Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vain Repetitions

In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior offered a few directions as to how we ought to pray. Among other instruction, he told his disciples that "when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (Matt. 5:7). This divine injunction notwithstanding, my admittedly imperfect prayers are frequently riddled with repetitive phrases: "Help me be a better father"; "thank you that we arrived safely"; or "please help me find someone to share the gospel with."

I've noticed that I'm not the only one with a tendency to use filler phrases--or at least phrases that so well-used that no one who hears them really thinks about them. I especially love hearing the phrase commonly uttered in prayers before a meal, "Please bless the hands that prepared it," because it reminds me of a sketch done by BYU's Divine Comedy. After an offstage explosion, a man with singed hair and a sooty face comes running in carrying something in his arms. When the paramedic meets him, he asks, "What happened? And what are you carrying?" The man explains that there was an explosion and that everything inside the house was destroyed. The only thing that survived, he explains holding up two prosthetic limbs, are "the hands that prepared the food." It's a mental image that puts into perspective the ridiculous nature of some phrases that unconsciously slip into our conversations with deity.

At any rate, I was reading accounts of the pilgrims at Plymouth in the 1620s and was amazed to discover just how old some of the vain repetitions frequently uttered at Mormon meal times really are. In Good Nevves From New-England (1624), Edward Winslow recalls instructing the local Indians as to how they should pray over their food before eating. He explains that "whatsoeuer good things wee had, wee receiued from God, as the Author and giuer thereof, and therefore craued his blessing vpon that we had, and were about to eate, that it might nourish and strengthen our bodies" (33). Hoe many times have you heard that in a blessing on the food? Please bless this food that it will nourish and strengthen our bodies... Just imagine--God's been hearing that exact same phrase for well over three centuries now (and probably longer). Doesn't it make you want to spice up your prayers? After all, I can promise you that if you'd been eating the same meal for three hundred years, you'd be dying for some tabasco sauce. Next time you pray, see if you can't come up with some original words; just thinking about how to thank the Lord for what the food will give to and do for your body will be an instructive experience.

Of course, these thoughts about mealtime prayers remind me of a question I've long had: Why is it that we pray before eating? We don't necessarily always pray before using the bathroom or leaving the house or driving a car or doing any one of the other tasks we perform every day. So why are prayers associated specifically with meals? There are many possibilities as to why we might be commanded to do so. We might pray because the food really does help our bodies stay healthier when it is blessed. We might say prayers at meal times in order to remind ourselves that even our most basic needs are filled through divine intervention. We might say prayers at mealtimes just because it provides a regular reminder to get in touch with deity.

This last reason is my favorite. I frequently say prayers at mealtimes that have nothing to do with the food on my plate--much to the chagrin of those who wait while I have a heart-to-heart with my Heavenly Father. As far as I'm concerned, mealtimes are mostly a reminder to pray, not necessarily an occasion on which the specific content of my prayer has been predetermined. Yes, I usually express gratitude for the food and ask the Lord to bless it, but those are generally not the focal points of my prayer.

So I'm curious--what do you say when you pray over your food? Are you a "nourish and strengthen" kind of person? A "thank you for this food" kind? An "ignore the food" kind? All of the above? Let's hear. I'd also love to hear any creative alternatives to standard Mormon diction at mealtimes; I'm sure the Lord is getting tired of hearing me repeat a four-hundred-year-old dead guy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Apologia Pro Matre Nostra

In celebration of Mother’s Day, I wish to say a few words about our first mother, about Eve. This is not a new topic for me; I have dedicated a substantial portion of my graduate student career to examining the ways in which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English writers have portrayed her. John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, described her as a model of Christian charity. Anne Bradstreet, the first published North American poet, threw Eve under the bus and condemned her as a temptress. John Milton similarly hinted that Eve was a Pandora whose curiosity had brought misery on mankind. Jonathan Edwards, the most influential American theologian up until the Civil War, defended Eve vigorously and gave her a place of honor comparable to that traditionally awarded to Mary. I could give you other examples. Many of these writers have interesting and insightful things to say, but they all share a common problem: they have no knowledge of the truths restored to Joseph Smith and his prophetic successors that clarify what we know of the biblical account.

The Bible explains that the Satan, in the guise of a serpent, tempted Eve:

And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day that ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. (Genesis 3:1-6)

As a result of this transgression of God’s law, Adam and Eve fell from innocence and from Eden. In explaining the consequences of the Fall, God told Eve that he would “multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). The account in Genesis suggests that Eve is punished for her part in the Fall, and subsequent biblical references to her are less than kind. Paul warns the Corinthians to stand guard “lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (II Corinthians 11:3). Paul suggests that Eve is both the object and source of corruption. In a later letter to Timothy, Paul references the directive that Eve ought to be subordinate to her husband, instructing him to,

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety. (I Timothy 2:11-15)

Again, Eve sets an undesirable precedent; what is worse, Paul uses her example to condemn—or at least limit—her female descendants. Because Eve was created after Adam, women should only speak after men and without contradicting them. Because Eve was deceived (and Adam apparently was not), women are fallible and should not be allowed to take positions of leadership. The Bible (and especially Paul) is clearly less than enthralled with Eve’s example.

Modern apostles and prophets offer a very different perspective, however. Brigham Young said that “We should never blame Mother Eve, not the least” (JD 13:145). Joseph Fielding Smith wrote that “I never speak of the part Eve took in this fall as a sin…for it was something that Adam and Eve had to do!” (DS 1:114-15). More recently, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has stated that “Latter-day Saints…celebrate Eve’s act and honor her wisdom and courage in the great episode called the Fall” (Ensign Nov. 1993, 72). Why this enthusiasm for a woman villanized by most readers of the Bible?

Latter-Day Saints have a unique perspective on the Fall because of the Book of Mormon, where we find a series of verses that explain the Fall’s purpose in the plan of salvation. Lehi teaches us that

…if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever and had no end. And they [Adam and Eve] would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:22-25)

Though Lehi is rather vague about Eve’s part in the Fall, he is very clear about the Fall’s consequences. Because of the Fall: 1) Adam and Eve had children. Without the Fall, you and I would not have bodies and would be unable to progress spiritually. 2) We can experience—and recognize that we are experiencing—joy. While Eden might have been wonderful, Adam and Eve couldn’t fully recognize that fact until they experienced something else, something less wonderful. Thus, the death that results from the Fall is an integral part of “the merciful plan of the great Creator” because “the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression” (2 Nephi 9:6). If Eve had not chosen to transgress the law prohibiting her consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we could never receive the gifts of immortality and eternal life.

In Eden, Eve was subject to two conflicting laws. God first commanded her to “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth,” then instructed her that “of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Moses 2:28, 3:17). We know that in the garden, Adam and Eve were “not yet capable of procreation. They could not fulfill the Father’s first commandment without transgressing” (Ensign Nov. 1993, 72). But because Eve understood that the commandment to procreate “was first in sequence and first in importance” (ibid); because she understood that “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” (Proclamation 1); because “[m]others are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children,” Eve chose to break a lesser law in order to fulfill a more important obligation (Proclamation 7).

A comparison of their responses to the Fall indicates that Eve understood the necessity for and the joyful consequences of the Fall more fully than Adam, at least initially. Adam exclaims “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God” (Moses 5:10). Adam chooses to focus on his own individual salvation and forgets that his own joyous transgression is only made possible by Eve’s initiative. His exclamation of joy is expressed in the first person singular: “I shall see God.” Eve, on the other hand, enjoys a broader perspective and rejoices, “saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11). Eve understands that the Fall is an event that will provide physical bodies and an opportunity to achieve immortality and eternal life to billions of spirits waiting to enter mortality in addition to herself. She understands that “salvation is a family affair” and expresses her joy in a way that demonstrates her grasp of both the personal and the collective nature of the plan of happiness (Benson, Ensign Nov. 1982, 59).

Because we understand that Eve knowingly chose to obey a higher law at the expense of a lesser, we ought to honor her in the same way that we honor other figures from scripture who made similarly difficult decisions. Like Abraham and Nephi, who were willing to kill rather than disobey a direct commandment from God, like Jesus Christ, who broke the Sabbath in order to heal those who were suffering, Eve understood that not all commandments are created equal and chose the better part. Unlike Saul, whose sacrifice came at the expense of obedience, Eve’s sacrifice was an act of obedience.

As a result of the Fall, Eve was instructed that her “desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”; she was to hearken to her husband as he listened to and obeyed the Lord in the same way that Adam “hearkened unto the voice of [his] wife” in the garden (Moses 4:22). This seems like a curious consequence if we really believe that Eve acted in wisdom. Why the role reversal? Is it a demotion for Eve? Why should Adam, who failed to fall—which we modern revelation indicates really was a failing—until prompted by Eve’s example, rule over her? Let us consider, briefly, an alternative interpretation of the hierarchical language used here.

Because Adam, having failed to partake of the fruit on his own, is left to “rule over” his wife, he enjoys an unmediated relationship with God. His only job is to receive commandments and obey. He does this well, as we learn from the inquiry of an angel after the Fall: “Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). Adam is performing in the same way outside the garden that he did inside, where he obeyed the injunction against eating the fruit without questioning its purpose or asking how he was to fulfill God’s earlier commandment in a world where propagation was not possible. Adam is perfect in his obedience, but his judgment and discernment are less fully developed than his wife’s.

Now let us consider Eve’s case. She displays excellent judgment in partaking of the fruit, and then God instructs her to obey her husband. As a result of the Fall, she is placed in a mediated relationship with God, where she (and her descendants who inherit her legacy) may have to choose at times between obeying her husband and obeying what she might perceive to be a conflicting commandment from God. In other words, because she successfully negotiates one set of conflicting commandments, she is entrusted with the responsibility of judging between future conflicts. I submit to you that Eve’s “curse” is a sign of our Father in Heaven’s trust in and love for Eve and all of her daughters.

Let me illustrate this analysis with an example. I have a three-year-old son named Gabriel who is currently learning to use the toilet instead of his pants when he needs to relieve himself. His relationship with me is an unmediated one: he more or less does what I tell him to without questioning why or waiting for his mother to repeat the instructions. When we are outside playing in the yard, he will frequently inform me that he has to go potty. In response, I urge him to run inside and use the potty. When we work in the garden, his shoes inevitably become quite dirty, and on one such occasion, when Gabe told me that he had to go potty, I instructed him to run inside. Then, when he reached the door, I remembered his dirty shoes and told him to remove them before he went inside, to prevent him from tracking mud in on the carpet. Because he is very obedient, he took his shoes off, stepped inside the house, and promptly lost the race to the potty, urinating in his shorts. He had been exactly obedient, and the result was a pair of soiled shorts. In truth, I would much rather have cleaned the carpet than his shorts—but because Gabe couldn’t possibly know which outcome was preferable (since I’d be cleaning up either mess), his only recourse in attempting to please me was to be obedient.

Now, let us pretend that Gabe is older—a thirteen-year-old, perhaps—and in the same situation. Having drunk too much water, he is working with me in the garden when a funny joke puts his bladder control at serious risk. Seeing him cross his legs as he laughs convulsively, I urge him to run to the bathroom. Because I trust Gabe the thirteen-year-old more than Gabe the three-year-old, I give him no other instructions; he knows that we do not wear muddy shoes on the carpet, and he knows that he should not urinate in his pants. He might choose to take his shoes off; he might determine that there is not enough time for this operation. He might even decide to take a longer route around the house and through the garage in order to reach the bathroom—a route that would avoid carpet and allow him to keep his shoes on AND avoid soiling himself without getting mud on the carpet. The choice he makes is immaterial—the point is that because I allow Gabe more autonomy, more leeway in deciding whether my imperative to run or his mother’s imperative to keep the carpet clean is more important. As we trust others more fully, our relationships with them become less controlling, not more.

Now, to return to Eve. Allowing Adam to "rule over" her does not involve accepting his decision and control without question, even thought this verse of scripture has been used to justify such unrighteous dominion. I believe that a loving Heavenly Father asked Eve to become subject to her husband because she had proven herself worthy of His trust and demonstrated that she would choose wisely if ever forced to choose between obeying her husband and obeying God. She, and her daughters, were simply more capable of making those difficult decisions, of discerning the spirit of the law, than Adam and his sons. This is, I think, what the late Elder James E. Faust referred to when he said that, “As daughters of God, you cannot imagine the divine potential within each of you. Surely the secret citadel of women’s inner strength is spirituality. In this you equal and even surpass men, as you do in faith, morality, and commitment when truly converted to the gospel. You have ‘more trust in the Lord [and] more hope in his word.’ This inner spiritual sense seems to give you a certain resilience to cope with sorrow, trouble, and uncertainty” (Ensign Nov. 1999, 100).

Consider these three other tributes to women:

Elder Russell M. Nelson said that, “the highest and noblest work in this life is that of a mother” (Ensign May 1999, 38).

The First Presidency has said that “Motherhood is near to divinity. It is the highest, holiest service to be assumed by mankind. It places her who honors its holy calling and service next to the angels” (Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 6:178).

They have also said that “The true spirit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives to woman the highest place of honor in human life” (Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, 6:5).

Eve’s “subjection” to her husband is nothing of the sort. It is a place of honor and trust, one that should be recognized as a sign of deity’s respect for the judgment and spiritual discernment of Eve and all of her descendants. I love Eve, and I am eternally grateful for the part she played in the garden. On this Mother’s Day I honor her and all of her daughters, who have inherited her place of honor and the generous spiritual endowments that made it hers. Blessed be the name of Eve, "first of all women" and the "mother of all living" (Moses 4:26).