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by Neylan McBaine
I have a confession: the music in the waiting chapel of the Salt Lake Temple drives me nuts. There I am, sitting reverently in my white dress, waiting for the session to start, and instead of a quiet atmosphere in which to ponder the reasons I came to the temple that day or even say a silent prayer, I am subjected to the kind of piped-in electric organ music that one might expect to hear in a funeral parlor.
As I sit there, trying to meditate but distracted by the wrong notes in the familiar hymns (the music must be played live somewhere by someone, since I hardly think there would be wrong notes in a recording), I figure I have three choices: I could resent that my religious institution forces its musical aesthetic on my personal worship and conclude that since I want to run from the musical choice I should run from the institution; I could ask the temple workers to turn it off and make a stink to the temple presidency; or I could stick my fingers in my ears so I don’t hear the music anymore and continue with my silent meditation.
If I chose to do the first — let my resentment of the imposed musical aesthetic lead to resentment of the institution — there would be no end to that slippery slope. I would start resenting many more of our cultural characteristics, mistakingly equating the questionable quality I perceive in them to questionable quality in our doctrine. From canned ham at Christmas parties to the invariably adorable treats of Young Women’s activities, our culture includes scads of quirky middle-class mid-century Americanisms that sometimes obscure our stated goal of saving souls.
This is a slippery slope that many members succumb to, understandably confusing discomfort with the institutional experience with discomfort with our doctrinal cannon. Although the earthly experience should as closely as possible mirror the heavenly home our institution seeks to represent, it doesn’t always succeed for reasons of human error, personal taste, imperfect judgement and private corruption. My quibble in the temple is with the execution and presentation of the hymns, not the content of the hymns (to which I am personally devoted). If we can choose to control what we can and let the other stuff go, our experience within our institution will allow us to focus on the Savior, not the Spam.
I had a poignant experience a few years ago that helped fortify my understanding of our culture versus our doctrine and gave me hope that our future generations can successfully make this distinction. As a Juilliard- and Yale-trained musician, I was asked to give a class at a New England stake youth conference on music in the Church. I grew up speaking and playing the piano at firesides where my mother, a professional opera singer, offered her thoughts on the power of music to convey the Spirit. Music is utterly vital to my spiritual life, so talking on this subject comes easily to me. I have dozens of talks I’ve written on the history of the hymns, the power of the hymns, the importance of the classical repertoire in our worship, the triumverate communion that occurs between an individual and the group and God with congregational hymn singing… I could go on.
However, with this crowd of teenagers, I chose to take a different approach. I selected about 15 musical clips — ranging from Kanye West to Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Little Richard singing spirituals — and I played each clip for the class. As we listened, I asked the kids to write down silently on a piece of paper whether they thought the music was “Sacred,” “sacred,” “neither,” or “both.” The results were astonishing.
Suffice it to say that very little of the “Sacred” music was also deemed “sacred,” meaning that those musical works that are categorized within the genre of Sacred music in a retail catalogue did not feel holy, or “sacred”, to their unique spiritual personalities. Several youths deemed every classical work played as “contrived” or “inauthentic,” thus driving away them farther away from a sense of the Spirit which they found more readily in music they defined as “real,” “pure,” and “natural.” Kanye West’s song, “Hey Mamma” was rated the most “sacred” song I played because of its sincere lyrics of gratitude for the singer’s mother and its soothing beat.
As our discussion progressed, I learned that these youths find peace and divine communion in very different places than I would expect with my own classical music training. Electronic instrumental music, with its ordered, patterned progressions, seemed especially meditative to my crowd. They dismissed some rock songs for their meaningless lyrics and embraced others for their messages, a surprise to me since I myself rarely pay attention to pop lyrics. But regardless of what I thought about their taste or how much I bemoaned the demise of classical music (subjects of another article!), I couldn’t deny the fact that these kids found the Lord’s presence in these unexpected places. They were hearing beauty, and they were letting it draw them closer to God.
We concluded our discussion by talking about why the Church has settled upon a certain musical aesthetic to represent “sacredness”. After all, many other denominations attract patrons with varied worship styles. (I know of one evangelical congregation that gives its members three different musical choices for Sunday worship: a room with a choir, a room with a jazz band and a room with a rock band.) I was encouraged by the practicality of their answers: We are a worldwide church that can come together over consistent applications of the hymns. The hymns are a tribute to our 19th century pioneer heritage. Chaos would ensue if we tried to appeal to 13 million people’s varying aesthetic tastes. We can ponder the lyrics of our songs, all of which have uplifting messages even if the style of the music doesn’t resonate. And most encouraging: We can recognize that we are responsible for our own communion with the Spirit and we are not spiritual outcasts if the certain chosen aesthetic doesn’t speak to us.
I know in reality the line will blur for some of these kids between their personal relationship with God and their cultural experience in the Church and that they will eventually forfeit one because of the other. But I like to think most of our rising generation will understand that our cultural quirks are themselves not absolute truths and that to equate the two would be to miss the mark.
So going back to my fidgety discomfort with the piped-in organ music, what about the second option? you ask. Why didn’t I ask the temple workers to turn it off so I and the other patrons could just enjoy the silence? The answer is I’m simply not that much of an activist. I prefer to work within the system, performing and supporting quality music (and silence where appropriate!) within the Church where I can and hoping that standard will permeate others’ experiences over time. Perhaps some day I’ll get up the nerve so say something to a temple worker — although I fear tearing some octogenarian temple patron away from meditating on those soothing sounds that remind him of singing hymns at his mother’s knee — but I may just leave that up to those kids in my New England class. Maybe when they’re in charge we’ll all be listening to Kanye West.
Meanwhile, I’ll be the woman with her fingers in her ears.
1) Tell me about the origins/history of LDS WAVE.
We are a new organization that just went public 2 months ago, thus, there is not a very long history of our organization. LDS WAVE began after a blog post on exponent ii by Jessawhy. She asked what we can do after all of the talking. Can we do something? She said, “It was after years of listening and being heard through blogs and in social groups that I decided to organize a group to move into the realm of advocacy. As an insular group of self-identifying Mormon women, we can talk, listen, validate, and talk some more, but until we recognize and take steps to make our voices heard by more church members, including those who can affect change, then nothing will change” (hope blog).
In response to her post, Jessica gathered many women who thought the same things and they worked together to develop concrete plans to make a difference. They joined together to make the LDS WAVE executive board and have been working together ever since to create an action based arm of the LDS feminist blog circuit. LDS WAVE, however, has its history in the many feminist Mormon women that came before us. Many of us are longtime exponent retreat or blog participants as well as members of the other feminist blog communities. We each have unique personal feminist awakenings and developments. One member of the board, Meghan had this to say, “It might be interesting… to know that many of us found our feminism at BYU. Those of us who attended BYU all had professors who encouraged us to be excellent students and take our academics seriously. I was women’s studies minor and a research assistant for the Women’s Research Institute and being a part of that program profoundly affected me. I wrote about it here. Some of us were even involved with feminist activism at BYU; Tresa was a member of VOICE and I was a founding member of its softer reincarnation, PARITY.
2) How has the history of LDS WAVE effected how it runs today?
LDS WAVE grew out of the feminist LDS blog world. As such, it focuses on online content, utilizes an executive council from around the world, and functions by individual directors being in charge of specific tasks. We conduct phone updates about once a month to discuss each aspect of LDS WAVE, create a to do list, and discuss pertinent topics. Most of us have never even met in person and our content is heavily based on the independent writing of the directors. LDS WAVE is an example to me of a true grass roots initiative run by women with nothing to gain but the hope of making a difference. Most of us have careers, kids, callings, and a cadre of other pursuits that make our time very valuable. WAVE advocacy important enough to all of us to merit our time and attention. In fact, for me it is a life raft of hope in the middle of a storm discrimination. It keeps me active in the church.
2) What is the mission/purpose of LDS Wave?
Our mission is to advance the cause of gender equality within the LDS church. We have a vision statement that highlights some of the main things we are interested in on LDS WAVE website. Basically, we seek to be the action based arm of the Mormon feminist online community. We hope that our presence will make a difference in the lives of the women who participate and in the future of LDS church policy. We hope the Womens Service Mission will create links between women of all faiths and be a society of relief to care, protest, petition, and support all those in need. We hope to create calls to action which inspire our readers to join with us and participate in activities that will make a difference in the lives of all LDS members. We hope to inspire our readers with the HOPE blog to know that they are not alone or to learn a new way to approach an old problem. We hope that our Words of Wisdom project will excavate the voices of women in the past and present and promulgate them for all sisters to be edified. We hope that Ask a Feminist will provide a forum for all mindsets to learn, dialogue, and understand on another.
We seek to do all this from a faith-based perspective and from within the church. At the moment, we hope to make changes to policy and practice that do not require any doctrinal variation. There is much to be done to the culture of the church and the “traditions of our fathers” that we seek to improve. We also hope to be a beacon of light to those women thinking there is no safety net, no space between gender discrimination and leaving the church. We want to help them in this journey and give them hope that things can change.
3) Do you have any sort of funding?
No. We solicited donations to cover the website costs and might request donations again for some of our calls to action.
4) What services do you offer? What services do you hope to offer in the future?
We have many different services. To begin we have something called a HOPE blog. This is a webpage dedicated to women describing their experiences with gender equality or inequality in the church. We solicit posts from all readers, bloggers, and followers and hope that this blog will make women feel less alone and more empowered so that we can learn from one another’s experiences and be edified by all. We also offer monthly calls to action. These are challenges we create and promote for our followers to participate in each month. These range from book groups to talking to your local bishop about gender inequality. We envision that change will happen through these calls to action and that as our readership increases the connections, events, and actions highlighted on LDS WAVE will reach the people in positions of decision making power. Another resource is our Words of Wisdom project which seeks to find quotes from women and collate them into a book that members can access for Sunday worship, lessons, and talks. We are saddened that our manuals, General Conference talks, and leadership messages have so few women’s voices and we want to create a resource to change that. This book is designed to accompany scriptures and illustrate the amazing voices and heritage of the women that came before us and who are missing in religious text and administration. We hope to offer a version that wards can purchase as their mother’s day gifts! Another service we offer is the Ask a Feminist column which is a place where anyone can send questions and receive answers in a friendly dialogue. We hope this will be a place that antagonists and protagonists can communicate and understand each other’s points of view. One of the most active services we offer is the Women’s Service mission which seeks to relief the suffering of women everywhere. WSM has covered topics as varied as the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and supporting the Paycheck Fairness Act to promoting greater maternal health and the Parenting in the Workforce Institute. We encourage everyone to join with us in these actions. We also offer a newsletter, basic information about feminism and activism, and a facebook page.
5) Do you have an estimate of the number of people that are served by LDS WAVE?
No. Unfortunately we haven’t collected accurate information yet.
6) Is there was anything you wanted to emphasize to women?
I think the most fascinating thing I’ve discovered in helping create this organization is just how many of us there are. In collecting quotes for the Words of Wisdom project, we are flabbergasted by how many women were fighting many of these same problems a hundred years ago. I will read a quote and then sit for a moment in shock that Mormon women all along the way have wanted, tried, fought for, and sought change. We owe them a great deal of gratitude and honor. With that being said, I also feel an enormous responsibility to make change happen. The feminists in the 70’s helped us gain the right to pray in sacrament, two-piece garments, mother’s rooms, changing tables, and much more. These are small wins, but important ones. What will we do? We at LDS WAVE want to make changes. We want make it easier for our sisters who feel the sting of inequality to stay in the church, we want our daughters to be raised in a different ethos of equality and respect, and we want to have our future generations 100 years from now read our words and know that we made a difference.
Ask a Feminist
The purpose behind this call to action is to create a forum for you and other women to explore ideas about Mormonism, gender, and feminism.
When we meet together to tell our stories, share our questions, and explore new ideas, we strengthen ourselves and our relationships with one another. There’s a power in naming problems and in discussing strategies to navigate the difficulties of our lives as Mormon women. There’s a power in knowing that we are not alone.
This group can be a book group, a discussion group, or a WAVE chapter, depending on the makeup of people. You might not have other feminists in your community to invite to this group. In this case, pick women you know who are compassionate and open minded and form a book group.
Suggestions for reading material, followed by comments about appropriateness of the material for various group makeups:
1.) If you want to read an article, consider the essay, “The Mormon Concept of a Heavenly Mother” by Linda Wilcox. You can find this article in the book Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspectives or you can find it online here. Begin a discussion with your own thoughts or questions about Heavenly Mother. (Not too edgy. Academic, objective tone. Very readable.)
2) If you want to read a novel, consider The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Discuss the role of the feminine divine in the novel and the role she played in the lives of the characters. (Not at all edgy. Perfect for a Relief Society book group.)
3) If you want to read a non-fiction book, consider Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, which has suggestions at the end of immediate things you can do to take action on behalf of women in the world. Discuss any resonances you see between your own lives and the lives of the women featured in the book. (Not necessarily edgy, but both painful and inspiring at times.)
What are your suggestions for great books or articles to read in your groups? Please share below. Also, please let us know if you are able to form a group.
by Kay Gaisford
(When I was at lunch with Kay I mentioned that we were looking for posts for the HOPE blog that demonstrate success with gender equality in the church. Here is a short story she sent me about her experience).
When we lived in Valley Forge Ward in the 1980s, I attended a New Beginnings evening with my teenaged daughters. Our bishop had been called to be bishop a short time before and was giving what I believe was his first talk to the young women. He was a thoughtful, reflective person with a teenaged daughter of his own, and I was surprised that he spoke to the girls in a way that portrayed them mostly in terms of having a secondary position to men in the church. He described their spiritual life in terms of preparing themselves to be married in the temple and support a husband in his priesthood. In fact, his talk sounded exactly like the talk I had heard Carol Lynn Pearson parody at Sunstone that summer in her presentation, “A Walk in Pink Moccasins.”
Although he was not a close friend of mine and I didn’t know him well, I perceived the bishop to be a “teachable” person, willing to consider new ideas and perspectives. Within a few days I gave him the audio tape of Carol Lynn Pearson’s Sunstone presentation, “A Walk in Pink Moccasins,” cueing it to the start of the parody. It was a transformative experience for him. He told me it gave him a new perspective on the young women he had been interviewing. He had been surprised to have a number of the girls tell him that they were feeling depressed. He made the connection that perhaps the YW organization should devote efforts to helping the girls realize their personal potential. Within a few weeks, he called Lou Chandler, a professional working woman, as YW president—definitely a new kind of role model for the girls!
“I can’t claim to have been a model YW president back then, but this bishop was, indeed, a model of “righteous dominion.” He exhibited kind and caring service, intelligent leadership, good humor in all things, the zeal and humility for continued learning, and tremendous spiritual strength. His example was inspiring. Alas, his tenure ended all too soon as his work required moving is family to DC. But, to this day, I still consider his example when I find myself in leadership positions.”
We are looking for more stories like this about experiences where women find ways to advocate for equality in the church. Please submit yours to firstname.lastname@example.org.