There are two ways to eat out, broadly speaking: You can order a pre-set meal from the menu, or you can order a la carte. Do we have the same options with religion?
The prevailing paradigm in the church is a menu of pre-set meals. Church members should accept Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, revelation, prophets, basic commandments like tithing, Word of Wisdom, chastity — those are the meat and potatoes (or eggplant and potatoes, for the vegetarians). The pre-set menu, however, also comes with a lot of lima beans, boiled peas, capers, cilantro, scallops, curry, and calamari — the kinds of foods that have some devoted fans, but which set off disgust and protest in many others. These may be items like polygamy, attitudes on homosexuality and gay marriage, Book of Mormon historicity, gender roles, Blacks and the Priesthood, the Book of Abraham.
The writing on the pre-set menu seems to suggest that the side items are mandatory. If you order the meat and potatoes of Joseph Smith and revelation, you must accept the lima beans and calamari of polygamy and the Book of Abraham. And many members seem to zealously guard the menu. Ask questions about polygamy or gender roles or same-sex marriage, and such members will fall back on the menu package: If Joseph Smith was a prophet, if the Book of Mormon is true, then one must accept polygamy and denial of the priesthood to Blacks. If you want the meat and potatoes, you’ve got to take the lima beans too.
Is such an approach really required? Can we ever go off-menu? Once, years, ago, my wife and I had dinner with a couple of friends. I don’t recall how, but my wife asked the restaurant to modify one of their entrees. Our friends were shocked. “You can _do_ that? You can ask for them to do things that aren’t on the menu?” (Those friends, incidentally, are among the most politically conservative and theologically orthodox Mormons I’ve ever met — they’re folks who voted for Bo Gritz because Bush-I wasn’t conservative enough for them). Since then, casual observance makes me wonder if the country is becoming even more expactant about a la carte availability.
The bloggernacle seems to be filled with people who want to go off-menu when it comes to religion, creating and discovering their own entrees or even entire cuisines. Such an approach is fraught with difficulties. How exactly can one gently suggest to the chef that she use more mushrooms and fewer capers? You could offend the chef by even asking — and then your steak will be _really_ bad. Finally, there’s a middle road of sorts. You can try to quietly eat your chicken and mushrooms and ignore the eggplant and lima beans, stack them up on the side of the plate, and hope that no one says “hey buddy, you’ve got a lot of lima beans piled up there.”
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think that the church is required to be a dim sum shop, all a la carte, all the time. I think that the pre-set menu approach probably works well for most people — and that’s why the menu is the way it is. First, the menu is created by experts — they know how to pair foods. And second, no restaurant sets out to create an unpleasant menu.
So the chicken cacciatori is on the menu not to oppress you, but because it’s well-liked by a lot of people. Restaurants are about finding the happy medium, keeping the largest number of people satisfied. Despite arguments otherwise, I think the church has a pretty good barometer on where to put the defaults for its menu. Most church members seem to do pretty well with it. Similarly, most folks like peanut butter with jelly; that’s why it’s a classic. But some people don’t like PB&J.
Staying on menu works well for a significant cohort of diners; those folks never need to worry about anything else. The rest of us have three choices. We can grit our teeth, smile, and swallow the lima beans. (A foreign-country mission does wonders for one’s ability to feign palatability.) We can try to order off menu, and hope that the chef isn’t offended. Or we can order from the menu but then eat a la carte, and hope that none of our fellow diners finds that approach distasteful.
Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to order the ice cream torte. But please, hold the caramel. And throw on a few anchovies, some capers, and a healthy sprinkling of cilantro.