Flunking Sainthood

I just found out that my autumn Christian Century story on “The Mormon Moment” was the magazine’s second-most popular article of 2011. But this isn’t because the article was particularly well-written or insightful; it wasn’t. I tried to do too much in too little space, a common problem with the disappearance of long-form journalism. No, the article’s popularity has little to do with the piece’s merits and everything to do with what anxieties keep Protestants awake at night.

In fact, most of the top ten are like that. Here is the list:

Twenty years ago today, I stood at the altar and married my best friend. It was a beautiful candlelight evening wedding that we put together on a shoestring budget of $2,000. (Two thousand dollars for the entire wedding and cake-and-punch reception: Even in 1991, that was some serious frugality.)

We held the wedding in a Presbyterian church in the town I grew up in. You knew it was a Swedish town because the photographer, the florist, the cake decorator, and the dry cleaner who preserved my dress were all named Anderson, and they were not related to each other.

But we all know that beautiful weddings are a dime a dozen, and beautiful marriages are spotted owls. A loving and supportive marriage has made many other beautiful things possible in my life, and I’m not quite sure how I got so ridiculously lucky. So much of it is luck. A fair portion is also choosing the right partner in the beginning, and holding hands as you weather your inevitable storms.

One of our traditions is that each year for our anniversary, we decide together to buy something for the household rather than trying to find individual gifts for each other. Since our anniversary falls immediately after Christmas, we’re always sick to death of shopping for just the right present, so we do the joint gift. Last year, we bought a dual-control electric blanket, which is about six different kinds of awesome. This year, since it was the big 2-0, we splurged on commissioning a kitchen pantry that matches our other cabinets. I won’t tell you how much it cost, except to say that it was almost exactly the price of our entire damn wedding.

Since I’m a writer, I wish I could come up with something lovely that communicates what I want to say about this anniversary (other than “It’s been 20 years . . . Is that even possible?!). But anything I write myself is maudlin in the manner of an Anne Bradstreet poem. It all sounds like sentimental claptrap. I got nothin’.

What I keep returning to instead is this delightful short poem by Frances Shaw. I discovered it in college and it immediately made me think of Phil. I loved it so much I had it printed in our wedding bulletin:

Who loves the rain

And loves his home

And looks on life with quiet eyes,

Him will I follow through the storm;

And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;

Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,

Who loves the rain,

And loves his home,

And looks on life with quiet eyes.

Happy anniversary.


Giotto unforgettably portrays the slaughter of the baby boys

A friend of mine recently pointed out that tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I. In a nutshell, it marks that icky, violent part of the nativity story that every Christmas pageant blithely ignores:

Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Matthew 2:16-18)

So who were these boys? And how many? One Catholic encyclopedia says that

The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys (ton hagion id chiliadon Nepion), the Syrians speak of 64,000, many medieval authors of 144,000, according to Apocalypse [Revelation] 14:3. Modern writers reduce the number considerably, since Bethlehem was a rather small town.

However many of these boys died, it’s funny how Protestants and other non-liturgical Christians tend to forget all about them. Some simply spiritualize the event as another one of Matthew’s stories that aims to show Jesus in the light of the Old Testament: here, he is the new Moses. Just as Pharaoh tried to murder every Hebrew baby boy but Moses survived (Exodus 1:22), Herod — a new Pharaoh — aims to murder every boy who might be a threat to him, but Jesus survives.

I have no doubt that this biblical interpretation is on to something, as Matthew is obsessed with showing Jesus as the fulfillment of various OT prophecies and archetypes. But isn’t it so very tidy? Asserting “This is just like that” is also a way of saying, “These were not real babies and toddlers. They were not people’s precious sons, just learning to walk and talk. The rest of the nativity story, with its humble shepherds and sweet Mary dressed in blue — that can stay. But we want this part safely omitted from our gospel. It makes us feel all itchy.”

So light a candle for these kids today, even if they were only half a dozen people. They were the first martyrs of the church, the first to give their lives for Jesus. It’s the least we can do to say thank you, even if we can’t figure out a way to put them in our Christmas pageants. Which kids would want those roles?



An outstanding new book from historian Craig Harline

I was 23 and in divinity school when I converted to Mormonism. You can imagine that it was an unexpected choice for someone studying to become a pastor. I was perhaps the most surprised of all; God does crazy stuff to folks sometimes.

I told very few people about it while I was in school, but one such conversation stands out vividly in my mind. My gentle, kind friend Tom (not his real name) and I were having lunch on the balcony of the Mackay Center at Princeton Theological Seminary’s cafeteria when I dropped the bombshell that I had recently been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

You read in fiction about people’s jaws dropping, but I think the only time I ever saw it happen in real life was when Tom stared at me from across the table.

He let me talk for a time about my experiences and then told me that when I had first given him the news, his gut reaction was, “This woman has joined a cult! I have to say something that will save her!” Since he had grown up in a very conservative church, he was worried for my soul.

But the impulse that won the day was, “This woman just came out to me.”