Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Coping with Bad Relief Society Lessons

My experiences attending church are often very bipolar, meaning that they go from one extreme to another. For example, I'm usually really bored in sacrament meeting (or too distracted trying to wrangle kids). But a few weeks ago, my favorite professor at BYU happened to be our high council speaker and it was simply awesome to hear him speak again. Best sacrament meeting I've been to in a long time.

I find that fluctuations in my mood swings are most commonly caused by Relief Society. Typically I'm most positive about the church just after teaching my own Relief Society lessons---perhaps because I am largely in control of the discussion. And a few weeks later my mood crashes after a particularly bad lesson. I've had two "zingers" in the last two months that have been difficult to cope with.

The first one was a 4th Sunday lesson a few weeks ago when we discussed Elder Packer's very infamous Conference Talk "Cleansing the Inner Vessel." If you read the edited Ensign version of the talk, it really says very little about homosexuality at all. It says perhaps a little bit about pornography and mostly talks about the importance of being chaste. As a teacher, you wouldn't have to talk about homosexuality at all. Not my teacher! She jumped right in and talked about homosexuality from the get-go. About half the lesson was spent doing some heavy media-bashing (a big pet peeve of mine since I am a film scholar) and the other half of the lesson was spent gay-bashing. Some of the worst anti-gay comments were things like: "We cannot tolerate that which kills us," and "The idea that homosexuality is a born trait is the biggest lie of our time." Ummm... no, it's been pretty well proven to be caused by biological factors. The lesson was just horrible, frankly. There was no civility. No compassion. No tolerance for nuance. No room for thoughtful dialogue.

Later that night, I tried to engage in a dialogue with a sister whom I have a fairly good relationship with. (She made some of the more flagrant comments during the lesson.) I put out the feelers to see if there would be any way to have a thoughtful conversation about some of the points she brought up. Although the conversation was very respectful, it became quickly apparent to me that I was on a fool's errand because she was incapable of changing her mind about this issue. It depressed me greatly.

It's been about two months since that episode and I was really starting to recover. I was starting to feel good about being in the church for a while. And then---WHAM!---I got hit by another awful Relief Society lesson last Sunday.

It was a lesson about modesty based on General Relief Society 1st counselor Silvia Allred's Ensign article entitled "Modesty: A Timeless Principle for All." Here's a few highlights:
  • My favorite quote from the teacher was: "When you dress immodestly, you become walking pornography." First of all, I think a more accurate term would be erotica, not pornography. In my mind, there's a big difference between the two and it bothers me when they become conflated.
  • Another great comment was: "We need to make sure our little baby and toddler girls don't wear those little strappy sun dresses, because at what age are you going to tell them they can't any more?" Seriously, there was a Sugar Beet article parodying that mindset once and so it really made me laugh to hear that kind of comment.
  • And there were several comments that were just generally catty and judgmental. Comments about being "shocked and dismayed" at what people wear to the temple ("I can see her garments through the slit in the back of her dress!"), comments about men taking off their garment tops to mow the lawn and setting a bad example for boys, comments about how teenage boys say girls with expensive jeans are "high maintenance."
There were a number of things that bothered me about the lesson. One is how lessons about modesty are purely targeted at women. Incidentally, the teacher said that this talk was chosen by special request of the Bishop as a follow-up to the Stake Youth Chastity Fireside a few weeks ago. But my husband informed me that the Priesthood had a talk about achieving balance in their lives instead. (The Elder's Quorum counselor rode his unicycle as an object lesson!) When I heard that, I became truly upset. The stark double-standard is all but too apparent. I agree that a woman who dresses provocatively can have a Pavlovian physiological effect on men that is partially beyond their control. But it's still a two-way street at the end of the day. Taken to an extreme, it turns into that "Well, she asked for it" mentality that bothers me to no end. Having seen the devastating effects that rape has had on two women in my class this semester, I can guarantee you that no woman asks for it. Men bear a responsibility to exercise their sexual impulses in healthy and considerate ways and these lessons do not promote that mentality.

Well, the point of all of this is to say that I have good days and bad days at church. It's all an emotional roller-coaster. An ex-Mormon friend of mine theorized that leaving the church is like going through a divorce. Everyone will go through at least one of the stages of grief during the process. If it isn't obvious from my chart above, I'm in the bargaining stage. I try to find ways emotionally to make it work, but then they all implode on me eventually. I'm not sure how much longer this will be emotionally sustainable.

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