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In The VillageLike McDonald's, you know what you're getting with the church
by Orson Scott Card
It has long been a joke that we Mormons attend a "McDonald's Church" -- no matter where you go, you know what's on the menu.
(Of course, that isn't true even of McDonald's. For instance, I love the Sausage McMuffin in the American South -- spicy! But go west and the sausage they use is inedibly bland, in my opinion -- like a mouthful of fried fat.)
You know there'll be a bishop or branch president, with counselors; a Relief Society, a Primary, an elders quorum; clerks, teachers -- find out that somebody teaches Valiant B and you know what role they fill in the ward.
They'll all be teaching from the same manual, and within a lesson or two of where you are at home. (Differing stake and ward conference dates can offset the lesson schedule a little.)
But where some see a suffocating sameness, I see a comfortable structure that helps guide us into making sure the Church is true wherever it is established.
The gospel is true everywhere, but the Church can change a lot from place to place; sometimes too much, if it isn't constantly nudged back into line.
The more closely we adhere to the plans and structures and guidelines of the general Church, the more likely we are to propagate, throughout the Church, the best understanding we have of the gospel of Christ on earth.
But don't be fooled by the similarities. Within those basic parameters, congregations can vary enormously.
I won't even go into regional and national variations, except to say that given the vast cultural differences between Nigeria and Mexico and Taiwan and America, the surprise is how good a job we do of holding the Church and the gospel together.
Even within the same general culture, though -- even within the same stake -- wards and branches each take on a distinct character that can endure from year to year, even as much of the membership turns over with people moving in and out.
Some problematic traditions -- for instance, an infection of nasty gossip, or an attitude of apathy -- can be surprisingly hard to root out, even when the people who were once the source of the problem move (or pass) away.
It doesn't take much for something to be perceived as a tradition, either. I was once at a first-time event and heard someone tell a newcomer, "Oh, we always do it this way."
Most of the traditions that persist over time do so because the ward members enjoy them, or associate them with good memories, or become proud of them.
I was in an Orem ward for many years that had an absolutely brilliant choir director. Margaret Brown had been a professional church choir conductor in a Protestant church before her conversion, and she held our choir of volunteers to a rigorously high standard.
She also knew how to teach us to sing properly -- she is the only voice teacher I ever had. And her choir has graduated many who conduct choirs now in other places.
We sang some of the hardest choruses from Handel's Messiah every Christmas -- and sang them very well, too, I must add. The whole ward was proud of that choir.
Local traditions can be ended. For instance, our ward had a tradition of "trunk-or-treat" in the parking lot at church, so our kids wouldn't be out among strangers. There'd be a Halloween party indoors -- no scary stuff, no witches or devils, but lots of games and a chance for kids to show off costumes to ward members.
I had my own tradition of hiding in the trunk of my car and snaking out my hand to give out treats. My tradition ended when I switched from a Crown Victoria to a smaller car. I was too old to bend that way.
Our bishop for the past five years always had strong feelings that Halloween had nothing to do with the mission of the Church. Still, he understood many parents' desire for a safe way for this national (but not religious) tradition to be accommodated by trunk-or-treating as a ward.
When it became clear that ward members were bringing their kids to the ward trunk-or-treat and taking them begging through the neighborhood, there was clearly no justification for linking Halloween with the Church, and Halloween was dropped from the ward calendar.
It hasn't hurt local candy sales, and I didn't hear of any families sitting glumly at home because there was no place to celebrate Halloween!
Christmas is a strange combination of national celebration and religious holiday. There is something uniquely American about the way we celebrate Christmas; but it is also tied to the New Testament and the life of Christ.
Our ward has no visits from red-costumed, fake-bearded impersonators of a legendary gift-bringer -- that's a job for the malls and department stores. We do, however, have an annual Christmas dinner which begins with a nativity play put on by our Primary.
For the last eight years, our tradition has been to put on the simplest, sweetest, easiest nativity imaginable. It takes less than ten minutes. Nobody has to memorize any speaking parts.
It was all Christi Baughan's doing. While her official calling has changed over the years (she's now our Relief Society president), we are happy and grateful that she continues to be the director of the children's nativity presentation.
The script consists of Patricia Kelsey Graham's "The Nativity Song" from the Children's Songbook. A choir of ten- and eleven-year-old angels stands on risers at one side of the stage and sings all five verses of the song.
The rest of the stage is arrayed with the personages and objects referred to in the song. When the song says, "This is the angel," well, there the angel stands.
The highlight is when the littlest children come crawling on, bedecked in minimal sheep costumes and, if they remember, baaing with all their hearts. (The only really frantic part of the production is the sheep-wrangling backstage. It's not easy to get a bunch of three-year-olds to crawl in the same direction at once. Think of herding housecats.)
I could imagine somebody getting grandiose ideas -- making more elaborate costumes, trying for special effects or more actor movement. But so far, at least, everyone is grateful for -- and supportive of -- the simplicity of the thing.
It's a tradition I hope we keep -- even if, through some horrible uninspired error or natural calamity, someone else is called to replace Sister Baughan as overseer of the nativity presentation.
Within the deliberate sameness of our wards and branches, individual character still emerges in every unit. Wise is the congregation that holds fast to the traditions that are good.
In thinking of last-minute gifts, Church members might give some thought to items offered for sale by other Latter-day Saints. Here are my recommendations for Christmas 2009:
I believe every LDS family should watch the Journey of Faith DVDs, directed by Peter Johnson (if you have a temple recommend, you've almost certainly seen some of his film work) and supported by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU ($19.95 at DeseretBook.com).
Johnson took an excellent film crew to the Arabian peninsula, following where the best scholarship places Lehi's family's journey, and the first disc shows us unforgettable images of a land not too different from what Lehi probably saw.
The second film, Journey of Faith: The New World, is, of necessity, more speculative: the state of knowledge of archaeology, history, and language from the Book of Mormon period in the Americas is simply too sketchy for us to reach the level of confidence that we can achieve in the Old World.
What makes both films stand out, however, is that they never overclaim: Nobody says that something proves the Book of Mormon, and where something is mere speculation -- it might be this way -- the commentators say so. I don't know about you, but I prefer honestly tentative speculation to unprovable "faith-promoting" certainty any day.
Now, it's possible for people to duplicate Peter Johnson's travels and see all these places for themselves -- though it wouldn't be easy, since all this filming required delicate negotiations and elaborate preparation.
My feeling is: Johnson and his crew did the work for me, and I'm content to spend a couple of hours watching what these filmmakers created rather than spend six months of my life trying to walk where Lehi probably or possibly walked.
There is no lack of gift books for Mormons to pass along on Christmas. Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament ($41.36) and Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: An LDS Perspective ($35.96; both books by Holzapfel, Wayment, and Huntsman) are wonderful companions to a study of the scripture. They're also beautiful books worth looking at for their own sakes.
The ongoing project of publishing the Joseph Smith papers is one of the most exciting things to happen in the field of Church history. The facsimile edition -- The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books ($89.95 at DeseretBook.com) -- gives us an extraordinary glimpse at the actual writing of the Prophet and his amanuenses, along with emendations and corrections.
For a much more readable look at the early revelations and other writings, though, the book you want is The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Vol. 1: 1832-1839 ($49.95). Both books are by Richard L. Bushman, Dean C. Jessee, and Ronald K Esplin.
If you are -- or aspire to be -- well-acquainted with early Church history, both books are indispensable, though their price reflects the cost of creating them. Deseret Book offers a bundle of both books with a DVD documentary ($50) to accompany them, for about $160. They aren't just for display: you will want to read and study them.
When it comes to pop music by LDS singers and songwriters, I've been waiting a long time for someone whose work was up to the level of the best of national recording stars.
I think we have that singer in Mindy Gledhill, whose albums Sum of All Grace and Feather in the Wind are superb -- reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, or John Mayer (for different reasons), but highly original and wonderful to listen to ($16.98 each at DeseretBook.com).
If you are a grandparent, aunt, or uncle of a teenager, desperately trying to think of a gift that won't be greeted with a barely-hidden eyeroll or sigh, my bet is that Mindy Gledhill's work will happily surprise them and lead them to think, just for a moment, that you are actually, maybe, just a little bit cool.
And for grownups, I recommend Jenny Oaks Baker's album of violin solos, Silver Screen Serenade ($16.98 at DeseretBook.com).
Normally I dislike music that emphasizes the violin, of only because what passes for virtuoso work usually sounds to me like frantic sawing or the torture of cats.
But Baker's recordings support and flesh out the violin sound with a balanced orchestra, and her arrangements find a perfect middle ground between a pop and classical sound. (Only in her performance of "An American in Paris" does she succumb to the temptation to create a jagged sound.)
Whether you want music for background or foreground listening, I find this album by Baker more than merely pleasing -- I'll be buying more of her music myself.
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