind of a one size fits all organization. And nothing against that. So is Tori, so is OU football, so is Radiohead, so is van Gogh. The difference is that we get to choose the other things and so we end up with sizes we like. If you want to be baptized by proper authority, you get The Church (capitalization intended).

Pris said...

Morrissey? Wow, you're more messed up than I thought. (Kidding. Kinda. I can't stand Morrissey.)

I've been lucky in that, when I go to Church, I am able to be myself and nothing bad has come from it. It's probably because I'm not associated with The Organization, but still, I think people really appreciate honesty. And if they don't, screw 'em. The flipside is that I have to be ready to defend my choices.

Now, if only the Church had some good music. I went to an Eastern Orthodox (old-calendar) once and LOVED the music.

Randy B. said...

Ned, a couple of thoughts.

First, you seem to equate "church experiences" with "experience at church." But the full scope of church experiences goes way beyond what happens during the block. My most spiritual experiences haven't happened at church either. Sacrament meeting is never going to compare to a Morrissey concert.

Second, I think what calling you have plays a large role in what you get out of going to church. For a long time I had callings that kept me busy for 7 or 8 hours on Sunday. There were some obvious downsides in that, but I always got a lot out of church in those callings. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that my Sundays were spent helping people. Now that I only teach the High Priests, I find that I am getting a lot less our of attending church than before. My wife used to complain about how boring church can be. I had forgotten. Now I remember.

Susan M said...

When you say you've never experienced anything like that in church, do you mean literally in church?

I'm not sure I have either (and I know just what you mean about music and books), in church. But I've had plenty via reading the scriptures and praying. OK, if I think about it, I can probably come up with some times I've had similar experiences in church, but they may involve the time I visited the Palmyra ward and the congration sang, "The Spirit of God." Wow.

Rusty said...

It's easy to get those happinesses from Radiohead because Radiohead doesn't demand anything from you. You can listen to it whenever you feel like it, they aren't going to bother you when you don't feel like being bothered, and you have the freedom to interpret what they say in any way you please and it won't affect you in any way.

All you're doing with those things is taking. Being on the receiving end is easy.

I don't think God owes us spiritual "church" experiences because we show up or because we read our scriptures or because we listen to the talks.

I would imagine Thom Yorke and Morrissey have gotten a lot more out of their creating the music and giving it then you have in listening to it.

NFlanders said...

Just to clarify, when I say "church-experiences," I mean anything even tangentially related to church. Reading the scriptures at home or talking about gospel principles with someone would all qualify. Day-dreaming in Sacrament Meeting would not.

D-Train-- Good point about the church having to be a one-size-fits-all organization. I just wish my internal spiritual experiences could have been tailored to me.

Pris-- Even though I've been warned about hanging out with non-mos (non-Morrissey loving people), I'll let you slide. I got married in an Eastern Orthodox church; the music was okay (though much better than Mormon). I prefer those Anglican choirs.

Randy B-- Interesting. Perhaps I would have more churchy spiritual experiences if I was in a service calling. Obviously, that would entail a lot of work though. Maybe working more would open me up to stuff like this.

Susan M-- For some reason, I just can't enjoy our hymns, except Christmas carols. Too many bad associations with childhood, maybe.

Rusty-- Very good point about me being in complete control of all my examples. Is it your position that we'll never enjoy church-stuff as much because it is so demanding?

I don't believe that God "owes" us spiritual experiences either. I am grateful for anything I can get. I just think it's important to point out that for me, it's not church-related.

If all of my most valuable experiences have nothing to do with church, is it really surprising that I balk at making it the focus of my life?

Kaimi said...


Your problem is clearly based on the fact that you never listened to Morrisey while on your mission. For shame!

Some of the best music in the world -- Mana, Ricardo Arjona -- is stuff I came to know during my mission. (Okay, so that's not _quite_ in accordance with white bible guidelines, but who's counting? I chalked it up to language study ;) ). I still listen to those on a regular basis. And they bring back memories of my mission, memories that I like.

It may be too late for that. But it's not too late to take your iPod to Elders Quorum. Guaranteed spiritual experience while in church -- what more could you ask for?

(Tell them that you're listening to the sign-language version of the talks).

NFlanders said...

Confidential to Kaimi-- I may have listened to a little bit of Morrissey on my mission. Don't tell anyone.

I also picked up a fair amount of Spanish-language music during my mission, but for whatever reason, most of my fond memories of Argentina and the people I classify under "not-church-related." Am I defining it too narrowly?

If I have great comraderie and friendship with my companion, is that church-related? If I have a deep friendship with an investigator, is that church-related? I would say no.

Obviously, I never would have met these people without the church, but I don't think that counts. You could subtract the church, and I would not feel any differently about them.

Perhaps others would classify things differently than I do.

Kaimi said...

Your secret is safe with me, Elder Flanders. And, just between you and me and the fence post, I may have listened to a bit of Morrissey myself.

(One of my truly what-the-hell-was-I-thinking moments came at about month 21 of my mission, when in a fit of flecha-ness I swore off music and handed a perfectly good tape collection over to the AP's for safekeeping.

And then someone pilfered it. Which I totally should have seen coming -- my tapes were a known commodity, and I should have realized they would never be safe in the mission office.)

As far as narrow definitions, yours sounds pretty strict. I think you've got to chalk up some of the good memories to the church, at least in part. That doesn't mean that you chalk them up to God. On the other hand, they _are_ a product of your interactions with the church. Frankly, I think it's easier to tie good moments to church than it is to tie them to God. But perhaps that's just me.

C Jones said...

I am not blessed with any musical talent as far as performance, but I am a huge appreciator (is that a word?)of all kinds of music. I spent my teen years away from the church, and what little I remembered about it when I decided to consider coming back came mostly from remembered Primary songs.

I've always kind of thought that the listener is a partaker in the creative aspect of music, and that creativity is the essence of God.

Craig W. said...

Thank you Ned for your comments. Like you, I find it hard at times to be myself at church. I often times either arrive or leave in a very grumpy mood. (Much to my wifes chagrin.) In my experience, the spiritual experiences are few. Perhaps I am at fault, I don't know.

Nonetheless, I have had some positive experiences at church. The most spiritual experiences have either been seminal events in my life (sealings, baptisms, etc.) and funerals. Not very many at sacrament meeting. When I do feel the spirit at Sacrament meeting I count it as a blessing. Actually, my best experiences in Sacrament meeting have been while participating in the choir. There have been times when when I felt transported while performing. (Interestingly, this has happened when we were singing choral pieces that did not come from the hymn book.) I participate in the choir principally for myself. I really do feel the Lord's pleasure while singing in the choir. And my vocal talents are suspect.

Like you, I find music to be a great source of "spiritual" experiences. While I do not even know who Morrissey is, I have found that Van Halen can always cure a bad mood. In fact, one of the most outstanding experiences of my life came when I finally was able to see Van Halen in concert. All I can say is "WOW!" I will never be the same!

Craig W.

ps Have you thought of singing in your choir?

NFlanders said...

Kaimi-- Too funny. The lesson is, never trust an AP. Through a chain of events, I actually ended up with a whole bunch of tapes given to an office elder. If you are missing a Nitzer Ebb tape, I have it.

I think I see the distinction you are making between the church and God. I guess I've been conflating the two in my mind. The problem is that the church has so bent the arc of my life that anything between the ages of 1-21 will necessarily have some sort of connection to the church's influence. I still think I can make a distinction between religious church-related epiphanies (singing "The Spirit of God"), and secular church-related epiphanies (connecting on a personal level with a family on the mission).

Thanks for the link from Notes column. I guess this is what a T&S post might sound like if you had any bloggers without a grad degree.

Craig-- Like C. Jones, I am a great lover of music but I have no talent for it. Perhaps I experience music in a different way simply because I have zero knowledge or skill beyond "every good boy does fine."

I am too embarrassed to even sing along with the congregation, let alone in the choir.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I won't get much spiritual action from church. It's easier for me to go if I expect nothing, and go as a service to my brothers and sisters at church, because just having more bodies there makes it more inviting (at least, that's what I tell myself).

Church stuff is kind of like exercise, working out at the gym. Some people like the monotony of exercise. Many, like me, don't. But without regular exercise, I can't fully enjoy other physical activities, the sports that I like to play, or hiking or whatever.

So I don't think religion is supposed to be all fun and games, but I think it enhances other areas of your life, helps enrich relationships and so on. I was going to finish with something about how Morrissey was better with The Smiths, but I'll leave that for another day.

--the angry m

J-Rod said...


My feelings are similar, but not exact. Most of my deepest emotional experiences in life (the type you are talking about) don't come from the church. They come from Thom Yorke, Stephen Malkmus, Kurt Vonnegut, etc... However, I said most, not all. I also have had many experiences that were somehow church related (preparing a lesson for a church class as an example). Just not as many. So, unlike you, I can say I am at least somewhat internally "mormon."

On a related note: I once read an interview with Thom Yorke where he was asked what his favorite music was. He responded that his favorite album at the time was "Things we Lost in the Fire" by Low - a couple mormons from minnesotta. I wonder if he knows.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This post really offends me. Honestly, how could you guys have such poor taste in music? Radiohead? Mana? Geez.


Hellmut said...

I definitely had spiritual experiences in Church, even if one defines Church narrowly. However, when I realized that threatening researchers with excommunication results in a theological paradox, I had reevaluate my experience.

Good feelings must have a different meaning. They are not necessarily revealing truth or God's will. I find it interesting that Christ does not point to feelings but to fruits to determine whether someone is a false prophet.

There is not even reason to believe that feelings are transcendent. On the contrary, my body generates feelings, which one organ of my body, the brain, registers.

Having reevaluated Alma 32, Moroni 10, and D&C 9, I am wondering whether those are the most authentic elements of Mormon scripture. It seems like Joseph Smith explains to us, how he came to believe his own stories.

You start with a wish. You give the wish room. You discount evidence to the contrary. Then you make a plan. If the plan works then its from God. Otherwise blame yourself and make a new plan until it works.

However that applies to Joseph, the wording of these passages is clear. Mormon inspiration or revelation is an autosuggestive technique. Anyone will receive confirmation about anything as long as you try and re-try long enough.

I still enjoy good feelings but I prefer reason and evidence to determine what's going on.

Susan M said...

Low rules.

I'm kinda surprised no one's brought up the idea of the still, small voice yet. The Spirit doesn't generally communicate in huge emotional epiphanies, does it?

The reason the congregation singing that hymn was amazing was that it was a tiny ward with a huge voice. I kept thinking there must be angels singing along with us. And that hymn is a great one.

Most of the other great musical moments in church for me haven't been hymns, but musical performances by individuals. One was a flute and piano duet, no vocals. Another was a choir--Institute students, I think? I never *got* choir music until that performance. Outstanding.

NFlanders said...

Blogger just ate my responses to everyone. Wow, that is frustrating. Let me start over.

Angry M-- I like your exercise analogy. The gospel is unpleasant but still useful. I can almost subscribe to that. Exercise builds muscles, though, and has tangible benefits and I've just not seen that in my own life with church. But I am glad that someone finally admits to liking Moz more than the Smiths. I'm feeling better already.

J-Rod-- Since I posted this, I have been remembering some instances of church-related experiences. Unfortunately, they are just massively outnumbered by my other experiences. I will have to check out Low. Anything good enough for Thom is good enough for me.

Davis-- Ha! I never said I was on-board with Mana. Everyone else seems to love them, but from what I heard on my mission ("Vivir sin aire") they are too slow for me.

NFlanders said...


Helmut-- Good point about transcendence. Obviously, I don't believe I am communicating with something outside myself when listening to Depeche Mode, it's just that transcendence is the word we use to describe the feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves. Even if we rule out God, there is something internal in human beings that makes life worth living. I don't know what it is or how to describe it, so I call it transcendence (though it is completely self-contained).

Susan M-- The still, small voice is a tough topic for me. I have had quiet experiences where everything was just clicking into place, but never any "Don't go into the barn" type whisperings. It

J-Rod said...

Definitely check out Low. They have a huge non-mormon following, but people with mormon knowledge (whether an active member or not) will understand their music a little better. Either way, they write great songs.

Hellmut said...

I like Depeche Mode too, Ned. Susan, Enjoy the Silence.

Tess said...

I liked the Angry Mormon's exercise analogy, too, but I'm one of those psycho gym rats who get their jollies running on the treadmill for hours on end. In fact, the high I feel after a good long hard run is incomparably better than any feeling I've ever had in Church or doing Church stuff (i.e., reading the scriptures, etc.).

I'm not usually myself at Church, but I'm not usually myself at work or, depending on the group I'm with, I'm not usually myself with my acquaintances. The people at Church are generally just acquaintances, and it's hard to feel a bond with them most of the time. It's something that frustrates me to no end - I've been visiting teaching companions with someone for years, and we have yet to open up and have a personal discussion about Church issues.

This is a general pattern with my friendships at Church. I'm probably more at fault than they are in keeping things on a superficial level, but it's still discouraging when you feel isolated from the very people you are supposed to be communing with.

Kaimi said...

Sounds like you're an adrenaline addict, Tess. High from running. My goodness. For years, I've been of the opinion that I run only if someone angry is chasing me. (Although random circumstances may have led to a change of heart in recent days).

Craig W.,

Are you my brother? If so, the singing in the choir thing is news to me. But the rest sounds just like my brother Craig.


Sorry about the snarky Note link -- though you kind of asked for it, buddy, when you said that you didn't want to sound too T&S-y.

Until I joined T&S, I had no idea what hermeneutic meant. I still really don't know -- something about interpretation -- but I've learned to look the definition up when I need to remember. I must have forgotten that definition a dozen times. (And I've got a sadly funny story about the time I got mixed up on the definitions of hermeneutic and heuristic).

The same goes for epistemology -- when I need to remember what it means, I crack open the dictionary.

(The above passage is partially adapted from "Being a T&S Blogger: How to Fake Erudition in Five Easy Steps.").

Craig W. said...

Kaimi -- Sorry to say that I am not your brother, well not biologically. But it sounds like you have a fine brother.......

Susan M. -- Personally, I struggle trying to distinguish between my own emotions and the still small voice. After all these years I still don't have it figured out. Consequently, I tend to rely more on common sense and reasoning than I probably should.

Tim J. said...


Ricardo Arjona? Wow, the memories. I didn't really like him but he had one song that seemed to be playing on every bus I rode on. Now ManĂ¡ is one I'd pay to see.

Susan M said...

Craig, I find it difficult to distinguish, too. Which is why I usually ask for a confirmation in some more tangible form on things I'm praying about.

Ann said...

Merry Christmas, Ned.

NFlanders said...

Thanks, Ann. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

And thanks, Undefined. Great comments.