On Being an Ace Mormon Man

Occasionally I see the idea posited that the Church or Mormonism or some variation thereof wants people to be asexual. And I wince every time.

It’s tricky because there are definitely zones of crossover between a typical asexual experience (based on my own life and learning about the experiences of other aces from conversations and reading) and the “Ideal” Mormon experience (as I understand it). And yet, there’s something a little troubling implied in this assertion and in my experience it’s just not really true on the whole.

Asexuality is one of the lesser understood queer experiences (for a variety of factors: less representation, less systemic oppression, easier to blend into society, the label evokes bacteria, it describes an absence rather than a different presence, etc.). So, I think generally those that share this idea do so with good intentions. But to more accurately and compassionately describe what we mean, we can do better for each other and particularly for our ace comrades in Christ.

THE CROSSOVER

The main area of crossover between an ace experience and the “ideal” Mormon one occurs before 16. Dating is a taboo in Mormonism before turning 16, which for me was a piece of cake. I didn’t even like dating when I turned 16. Or ever really (but those reasons are more complicated than just my asexuality).

While kids in my ward were having boyfriends and girlfriends (which I think most would agree is against the intention of the “Dating” guidelines in For the Strength of the Youth, which is one of the standards for young adults, and some would argue everyone, but that’s a conversation for another day), I was still trying to figure out what these “crushes” were that everyone was talking about.

I’ve written a little about this elsewhere, but Law of Chastity lessons as a kid were easy. Not a problem at all. I was honestly baffled by what was wrong with all the other young men in my ward, who talked about making out with people all the time. But, I chalked it up to my own superior righteousness or something (I know, I know).

For those years, being ace was great. And definitely lined up with the ideal. I had zero interest in girls, boys, porn, masturbation, kissing, dating, and all of that. Golden.

Things broke down a bit when I was 16 because I wasn’t interested in dating, which was definitely expected and also encouraged. Lessons also started to shift a bit here to lay the groundwork for the differences in a typical ace experience and the ideal Mormon experience.

At BYU, dating was very encouraged, but also not (I was in a freshman ward, living in Helaman Halls, so casual dating was encouraged, but the serious “marriage is impending” dating was not so encouraged). Then I was on my mission, where the Church would LOVE it if everyone was ace for those 18 to 24 months. Missionaries are expected to focus entirely on missionary work and not to have any romantic relationships (and generally seem to struggle with that to varying degrees), so I’m sure if the Church could flip a switch that made all missionaries ace, but strictly for the duration of their missions, they’d be all over it.  

Once I got home, everything began to fall apart.

THE DIFFERENCE

You see, Mormonism has a complicated relationship with sex. There are fierce boundaries placed around it that determine when it is acceptable or not (rooted in heteronormative patriarchy), but sex, within marriage, is next to godhood.

Loads of Mormon discussions of sex are absolutely dangerously shame-y for sex outside of hetero-marriages, but they also elevate that married sex to celestial heights. People talk about God being present (setting aside how weird that is to me) and there’s quite a bit of stuff within Mormonism that praises the body and the importance of bodies that sometimes leads to the assertion that sex persists in heaven (according to some Church leaders only in the Celestial Kingdom, the only place where people will actually have genitalia).

All of this works to raise sex specifically to unbelievable heights.

I didn’t get it.

I had zero interest in sex, except from like a curiosity perspective.

I started to wonder if something was wrong with me, not just because the entire world was bombarding me with messages about sex being The Best, but because to be righteous and holy and good I felt like I needed to want and to eventually have sex. Which I was utterly ambivalent about.

I can only speak to my particular experience as a man within Mormonism, but there was absolutely an expectation and implication that I would be the driver and initiator of relationships, and likely, sexual experiences (all the way from kissing to sex). Now, some of this is imported from elsewhere and is by no means unique to Mormonism, but I had the impression that as a man, I needed to have some kind of sex drive, some like push for sex and that part of growing up was mastering it. That I was lacking because I never felt that. That I was not truly worthy or masculine because I had no desire for sex and that somehow I couldn’t ever really be godly without it? Like, that the desire needed to be present to be tamed and that without it being there I could never tame it and therefore, never prove my worthiness. Not to mention all the other stuff about true men being these sorta healthier expressions of a James Bond-esque charm and sex appeal (and sex drive).

Some of these expectations are different for women within Mormonism, so their experience will likewise differ.

Obviously, I did get married and I have a kid, and in that way do still fit the Mormon Ideal. But sex as this divine experience wasn’t a driver for either of those.

Mormonism doesn’t want aces. There is little space within Mormonism for the adult ace experience. Not all aces want to get married and some may want to but only within a relationship where they can truly be themselves (not necessarily with another ace person, though that’s definitely one option. But mixed-orientation marriages are complicated and from my reading have very low success rates, though no idea on the particulars for mixed-orientation marriages involving an ace partner).

The ace experience challenges the family-centric nature of the Church in a way that even same-sex marriages don’t (not to say that the ace experience is more oppressed within Mormonism because it’s absolutely not, just that it seems potentially easier to maintain Mormonism’s emphasis on family and marriage while including queer marriages than ace individuals that can’t or don’t want to be married).

TROUBLING IMPLICATIONS

I mentioned up top that I see troubling implications in the assertion that Mormonism or the Church wants people to be asexual. Some of what I meant by that is present in how I walk through “The Differences”, but other bits aren’t. So, here we go.

A quick clarification that responds to some of the implications I see in that assertion is that asexuality does NOT equal celibacy. Celibacy describes a condition of sexual activity and asexuality refers to a sexual orientation and the accompanying attraction, or lack thereof as may be more accurate. Some aces are celibate and happily so, others are unhappily celibate, and still others are not celibate. Often discussions of asexuality outside the ace community blur the distinctions between the two. Certainly, Mormonism would love for all unmarried Mormons to be celibate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Mormonism wants people to be asexual.

The next troubling idea is tied up in how this discussion of Mormonism wanting people to be ace is wrapped up in conversations about Mormonism being sexually repressive. The implication then is that asexuality is the same as sexual repression and that Mormonism is responsible for my asexuality. Frankly, I think that’s erasive of my identity and bullshit.

Mormonism absolutely has sexually repressive elements, but as I’ve laid out, to claim that it is completely sexually repressive is misguided and, I think, untrue.

This line of argumentation also implies that Mormonism caused my asexuality AND that if we could rid the world of such sexually repressive rhetoric all people could live more fully and authentically. Essentially, this implicitly argues that I would not be ace without Mormonism AND that I (and other aces) could live a better life without my asexuality, that I’m actually *something else*, but that the sexually repressive ideas within Mormonism forced me into asexuality.

This is offensive and, I believe, untrue.

I’m not going to argue that Mormonism has no influence on my sexuality because that’s a fool’s errand. But to make it solely responsible?

That erases my own lived experience and strips me of any sense of autonomy, not to mention seems totally removed from empiric evidence. There’d be a hell of a lot more aces around if that were the case.

Even if Mormonism were fully responsible for my asexuality, if I choose to identify that way, that decision should be supported. Regardless of how it happened, my lived experience is that of being ace and is valid and good and brings value to the world. My Queerness, including asexuality, isn’t good because it’s “natural” or because I was “born this way”, but because it is Good, in and of itself.

Let’s be a bit more careful as we talk about each other. And remember that my Asexuality, my Queerness, goes unacknowledged by Institutional Mormonism, that my sexuality doesn’t even exist for the Institutional Church (for better and for worse), that my identity like many other queer identities is erased in the silence. (In many ways this is far preferrable to the rhetoric and teachings that surround more mainstream queer identities, but is a different sort of challenge.)

Remember that my Asexuality—my Queerness—is of God, Divine, and Eternal. Sure, it is undeniably shaped by my experiences in Mormonism and the world broadly, but it is so much more than that.

If Truth Were a Child: REVIEWED

George B. Handley’s If Truth Were a Child: Essays is a deliberate and measured expression of lived Mormonism. The book resonated with me quite a bit, which is not that surprising given the shared, broad humanistic elements that color both Handley’s and my faith. The essays’ measured quality is rarely shaken, though there are a few moments peppered throughout the book, where Handley’s frustration with or distaste for a particular idea or practice or disposition comes through a bit more forcefully.

I found the whole collection worth reading, framing ideas in ways that were often similar to my own conception, but using language that I’d lacked, as well as occasionally providing some provocation for the certainty and zeal that I bring to some of the hottest topics in Mormondom. I may still believe that that zeal is justified, but Handley’s work calls for some introspection and epistemic humility that I appreciate and think we’d all do well to follow a bit more closely.

The guiding thesis of Handley’s religious life, and life generally along with the core beliefs that inform the entirety of the essays, I find embodied in the third essay in the collection, “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity”.

The essay posits that a life of true discipleship balances those three titular principles. I found traces of Eugene England and Bruce C. Hafen (as well as some A.O. Scott) in this essay and it resonated strongly with my own approach to discipleship.

I was struck by Handley’s articulation of charity, where he states that:

“[Charity] recognizes there is a gap between our thoughts and God’s thoughts that we must seek to overcome by a perpetual search for more truth.”

pg. 37

The first part of the phrase draws our attention to what we lack as we interact with the divine and sets up the epistemic humility that characterizes much of Handley’s work. There’s a constant sense of checking himself, and the certainty of others, against the reality of recognizing the gap between what we think and what God thinks. I find this valuable, though I do still have a few other convictions that I personally am drawn to (though perhaps some of that is my relative youth in comparison to Handley’s experience).

The second part of this phrase pushes us to constantly learn and thirst after further light and knowledge and sets up one of Handley’s pre-occupations that colors the next two essays in the collection more explicitly and hang around the background of everything that Handley writes here.

I find myself challenged and motivated by the way that Handley describes epistemic humility as a drive to learn more, that our recognition of how little we know and understand should guide us in the pursuit of more and more truth (including the truths of the lived experiences of those around us, as Handley is always interested in how our discipleship frames and energizes our relationships with those around us).

This concern is clearly expressed in one of the lines from the next essay, “A Poetics of Restoration”, in a way that to me is perhaps the thesis of Handley’s work:

“We must resist, in other words, the temptation of assuming that it matters more to be or think right than to do good.”

pg. 64

As someone with an intellectual bent, I often feel this temptation. Or more that if I, and others, simply thought right I, we, would do good. Which is probably some side effect of a certain Boyd K Packer quote from Preach My Gospel.

Handley doesn’t delve too much into the relationship between thinking and doing good, but does consistently come back to a lived, practical sort of faith, rather than a thought, theoretical one. I appreciate the pragmatism of Handley’s work, even if I am sometimes wanting something more wild and cosmic in my search for the transcendent.

As Handley describes this poetics of Restoration (using language that I found familiar and comfortable, but could be mildly unfamiliar to those outside of advanced study in the humanities), I was again struck by how he takes a theoretical concept that I love about the Restoration (that Mormonism encompasses all truth regardless of its source) and once again ties it to the practical, lived faith experience of individuals in the pews:

“a poetics of restoration that seeks to find the reasons for inclusion of all God’s children rewards our leap of faith with a return to, not a dissipation of, the foundations of our religious identity, refreshed and restored in profoundly new ways.”

pg. 79

I LOVE this.

I love the way that seeking truth and deeper understanding is the way to expanding the bounds of our religious community.

I love that this greater understanding returns us to the foundations of our religious identity (that has been my experience as I have and continue to experience my own faith remodel, that many term a “faith crisis”).

I love the way this reframes the Restoration as continual and that the foundations of that very Restoration may be “refreshed and restored” as we learn more. That we reimagine and re-understand the significance of the past because of the present. There was something very Adam Miller in Future Mormon about Handley’s work here.

I dig it (though I am perhaps less optimistic about institutions and tend to be less generous, you could say less charitable, in my assessment of them than Handley is throughout the collection).

Handley models some ways in which we can live and embody this general poetics of the Restoration that he describes in the tenth and penultimate chapters of the collection that focus on how to read scripture. The tenth essay, “On the Moral Risks of Reading Scripture”, is phenomenal and offers a beautiful articulation of what I have been striving toward with my scripture reading for the past few years.

I love Handley’s framing of reading scripture as taking “moral risks”. It imbues the whole endeavor with excitement and stakes in a way that I often find it lacking. And obviously as someone with two English degrees and about to embark on a third, I think we don’t talk enough as a community about good, deep reading habits.

To the meat of the essay, where Handley describes succinctly the two moral risks in tension:

“We risk self-deluding idol worship—worshipping the god of our imagination—on one hand, and we risk self-exposure to the piercing eye of God on the other. There is no escape from these risks. We must be willing also to admit we have been wrong—wrong about God and wrong about ourselves.”

pg. 198

Wow.

Good stuff.

Scripture is one of the key places we learn about God and in that learning, learn about ourselves. Handley places that front and center here. Scripture is the text of our relationship with the divine and it is through careful, close reading of that text that we come to better understand God and ourselves because we better understand that relationship.

The criticism, compassion, and charity of the third essay return here, as Handley presents a view of what it means to read scripture faithfully:

“To read scripture in faith is, in the end, to believe in the possibility that all our broken readings might somehow be made whole once all the pages of the sealed book have finally been opened.”

pg. 209

This idea of faithful reading as the making whole of our broken readings echoes to me ideas of Paul and the Body of Christ, as well as Handley’s earlier discussion of the poetics of the Restoration. We must first recognize that our readings, our efforts, our lives will inevitably fall short and that in the end, we believe that some wholeness will be found.

My broken readings feel a little more whole, as I’ve encountered and wandered the halls of Handley’s mind and soul in these pages. I hope to better embody the spirit of generosity, the epistemic humility, and the unquenching thirst for truth that I see here in my own discipleship.

For those in search of a pragmatic, grounded, deeply measured faith, Handley offers ideas worth engaging.

Mormonism’s Three Churches

Many discussions about Mormonism are frustrating to me because of the vagueness of the phrase “The Church.” I think there are at least three ways that “The Church” is used, which overlap and intersect, but also have distinct qualities and features. I’m focusing on different bodies of people can be understood to be “The Church” rather than some of the other ways that the phrase is used to refer to the culture and teachings and ideologies of those bodies. That is also a necessary discussion, but to me is more tied to the ongoing and, for me, rarely productive conversation surrounding the definition of “doctrine”

All that said, here are the three ways that I think of The Church being used:

C1: The Institution

C2: Local Congregation

C3: Family and Friends

Each of these groups has equal claim to being The Church and they undoubtedly are intertwined and influence one another. Without C1, you cannot have C2 or C3 (at least within Mormonism, as reflections of Mormonism). By the same token, without C2s and C3s, there is no C1. For the Institution to perpetuate, local congregations, families, and friends must continue to affiliate.

The ways in which these Three Churches interact with and influence one another are likely not unique to Mormonism. I suspect that every organized religion has some variation on these Three Churches. Even political parties and any other organization that has a national or other broad level of authority along with more local groups will bear some of the marks of what I’m looking at. (When I floated this idea in a very stripped down form on twitter, a friend remarked that I was channeling Charles Taylor. This was unintentional, but since I read his A Secular Age last year, he’s been bouncing around my head, so it’s likely inevitable. I hope I can make my case here with a tad more concision than he made his, but time will tell.)

C1: The Institution

The Institution of the Church could likely be made even more precise, given the large bureaucratic apparatus that exists in SLC and surrounding areas. But, that’s for another time. I tend to think of the Institution as Church headquarters, so the Church Office Building, the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Auxiliary presidencies. This group has the largest consolidation of power in most traditional senses. They create the manuals and give the talks in General Conference and are the public face of the Church.

The Institution is responsible for any sense of doctrinal purity (however fruitless that errand ultimately is). The Institution is responsible for shaping the broad strokes of the narrative of my Mormon experience. In many ways, I cannot exist as a Mormon, that attends Church, without being touched by their influence. They determine what is in the manuals that are used in Sunday School and other general guidelines for what occurs on a weekly basis (and to some extent on other days throughout the week). The Institution determines in broad strokes what offenses should be met with which punishments.

The Institution also must compete with the spectre of its past. The Institution has existed in some form or another since 1830 (or the dawn of time depending on how you interpret teachings of The Restoration). The Institution then is constantly haunted by what has been said and done by every other previous manifestation of The Institution. The Spectre of the Institution is used in a number of different ways by people all along the ideological spectrum and perhaps it’s this spectre that motivates some of The Institution’s behavior (also I think it was David Holland that argued that Prophetic Authority is actually the weakest line of authority within a Mormon theological construct, as compared to personal revelation/the Holy Ghost and scripture, which may be why The Institution emphasizes it more than the others, to rhetorically even the scales).

Anyway. I am least interested in and least moved by The Church as The Institution.  

C2: My Local Congregation

The primary way that I think about The Church is as my local congregation, the people that I worship with every Sunday. This is where most of my lived experience as a Mormon takes place. This is where I participate in rituals and church services, this is where I serve, these are the people I see and wrestle with in the Gospel.

I have largely had very positive interactions with my various local congregations (all over Provo, Washington, D.C., London, northern England, and even to some extent Lithuania). In most of those places (Lithuania being the exception), I have been open about my experiences with faith and doubt and how I believe that doubt is essential to faith and that questions are good, that I don’t “know” things, but I “believe” them, and a number of related, semi-fringey positions. Without exception, I have people come up to me (often surprising people) and thank me for sharing my thoughts and remarking that they resonated with what I said. I have never been censured or called out (well, except once perhaps during an EQ lesson I taught with my brother about Race and the Priesthood).

All of that is to say that my experience has been very good in my local congregations. Not that I go purely to change hearts and minds. I go because they are my people, my spiritual community. I don’t feel complete in my worship without them. I learn from them, even when I disagree. I learn by being in fellowship with them.

Obviously, the local congregation is influenced by The Institution. But it’s also quite different. Even with somewhat standardized lesson materials and topics, the content and tone of those lessons varies widely. Someone’s experience with The Church as a local congregation may be radically different than their experience with the Church as The Institution.

For example, I think The Family: A Proclamation to the World is a, to put it lightly, problematic document that reflects and embodies certain sexist and homophobic ideas. The Family Proclamation is almost definitely a part of The Institution, and at least is frequently referenced by members of The Institution. However, I could go months in my ward without hearing people talk about it, which makes those two Churches quite different in relationship to categories of sexism and homophobia (though both are present at both levels, at least implicitly given structural considerations).

C3: My Family and Friends

I am Mormon, I was raised Mormon, and have lived my life up to this point surrounded by Mormons. The C3 Church helps to account for this group of people. Practically my entire family for generations, including my in-laws and their family for generations, is Mormon (Cec and I both come from about as Mormon stock as you can find). The vast majority of my friends are Mormon to some degree or another.

These people are The Church.

The robustness of this group will vary largely by individual, though the internet seems to allow for more connections than would be possible previously.

This body may be the most troubling (in a sorta Judith Butler sense) for definitional purposes and for a standard narrative or description of The Church. Everyone’s experience here is going to vary widely. This is also true at the C2 level, but there’s still enough Institutional power over local congregations that the differences among them are often of a lesser degree than the differences among the C3 Churches that people experience.

People tend to congregate with other people like them, which means that the Church at a C3 level is probably more homogenous than the C2 level, but that the different C3s have striking diversity among them. I mostly interact with similarly fringey Mormons (though my family members are largely quite traditional, orthodox, and conservative, so the make-up of my family and friend C3s is quite different).

Anyway, this iteration of The Church matters because it is one of the ways we understand and describe what The Church is capable of, or not. Like, my C3 Church is largely very on board with progressive politics surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, so I have a skewed sense of what Church membership broadly feels and thinks about them.

This becomes a sort of “found” Church, one that is self-curated. As I entered fringey Mormon spaces just after my mission, they challenged my understanding of what The Church could be. They opened my eyes to ways in which C2, and even occasionally C1, was different and more expansive than I’d previously considered. C3 seems to me to be the place where Mormonism is most interesting and potentially most alive, especially when welded with engagement in C2.

I’m a strong believer in the communal emphasis of Mormonism and for me, finding various C3 communities to be a part of (digitally and in person) has been instrumental in making my local congregation habitable. I realized that there were likely others like me to one degree or another in my congregation and I could do some work to claim and make space for me and others there.

The danger of a pure C3 communal space is that it lacks the diversity of thought and experience that I think is necessary for a truly healthy, welcoming, and sustainable community.

Obviously, without C3s, you cannot really have functioning C2s and the C1. This is partially why I believe so strongly in people (re)claiming Mormonism. We can shape what The Church is in a large sense, at least at the C3 level. There’s no formal hierarchy or gate-keeping (though in some C3s you may find plenty of informal elements of both of those). My experience with C3 Church is at its best when it has as little concern for The Institution (C1) as possible, though others’ mileage may vary on that point.

Breaking The Church down into these three categories is helpful for me in describing where my disagreement or problem or struggle or love or admiration is in relation to various elements of Mormonism. Some may span categories, which is fine and to be expected, honestly.

Understanding these distinctions and being more precise in our language I think can improve our discourse about The Church and our various frustrations or admirations. Or maybe it’ll just help me.    

Heavenly Mother: A Sunday Speculative Profile

We entered the cafe, looking for our usual booth. It was open and Marie waved us to it.

We sat down, I was holding H— since it was Mother’s Day, doing what I could to give Cec a break. We talk about the normal everyday things that we always talk about, mixed in with some peppered interjections about the podcasts we’d both been listening to and the occasional pause to look at and talk to H—.

Marie came over to get our order and as Cec spoke for both of us, I noticed that Evelyn was at the counter, with a world-weary look on Her face. She’d always been great to H— and me and Cec in our time here, helping us feel welcome almost immediately.

I tried to puzzle over why she’d look so weary and was going to ask Cec if she’d heard anything, but H— started fussing and I forgot in the immediate flurry of helping her.

Our food came and we chatted, but I kept seeing Evelyn and thinking that we should say something to Her.

As we finished, we finally made our way over.

“Hey Evelyn, how’s it going?” I ask.

She raises Her head from Her steaming cup of coffee and smiles wearily, but warmly as She locks eyes with H—.

“Always tired and sorrowing for the ills of the world and particularly for my sisters,” She replied.

She paused and swallowed, but the air was filled with Her words and holy, it felt wrong to speak, to violate the silence and space that She’d created, so I waited.

She started and stopped a few times, looking for the precise words to fit, the entire time communicating deeply with H— wordlessly.

“I’ve served the good people here for years and still, pain and suffering surrounds us. Despite my best efforts I can’t prevent people from hurting and I know the value of pain and the inevitability of grief, yet, still it hurts,” as She opened Herself up, tears welled in the corners of Her eyes and began to fall, “I look around me and am tired. Tired from the work I’ve done, tired at the thought of all the work there is to do, tired from the work that must be left to others.”

H— began to growl, babbling wildly and enthusiastically, smiling and looking straight at Evelyn.

Evelyn smiled and laughed as H— continued, a smile and laugh that know deep pain, that feel the full breadth of life’s emotions.

“Thank you,” She says to all of us, but mostly it seems to H—.

We say our goodbyes and I walk to towards the door, holding H—. I look around as I reach the door and see that Cec and Evelyn are talking, I think about going over again, but something holds me back. I simply watch. They part with a warm farewell.

As Cec walks over we join hands, fingers interlocking. I smile at her and we walk back to the car.

Heavenly Mother: A Saturday Speculative Profile

I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought, but it’s also the first time I’ve been brought here, before Her. So, uh, we’ll see how long my luck manages to hold out.

The guards brought me before Her, and I immediately was stunned by the elegance of the throne room. Gold and wood and carefully placed gems throughout. I never thought I’d end up here. And surely not like this. I was small-time. Smuggling small things here and there. Nothing worthy of the Queen of Creation’s notice.

I’ve spent most of my life on the edges, the fringes, called out here and pushed out there, but always had a place to land or a way to spin my work as less dangerous or less illegal than it was in actuality.

But Her? She was the most well-read monarch that’d ruled the galaxies for generations. She would see right through me.

“Conor, welcome,” She said, Her dark skin shining as She gestured broadly at the court, “I’ve been waiting for this moment.”

“You have?”

“Yes, no one has quite so persistently needled away at My work, Our work as you. No matter where you find yourself. You just keep at it.”

Her tone was difficult to read, I was caught between thinking this was begrudging admiration and frustration. But She was clearly in control.

“Why, thank you.”

She narrowed Her eyes and looked at me sharply, “Your persistence and dedication is admirable, but your cause? Empty. You rebel for rebellion’s sake. What guides you? Why do you do what you do? You could be so much more.”

At this point, She was standing, Her powerful frame imposing. She walked toward me and looked me in the eyes as she asked those last questions, turning away with pain at Her last words.

“But you and your queendom are everything. What choices do I have beyond joining and reacting? All life is is the powerful acting and the disempowered reacting.”

“Ah, that is a reductive and binary view of the world, yes,” She responded, still turned away from me, “But does acting in direct opposition to the voice of the powerful mean that “They” have any less influence over your life than when you did precisely what They directed?”

I paused, before pressing on, “The powerful must be resisted. At all costs. Don’t try to frame my resistance as your continued influence. I am free.”

She looked at me, eyes fierce, but weary.

“You’re wrong, Conor,” She said firmly, the quiet power of Her voice striking deep.

She began to enumerate the support for Her position, laying out an intricate and stunning argument. But I knew I was lost from that simple, unrelenting rebuttal.

“We need you. We even need your opposition, to challenge and to push us, to prevent the powerful from taking advantage of those less powerful. We need true, inspired resistance, none of this purely reactive, reductive self-serving behavior.”

“Really? But how?”

She came toward me, placing one hand on my shoulder, our eyes locked.

“Now, Conor, I cannot tell you how. You’d simply be listening to the voice of power, the Queen of All Creation, and that just wouldn’t do. You have to carve that path out for yourself, though I’m sure we’ll be speaking again.”

She turned from me, waving Her arm and snapping Her fingers.

Her guards gather and start to escort me away.
“Wait, where are you taking me? She needs me. You heard Her…” I protest.

“Giving you purpose, where you had none, that was mercy. To turn you loose without trial or efforts at rehabilitation? That would be neither just, nor merciful. You participated in breaking Creation and now must work to heal Her. But others shall give you the first framework for you. They’re taking you to await further insight into your case.”

I tried to protest further, but came up short every time I tried to think of something to say.

“Go. Give the people Hope, that’s what rebellions are built on, after all. I bring steadiness, comfort, and care to the people, but cannot provide Hope, you must do that. Without hope, we stagnate. Go and do wrong no more. Spread hope.”

Stunned, I let the guards guide me out of the throne room. She saw right through me. Could I really be more than a reaction? Could I have a purpose? Could I give people hope? I committed to try.  

Heavenly Mother: A Friday Speculative Profile

Cec and I were whale-watching in Alaska, little H— in tow. Cec has talked about Alaska more or less every day we’ve known each other. It is, unquestionably, her favorite place on earth. And now, we were finally going. She was brimming with pure joy. And to top it all off, we were whale-watching.

Cec turns to me and grabs my arm, “I LOVE whales.”

I chuckle and my eyes crinkle.

“I know, babe, I know.”

We stand next to each other, holding hands, and  looking over the side of the ship we were on. H— was settled in one of those carriers on my chest, so she was only going over if I went over. Safety first.  

We’d been out for awhile and had seen some fish and birds and stunning views of the ocean and Alaskan coast, but so far, no whales.

But up ahead, it looked like something was breaking through the ocean surface.

“Cec, what’s that?”

Cec looks attentively, recalling all her hours of Planet Earth and other nature documentaries.

“Gotta be whales,” she says confidently.

“What kind?”

“Pretty sure, that’s a humpback whale…wait, look, there’s more!”

We looked intently at the scene in front of us. A pod of the humpback whales was surrounded by something else. Smaller and sleeker. One leaped through the air. An orca! The pod of orcas was moving menacingly towards the pod of humpbacks.

Cec was turning from the whales to me, her mouth and eyes wide with shock, intensity, and horror.

The humpback whales had a baby whale with them. One of them pulled forward and was clearly the leader of the pod.

“The All-Mother!” Cec cried out.

The orcas began attacking the humpback whales, trying to break through the pod to get at the baby.

I clutch H— tighter and Cec comes over and places one arm around me and one on H— as we look out at the whales, riveted, unable to look away.

It was looking grim for the humpbacks. The pod was being decimated by the orcas, as they moved closer and closer to the baby. Suddenly the All-Mother got into action.

She was fierce.

Unstoppable.

She swam from orca to orca and used Her huge tail to slap the orcas. She beat them back and knocked them aside with Her head. Almost single-handedly She took charge and saved the child—Her child?—from the attacking orcas.

We were awestruck at the display of pure, maternal power.

The All-Mother nuzzled the child. An outpouring of warmth and comfort. I felt the tension leave my body, and I just look at H— with relief and wonder at her existence. Cec and I look at each other, sharing the moment together.

We begin talking, trying to process what we just saw.

I turn away from the whales, Cec is still half-watching over my shoulder.

H— starts fussing a bit, so I try to move around some, walking around the deck, giving some bounce, hoping to calm her down.

“Babe, Conor, babe. You’re not going to believe this.”

“What? What happened?”

“The whales. The WHALES. They talked to me.”

“How?” I reply, somewhat incredulously.

“Their song. It was for me. Somehow, just for me. Like, She started singing and I knew what She was saying. Or at least, I felt it.”

“Well, what did She say?”

“I can’t quite put it into words. Something about me having the strength to fight for H— when the time comes?”

I looked back out over the ocean, watching the pod of whales swim away. As I watch, I could’ve sworn the All-Mother leaped out of the ocean, flipped, looked me dead in the eyes, winked, and splashed back down before swimming away.

I turn to Cec.

“Of course you do.”

We pull each other close, looking out over the Pacific.

The humpbacks swim away, their song ringing faintly over the ocean.

Heavenly Mother: A Thursday Speculative Profile

H— was sleeping in her bouncer on the kitchen floor nearby as I was working furiously to finish the week’s stack of dishes and clean the mess that the kitchen always seems to be no matter how often we cleaned it. Cec was resting in our room, turned in early for the night. I was singing along to my years old, “Best Of” playlist.

“Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with meeeeeeeee…”

I was exhausted and overwhelmed. Life was just so much. Work, Cec, H— and everything else that was up ahead.

Life is good. And exhausting. How do you do it all? How can I be a dad and husband and soon to be student and generally decent human and teacher and disciple and political activist for a thousand different worthy causes? How can I give Cec everything she needs? How can I give H— everything that she needs? How do I keep my own interests alive and balanced and myself thriving as a creative person on top of all that other stuff? How do I find time for all the movies I want to see, books I want to read, podcasts and albums I want to listen to, and other art that I want to engage with?

Who knew that washing the dishes could spark an existential crisis?

I kept washing. At least I could do that. Hopefully before H— woke up.

I just always felt like I was neglecting something. Not fully taking advantage of what life had to offer, that no matter how much I watched or read or wrote or did, it would never be enough. That I would always fall short of the time I should’ve spent with Cec and H—.

 How do people do this? How do they live with this pressure, every day, forever? Does it ever get better?

I had just a few dishes left and was about to get to cleaning the kitchen, which I’d been hoping to do all week.

H— started crying. She was suddenly awake and suffering, she must have had a nightmare or something. She needed immediate attention.

“Hey, hey, H— it’ll be ok. I’ll be right there,” I breathe out, trying to sound reassuring and calming and also urgent, as I try to finish washing the dish in my hand and then get it put down and my hands dry so I can pick her up.

Lost in the urgency, I don’t notice until I turn back to grab her that she’s stopped crying.

A woman was holding her, with red bushy hair, freckles, and bright green eyes. She was wearing a denim jacket covered in patches and behind Her, parked in our kitchen was a vaguely orb-shaped craft of some kind, with the door open, and controls visible, looking like the origin of this mysterious woman.

“Well, now, H—. I’ve been hoping to get to see you. I’ve been watching your mom and dad for a long time, now. You’re in for a treat,” She looks up at me and winks, with a bright twinkle in Her eyes as She says that last line.

I feel like I know Her, even though I know I’ve never seen Her before. I’m not sure at all what is going on and am honestly baffled at this spaceship that found its way into our kitchen and this strange, familiar woman was holding H—.

H— looked totally comfortable and thrilled to be in Her arms, honestly. Which did something to assuage my fears (I’m not sure why I trust H— to be this barometer of truth and goodness, but it seems fair that her wild, less-biased baby judgments may have some shred of truth to them).

“Conor, you look exhausted. You gotta get some sleep. Probably the least helpful thing I could say to you right now, though. You’re a new dad. You won’t be sleeping well for at least like 18 years,” She finished with a grin and a soft laugh.

Realization dawned on me.

“God-Mom? Is that you?”

“In the flesh.”

I was stunned. No wonder She was familiar and strange all at the same time.

“Why me?”

She shrugged and then turned to H— to say, “You’re so cute,” as H— growled at Her in her new dinosaur voice that she’s been exploring for the last couple of days. “You needed some help and had some questions, so here I am, perhaps not with answers, but with love.”

H—’s lip started to quiver and then she was screaming, yelling the loudest she could, as if she were dying.

God-Mom reached out to me, holding H— to pass her off. I take her, talking to her the whole time I pull her close to me.

H— calms down as soon as she’s in my arms, still intermittently reminding me of the suffering that she has experienced with yells and general pouts. As I’ve focused on H—I lose sight of Her and then I look back up and realize that She’s climbed aboard Her ship and was about to take off, Her Aquabats patch barely visible over the side of the ship.

“You take care of her, now, Conor.”

“I will, I do,” I affirm enthusiastically, as I look H— in the eyes, she smiles and laughs and I’m filled with light and goodness and joy.

“Ah, you’re feeling it Conor. That’s how you carry on. Those moments right there. It won’t all be good, but nothing compares to those glimpses of Heaven that your children and loved ones give you.”

She had stood up and moved out just a tad as this was happening and then turned to get re-settled in Her spaceship, “Take care of yourself, Conor. You’re no good to your family, friends, Church, or the world at large, if you don’t give yourself what you need, to be who you are and do the good you need to do.”

By this point She had returned to Her spaceship.

The door was closing and She was waving as I tried to wave, while holding a fussing and growling daughter.

“Oh, one last thing,” She called out, “Watch a movie. Read a book. Write. It’ll make you a better dad. And remember, reckless abandon.”

The door closed on Her twinkling eyes and then blasted into Space without destroying our roof.

“H— what do you think about all that?” I ask her.  

She growls, smiles, and laughs.

Heavenly Mother: A Wednesday Speculative Profile

Sainte-Chapelle

I ascend the short, narrow staircase and enter the Chapel.

I’m speechless.

An immediate, unquenchable giddiness morphs into a profound sense of awe and wonder as I vacillate between turning quickly trying to take in the entirety of the stained glass that surrounds me on all sides and stopping fully to lose myself in individual panels.

The beauty is overwhelming.

Tears stream down my face as I simply feel the divinity of the building, my mouth forming a huge, irrepressible grin.  

She’s here.

Truth.

Beauty.

Joy.

I tread delicately around the entire Chapel, opening myself up to every detail. The glass and the Chapel reach for the unreachable, express the inexpressible. That’s divinity. That’s Her.

I walk with Her, letting the warmth of the sun shining through the stunning stained glass keep me company as I try to etch every last detail of the glass and the feelings that I’m experiencing onto my soul. Divinity had perhaps never been so close as in Sainte-Chapelle.

I am filled with Her witness. Words cannot do justice to Her and who She is, but they’re all I have. As the Chapel itself reaches for the unreachable, I feel called to write, to do my part to express the inexpressible, to feel Her light and presence again today, as I walk back to Sainte-Chapelle, placing myself in that sacred hall.

She’s not here, but the power of the glass remains. She lingers with me, and my lips curl up into a soft smile again.  

Pioneer Book

I browse the shelves, not looking for anything in particular. I’m always drawn to the Mormon Scholarship section and can only enter with a specific purpose or clear financial limit or I end up walking out with far more than I intended.

Today, I was looking for Mormon Enigma to fill the Emma-sized hole in my early Church history book collection.

As I walked down the row—buried deep in books, embraced by their collective stories and wisdom, comforted by their presence and witness to past owners and lives outside the walls of the store—I held my hand out, a couple fingers tracing the air in front of the spines as my eyes tracked the titles and authors.

Mmmmmm. No, no, no…oh, Quinn, do they have…? Still no. Next time. Mmmmm, let’s see, ah, yes!

I’d found it. Mormon Enigma. Missing it’s dust jacket. The title in gold lettering against the black of the spine, shining.

I carefully remove it from the shelf (pushing the book out from the back and gripping the spine on both sides, as I was taught by the good, book-loving folks at the Wordsworth Trust), and begin to explore it.

THAT’S A GOOD ONE.

I turn, startled, but no one’s around.

REALLY GOOD. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

I look all over, but can’t see the sound of the voice in the otherwise low rustles of the bookstore.

But then, I feel something. A friendly, side-hug.

Her.

YES, IT’S ME. OBVIOUSLY.

What? Why? What’s going on?
OF COURSE I HANG OUT IN PIONEER BOOK AND WAIT FOR PEOPLE TO LOOK AT MORMON ENIGMA. GOTTA NUDGE PEOPLE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.

Uhhhh, I don’t know what to say…
NOTHING YET. READ THE BOOK AND THEN WE’LL HAVE SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT.

My thoughts are muddled and overwhelmed and before I get anything put together, She interrupts.

LOVE YA, CON. GOTTA GO.

I…uh…

She was gone. Some of the warmth and curiosity of the store felt reduced, Her absence noticeable, even when I hadn’t recognized Her presence.

OH. ONE LAST THING.

Yeah?

YOUR HAIR’S [THE VERBAL-NON-VERBAL CELESTIAL/FELT EQUIVALENT OF THE OK SIGN WITH A MOUTH CLICK]. GIVE CEC A KISS FOR ME.

Streetlight Manifesto at the Murray Theatre

The horns started. The trombone and saxophone dueling for dominance, debating eternity. The crowd began to fuse together. All the individuals slipped into the group, losing and maintaining their sense of self all at once. I felt the pull. The crowd moving in a circle, a strong, irresistible current.

I joined.

My hands and feet flying in coordination with everyone else. My Chuck Taylors made for this. We all move with increasing rapidity. And flow.

We’re basking in, lost in, the music. The horns punctuating the rhythms as we give ourselves over to each other. The world outside drifts away and all there is is the crowd, is us.

We are One.

I surrender to us.

We’re moving, faster and faster as the tempo increases. All giddy with the energy that fills the room. People slip and fall, but are lifted up on the backs of the rest of us. Hands reaching down to pull ourselves up, never letting us hit the ground.

The unity of the crowd is staggering. One motion. I have lost myself in something larger than myself.

I realize the community that I’ve entered, that we’re moving with one heart and one mind. We are one. We are She.

She’s here.

She is us.

We are Her.

As we move as one, we join Her, rejoicing in unity, throwing our hands and feet in time with the ecstasy of the horns, pure joy running through all of us.

We lost ourselves and we found Her.

Heavenly Mother: A Tuesday Speculative Profile

“Conor, your ideas are good, but they need a little more rigor. Come on. I know you can do better than this. The insights that you share in class, the depth of your thinking, your prose at its best…you’re capable of so much more.”

She was right, of course. I’d jotted the paper off at the last minute, per my usual modus operandi, and the result did leave something to be desired. But it was usually enough to satisfy my professors. Not Her.

Her office was brimming with the projects She was working on, a stack of third wave feminist and queer theory texts next to scans of journals of first-generation converts to Mormonism and other 19th-Century religions founded in America and in the far corner a mix of graphic novels, mythology, and postsecular theory. Small mementos from Her travels and years teaching were scattered among her desk and shelves.

She looked at me with Her fierce, yet warm eyes.

“What’s your plan, Conor? How can we take this idea and flesh it out? You’re moving in interesting territory with your argument about superheroes as modern American myth, but what does that give us? What does that mean?”

I pause for awhile before replying, “That is the question. I think, we can learn something about our values and what we yearn for in the heroes that we look to.”

“Ok, but why are they like a modern myth, why draw the connection to Hercules and Zeus and Odin and countless other mythic figures from various traditions?”

“Pop culture is religion? That’s messy and more of a sociological argument, but I think there’s evidence for it. And obviously, I can use Thor as a bridge figure, that these modern myths literally lift figures from old myths. I probably need to do something with Gaiman’s American Gods, but I can slip that in.”

She pushes me, asking, “But where’s the belief? Aren’t myths defined by the cultural belief in them? Their explanatory power? Some sort of belief system associated with them?”

“That’s the weak point. But does belief need to be literal? What about comic cons and Halloween and action figures and the ways that young kids are indoctrinated into the cult of Marvel or DC? Isn’t that a sort of belief?”

“Perhaps. You could establish some sort of rites or pilgrimages that would bolster the mythos argument. I’m not sold, but we’ll run with it. What do these myths give to us? What do they teach us?”

We’ve reached the peak, I think, as I respond, “That’s complicated. There’s a strong individualist streak, a sort of Nietzschean ubermensch. Often the characters come from nothing, we have all these American Dream origin stories. Yet there’s also a focus on teamwork and this community of superpowered people that somewhat weakens the Nietzschean pull…”

She stops me.

“Conor, why do you want to write about this?”

I sit, pondering.

She waits. Expectantly.

Why do I want to write about this? Probably some childhood thing. Maybe all those cartoons growing up. Perhaps to figure out why I’m still drawn to them, despite feeling ideologically conflicted about the violence and arguably fascistic bent of most, if not all, superheroes.

“To untangle my connection to superheroes. And because I feel like there’s some sort of religious or at least spiritual component. Maybe because I feel a sort of childlike faith when I encountered some of the films and want to figure out why and how I can replicate that elsewhere in my life. There’s something about how I understand and connect to God and power and salvation, I think, buried deep in my attachment to these films and I want to get at that.”

She smiled and leaned back.

“Now that’s interesting.”

We worked for the next hour or so bouncing ideas off one another, wrestling with my complicated connection to and relationship with these superheroes. It was enlightening. As we turned my scholarship back on me, it filled with new meaning.

We shook hands as I walked out.

“If you get stuck again, Conor, don’t hesitate to come by. Always happy to chat.”

“Will do, Professor. Thanks.”

She closed Her door and a last flash of light glinted off Her initials on Her nameplate, “H. M., Ph.D.”

As I walked away, I heard the faint hint of Danny Elfman’s haunting Batman theme and smiled.

Heavenly Mother: A Monday Speculative Profile

God was there before the beginning. She was planning the beginning. Working closely with Her Council to design and create the worlds. At least, one new world, a test run of sorts. She had it all laid out, from start to finish. Six days. With a seventh on standby, just in case. The concept of days wasn’t yet created for this new world, so time was a little mushy around the edges.

She poured over the plans, pulling the pen from behind Her ear to make a few last corrections before they got to it the next morning before they entered the timeless space of creation.

*

She was up. She leapt out of bed, giddy with excitement. She quickly got ready and headed over to workspace.

“Alright everyone. It’s time to get to it. We’ve got a world to build. Homes to make.”

That first day, She fearlessly led Her crew as they mined out the darkness, making space for the light. They worked tirelessly to separate the two, dividing them sharply. At least, that was the intent. The darkness miners were a little careless and create some grey spaces that no one quite knew what to do with, that seemed to defy the binary of light and dark that they were hoping to make a theme of for this new world.

“Huh,” She mused, looking over the day’s work, “I dig this shades of grey stuff we’ve got going on. I was a little disappointed it upset the stark black and white vibe we initially set up, but this should make things interesting. Let’s run with it.”

And that was the first day.

*

She was in the trenches the next morning, working tirelessly alongside Her team as they worked to make some space for the light and dark to inhabit that signaled to the future inhabitants what was up, but didn’t radically disrupt their lives.

She’d decided to place the light and darkness up above, out of the reach of these future creatures. Placing the dangerous light and darkness on the top shelf, like a jar of secret cookies. For safekeeping. And perhaps to dangle in front of them as an inspiration to reach new heights, quite literally.

And that was day two, dividing the heavens and the earth.

*

God was ready to get to the good stuff. She was a little tired of all the manual labor of these past two days and wanted to get to making things.

She had her Council get to work on the Land, using Her plans that she’d been tweaking, while she spent Her time working the water. The water was calm and wild and vast and so complex. The water contained everything. Or it would. She paid particular attention to the movements, to the crash of the waves on the coast, the flow of the rivers, the smooth reflectiveness of the lakes. And She fiddled with the scent for hours. Wanting to give the ocean that right balance of bite to entice people to come back and back, to feel called to the waters.

And that was the third day.

*

She’d decided that the light and darkness divide was a little too simplistic. She wanted something to contain the light in, to set scattered throughout the darkness. She developed two classes of containers (though the first had a subclass that evolved essentially to be its own class of light)—stars and the moon. The stars were everywhere, with huge variation. Some small, some large. One, standing out from the rest, so close to where they were playing around, that they started calling it their son, then The Son.

And that was the fourth day.

*

Time to breathe some real life into this thing. She was excited. The water and the heavens would get some life.

Once again, She worked with the water. She was drawn to it. Something about the water spoke to Her (and obviously, Her Council used Her work to bring the birds into existence).

She breathed into the ocean, Her fingers twirling through the matter, as Her breathe brought new, yet unseen life to be. She dove down to the depths and walked along the sea floor, stopping every now and then to pay attention to creatures so odd and strange and horrifying that may go millennia without recognition or contact or the love that others would get. Yet, down here, buried beneath the waves, in a new found quiet, there was something lovely about the strangeness, about these creatures that seemed otherworldly, existing.

She began to swim back up to the surface, stopping to add a few finishing touches to a wildly colored creature, granting them the power to launch their claws through the ocean almost faster than She could travel through time and space.
“Here,” She said as She played with their eyes, “Now, you’ll be able to see countless colors, untold light and beauty. You will be blessed with beauty and strength; you are the harbinger of blood-soaked rainbows.”

She swam to the surface and gazed longingly at the fowls filling the air.

And that was the fifth day.

*

The big day was here. The Deadline. Hopefully, everything kept going according to Her meticulously prepared plan.

Her Council got right to work on the animals (well, everything besides the fish and birds). She popped in here and there with some tweaks.

“Nah, that one should be more like a duck and a beaver, but with a poison claw. Oh, yes, that one needs to be aloof, holds its head very high. Ah, yeah, just, uh, whatever you want with those tiny ones…absurdly strong? Sure, go for it.”

She was preparing the magnum opus.

Humanity.

She was fierce at work shaping the dust into life.
She puzzled over the two shapes She was simultaneously working on.

“Something’s not quite right, here.”

She leaned over to the one on the left and pulled a chunk out of the side, then walked over to the body on the right and started working it in.

“Ah, yes, that’s better. More equal distribution of life. Hopefully that sticks.”

She pressed Her head to their temples, one hand on each of their heads and breathed out. As Her breath passed over them, it began to fill them with life. They started to move and live.

She stepped back.

“We did it. I did it. Uh, uh, wow.”

She watched, barely containing her enthusiasm as they moved and sat up and began to notice they’re surroundings. And finally, Her.

“Hi. Yes, hello. I am God and this is Planet Bob.”

The Council chuckled and nudged Her.

“Earth, yes, this is Earth. Your home. Look around you. All these shapes and colors are so that life doesn’t hurt so badly, which it inevitably will. So take advantage of what you see. You are meant to care for it. All of it. Which I get is a heavy responsibility for two freshly created, still stunned beings, but I believe in you.”

And that was the sixth day.

*

It was finished.

She looked out over all Creation. Checking the final product against Her plans.

She put them away and just took it all in.

“Daaaaaaaaaaamn,” She whistled, “It is good.”

And that was the seventh day.