How BYU Turned Me Kinda Leftist (and kept me very Mormon)

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Proof that I actually go here and I’m not making any of this up.

Oh, BYU.

I catch myself saying that often. It’s not usually meant in a positive way, but the slight ambiguity is fitting.

Oh, BYU, with your beard ban and lack of caffeinated soda. Your insistence that there isn’t a demand is laughable – here I am, demanding Diet Dr. Pepper and beards, yet the vending machines still won’t deliver that sweet, sweet nectar of energy and wayyy too many men sport terrifying mustaches because for some reason those are still allowed and all that hyper-masculine hair growing energy has to go somewhere. What gives? Am I not demanding loudly enough?

Oh, BYU, and your requirement of 14 religion credits. The first three classes I took were an absolute joy, and I mean that. But they’re not all so fabulous, and fourteen credits is a lot to ask for when you’re not, you know, actually minoring in theology. There’s a pretty clear reason it takes most of us longer than four years to graduate. Just putting that out there, in case you’re listening and ever want me out of here.

Oh, BYU, and your football obsession. I’ve tried to understand, but I just don’t get it. We’re a school. It’d be cool if our funding – ahem, tithing money? – were to go to academically relevant areas. Like maybe not a fancy new basketball court, and more subsidized study abroad programs? Maybe not several free meals per day for athletes, and maybe more need-based scholarships? Heh? Maybe? Am I wrong here?

Oh, BYU, and whatever on earth was happening with the Title IX office before a few months ago. Really? How was this a thing? I think I speak for most people when I say, “Good heavens, I’m glad you fixed that.”

But I’ve learned since coming here that BYU is more than the sum of its wacky policies, frustrating honor code wordings, weird academic requirements, and sports obsession.

On several occasions, it’s acted as a sanctuary that helps me through particularly vulnerable moments. It’s been a gentle – and sometimes not so gentle – reminder that my crazy Mormon church is made up of all sorts of wackos, some of whom I happen to love and agree with, and some of whom I’m still trying to love and will never agree with. It’s a constant struggle, really, but I’m grateful for it.

It’s also important to discern between BYU administration and BYU faculty. I have almost nothing to do with administration, thank God, and I spend a whole lot of time with faculty, which is how college is supposed to work. A fun secret is that many faculty members don’t really care too much about the honor code and other administrationy things beyond the plagiarism clause. They spend most of their time teaching important things more related to our learning and less related to our hemlines.

For example, the time my freshman year religion professor taught us a lesson in responsible politics. He told us that the previous year’s election had brought many students to his office asking for advice. They mainly expressed a lack of concern, saying they didn’t care about who won because regardless of the results their lives wouldn’t change. They realized their privilege, but did not know how to motivate themselves to look past it. My professor, in all his Jesus wisdom, told them to consider the poor and the disadvantaged. He encouraged them, and us, to learn about policies that would indeed effect people, millions of people, and weigh our decision in the way Christ would – which candidate would help those who need it the most? Of course, there are arguments to be made regarding both 2012 candidates, and he acknowledged that.

It was also abundantly clear to me that he must have voted for Obama, and that surprised me, and scared me a little. I didn’t know any Mormons who’d voted Democrat other than my brother, and even that made me feel weird. How could this man, who largely taught me the basis of my own spirituality, who spoke so much of light and truth, vote for someone as ~evil~ as Barack HUSSEIN Obama? (Yeah. I was one of those.)

That same semester, in the first English class I ever took, my professor – a divorced mother of five who returned to school for her PhD after her kids were mostly grown – taught me the basics of feminist and Marxist theory. Those words also scared me. She told us that soon after starting grad school, a man in her ward expressed concern for her choice of subject matter: “You’re not going to become one of those liberal feminists, are you?” he asked, because apparently that’s an appropriate thing to ask someone at church.

“Well,” she replied, “Let’s explore both of those terms. ‘Liberal’ essentially means freedom of thought. I definitely believe in that. So does God, otherwise He wouldn’t have given us our amazing brains. ‘Feminist’ means I believe women are people, equal to men and worthy of respect. No doubt I believe in that, too. I guess it’s too late – as it turns out, I’m already a liberal feminist. Whoops.”

I laughed, because it was true. Already, my oft-scandalized mind had started shifting in unexpected ways. I studied and loved Marxist theory – the idea that humans are fundamentally equal, and of value. I stuck my toes into feminism, and no longer felt ashamed for supporting ideas that once felt so radical and out of place in my church obsessed with gender roles. I acknowledged that my teenage obsession with Sarah Haskins’ Target Women YouTube videos and enthusiasm for demanding equality in gender-divided church youth programs did not come from a vacuum. I, too, was a feminist. It just took me a while to figure it out.

Learning about Judaism and Islam in another helpful religion class taught me to love people, even the people a lot of icky politicians are accusing of terrorism. I learned to understand and embrace some of their most beautiful teachings, to find holy envy for the Hajj tradition and the stories of Mohammed. I already loved the crap out of Jews, but learning about the intricacies of their faith and attending a synagogue for a shabbat service opened my mind and taught me to love my brothers and sisters of the Book more fully, and with greater sincerity.

I took many more English classes from a whole lot of democrats, Mormon intellectuals clearly intent on brainwashing me by making me read good books and talk about them. The devils! One of them got me super interested in medieval literature and England. She brought us vellum pages of notated chant, straight from a medieval monastery – I touched history in that class, and that’s when I began wholeheartedly loving the English major. She also openly criticized LDS culture in ways I had never heard – again, scary, uncomfortable, but ultimately fortuitous.

In addition to all that, she talked a lot about phallic symbols, and I started *gasp* really, really appreciating sexual jokes. Honestly, how could I not? If there’s anything funnier than a good double entendre, it’s a diehard Mormon sharing a double entendre with a class full of diehard Mormons, many of whom will never understand the second meaning. This, as it turns out, is one of my favorite parts of BYU. Sue me.

I happen to be taking a women’s literature class this semester, and we watched in collective horror and disbelief our country nominate Donald PUSSY-GRABBING Trump as president (Yeah. I’m one of those now). I’m no longer uncomfortable acknowledging that my favorite professors usually vote Democrat, because I kinda sorta count myself among them, ESPECIALLY this particular election cycle. In women’s lit we talk about feminism on the daily, read books with bad words and distressing too-realistic scenes of violence. We take on burdens not our own in an effort to foster radical, sometimes-uncomfortable empathy. We discuss the damage inherent in prescribing strict gender roles, institutional sexism, the race issue in relation to women’s issues, gender fluidity, body politics, beauty myths, and bodily insecurities. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but mostly it feels like a hug I never knew I needed until now. It’s given me newfound confidence and ambition, and has truly inspired me to know the power of my own voice, my own advocacy. I’m a woman, and it’s freaking fantastic. Without a doubt, the class has been an answer to many prayers.

And no, not every English professor at BYU is a bleeding-heart liberal feminist pro-LGBT unicorn. I have had some, well, at least one, who is very much none of those things, and I love him. He’s great. He has taught me true, important, mind-bending poetry things that no one else could teach me. Really. He’s a real gem – precious, valuable, and yes, rare.

What I’ve learned here is obviously not all about politics. The lesson I have gleaned – and it’s sometimes a refiner’s fire type of lesson – is that there is indeed room for all kinds of thinking in my largely conservative faith. I know now that it’s okay to ask questions. That engaging with doubt and intellectualism, rather than inciting godlessness and weakening testimonies, can shape us into stronger, happier members of the church. That understanding anti-Mormon thought is pivotal in embracing pro-Mormon thought with any confidence. That the “philosophies of man” so often disparaged over the pulpit can teach us far more about God than we might have ever realized as young, less-educated beings.

Because in high school, I didn’t get that. I left Seattle more right-leaning than I’ve ever been, and probably ever will be, largely because I didn’t know any out-and-proud Mormon liberals – it can be hard being an out-and-proud Mormon liberal. I learned most of what I knew from my loving and supportive Mormon parents, my church leaders, and agnostic, radical-to-me Democrats who taught my AP classes. There were also some Lutheran, Catholic, and nondenominational Democrats thrown in there who couldn’t teach using their religions as backdrops because, duh, public school.

Never did I have a Mormon teacher filling me with secular knowledge. Never did I have a secular knowledge teacher fill me with spiritually-pertinent religious knowledge. BYU melds all that crap into a big, enriching, sometimes-confusing soup, and it turns out that I really, really needed that.

I probably would have ended up an English major regardless of where I went to college. I would have learned feminism and Marxism and loads of history that puts contemporary thought into relatively-leftist perspective. I’d learn that same secular half of knowledge that I have now, and I assume I would have embraced it in very much the same way.

What I wouldn’t have is a network of professors willing to hear me ask questions about our church’s harsh public stances that sometimes directly counteract the beautiful things I’ve learned in English class – the warm, nuanced, lovely versions of Christianity I’ve embraced after studying Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, T.S. Eliot, Marilynne Robinson – all people with real, tangible relationships with the same God I worship, with history to back them up.

At virtually any other school, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit in office hours and and learn that most of my professors have the same concerns that I do – the same deep pits of hurt and confusion – but remain active, faithful members, hoping for change all the while. They offer me titles of good books to read to find comfort, remind me that I, like them, belong in this faith. They teach gospel doctrine classes in their wards, raise their families, pray each day, attend the temple worthily, vocally support gay rights, vote democrat, and write scholarly articles. BYU has drilled into my head over and over again in a way that cannot be coincidental that no two of these behaviors should ever contradict one another. If someone decides that they do, that’s their problem to deal with – not ours.

Each time I think to myself, “Can I really believe that a young boy talked to God, found golden plates in the woods, and translated them to establish an entire religious movement? Can I believe that ON TOP OF professing faith to a church that considers gay people apostates? Arghhh” I can counteract those doubting thoughts with the realization that pretty much all my awesome, super-smart professors find a way to believe that narrative while also disagreeing with whatever they want, and I can too. Of course, that’s nothing I can base my faith around entirely, but the support and examples of passionate, opinionated role models kept me cleaving unto the gospel during times that little else could.

Without BYU, I wouldn’t have Mormon biology professors teaching evolution, reminding me that God is crazy-miraculous and wicked smart in the way he created this stunning earth and the living creatures on it. I wouldn’t have a chance to learn of the feminine divine, the gender-bending nature of Jesus Christ Himself, my value as a faithful Christian with a passion for learning and questioning. I wouldn’t enter the classroom knowing that my professors, classmates, and I likely come from similar, peculiar backgrounds. I am a huge proponent of diversity, but I cannot overstate the value of maintaining Mormonism as a constant.

So, yes. Oh, BYU. Oh, BYU and your weird, behind-the-times policies, and the frustrations I’m sure I will keep finding all over the place. But also, oh, BYU, and your kind of miraculous ability to keep me in touch with God, regardless of how much fringy, liberal feminist theory I read. ‘Tis a wonderful, wonderful thing.

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Pictured: a happy, hippie, left-of-center young Mormon lady. Single and occasionally ready to mingle. 

Obligatory Trump Election Post: We’re All Screwed, But at Least God Loves Us

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HILARIOUS. You missed a couple commas.

     Contrary to things I’ve read lately – mostly on social media and right-wing “news” sites – my liberal-arts education does not make me weak, feeble-minded, a slave to “triggers,” or ignorant of fact. I am not a thin-skinned child. I’m not particularly gullible. I like to think I’m not what you’d call elitist. I am simply a person privileged and motivated enough to attend college, and I happen to be thriving here.
     In my admittedly limited experience (I’m not quite through with my bachelor’s degree), my studies have allowed me to engage with empathy; to undergo moments of ideological discomfort and mold my worldview accordingly to fit within a greater moralistic perspective. Not everyone ends up on the same “side” as I have, or has reached the same conclusions, but I’ve come to believe that critical thinking skills acquired through education tend to enrich any perspective – spiritual, political, ideological, or otherwise.
     I have been taught my whole life that furthering my education in any way I can is good, even necessary, and I think I have seen evidence of that. It’s a shame to see so many deny and villainize education like they have – college is not for everyone, but we should all be seeking new opportunities to learn.
     As an English major, I am challenged with confronting the history of humanity from fifth-century England all the way to modern, race-torn America. I’ve read stories of peasants, aristocrats, slaves, rulers, urbanites, country folk, radicals. Stories that make me hurt, feel whole, learn both of God and godlessness. I am young and perhaps lacking wisdom, but my college experience has provided me with knowledge of the beauty, struggle, even sacredness found in all of human experience throughout the history of the English written word.
     Studying literature is about drawing meaning from the art form – the story, the poem, the manifesto – and learning to understand others of different times, different classes, different backgrounds, to apply those understandings to the way one approaches society. It has made me a better person. Recent studies even show that reading fiction has been proven to increase empathy. I couldn’t have known that when I decided on my major three years ago, but I have noted the benefits; all good things.
     But lately, I’ve been challenged to show empathy for fellow Americans who belittle college education, who do not understand why anyone would devote time and money to learning about words written hundreds of years ago when there is useful work to be done in this world. People who voted for someone who doesn’t read books, a man who refuses to foster empathy of his own. A man so self-obsessed that he cannot will himself toward honesty or acceptance of fault when faced with a reality that doesn’t necessarily appeal to his ego. I’m asked to show empathy for people who meet objectively factual statements with accusations that I’ve been brainwashed by the malignant mainstream media – these powerful contemporary voices of journalists whom I value, who foster charity and empathy, who certainly matter as individuals with worthwhile opinions, all disregarded as evil, manipulative leftists.
     As a Christian, it’s easy for me to acknowledge that no human is perfect. We’re all sinners, liable to mess up in unique ways, to make choices that do not best reflect who we should be as disciples. In acknowledging these human shortcomings, we believe in a Redeemer who atoned for them.
     But I haven’t had to face human imperfection like this before in my relatively comfortable, privileged life. I watch in horror as people validate a man who does not know the definition of meekness, who finds power in belittling those different from him. He does not mourn with those that mourn, and is regularly proven incapable of honoring his imperfections like a proper Christian should. He is driven by his own toxic version of masculinity, treating women and children as objects to fulfill desire and nourish narcissistic tendencies.
     Further, I have been asked to turn the other cheek. To respond to this puzzling turn of events not with righteous indignation, but with compassion. To understand why these people who chose to look evil in the face and encourage it – perhaps without ever reaching awareness of the ramifications – might have done so. I have been asked, as a Christian, to not only find empathy for the man left bleeding on the side of the road, but also for those who beat him and left him to die, along with those who willfully chose to ignore him as they passed him by. I see in this struggle my own flaws as a Christian, weaknesses that show the limits of my empathy. My inability to accept the unaccepting; to offer charity to those so unwilling to show charity through a vote – any vote – against hatred.
     How many times, after all, have I pointed out that Jesus spent his ministry communing with murderers, prostitutes, the mentally ill, tax collectors, the poorest of the poor, when trying to convince fellow Christians to show real love for LGBT brothers and sisters, people of color, or the homeless – a comparatively easy task? How often have I sought to evoke Christ’s inclusivity to further my own social and political goals? As it turns out, I need to take my own advice. Jesus said, “Love everyone,” and that does not exclude people unable to do so themselves.
     I have learned through all this that it is my responsibility to find Christian compassion not only for the downtrodden and the easily-pitiable, but for those who make a mockery of Christian behavior, those who are able to disregard evils, and even align individuals practicing such behaviors with our Savior. This baffles me, but I must accept the challenge.
     I have also learned how hard it is to stand as a witness for virtue, charity, and morality when doing so is met with scolding for “creating contention” and being “of the devil.” It’s a difficult position to be in. I believe in the Book of Mormon and the things it says about contention; I also believe in Jesus Christ, who probably, sometimes, hurt people’s feelings when he asked them to forsake evil. I’m not Jesus, but it’s also not my fault when people hear me slamming our president-elect for racism, misogyny, and prejudice and assume my choice of adjectives applies to every one of his supporters. Perhaps that’s a connection people need to make. Perhaps I need to learn when to shut up. As it stands, I don’t regret vocally opposing disgusting behaviors of our president-elect.
     Friday night, I found myself in a dark place. After spending the day awkwardly holding back tears in public, receiving pointed criticism from family members unable to understand my turmoil, and finally reaching sadness after working through disbelief and anger, I felt broken. Coming to terms with the fact that I cannot rely on my country to support the values I hold most dearly has been deeply painful. This is not a matter of “my side” not winning; I’ve never seen a presidential candidate I support win. This is my realization that integrity has failed us – that evil has succeeded in disguising itself as good through manipulation and lies. Such twisting of reality terrifies me, and has forced me to accept a new level of vulnerability as a citizen of the United States. As a white Christian, I cannot begin to imagine what religious and racial minorities must be feeling right now, but I reserve empathy for them, and will strive to help their voices be heard.
     After I spent most of the day alternating between crying and sleeping, my brother came to my apartment to offer me a priesthood blessing of comfort. His words touched my spirit, tired and broken, and reminded me that it is indeed my duty to stand up for truth and righteousness, just as I had always been taught.That Christ himself suffered persecution and rejection after speaking truths and ideas that caused widely-felt discomfort. That I am fulfilling my duty as a Christian, and should never feel guilty in doing so. That I should remember the beatitudes; to turn the other cheek, and give unto those who have taken from me – not in order to abandon the fight, but to fortify my soul to fight all the better. To find strength in charity and love for my fellow man, without backing down from my worthy convictions. I heard words I needed to hear in my time of great need, without any hint of chastisement. I found hope and love even when both appeared so very lost. I allowed myself to be served, and felt my brother’s love for me as he lay his hands on my head. This is the very heart of grace – the reason I can believe in a God who finds grace even for people like Donald J. Trump.
     This morning, as I pondered the hymn, Be Still, My Soul, it occurred to me that “The Lord is on thy side,” is not, in the end, a conditional statement. God truly, emphatically loves us all. He might not love all of our choices, and He might weep when we cannot treat each other using the doctrine and examples He has given us. I have no doubt that it pains Him to see us hurt one another, to promote evil, to make light of our fellow man’s very real feelings of fear and sorrow – all behaviors I have observed, in excess, during this past week.
     But, unlike most Americans today, God does not view us as people on different “sides” of the culture wars. I think He sees most of us as vulnerable, hurting spirits, each doing our best to stand up for what we know to be right, while remaining humanly liable to judge, taunt, and sin. We approach the world in such wildly varying ways, ways that I might never understand, but that He can understand, for He knows the desires of our hearts. If our desires be good, we have nothing to fear. If our desires be reprehensible and we intentionally seek to hurt and profit off of those around us, He feels anguish and has the ultimate responsibility of holding us accountable, but I know that He loves us anyway.
     This isn’t easy doctrine. It’s difficult to know that God loves Hitler, Genghis Khan, Osama Bin Laden. But the truth remains – He loves us all.
     And so in the coming months, when our country inaugurates a president who is so marked, in my mind, by hatred – someone who disgusts me to the same degree that homosexuality disgusts Mike Pence – I will feel pain. I might cry some more. I might disparage whatever series of events that kept “the real Trump” so blindingly out of the conservative public’s view. I will continue standing up for my fellow women, doing all that I can to educate myself and abolish rape culture, which includes men like Trump who feel entitled to our bodies. I will speak out for Muslims, Jews, Latinos, and other people of color, and acknowledge that racism is a real problem that I need to vocally oppose as a privileged individual. I will pray that more Americans learn to partake of evil and biased mainstream leftist media, that more of us will get the education this country needs its citizens to get in order to make any progress at all.
     It seems impossible now, but we will move forward. No one can say where the next four years might take us. It’s okay to be freaking out, but we’re not alone in this. The Lord is on our side, not necessarily because He’s a Democrat (though your guess is as good as mine), but because He’s always on our side – He must be. This is ridiculously hard, but we can do this, together.
     Damn my liberal arts education.

Remember, Remember: Reflections on November 5th and Empathy

 

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The Gold at the end of this rainbow is the Jesse Knight Building. And equality.

Last year, my creative writing professor handed out note cards to our class and asked us to each write one adjective to describe how we felt about the controversy surrounding the new changes to the LDS handbook. After we passed them forward, he wrote the words on the whiteboard: Angry, tired, apathetic, disturbed, sad, confused, offended, overwhelmed, fine, upset, nothing. He used these words to teach a lesson on essaying.

“What does the apathetic person owe to the offended person?” He asked, circling the words into counterbalanced groups. “What does the upset person owe to the confused person? Or the angry person, what does she owe to the person who feels nothing?”

Each time, we came to the same conclusion; we, as writers, owed them – these others – empathy. We needed to consider what it must be like on the other side of the issue. The angriest of us needed to look at the tired, the confused, the apathetic, and realize their voices mattered. That their feelings arose from different places, different past experiences, different lives. Those who would support the first presidency under literally any circumstances needed to consider that same compassion when addressing those with wildly unorthodox perspectives, and acknowledge that their pain, rather than proving their faithlessness and lack of regular prayer and scripture study, indeed came from places of faith and love of the gospel.

I found comfort in that exercise. I can’t say any of it translated to my Facebook newsfeed where friends consistently trashed those doubting, but I could at least busy myself with trying to understand.Though my sadness never diminished as the months wore on and people started forgetting, I hoped that I could find small moments of grace in the painful aftermath. I didn’t see God’s hand in this policy; I’ll say now that I don’t think I ever will. But I did see His hand this past year, reminding me to develop empathy and love others in ways I had never considered.

Empathy for my LGBT brothers and sisters, some of them now labeled “apostates,” who felt the church’s systematic hatred, now officially written on paper. Empathy for their children, who are denied God-given rights because of their parents’ actions. Empathy for those who told me I might as well leave, because there’s no room for opinions like mine in this church. Empathy for those who took that advice, and left after realizing they could no longer support a Christian institution that had clearly strayed far from central tenets of Christianity.

I learned this year that leaving the church is never a choice people take lightly. That I can find love for those who choose to leave, even while holding on all the tighter myself. That I still need to care for them, since it’s likely they have plenty of friends and family members who might not.

I learned that I cannot just passively say I support the gays and think that’s enough. That I need to prove myself an ally, to outwardly express my love for friends who do not fit into the church’s heteronormative mold. That I need to stand up for the LGBT community when a conversation among friends takes a turn for the homophobic, or when a Sunday school teacher forgets that Jesus said, “Love everyone.”

I learned what it feels like to be a member of a church that bans an entire segment of the population from receiving sacred ordinances for arbitrary reasons. As puzzling as the priesthood ban – a tradition so wildly at odds with Christian teachings – had always been to me, things became clearer as I witnessed several LDS peers treat the general authorities as infallible mouthpieces connected at all times to heaven itself. I witnessed those same peers tell me to pray until I believed that, too. Needless to say, my prayers at the time weren’t exactly what they were hoping for.

I learned that, despite those “why don’t you leave,” comments, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment in a church that I will nevertheless continue to attend. That I have family members, friends, professors, role models, brothers and sisters around the world, who are just as upset, if not more so. This pain can be shared. As awful as all of this is, we can use our aching hearts to connect and provide comfort to one another amidst our doubts and fears.

I still remember my British Lit professor somehow incorporating a 2nd Article of Faith jab into his lecture on Victorian novels: “We used to believe men should be punished for their own sins, but obviously that doesn’t matter to us anymore.”

I laughed, even though I’d spent the past several days crying.

I remember when the previously-mentioned creative writing professor, as he helped me revise an essay during office hours, told me that he was able to find comfort on the communal level; that by focusing on serving his ward he could counteract the pain caused by the larger institution. It took me almost a year to understand what he meant, but I get it now. Charity heals both the giver and the receiver.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that my church will never keep me from being someone’s friend.That this pain might never go away, but I can draw strength from it even now. That I won’t always fit nicely into Provo YSA wards, but I will always belong in the church. That I ache for the families this policy has broken apart, but have every hope for change and improvement as our imperfect leaders find better ways to accommodate members of diverse, unorthodox backgrounds. That my testimony may have been tested, but it has grown stronger and developed in surprising ways throughout this complicated process.

The Anglophile in me knows that Guy Fawkes day will never be the same as long as this  policy persists, but that’s okay. I’m not even British. This November 5th, as I quietly, solemnly, remember this day last year when I felt the whole world was falling apart, I feel sad. Upset. Hurt. Even angry. But I save some room for hope. For Empathy. For love of all my fellow church members, even if it’s not immediately reciprocated or understood. It’s the Christian thing to do.