I'm anxiously waiting for you to chime in on this Tad Callister talk.

This Facebook message from a friend was the final straw. She was the seventh person to ask me what I thought about the BYU-Idaho devotional address turned Ensign article by Elder Ted R. Callister, published in March 2014, titled “The Lord's Standard of Morality.” The rumbling is enough to coerce me to the keyboard.

Thought: Lord's Standard of Morality - CallisterWord of warning #1 – I'm only going to address those things that I either think deserve positive reinforcement or that I have concerns about. As much as I'd like to, I just don't have time to address the entirety of everything important every time I blog. And, really, I don't think anyone asked my opinion on this because they hoped I would say, “Awesome sauce to the core! Go read!” Most likely they found it somewhat troubling and/or controversial and wanted to compare their ideas with others.

Word of warning #2 – I'm writing this without first reading the apparent barrage of comments/posts/articles already written. I may be a misfit or redundant or just irrelevant. That's OK. I just wanted to record the personal reaction I had without it going through multiple filters.

You can assume that if I do not mention something, I either agree with it, find it neutral, or at least believe it can be reasonably explained. If that approach doesn't work for you, please stop here! You have been warned!

Here we go…

God Trumps You (and Me)

He was reminded that the supreme court trumps all lower ­court decisions, how­ ever numerous or recent they may be. So it is with God our Father—He needs to speak only once on the issue of morality, and that one declaration trumps all the opinions of the lower courts, whether uttered by psychologists, counselors, politicians, friends, parents, or would­ be moralists of the day.

A few weeks ago, an LDS friend of mine published a post on a currently controversial topic. He asked for input. Given the content of the post and the church's current stand, I couldn't see where there was room for much discussion outside of “the church says X, so how do we make that work?”

He, however, did not want to discuss the church's actual position. Rather, he wanted to avoid that kind of absolutist thinking and roll around in the other possibilities. He deleted my comment and moved on.

So, right up front let me say it again: God makes the decisions without  much regard for my personal taste. I think it's fine to ask questions and look for clarity, but ultimately I think the decisions are his, not mine.

This goes too far when he says, “He needs to speak only once…” History (within the church itself) has proven that many policies and standards do change with time. So God often speaks multiple times on a given issue, in the context of current events and cultures.

On the other hand, the procreative power is not to be exercised outside the husband­/wife relationship. Accordingly, any conscious thoughts or voluntary actions that stimulate or result in the expression of the procreative power outside the marriage relationship are disapproved by the Lord.

I'm guessing this was the beginning of the trouble. And I'm guessing the problem is mostly a matter of ineloquent  rhetoric. Let's parse:

ANY voluntary actions that STIMULATE procreative power outside marriage are disapproved by the Lord.

This could be read to say that if a woman chooses to walk down the street in a burqa and some guy gets turned on, the Lord will disapprove of the woman who chose to walk down the street covered from the top of the head to the ankle because the guy was “stimulated.”

Men Ogling Woman in Burka

Source: imgur

I don't think that's what Callister meant. But given the history (in the church and out) of women being blamed for and told they are responsible to control men's sexual feelings, it's not surprising this might have been read in such a way.

Given the history of such expressions, people (particularly men, particularly church leaders) need to be excruciatingly careful about how they present these statements to stop making women responsible for “Adam's transgression.”

It Will Make You Go Blind

The Lord condemns self-abuse. Self-abuse is the act of stimulating the procreative power of one's own body.

This verbiage strikes me as a bit odd. I'm sure masturbation isn't clinically described as “self-abuse,” so that may cause concern. But let's just pretend that Callister isn't a psychologist and is using the term differently. Indeed, he does define what he means, so let's go with his clearly stated definition. (Unless you're playing the equivocation game, that seems fair.)

When Callister uses the problematic term “self-abuse,” he means masturbation. And when he says masturbation is wrong, he's quoting Elder Packer.

When I was in college I had an LDS friend who was sexually active in every way except to actually have intercourse. Once she told me, “Well, there's really nothing wrong with oral sex, because there's no risk of getting pregnant. They just tell us that so we don't go too far.”

In other words, she felt the sin was in actually messing with the powers of procreation, not in just generally messing around. She thought the reason the church advised against all the other foreplay stuff was because once we do that, we'll be more likely to go “all the way.” Preventative policy.

Is this reasoning correct? Does it apply to masturbation? I don't know. Callister doesn't go into much detail here and we don't have a detailed masturbation policy that I'm aware of (can you imagine?), so we're left with authoritative sources telling us to keep our hands away from the private parts of ourselves and others outside of marriage.

Maybe it is “just” preventative policy, but it makes sense to me that if you're having orgasms all over the place you're thinking about sex. And if you're not in a position to have sanctioned sex, maybe that's not a great idea.

The Same Gender Attraction Rabbit Hole

A same-gender relationship is inconsistent with God's eternal patter that husbands and wives not only have children in mortality but also have eternal increase in their exalted condition.

I have found through personal experience that this topic is so explosive and controversial, that it's utterly impossible to have a logical discussion about it. Ever. I'd almost like to just pass over this section all together because people immediately leap off a cliff of nonsense in defending their “rights.” But I'm guessing that this section was part of the complaint, so — deep breath — here goes.

Fact #1

I have never taken a position on same gender attraction — either publicly or privately — other than to say, “Well, it sure would make things easier if church policy changed to accept homosexuality.”

Fact (set) #2

  1. I have a number of gay friends. (I was a musical theater major (before switching) and performer. Sorry, it's just part of the gig.)
  2. Most of them disagree with my politics but I think none would say I am in any way hateful to them.
  3. Most of them are (or were) LDS and most of them struggled mightily with their desires.
  4. Many served missions.
  5. Many tried to change how they felt.
  6. Many gave up in despair and began to live the life they desired to.
  7. A significant number, yes, actually chose to follow the church's counsel and have — often with outside help — lived happy fulfilling lives either single or with opposite-gender spouses and children.

Fact #3

Science hasn't given us much consistent, useful information to go on in this arena.

Fact #4

Most people (probably all people) — not just homosexuals — have tendencies, even strong tendencies, even tendencies they've exhibited from the time they were very young that are contrary to God's word. Name a commandment or counsel recognized by the LDS church and I can tell you someone who finds it almost impossible to follow:

  • Chastity
  • Masturbation
  • Pornography
  • Fidelity
  • Honesty
  • Tithing
  • Word of Wisdom
  • Pedophilia
  • Charity
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Selflessness
  • Humility
  • Obedience
  • Service
  • Self-reliance
  • Temple attendance
  • etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum

 I am hard pressed to put the church's position that homosexual sex is proscribed by God in an entirely different category from all the other stuff proscribed by God.

The trials we face are hard. Sometimes devastatingly hard. Sometimes excruciatingly difficult. Sometimes so overwhelming we contemplate ending it all to avoid the pain.

This isn't exclusive to LDS homosexuals. And it's awful for whomever is dealing with these struggles and pain for whatever reason. When someone we love deals with these trials, we should do whatever we can to love and help them.

For Shame – and Fear

Someone messaged me yesterday saying that a psychologist objected to the “shaming” and “fear” promoted in this article and complained, explicitly about this quote:

In some regards, Satan is like an octopus trying to capture us. If one tentacle does not work, he will try another and another until he finds on that will take hold.

OK, so I'll admit I tend to take the latest psycho-babble with a bucketload of salt. I admit this “problem” in the article would have completely eluded me, because I don't get it. Seriously, some things are shameful and some things are scary. I've never understood all this how-dare-you-hurt-my-feeeeeeeelings-by-telling-me-the-truuuuuuuuuth stuff.

I get crazy when people make up “doctrine” and disseminate it everywhere. That is harmful. But when people discuss actual doctrine and consequences? I think that's kind of OK.

Is the octopus analogy wrong? I don't think so. Satan is real. Satan is smart. Satan has lots of experience. If I can tell with almost 100% accuracy how my kids will behave in a given circumstance, how ridiculous to assume Satan can't do that as well. So, yea, he actually does want to capture us and he does try whatever tactics are available to him. Deal.

 Just Say No to Porno

It is an interesting exercise to read an article with the purpose of divining what other people think is wrong with it. I'm probably more likely than usual to see the problematic parts as verbal slips or communication gaffes than usual. That doesn't mean those slips and gaffes don't cause problems, but language is imprecise no matter who's using it.

God desires that His children not watch any movie or TV show, go to any website, or view any magazine that is pornographic in any way.

Callister uses some problematic language here. I guess it kind of brings up the images of the “becoming pornography” talk from 2005.  When there are people who find sexual stimulation just about anywhere, it's hard to define what this means, particularly when coupled with “in any way.”

Pornography is any picture or narrative [not live event?] that feeds the carnal man within…It is a…snake that will strike you the moment you take your first look and will continue to strike with a full portion of venom with each look thereafter.

Again, language problems. I don't mind the fear factor, I mind the absolutism. I'm no fan of porn. But as someone who has made my living on the internet since 1994, I can tell you the statement leaves a lot to be desired.

Dealing with hundreds of emails per day and doing extensive internet research, I've found it impossible to completely shield myself from porn. No matter how I try to filter email, some gets through — and what gets through is the worst. For example, spam filters aren't really good at telling the difference between a product image and the image of full frontal nudity in sexuality explicit positions.

No matter how careful I try to be, when I'm researching sinful topics (like, say, looking for that Oaks talk about porn), it's hard to do so without getting glimpses of objectionable stuff mixed in among the things I need.

I've gotten really good at identifying offending email and trashing most of it before opening. I've gotten really good at specifying keywords to narrow down the results. But it still comes up. And I don't think that means I'm caught in the porn trap.

The Modesty Thing – AGAIN!

I've just come to the next section heading in the talk: Immodest Dress. Seriously, I do not even want to go there. I don't even want to read it. I'm so exhausted by the problematic rhetoric we use on this topic and I have yet to see a reasonably sound alternative. (And, no, I haven't thought of one, either.)

Before I go on, let me point you to one of the most cogent descriptions of the modesty teaching conundrum. It's a post by my friend and co-blogger on Times and Seasons, Julie M. Smith (no relation). It's titled Men, Women, and Modesty. You simply must read it.

Now, onward I go into the modesty abyss. Prayers are appreciated.

Given our propensity to make crazy talk on the modesty issue, checking sources can be helpful. Callister starts out quoting scripture. Kind of.

Accordingly, Paul the Apostle counseled “women [to] adorn themselves with modest apparel. (1 Timothy 2:9)

That sounds pretty straightforward, if we assume the typical (unsubstantiated) LDS definition of modesty meaning, almost exclusively, “Women, cover up your parts and stop tempting the men beyond their control!” But is that what modesty really means? Does it fit the actual scripture being referenced?

Here are some definitions for modesty (in the order found in my dictionary):

  1. the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one's abilities
  2. the quality of being relatively moderate, limited, or small in amount, rate, or level
  3. behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency

1 Timothy 9-12 has a bit of counsel for women. Let's look at all of it.

9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.

To me this sounds to be much more about definition #2 than the assumed #3. And where it applies to #3, the specified “impropriety” would seem much more about pride and excess than showing a knee cap or shoulder.

Linda Burton Wearing PearlsWe also need to note how the culture in which this counsel was given impacted the specifics. I mean, this is President Burton wearing some  doggone enormous pearls! As far as I can tell from our general leaders, braided hair along with gold and pearl jewelry is perfectly acceptable as long as it doesn't go down the path of “costly array” — a term which is obviously relative.

In my opinion, this scripture is telling women not to dress in a way that is excessive or indecent. Do you agree?

It's worth mentioning the rest of the chapter. Again, it represents cultural counsel that not only doesn't fit our modern day, but is not followed by our church.

11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.

12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

Let's collectively sigh and rejoice that women are no longer expected to shut up. Back to Callister…

The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passion of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure.

And there it is again. It just had to be there, didn't it? Those poor, poor men who are doing everything they can to choose the right are being seduced by those skanky women in their scandalous outerwear!

Excuse me while I go pound 50 on the wavemaster.

Women particularly can dress modestly and in the process contributes to their own self-respect and to the moral purity of men.

So here's a question for you. I often hear Mormons talk about how modesty produces self-respect, but I've never heard how that is supposed to happen. And please tell me when we will hear this over the pulpit:

Men particularly can pursue girls who dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self-respect and to the moral purity of women.

I guess (?) I'm OK with women being responsible for men's behavior (please explain how that is done!) as long as men are now going to be responsible for women's behavior. (I'm planning a wild party this weekend. Who can I blame it on???)

In the end, most women get the type of  man they dress for.

So this was it.

I'm more than tempted to jump on Facebook and pull up the gazillion photos of Eagle-scout-awarded, admired, lauded, leadership-loaded Mormon boys at prom with the girls in the spaghetti strap (or strapless) gowns or flirty mini skirts.

Then I'll head over to Beauty Redefined and gather some ammo to impress upon any men who will listen that they need to open up their eyes (and minds) to see that women are more than just bodies and clothing! If how I dress is the determiner for who proposes to me, then the men in this scenario are raving idiots, whether they are pro-modesty or pro-immodesty.

What is that the Lord said? Oh, yea, “Look not on his countenance or the height of his stature [or maybe how much of her shoulder is exposed]…for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) Maybe we can pass on some of those godly traits by way of authoritative counsel?

Personal Responsibility Exists

We do have the power within us to take control of our lives and our thoughts.

Right after the modesty blame game, Callister says this. YES! This is true! Of course!

What I don't understand is how modesty (in the cover-your-parts sense) always seems to be presented outside of this obvious truth. If we have the power to take control of our lives and thought, then we have the power to take control of our lives and thoughts when a girl with a body is somewhere in the vicinity.

As I've said before, if modesty (in the cover-your-parts sense) is doctrinal, let's get a cohesive discussion about it. And let's not continue to turn it into: “do it so the boys don't get out of control.”

Consequences of Sin

…it is always better to remain clean than to sin and repent afterward.

A few years ago a friend told me her life story. She got pregnant as a teen, had a “shot-gun wedding,” and had multiple children. Years later her husband joined the church (against statistical odds) and eventually they were sealed in the temple. After the sealing she said, “I'm glad I took the path I did, because nothing can compare to the joy of being sealed to my family.”

Over the years I've reflected on that quite a bit. Those who romanticize sin and repentance because of the resulting growth (and I include myself in this number) often miss a number of things:

  1. Is the joy from repenting really better than the joy of continued righteousness?
  2. Is the joy from repenting worth the risks and consequences?
  3. What growth would have occurred had we been faithful during that time?

When I look back at my life — filled with sin — there isn't a single time I can honestly say, “Oh, I am so happy that I sinned! Look how much better my life is! If I were to do it all again, I'd make sure I sin at least as much, maybe more!”

I suspect some will argue with Callister on this point. But I think it's pretty dumb. It's better to follow God than not follow him. Every time.

The Quest for Perfection

Our goal in life is not just to be clean, but to be perfect.

The day I was baptized, my family went out for ice cream. As soon as we got home, I lunged past my brother to see who could be the first to get out of the station wagon. We squabbled and bumped each other. Once I hit the sidewalk, I realized it. I'd blown it! I was no longer clean! I had just been baptized and was heading straight for celestial glory and only a few hours into the endurance part, I was already on the path to hell.

Yes, we want to be like Christ. But none of us are. If being clean isn't good enough and, in fact, is not the goal, then I'm toast. And have been since 1972.

 Blessings of a Moral Life

The blessings of living a clean and moral life are overwhelming. Such a life will bring self-confidence and self-esteem. It will result in a clear conscience. It will make us eligible for a spouse of like purity and will make the expression of the procreative power in the marriage relationship sweeter and more rewarding because we have reserved it for the tim the Lord Himself has endorsed.

Interestingly, the first time I read this article, I skimmed through this without a second thought. The second time the first two sentences sprung out at me.  Then the third. The the last. I believe Elder Callister was well meaning and this can be the kind of repetitive thing that just rolls off the tongue like “I know the Church is true…” But it may have a troubling impact on some readers.

He states that living a moral and clean life “will bring self-confidence and self-esteem.” This could be read — and in fact, I know scores of LDS people who would interpret it thusly — to mean that if you don't have self-confidence and/or self-esteem, it's because you aren't living a moral and clean life.

If the inescapable consequence of doing A is B, and I haven't experienced B, I must not yet be doing A.

In my experience there almost no direct earthly correlation between choices/behavior and good/bad life situation. I know amazingly pious people who have had (and still have) all manner of horrific trials. I also know awful hateful people who seem to catch every breath of good fortune within a thousand miles (including gobs of self-confidence and self-esteem).

Let's remember that the promises of obedience and discipleship are mostly eternal, not always (often?) earthly. We can't judge others based on their life situations — and we shouldn't let them judge themselves that way, either.

In Conclusion

Thanks for asking for my thoughts on this. It's a good exercise. And sorry it took so long to complete. I was on a tax-prep tear this week.

Please leave your thoughts below — including links to others' posts that are relevant — and I'll head off to do more reading.