Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas spirit

I hope everyone had a nice holiday break. I stopped blogging for a while and I actually read a couple books. It's amazing how that works. If I stopped blogging completely, I might actually put a dent in my reading list. I think this is where you're supposed to brag about what you got for Christmas, so I'll let you in on my coolest gift:

Pretty freakin' sweet.

My holidays were not very enjoyable, due to my in-laws staying with us and their cat. I'm having a little trouble coming to terms with the fact that I'm never going to have a fun Christmas or Thanksgiving ever again. I know I should suck it up for my wife's sake, but I can't help resenting her family for spoiling all my holidays from now till eternity. Apparently, I'm not as much of a grown-up as I should be at this point in my life. Oh well.

I'm just tired. I wanted to crank out an outraged post about Times & Seasons new guest-blogger, Dr. I-don't-prescribe-birth-control, but I don't have the energy. If you want to make your blog a joke, go ahead. It's embarrassing that the most prominent Mormon blog has so many contributors with such reactionary views, but what can I do? I can only watch as I become less and less Mormon each day. These aren't your people, Ned.

Don't get me wrong, I know that there are a lot of Mormons out there that agree with me. And that is encouraging. It's just that I recognize that it's now their fight, not mine.

Anyway, this wasn't a very fun post. I'm going to go read some of the books I got for Christmas, and start cheering up.

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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Comparison shopping for the priesthood

As you may or may not know, I use Gmail for all of my real-life and blog-related correspondence (VivaNedFlanders at gmail.com, if you want to contact me). It's easy, it's free, and it's anonymous. It's perfect.

Well, it's not perfect, but it's worth the money. Some people refuse to use Gmail because Google scans your messages and provides targeted advertisements on the side of your messages. Most of the time I don't even notice the ads, so I can't imagine Google is making too much money off of me.

Mostly, the ads serve as a source of unintentional comedy. Recently, the topic of vegetarianism came up with a vegetarian friend of mine. Google's robots helpfully provided this link: Amazon's Exotic Meat Store.


Anyway, I don't know what kind of heresy I've been emailing out, but when I logged on to my Flanders email account yesterday, this was my featured link: Get Ordained by the International Church of Atheism.

How could I resist clicking on that? Now, before you dismiss them, please note that they have a very similar priesthood policy to that of Mormonism. "We aim to ordain as many Ministers in our Church as we can." Well, I guess except for the whole woman thing. The point is that it is a very democratic not-religion that tries to de-mystify and de-privilege traditional notions of clergy by ordaining everyone.

That's the pro column. The $9.95 it costs to get ordained definitely goes in the con column. This might smack of simony at first, but it's probably cheaper than the Mormon equivalent. It's kind of like buying the lifetime Tivo service instead of paying installments each month.

Also, the International Church of Atheism encourages its "ministers" to get the title of Reverend added to their drivers licenses and passports, etc. In Mormonism, you only get to rent the title of Elder for two years. And you definitely don't get the cool clothing:


No contest there.

Actually, never mind; I found a place that will ordain you for free. God bless the Internet.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Handyman Ned; or, why I love Mormon Stories

I am not a very handy guy. I blame my father, who breaks out in hives every time we pass a Home Depot. If we ever had to go to the hardware store, he'd take a deep sniff, grimace, and say, "This place smells like work." This is not to say my father is lazy; on the contrary, he's burned through more precious Saturdays than I can remember sweating it out in the yard. But I think he resented yard work and home repairs so much that he resolved to protect me from them as long as possible. Good man. I've only lived in apartments since I moved out of parents' house, so it's never been an issue till now.

Until a few months ago, I had never painted a room, cleaned out a rain-gutter or used an electric drill. It's good to know how to do these things, but I am not looking forward to a lifetime of home maintenance. You may say, "Ned, my pregnant wife builds bookcases in the garage and my 8-year-old daughter mows our lawn. Get over it." My response is, how do you feel about doing service projects for late-twenties, stay-at-home not-Dads? Can you bring your own tools? Thanks.

Yesterday I decided to finally replace all the blinds and curtains in our living room. I wasn't looking forward to it, so I decided to listen to something while I worked. I really admire what John Dehlin is doing over at Mormon Stories, but I'd never actually gotten around to listening to one of his podcasts. Every time I meant to, I'd tell myself that I didn't really have an hour to sit and listen. For some bizarre reason, I didn't think you could fast-forward and pick up a podcast where you left off, so I thought I'd have to listen to the whole thing in one shot.

Well, I got to work, started up the computer, and went a bit crazy. I ended up listening to five of John's podcasts yesterday, or almost half of all he's done so far. They were great. John is still working out the kinks, but I am excited about the future of these broadcasts. The early ones are (way) too long at an hour and a half, but it looks like he's brought in all the newer ones at a lean 45 minutes.

I listened to John's interviews with: the mason, the anti-Mormon, the apologist (1st part only), and RoastedTomatoes and Serenity Valley (2 parts). (This sounds like the set-up of great joke.) John does a good job at letting these people tell their own stories, although sometimes you wish he'd press them a little harder. In particular, I think John did a good job of letting both the anti-Mormon and the apologist present themselves on their own terms but still putting some tough questions to both of them.

If you have some time, I highly recommend listening to some of these podcasts at Mormon Stories. I think I am going to start playing the podcasts on my computer in the background while I browse the bloggernacle at the same time. Thanks for all your work, John; it certainly made mine go by much faster.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

My mom raised me better than this; or, why I blog anonymously

There are two types of people in the bloggernacle: the onymous and the anonymous. I think our community is somewhat of an anomaly, in that so many participants use their real names. I admire the courage of Rusty, Ronan, Elisabeth, etc. who put their real names out there. Every once in a while though, some bloggers using their real names will complain about the anonymous masses. We anonymous types don't have anything at stake, they say; we don't have any incentive to behave. Perhaps they are right.

For my own part, I don't care about my anonymity. I don't actually know any Mormons and I'm not currently active in my ward. I can't embarrass myself in the Mormon community if I'm not really part of it. Also, I have a very common name. It is so common that the day I checked into the MTC, there was another Elder [Ned Flanders] reporting for duty. We had the same first and last names and they initially gave me his room assignment. (He went to Oregon on his mission, the poor bastard.) So even if I used my real name, people are just as likely to confuse me with my Oregonian doppelganger or one of the other thousands of other possibilities.

So why don't I pull an Athena, and reveal myself? My parents.

My parents are both very bright people, but they are singularly incurious about Mormon history or issues. I think my parents would rather have found a dirty magazine than a copy of Sunstone under my mattress. We had the usual assortment of faith-promoting Deseret Books (though I never saw anyone actually reading them) plus the Standard Works. End of story. What else do you need? A couple of months ago, my mom did give me an article about Joseph Smith that she printed out from the Internet. What site was it from? Meridian. Sigh.

I don't post onymously because I don't want someone to sidle up to my mom on Enrichment Night and say, "I read the most heretical thing on your son's website the other day." Among Mormons, it has become unfortunate custom to brag about the righteousness of your children. "I have five kids and they've all served missions and are married in the temple." It's like a Mormon batting average. My parents are batting pretty well for a baseball player but not too great for your standard Mormon couple. I've already screwed up their average, I don't want to add my apostate views on top of that.

I also wonder what effect the faithfulness of the children has on the callings of the parents. I once had a GA tell me that they don't call Mission Presidents who have children with problems. I don't believe that's true, but I wonder about it. Do any of the Seventies have wayward children? The Apostles? They must, right? Especially with the amount of kids Mormons have. I still think that unless your last name is Benson, it's probably not a good idea to have an apostate in the family.

While looking up an entry in my mission journal for yesterday's post, I stumbled upon an experience that I had forgotten. I had been in the country for about a month and lived in a tiny apartment with my companion and two other missionaries. The other companionship would come into our room at 6:30 am each morning to sing a hymn and say a prayer to start our day. One morning I didn't feel like getting out of bed to sing, and one of the elders told me that I was a disgrace to my father. (Nice guy.)

I don't believe that, but at the same time, I don't want to saddle my parents with any extra grief at this point in their lives. If that means lying low on the Internet, then so be it.

I will always be Flan-diddly-anders to you.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Flanders' Shocking True Life Confessions

Everybody likes to hear other people's confessions. It piques our curiosity and often makes us feel better about ourselves. "My life may suck, but at least I'm not that screwed up!" St. Augustine wouldn't be half as popular today had he titled his book "Interminable Religious Ramblings." He certainly wouldn't have a Spring Break city named after him.

Geoff J.'s comment on my earlier post and his follow-up post at his site have prompted me to confess something. According to Geoff, studying the Church is all fine and dandy, but at the end of the day, you have to ask God for confirmation. You have to, in his words, puncture the veil. My confession is that I have never punctured the veil. Furthermore, I have never attempted to test Moroni's promise, despite telling innumerable people on my mission to do just that. Yes, I'm a hypocrite of the worst kind.

The question arises: why not? After all those years growing up, and during two years of a mission, why the hell didn't you ask? I was scared. I was scared that I would pour my whole soul into it and not get an answer. I was happy surviving off the occasional warm fuzzy and not taking the big gamble. I had plenty of doubts, but the Church was true enough for me.

This worked fine until one day when I was teaching a discussion to a woman during my mission. I recorded the event in my mission journal:
"... the reason [the discussion] was so disturbing was that [Elder X] gave his testimony that he asked God if the Book of Mormon was true and if Joseph Smith was a prophet and he was answered by a good feeling--and I thought, 'Good, I don't have to say anything.' So I told her I knew Joseph was a prophet and the Book of Mormon was true because I felt it inside. She point-blank asked me if I had done the same as [Elder X] and I said yes and felt terrible. I don't think that was true. I haven't asked and received an answer like [Elder X] but I know it's true; it's hard to explain. But she knew just where to pin me down and she won. That was incredibly disturbing. I felt as though for the first time my lack of testimony, lack of preparation was hurting someone else. I felt at that moment that if she didn't get baptized her blood would be on my head."

I was attempting to skate a Clinton-esque line and my investigator called me on it. What was I supposed to say? "You're right, I haven't asked either. I'm secretly afraid that my religion isn't even true. I don't even know why I'm here." Well, that probably would have been preferable to lying, but we can't change our past choices. I decided to go with the party-line and hope for the best. I still feel guilty when I think about that discussion.

The logical question that follows is, now that you don't believe, why not ask now? Well, I'm still scared, but perhaps the other way now. Maybe I'd get an affirmative response. (It is at this point, reader, where you can make the exclamation, "My life sucks but at least I'm not as screwed up as Ned!")

I'm beginning to have doubts about the validity of the whole enterprise of asking God. It seems set up to favor only one outcome. If we ask and don't receive a response, then possibly we weren't asking hard enough or we hadn't studied it out in our minds properly. Perhaps we felt nothing because we had sins that blocked the Holy Ghost or we weren't sincere enough. How can we distinguish between a negative response and a non-response? Maybe we didn't want to believe enough.

I think that's part of the problem. I don't want to believe. There are so many things that bother me about the Church, I can't imagine the size of the shelf needed to house all my concerns. How can I ask sincerely if deep down I don't want to have to deal with all the thorny issues? I think the Sunday School answer is that I have humble myself and be prepared to accept polygamy, blacks not having the priesthood, and Boyd K. Packer. I just don't think I can do that.

Does it make sense to ignore facts we don't like and rely solely on a spiritual witness? Does rationality not always apply in spiritual matters? Does it make sense to have different rules and standards for our knowledge about religion than, say, science?

My confession, besides the fact that I am a liar and a hypocrite, is that I don't trust myself to recognize the truth.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Bloggers to commenters: Drop dead!

The bloggernacle has gone censor-happy. Feminist Mormon Housewives are discussing troll-prevention, while Rusty has thrown down the gauntlet: If I don't like what you say I'll ban you. (For the record, I am 100% behind Rusty. He has been more than patient dealing with obnoxious trolls, and even more to his credit, he left up the original offending comments for all to see.)

The previous examples represent the reasonable wing of the bloggernacle. Meanwhile, an anonymous e-mail tipster (thanks!) pointed me to the first installment of M*'s Rough Stone Rolling reading group. Comments have been disappearing from that thread faster than they appear. I've read some of the comments that Geoff B felt the need to censor (he even deleted one of his own!) and I must admit I'm mystified. They were neither vulgar, abusive, or off-topic. It seems that Geoff simply deletes whatever doesn't strike his fancy. After all, some things are true, but not useful. I applaud commentator Eric S. who continues to post comments, even after getting quite a few deleted. I wouldn't have the patience. Reading M* is kind of like what I imagine teaching history in the Soviet Union was like: you have to be prepared for everything to completely change at any time. I will give a plate of nachos (Flanders style) to whoever can create an M* mirror site that simply posts all deleted comments. Now that I would read regularly!

Over at the Bloggernacle Times, Grandpa Dave (as Ronan calls him) has seen fit to do some major surgery on a minor (and fairly innocuous) threadjack. For the record, I love Dave, but it is beyond bizarre that he feels the need to delete 10 comments about English-bashing on this thread, but allows these two train wrecks to plow on unimpeded.

Of course, perhaps I am asking too much of the man who first introduced the hated comment moderation queue into the 'nacle. I still read DMI (it has some great stuff), but I rarely bother commenting any more. Putting all comments into the queue is like calling someone on the telephone but making them send their replies to you on a postcard. Sure, I know my comment will turn up there in a couple hours, but by then five people will have already said the same thing. It's hard to have a dialogue on a tape-delay.

Of course, the dubious honor of King of Comment Deletions goes to T&S's peevish Adam Greenwood, who famously censored two of Ronan's comments. This prompted Ronan to complain publicly on his blog. Why don't I link to Ronan's complaint? Why, Ronan deleted it, of course.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I've said too much, I haven't said enough

I stumbled upon the bloggernacle late in its life cycle. By Common Consent and Times & Seasons had already been around for over a year. Dave's Mormon Inquiry was almost two years old. Every once in a while, someone would link to an old thread on BCC and I would be jealous that I missed out on the fascinating conversations.

I had no patience whenever I heard an old-timer complaining about burning out. I was like the guy that showed up to the buffet 15 minutes before closing. Everyone else was sated and I was desperately trying to shovel as much free food into my mouth as possible. "No, don't stop now," I would say in my head, "I just got here!"

Unfortunately, I think I'm in the process of burning out. No, I'm not quitting, I'm just running a little low on energy.

Nine months ago, I hadn't been to church in six or seven years. I hadn't seriously thought about Mormonism since my mission. I was a Mormon in name only. Thanks to the Internet, I've finally been able to ask the questions I never could before, and talk about things that have interested me for a long time. Don't get me wrong, I still have a lot of stuff to talk about and questions to ask. I am still quite ignorant and have tons of Mormon-themed books to read. I probably know less Mormon history and doctrine than the average Bloggernacle blogger. I still have a lot of great Mormon conversations to have, but a lot of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

Nine months ago, I was wrestling with my faith and my identity as a Mormon. My faith stopped wrestling back a while ago. My question is: can one still maintain an interest in all things Mormon if one no longer believes? Is there an ideal tension between faith and doubt that fuels interest in discussions like the bloggernacle? I'm just afraid that I've ruined myself for future debates if I already know which side is going to win in my heart.