Me & Mormons — Part 6

We finally had our opportunity to hear a real life prophet speak and we had to walk away thinking that it didn’t live up to the hype. Without too much judgment I will lay out our general outsider impressions after hearing Gordon B. Hinckley speak at the Newport Beach Temple celebration.

The first thing we noticed about the audience was how homogenous everyone was. We live in a fairly diverse area but there was very little diversity in the people around us. It was kind of like the last white people who still wear suits to church in Southern California were having a conference. I certainly don’t have any problem with white people but it’s uncommon for us to see so many white people all together. I saw one African American teenager and I remember thinking to myself “does he know he’s not supposed to be here?” As white people, my wife and I were uncomfortable. And to be fair our own church is certainly not as diverse as we’d like it to be.

We met Scott’s niece and her husband beforehand. We found out that they lived exactly across the street from us in a different apartment complex. They were a very nice couple but bewilderment struck the conversation as Scott suggested that we visit a ward with them. Scott’s niece explained that we couldn’t go to their ward because we lived on the other side of the street. This seemed so odd to us. We were interested and eager but couldn’t visit a church because we lived on the wrong side of the street?!? It seemed like such an odd message to send to people you hoped to convert. It still sits so strangely with me that as we tried to push to visit a church with some newly met friends, everyone insisted that it was not permitted because we lived on the east instead of the west side of a street.

There was certainly a buzz in the room. People seemed to be excited to be there. An organist started playing some music as a prelude and everyone started singing the words along with the background music. So the organist had to stop playing so that everyone would stop singing. When President Hinckley finally emerged from behind the stage there was a celebrity atmosphere. Flash bulbs started popping and there was a quiet murmur throughout the arena.

We saw a brief slide show that among other things told us the Mayan temples in Mexico were actually Mormon temples. I remembered at that moment reading at least 10 years beforehand a statement the Smithsonian had put out stating that ancient civilizations in Central America didn’t resemble anything like what was described in the Book of Mormon.

When the stage was turned over to President Hinckley we expected the celebrity buzz to return. As he started to talk it seemed like someone had let the air out of the room. Here we were about to hear the words of the one and only prophet of God. Anything he was about to say might be a life and faith altering pronouncement from the mouth of God himself. As we looked around, everyone around us was bored. Not a single person seemed interested in anything he might have to say. Scott to my left seemed down right perturbed. If Gordon Hinckley was a prophet of God, it didn’t seem the people around us thought so, and if they did, at best, they found him uninspiring and a little bit irritating. I believe the main thrust of his message was that young people shouldn’t get tattoos if they hoped to visit the temple. And to the credit of those around us, I think their response generally matched the message they were hearing. It wasn’t very interesting or inspiring.

As we pulled out of the parking lot I asked Scott if they Native American dressed girl we saw singing was supposed to be a Lamanite or a Native Californian. He was a bit thrown off by my question and stated that she was both. We made plans to meet Scott, his wife and the missionaries again and talk more about my questions. . . .

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44 thoughts on “Me & Mormons — Part 6

  1. I must admit, I kinda like this series. It leaves me interested to see where this is going.

    The irritating thing about it is, I can’t jump all over you about anything because we haven’t reached any conclusions yet.

  2. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I think you know my conclusions though. =)

    If you need to you can save your breath for the next one where I tell the missionaries what I thought of the Book of Mormon.

  3. I’m sorry I haven’t been following your series of posts, but as a Mormon I’m interested in your experience. Sometimes I attend meetings and wonder what I would think if I was not used to the way we do things. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Here are some of my reactions, without trying to be overly-defensive:

    1) As for how homogeneous everyone is, I agree that it is unfortunate. Around the world the Mormon church is actually very diverse, but in the US it is still dominated by whites. I, and I think most Mormons, would welcome being joined by other races and ethnicities in the US, but that hasn’t happened in large numbers. But I do find it interesting why no one criticizes some churches that are almost all black. Not that I want the Mormon church to become the “white” church, but the fact is that there is a racial divide that affects most churches in the US. Unfortunately, whites tend to join certain types of churches while blacks tend to belong to others. We all have work to do to bridge that gap, and some churches are better at it than others, I admit.

    2) There are geographical boundaries that separate the different wards. This is intentional, and in my opinion beneficial, since it doesn’t pit ward against ward. There is a rise of “mega-churches” that try to get as many people to go to their church from far away–so they try to make it exciting. The boundaries are an attempt to nullify this and make it more about the message and the community, rather than which ward is more exciting or fun. It is unfortunate that a side effect of this is that sometimes neighbors go to different churches, especially in large cities. I live in a more rural area where this isn’t such as concern because the ward boundaries are huge. From a Mormon perspective, when you join the Church, you don’t join one congregation. You join the worldwide religion.

    3) I wasn’t there, but I’m surprised by your description of Mayan temples being portrayed as Mormon temples. I don’t think this was the interpretation they were trying to portray, but again, I wasn’t there.

    4) There is a common misconception that we believe that the prophet and president of the church is super-human. We don’t believe that. I don’t recall such a display of boredom as you describe when listening to the prophet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some that are less-than-enthralled. A prophet, as a person, is not immune from being mundane at times. At one of the last general conferences of the church, he even joked about how it was not fair to expect him to come up with new things to say every time, considering how many talks he had given before.

  4. Tim, I am also enjoying this series. Just wish you’d write faster! 🙂

    I think that the race problem is a big problem in the LDS Church. And I’ve lived in what is probably one of the most diverse wards in the country (the Harlem 1st Ward in NYC). That was a wonderful ward, and I’m so glad that I got to experience it.

    I was actually talking to my nanny about it today. She’s LDS, and she’s black, and she’s noticed that people in the church treat her differently. They treat her differently than the whites, and they also treat her differently than the Hispanics. Maybe it’s due to Utah not having a very large black population, so Utah Mormons don’t know how to act around blacks, especially when there are so many media images of racism. I think it’s a problem when people start pretending that there are no differences between the races. Are black people and white people the same? No! Of course not! There are huge cultural differences, just as there are huge differences between men and women. And instead of ignoring those differences or pretending they’re not there or not real, we should embrace them and learn from them and experience them.

    Oops… there’s my tangent for the day!

    As for President Hinckley and people seeming bored, I think that’s odd, especially if he was there in person and not over a video telecast or something. I think if I had met the prophet–or been live with the prophet when I was active, I also would have been waiting and hoping for the life changing prophesies or something.

  5. Tim: Gotta say that I’m surprised by your experience. Pres. Hinckley was dull? I’ve never seen a Mormon respond that way to Hinckley.

    I’m still enjoying the series, but I’m wondering when you’re going to get to the part where the missionaries kidnap you and try to brainwash you in an underground bunker.

  6. Mike:

    Blah blah blah blah. “It’s a feature, not a bug!” The amount of individual freedom and personal choice that you don’t have in Mormonism is ridiculous.

    Nor are megachurches the automatic or even likely result of the freedom to choose your church home, especially since basically every Christian denomination on earth lets you go to whatever parish or congregation you want, and megachurches are a significant but relatively narrow phenomenon within evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but even there they’re not as pervasive as you’re imagining.

    Honestly, there’s a really wide range in church sizes from tiny house churches to megachurches.

  7. Seth R: “race problem.” One problem we have where I am (western NY) is that many members confuse culture with doctrine. The blacks in our city have a different culture and thus behave differently at church—some white members see it as irreverent, etc. So it creates some difficulty for the black members who feel a bit oppressed in that sense. I don’t think that any white member has ever said anything, mind you, but the rigidity of “white-style” worship is obvious enough. To be fair, that’s not really racial as much as it is cultural, but it does generally split down racial lines.

  8. Mike (and Kullervo): I don’t know that the reason for geographical boundaries is to prevent the creation of Mormon megachurches. Where does that idea come from? When were wards/stakes first delineated in the LDS Church and what was the stated rationale?

  9. I imagine it comes from Utah and Brigham Young. The wards and stakes were meant to be as much a community and political entity back then as they were a congregation.

    Personally, I find a great deal of Christian benefit in having to deal with life as you find it – warts and all. It’s actually useful to be forced to associate with people whose company you would not normally choose, and put up with leaders you don’t always particularly like. That’s just the common heritage of being a human society.

  10. I’ve a convert, having grown up evangelical Protestant, and I prefer the ward system for the reasons that Seth gave. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the pick-your-church approach, and obviously it does have some advantages. But if I were picking a ward, I’d probably end up in a ward that’s less diverse economically and culturally than the ward I’m in now. I have home-taught people living in run-down trailers and that sort of thing, people I otherwise would have little contact with, and I’ve appreciated seeing what people outside my social class have to offer.

    Re racial issues: Yes, it is a problem. Worldwide, the church is quite diverse, but in the U.S. we have a long way to go in attaining diversity. For better or worse, the church is very slow to change culturally and not very welcoming of changes such as different music styles and worship styles that might be attractive to people who aren’t already part of the system. Things are changing in some areas, but change happens slowly.

    Re the reaction to President Hinckley: I saw President Hinckley once (before I was a member of the church), and it wasn’t anything like what Tim experienced. People didn’t seem bored, and I thought he gave an inspiring talk.

    Looking forward to Part 7!

  11. Ooh! Let’s add some drama and pit husband against wife…

    I disagree with Kullervo. 😀 I don’t think that ward boundaries are necessarily a bad thing. It does create wards that have people of the generally same socioeconomic status in one place (because it’s based on the geographic location, and neighborhoods are generally at about the same economic levels), which can be problematic. But, perhaps not so different from Protestant churches, where like attracts like and you would be more likely to choose somewhere where the people were more like you.

    I’ve experienced good and bad things from the ward boundaries issue. When I first went to college, I went to the ward I thought I was in, and was told that based on where I lived I actually belonged in the other ward. (Not in a mean way, by the way, more disappointed lol.) The next Sunday I went to my ‘proper’ ward, and that’s when I saw Kullervo for the first time–and immediately developed a mad crush on him. ❤

    On the other hand, when Kullervo and I moved to Florida together, we unwittingly moved into a ward that didn’t have many young married couples–I think maybe 3 couples under the age of 35 in total. Most of the young married couples lived on the other side of town from us, and therefore went to a different ward. It was really challenging for us to find a niche within that ward, because we were young married college students in a ward with older, married couples with kids. We often felt like we couldn’t relate to the ward, and that the ward wasn’t interested in us since we weren’t producing babies at the time. Had we had the opportunity to switch wards, we most certainly would have. (The story had a happy ending as the ward grew more diverse and we got to know people and got more involved, but it took at least a year for that to happen.)

    As for the race issue… I think brianj was right on when he said that the LDS Church is a culturally white church. It’s very quiet during sacrament meeting. That isn’t necessarily how all cultures want to worship, or feel like worship is even happening. Because of that, and because cultural differences present themselves most obviously over racial lines, it winds up being a white church.

  12. katyjane: “immediately developed a mad crush on him. <3” I’ve been blogging for a long time, but some of the emoticons still escape me. What does “<3” mean?

  13. I wasn’t there, but I’m surprised by your description of Mayan temples being portrayed as Mormon temples. I don’t think this was the interpretation they were trying to portray, but again, I wasn’t there.

    I believe there was a voice over that described Jews coming to America and then building temples. As this was being said there were numerous pictures of Mayan temples shown. If that wasn’t the impression they were giving then I must have missed some nuance that was obvious to everyone else.

  14. I too find it hard to imagine that anyone could sit in the presence of President Hinkley and not feel the spirit quite strongly. Unless he/she went expecting something much more than what is usually there. It has to do with the spirit you take with you when you see him for the first time. Sometimes the people of the world hear the word Prophet and picture in their mind some one like Moses or Abraham, but find a simple man with no beard, short hair and wearing a suit. I guess that would be somewhat of a letdown.
    And as to why we have wards and stakes, it has to do with the number of people we can effectivly take care of. For instance it takes about 260 people to staff a ward, when everyone has just one job to take care of. So we try not to have more than 300 or 350 members in a ward. Hopefully it keeps most members from being bored or thinking they have been forgotten. For instance how many protestant or Catholic members have heard or seen their minister in their home since they joined that church? In our church we have Home teachers who represent the Bishop who are supposed to visit every member every month at least once amd more if possible, then report to their leaders who report to the Bishop so the Bishop knows how everyone of his members are doing. so he can have time to take care of those who really need help from him personally.
    And as for those Mayan Temples? They are not Mormon Temples, nor are they even close. Those temples were designed to be used in conjunction with the Law of Moses with animal sacrifices and rituals pertaining to that Law. Our Temples are for covenants and ordinances for the living and the dead. Both are necessary for the time period in which they were built. And that is my take on things, for what it is worth…Later…Hugh

  15. Those temples were designed to be used in conjunction with the Law of Moses with animal sacrifices and rituals pertaining to that Law.

    So are you saying they are Jewish Temples? That would seem strange to me. As far as I can tell, there was only one temple allowed for the Jews and that was in Jerusalem.

  16. I didn’t expect my comment about ward boundaries and mega-churches to spark such heated feelings. I’ve clarified my view on the other thread that has been started. I’ll summarize here: I don’t know the historical reasons for ward boundaries, and I agree that your friend should have taken you to church with him.

    As far as the Mayan temples, Hugh, I think you’re mistaken. Mayans were not Jews. They did not live the law of Moses. My understanding is that those temples have nothing to do with Mormonism or Christianity of Judaism. Tim, I can’t try to explain the voice-over. My best attempt is to say that they were using it for visual affect, but it was probably ill-advised since it was obviously misleading. Let me just say that I’ve never heard it taught in church that the Mayan temples were in any way comparable to Mormon temples, or ancient Hebrew temples either. I’m no Mormon scholar so perhaps someone will correct me, but that’s my understanding.

  17. 🙂 By saying “…Mormonism or Christianity…”, I’m of course not saying that Mormons aren’t Christian. One must be careful of that these days. I just don’t want to be mis-interpreted.

  18. basically every Christian denomination on earth lets you go to whatever parish or congregation you want

    My impression is that many churches have boundaries (how much they enforce them I’m not sure). Does anyone have any evidence one way or the other?

    Not that my google search is scientific, but I searched “Catholic chicago parish boundaries”, and found this link about the history of a particular area in which it describes the boundaries of a parish: “Its boundaries were Lawrence Avenue on the north, Robey Street (now Damen Avenue) on the east, Irving Park Boulevard on the south, and the Chicago River on the west.” This is historical, so maybe Catholics do things differently these days. Anyone know?

  19. Catholics have parish boundaries but they are free to attend any parish they wish. They are often encouraged to support their local parish.

  20. So it sounds like Catholics and Mormons start more or less the same way, with parish/ward boundaries, but it becomes more rigid with Mormons. I wonder if this is largely dependent on the LDS having a lay ministry.

  21. Not to stretch this out, but if a Catholic attends a parish that is not his local parish, could he be asked to serve there (although I know “callings” is a Mormon thing mostly, but surely there are people in other religions that are asked by their church to serve in some way–Sunday school teachers, alter boys, and I’m sure many others that I could name i I were more familiar with Catholicism)? Do the boundaries serve any practical purpose?

    I’m just trying to understand the differences here. As someone said before, this is what I’ve always known, so I’m finding this discussion enlightening, although I still hold to my view that enforcing (sensibly) ward boundaries has benefits.

    But, as I think you mentioned in your other post, Tim, how the Church deals with ward boundaries surely isn’t critical to an honest investigation of the truthfulness of the Church’s claims.

  22. I can;t speak to Catholicism, but if I wander over to a different Episcopal parish from ours, I’m free to volunteer in whatever service capacity I feel called to. I imagine it’s the same in most every denomination but Mormonism. And honestly it’s more in line with Paul’s teachings on the subject. But then. Mormons often like to put Paul in the corner and minimize most everything he said (with the exception of a few passages in 1st Corinthians that can be construed to support Mormon doctrines).

    And I think you’d be surprised at how often pastors come to visit their parishioners. It’s… sort of their job. On the other hand, unlike Mormon home teachers, they don’t try to impose monthly visits whether you like it or not.

  23. And what about baptism? If I wanted to become a Catholic, could I choose which parish to be baptized in?

    If the answer to that question (and the ones I asked above) is “No”, then I argue that there isn’t a fundamental difference between parish boundaries and ward boundaries, and so to say we are strange because of how we deal with them is not a valid argument. Whether you think those boundaries are good or not. I understand other churches do it differently, but if Catholics are the exception, that’s one big exception.

    On the other hand, if the answer is “Yes”, then I concede that how Mormons deal with ward boundaries is peculiarly strict, for better or worse. Although let me reiterate that I do believe your friend should have taken you to his church.

  24. Kullervo: “it’s more in line with Paul’s teachings” What is more in line: volunteering or attending whatever parish one chooses? I assume you meant the former.

  25. Kullervo said: But then. Mormons often like to put Paul in the corner and minimize most everything he said

    That hasn’t been my experience.

  26. I agree with Kullervo that Mormons don’t follow everything that Paul says, and often disregard his teachings. Mormons definitely believe in marriage as the central relationship of life, unlike Paul.

    Mormons don’t teach Christianity the way he did, you hardly ever hear him quoted. His teachings are generally unstudied by Mormons. He is never openly or actively discredited (Not like Martin Luther attacked the Book of James) but he is definitely a side figure.

    Mormons loved President Hinckley when he talked because their expectations for public speakers are so low based on General Conference and Sacrament Meetings. Compared to professional clergy, who have to be good to keep their jobs, Mormon leaders can be pretty dang boring. I think people though President Hinckley was the bomb as a speaker because 1) they believe he was a prophet and 2) he had a decent timing when he told jokes (unlike 90% of the jokes told in church).

    If you believe the words are inspired or backed by God you generally think they are more beautiful. Almost all scripture is case in point. As prose they don’t seem like anything that special.

  27. Mormons have had interesting speakers, like Joseph or Brigham. But then you get the baggage that comes with being an interesting and charismatic speaker. A lot of Protestants don’t care much for that either.

    We can’t win.

  28. Don’t forget J. Golden Kimball.

    Anyway, there’s a difference between being an interesting speaker and proclaiming that people live on the sun.

  29. Kullervo asked: Read the book of Romans lately?

    Yes, as a matter of fact. I read all the letters of Paul in their entirety last year.

    Why should that be so hard to believe?

  30. To be honest, I’m not as brushed up on the letters of Paul as I would like to. Since President Benson, mormons have put a lot of emphasis on the Book of Mormon. And honestly, mormons have a lot more text to cover.

    In my defense, I am getting better. I’ve been studying his first letter to the Corinthians and am very touched by his wonderful advice about working with others, particularly those of our own faith. I’m humbled by his description of how we are colaborers with God. (I’m not sure if colaborer is the word he used, I’m studying it in Spanish) It helps me want to plant and water and at the same time not pride myself in the growth, but be grateful for it.

  31. Kullervo, where is that “people live on the sun” quote from? I looked at a few anti-Mormon references to it as being in the Journal of Discourses, and the quote wasn’t there. Do you know the citation?

  32. I don;t have a source, sorry. You sure it isn;t in the JoD?

    Oh well, it doesn;t really matter because the early church leaders said plenty of other wacky things.

    Eric: no, it’s not that hard to believe, but I’m willing to wager if you took a survey, you’re not in the majority.

  33. Tim,

    I know we have only encountered each other very briefly on the blogs, but, as you know, I served my mission in SoCal and talked with numerous BIOLA (and Talbot) and Hope students and some professors as well (Craig Hazen actually lived in my area at one time). Anyway, I was at the youth celebration also as I was a part of the Anaheim mission.

    I just wanted to ask: Where were you living? I just wanted to figure out how far apart we were. It seems clear to me that we probably never met. But I am interested anyway.

  34. I lived in Tustin (close to where the 5 and 55 intersect). That was definitely one of my favorite places. I wish I could go back to CA all the time.

  35. Oh I meant to add that I lived between Red Hill and Newport Ave; I don’t know how far that was from where you were living (there were several wards in the area).

    Small world. Have a nice weekend.

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