I remember watching the Olympics when I was in high school and concluding that the swimmers had the best-looking bodies of all of the athletes. Not scarily gaunt like the runners, not comically and grotesquely bulging like the weight lifters, not the stunted look of the gymnasts.
I grew up swimming on summer neighborhood teams and for my high school. I was no good, really. But even I knew that Olympic level swimmers were paying virtually no attention to the appearance of their bodies. They watched their diets not because spare calories might adhere to their hips but because they needed enough calories–and the right kind–to swim as fast as they could. They lifted weights–not to sculpt their abs, but to enhance their speed. They swam countless laps–not to drop pounds, but to perfect technique and enhance speed. The physical appeal of those bodies that I was ogling on the medal stand was the accidental by-product of an entirely different goal.
I’ve been thinking about those swimmers recently as I try to grapple with the church’s emphasis on The Family. I joined the church in 1992. It was all about the Book of Mormon then. But when is the last time that you heard someone say that the Book of Mormon was written for our time? In fact, the new curriculum for college-age students omits half the time spent on the study of the Book of Mormon and replaces it with a class on The Family. When I joined the church, there was a focus on commandments that created certain habits: reading the scriptures, keeping a journal, maintaining food storage, obeying the Word of Wisdom, that sort of thing. We hear about these things a bit now, but a comparison of church manuals will show much more attention is now paid to The Family. There was a focus on individual righteousness–personal scripture study, prayer, personal worthiness, temple attendance, etc. Now when I hear those things, they are usually couched in or around The Family. In a training on sabbath observance, Elder Bednar said, “The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to make available the Priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and a woman and their children to be sealed together and be happy at home. Period, exclamation point, end of sentence, that’s it.” When I joined the church, the “basic purpose” was described as a three-fold mission of proclaiming the gospel, redeeming the dead, and perfecting the saints.
To be clear: I am not anti-The Family. I have three levels of deep concern about the family: one is a societal-level concern, where I see individuals making choices that do not serve the best interests of children or the larger culture or, ultimately, themselves. And then there is a more personal level: most people will spend a good chunk of their lives in a family setting and if they are going to break a heart, wound a soul, or exercise any manner of cruelty, it will probably be to someone in that family–not the guy who delivers the water jugs each week. So it obviously makes sense that we think about how to live according to Christian virtues in families. Further, I think the family has an eternal role (which I struggle to understand because there is virtually no revelation about the place of the female half of those family members, but that is a topic for a different post), so I think it matters how we form and treat our families here. But.
But. I feel that the church I joined was one where the swimmers ate carefully and exercised hard in order to win their races. The by-product of that was nice-looking bodies, by which I mean thriving families. Yes, families were huge–literally and figuratively–in the church I joined. But that was the result of a rhetoric of indirection; it wasn’t the result of a direct focus on The Family. I feel like the church I am in now is one where the swimmers are obsessively trying to look good in skinny jeans. And they–by which I mean “we”–are not only not looking so hot these days, but we are going to lose our races. This emphasis on The Family is going to do us more harm than good. And it is starting to feel like idolatry to me. It often feels in church settings as if The Family is more important–more emphasized, more loved, more fussed over, more worshiped–than God or Jesus Christ. And anything that doesn’t mesh well with The Family–be it an older single member or a child raised by gay parents–needs to be ignored or banished so as not to interfere with The Family.
I am particularly dismayed over how the recent emphasis on The Family impacts our study of the scriptures. In recent years, an evaluation portion was added to the seminary curriculum. You can see part of one of the assessments here. There is one essay question in those materials and it is “What have the Old Testament and modern prophets taught about marriage?”
Well, that’s certainly an interesting question. You could talk about the acceptability of concubines, for example. You could talk about Joseph Smith’s polyandry. You could talk about levirate marriage. You could talk about how Joseph Smith did not inform his first wife of some of his subsequent marriages. You could talk about how Tamar was deemed the more righteous for pretending to be a prostitute. About the ease with which Brigham Young permitted divorce. You could talk about how the Law of Moses required a woman to marry her rapist. You could talk about how modern prophets have vacillated from advocating male-headship marriage to a marriage of equal partners. You could talk about how Abraham passed his wife off as his sister.
But, as you can see from the CES materials, the students are expected to answer as if all Old Testament and modern prophets have consistently taught the same thing about marriage. There are so many problems with this, I don’t know where to begin. First, this is an excellent case study in proof-texting: the points that CES wants students to make in the essay are only tangentially–if at all–supported by the text. Next, it ignores large swaths of the text (see above). And in so doing, it sets students up for problems in the future: I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: this is the next faith crisis. These kids will not be surprised by stones in a hat or by 14-year-old brides; they will be shocked at what the scriptures say. And they will ask why the church “lied” to them about it. And they will not trust the other things that their teachers and leaders have taught them. And they will be adrift. Even if they don’t get to that point, they are not learning the skills required to study the scriptures as adults: they are essentially memorizing proof texts and associated doctrine. This is not a recipe for a life-long interest in studying the scriptures. It is also a betrayal of the scriptures, which are not lists of prooftexts and doctrine but rather mostly narratives designed to require thought and engagement by the reader, ideally in a community. This seminary assessment is but one example of many of how our focus on The Family is leading us to focus on precisely the wrong things, to the detriment of individuals and families.
The thing about the church I joined was that everyone could swim. Single or widowed or gay or disabled or just unlucky in love or straight or married or young or old or whatever, everyone was invited to get their feet wet. The church today seems mostly about rocking the skinny jeans. I do not like this version of the church.
Update: I want to call your attention to comment #47, where Ardis articulates another problem with an over-emphasis on The Family.