Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: Women in Eternity, Women of Zion

Women in Eternity, Women of ZionWomen in Eternity, Women of Zion by Alma Don Sorensen and Valerie Hudson Cassler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


While this is written in the form of a book review it is really more of an essay about my personal beliefs about the treatment of women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, treatment of women in our culture, and treatment of women throughout history. I self label myself as a Mormon feminist.  I know that some people reading this post might be irked by the fact that I’m a Mormon.  While others might be annoyed with the fact that I’m a feminist.  There is always the possibility that I’m just an irksome annoying person in general. No matter how you view my life choices I would love to hear your thoughts and comments about these topics! So please post respectful ideas below…whether they be of the agreeing or disagreeing persuasion…and lets start a conversation on this. 

I’m on a journey out of pain right now and this book went a long way toward helping ease some of the pain that I've begun to feel as a woman in the church. I knew from page one this book would be of worth to me as the author Valerie Cassler describes her own reason in writing it.  She had begun to feel pain as a woman in the church and was concerned about the language and teachings we often read and hear within church walls.  Some of the popular interpretations of scriptures can be damaging to women such as did Paul really mean women shouldn't talk in church, does Doctrine and Covenants really mean that women can be given and taken from men like livestock, does the story of Adam and Eve really mean that a wife must be subject to her husband for all of eternity?  She finally comes to the realization that this pain was given to her by God so that she would be motivated to search out answers and share those answers with others by writing this book.  This introduction also states that she is no longer in pain about these things...I hope I might be able to get to that point too.

After having my fifth child I began to really question if I was of any worth, if I was doing what God wanted me to do, and how God felt about women. As I began to search the scriptures harder and attend the temple more frequently I began to be overwhelmed by just how male centric the LDS and really all Christian religions are.  The scriptures, church teachings, and even hymns seemed to be filled with phrases like the eternal life of man, sons of men, kings and priests, God giveth to all men liberally, if any man take a wife, faith of our fathers, brother’s keeper, etc etc etc.  I was looking for answers about women's paths in this life and in the eternities and found myself quite dejected about the fact that there isn't much information about women within the written teachings of the church.  I know that current church leaders are quick to add "and women" to many of the scriptures but sometimes it seems almost patronizing.  I understand that the scriptures were written mostly by men, about men, and for men, but surely with continuing revelation if it was God's will to correct this oversight he could have right? And when the church teaches us over and over again that women have unique divine-given responsibilities and talents and callings in this life doesn't that mean that we would also need unique instruction in this life?  And if we need unique instructions about our unique paths is it really enough to simply just tack on "and women" to the scriptures that are meant for men?

I mean, if women are as important as men in the eternities why do we know so little about our Heavenly Mother?  If women are moving toward being queens and goddesses in the next life why aren't there depictions of Heavenly Mother being involved in our creation or the world's creation?  If men can do that by themselves as depicted in the temple or in the scriptures then why do we need women at all?  How can we believe that men are not punished for Adam's transgression but women will be for Eve's? What scripture or doctrine makes it so that only two women speak each conference amid a sea of men? I understand that Men have priesthood authority but does that mean that all but two speakers at conference should be male? Men don't have to have babies or be wives to express their views about womanhood in the women's general session so why would we assume that a woman can't speak in priesthood session just because she doesn't have the priesthood?  If it's important for women to learn from men why not vice versa?  Especially when the family proclamation tells us that women's responsibilities are to teach and nurture God's children- doesn't that include when children grow into adults? If God created men and women to be equal partners in a marriage how can we explain polygamy- how can a man and a woman become one flesh when a man has 20 wives to attend to? If Heavenly Mother is an equal partner to our Heavenly Father why don't we talk about her or know anything about her? If we have the doctrine of Heavenly Mother why haven't we incorporated that into our scriptures or the temple? Why do men become priests to God while women become priestesses unto their husband only? If we are truly equal partners in marriage why do women "give themselves in marriage" and the man just "takes a wife" or "receives" her? How does a husband “preside” in a marriage where both partners are supposed to be equal?

I don't list out these questions to make others doubt but rather to paint a picture of the level of frustration I went into this book with.  This book definitely attempts to answer all of these questions and succeeds in answering many for me! While you'll have to read the entire book to get answers to all of these questions let me quickly summarize three main concepts of the book and add my thoughts.

1) Adam and Eve

The first part I really appreciated was the discussion about Adam and Eve.  First it breaks down the actual order of events in which things happened (this order varies from account to account in the scriptures and in the temple itself).  A quick summary of this is that as the Mother of all living and the first to partake of the fruit- Eve (and women) become the gate keeper for the veil leading into mortality.  Part of that assignment includes convincing Adam (and man) to partake in this also.  Partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge helps us to know good and evil.  It means partaking in the plan of happiness, partaking in the raising of a family, and partaking in the acquiring of knowledge.  After Adam partakes, God then sets him (or man) up to be the gate keepers for the second veil leading into the eternities.  So men and women are doing equal yet separate work necessary for salvation.  Women bringing the sons and daughters of God into the second estate while men (Christ through his atonement and the men he has given keys in officiating) bring them into the third.  Furthermore, because Adam's eyes are not open and he is not yet fully mortal (he won't know death until he eats) until Eve gives him the fruit we can even see that Adam, in a way, is born of Eve.  Thus making her the mother of ALL (including Adam).  This idea also helps us better understand why God then requires Eve to hearken unto Adam.  Because Adam hearkened unto Eve in partaking of the fruit and passing through the first veil, Eve is then asked to hearken unto Adam by partaking of the fruit of the tree of life (Christ’s atonement) and moving toward passing through the second veil. 

However, the book does acknowledge some of the misinterpretations of this plan.  One pitfall that can arise is that because the first veil is already past for all living our focus is on the second veil back to our Heavenly Father.  Because men are the keepers of this veil many people's focus is more on men than on women and many begin to think that man's job is more important than the woman's. They might even think that it is more important for only men to speak or lead in any way. 

Another aspect of the creation story it discusses is the "curse" of Eve.  They bring up the points that God doesn't curse Eve but curses future experiences for her sake. Just as he curses the ground for Adam's sake.  What does it mean to curse something for their sake?  We know that after partaking of the fruit they gain a knowledge of good and evil but that they also can now understand that everything has it's opposites.  In fact after they are cast out from the garden Eve even says that it's good for them to know the bitter so that they might better know the sweet.  In this context, when God multiplies Eve's sorrow in child rearing it also means that he multiplies her capacity for joy!  And in fact, I feel this idea deeply as I consider my own experience as a woman and mother. 

2) Polygamy

As I've discussed in my previous book reviews of books dealing specifically with polygamy, this is a huge sticking spot for me.  Everything I believe and have been taught about God's plan for marriage and women makes me revolt against the idea of polygamy.  And in fact the entire time I read about the authors teachings of Adam and Eve I realized how God fundamentally, from the beginning, sets up man and woman to be in a monogamous relationship.  All of what I learned about men and women in this book seems to fall apart when placed inside a polygamous relationship.  So I was glad when they decided to address just that. 

Their explanations for this principle come mostly from Doctrine and Covenant's section 132 and from there the story of Abraham. Section 132 is pretty much a minefield for misinterpretations.  The wording and order of scriptures make it hard to get at the root of what is being said.  Some of these misinterpretations have even made their way into church manuals and general conference talks over the years (Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball have some whoppers!) causing even more pain and confusion on the subject. The fact that it first talks about the New and Everlasting covenant (marriage) and then talks about polygamy has led many members to believe that the new and everlasting covenant is polygamy, when in fact they are two separate topics.

Here are the two main misinterpretations of polygamy that I’ve heard taught and the authors rebuttals for each:

a) That polygamy is the only acceptable form of marriage to God.  Many early saints living polygamy believed that monogamy was an evil invention of the Romans and perverted the plan of God which was to live polygamy forever.  This books rebuttal of this idea hinges on the fact that God asks several times if Abraham and others would be condemned for living polygamy.  Asking this shows us that polygamy contradicts the established law of monogamy.  If polygamy was God's law on polygamy and Abraham practiced that law why would there even be a question of whether what he did was right or not?  This is the very pattern of an Abrahamic sacrifice.  We see it in the story of Abraham and Isaac and then again with Abraham and Hagar. First God's sets up a law- For the Isaac story it's that "thou shalt not kill" and for the Hagar story it's that a marriage is limited to one man and one wife (monogamy).  Then he asks someone to sacrifice by breaking the law= for the Isaac story it's that Abraham must murder Isaac and for the Hagar story it's that Abraham should take a second wife.  Following this pattern we can see that section 132 introduces first the law (monogamy) and then gives the sacrificial exception (polygamy). However this was certainly not many early church leaders’ interpretation of this passage and they often preached just the opposite.

b) Polygamy is the pattern of heaven and will be practiced eternally. Many early saints also preached and believed that polygamy would never again be taken from the earth.  However, it was taken from the earth and we now enjoy being able to practice monogamy.  This also brings up the question: if the leadership was wrong about it never being retracted could they also have been wrong about it ever being commanded?  The authors of this book maintain that it was a principal given by God while the jury is still out for me on that one.  I feel that polygamy might have a misinterpretation of the sealing covenant by Joseph himself.  Culturally at the time there were many other churches starting out that were practicing “spiritual wifery”. I think as Joseph learned more about sealings and combined that with his own ideas about many wives he might have set out on a path that was never intended by God. However, while the authors and I might disagree about the beginnings of polygamy we do at least agree on its ending. 

Following the pattern of the Abrahamic sacrifice we know that the third part of the story is that God provides a way to deliver the person out of the sacrifice.  In the Isaac story he provides a lamb in the thicket so that Abraham and Isaac are both saved.  In the story of Abraham and Hagar God allows Hagar to leave and for the marriage to be ended.  He sees they are unhappy and he allows the sacrifice to end.  He doesn't smite Abraham or Hagar for parting.  In fact he blesses Hagar with many new blessings and guides her path away from polygamy.  And in fact in Doctrine and Covenants 132:50 God even tells Joseph he acknowledges his sacrifices and will provide a way for his escape.  All of these examples show that no matter the reason for polygamy being lived in this life it will not be lived in the next.  That it is a temporary principal (at most) and that it is considered a sacrifice.  And while sacrifice brings forth blessings, the blessing for the sacrifice cannot be a continuation of that sacrifice.  In eternal life the time of sacrifice will be ended.  Therefore, if polygamy is a sacrifice, it cannot be required of us in eternity.

This knowledge eases much pain and worry for me.  One last quick note is that it also eases my worry that the reason we don't talk more about Heavenly Mother is that we don't know how many there are. There is no required polygamy in heaven, I have only one Heavenly Mother, and that means we can begin to learn more about her!
However, we do need to acknowledge that many temple practices still reflect a much different understanding of this principal in that we allow men but not women to be sealed to more than one person after a divorce or after a spouse dies. We know that God will make all things right in the end and I believe (as do the authors) that these practices will change in the future as we seek out new knowledge.  It was somewhat discouraging though to read the authors' belief that these changes would happen soon and then to realize the book was written 15 years ago and they still hadn't happened. 

3) The idea of Zion and Women's roles therein

In the New Testament, Book of Mormon and early church history we see that God's main purpose in calling a prophet is to establish Zion among his people.  What are some of the attributes of Zion?  That the people are of one heart, there is no poor among them, all are looked after and cared for, and all participate in the administration of Zion equally. 

Since Joseph Smith's interpretation of the law of consecration was mostly focused on the temporal aspects such as food, wealth, and possessions, we as latter day saints sometimes miss the bigger pictures of the idea of Zion.  When it says there were no poor among them it doesn't just mean financially poor.  It also mean physically poor, emotionally poor, and even power (or authority) poor.  It means that no one had more power or more right to happiness than another. All genders, ages and races are as one and enjoy equal say in their worship and equal time from the Lord. This book also clearly illustrates that throughout history women have been made poor in many of these aspects.  It also discusses how within the LDS cultures of today women might still be regarded as being poor.

They point out that we know that Joseph’s Smith’s attempts to institute the law of consecration ultimately didn’t result in a Zion community.  We’ve also been taught that it was because the saints just weren’t ready.  We often equate this with not being ready to have all their possessions in common.  But we need to consider other ways in which the early saints were not yet becoming one.  We know that many of the men during the foundations of the church were called out to on multiple missions or spent much of their time in the school of the prophets while women were left at home (sometimes in another state or country) often raising their children in poverty and watching their children die.  And even then God chastens the saints and tells them they are not yet a Zion people.

While we honor these sacrifices, is it also possible that God was telling them there was another way?  That there were still poor among them because women were not being utilized yet?  They were not allowed to participate in temple ordinances or help with the administration of the church in any way.  Furthermore, could it be that Joseph’s not including women in the administration of the church and priesthood ordinances had less to do with what God wanted and more to do with what culturally Joseph had been raised to believe about women? And if so, could some of those things change for women even today? Looking back on history now we can see that soon the Relief Society was coming, soon the temple was opened to women, but for many years women were still the poor among the early saints.  What changes are coming soon for the women of the church today? That question and the desire to be among the saints when it’s answered is something that keeps me coming back even on my hardest days as a self-proclaimed Mormon feminist.

The New Testament and Book of Mormon further illustrate what is needed in Zion communities.  Sorenson and Cassler do an amazing job of walking me through each story of a people from beginning to end who accomplish or fail to accomplish Zion.  They also give a detailed account of Paul’s teaching on charity and how that too is a call to Zion.  This alone is worth reading this book for!  The big take away “aha” for me was when they pointed out how many times the Book of Mormon authors use gender relations as an indication for whether a group of people were righteous or not.  We have descriptions of the wicked abusing women, practicing polygamy and seeking out concubines, breaking their wives hearts, raping women and even cannibalism.  We also have descriptions of the righteous loving their wives, defending their families, and making sure that there are no poor (women or men) among them.   

They also point out that many of the world's financially impoverished are women.  Much of this is the result of men not hearkening to Eve. What is meant by that?  Many men do not want to settle down into a marriage anymore and as a result many women are also not wanting to settle down into marriage and even when they do marriages are not seen as binding.  Because of this many children are born outside of a truly committed relationship.  If a man was unsure about committing to a woman he is also unsure about committing to offspring and in many cases this results in women caring for children alone. 

Furthermore, since women are often power poor too, meaning that they have less representation in government, that means men are also responsible for much of the allotting of money within societies. If they don't see caring for children as a priority this mean less funds and programs are put toward supporting these women in their efforts. Less maternity leave, less child care, and less financial opportunities for women. Also, if women are put in situations of having to choose between staying with Adam (man) and having children, or having to choose between being able to have a viable career and child rearing this leads to women not wanting the “burden” of children.  Then we begin to see ideas like abortion becoming more popular among women because it is seen as their only choice.  Thus when many people talk about "women's choice" they are only talking about the choice to end a pregnancy.  And then more funding is put into the choice against motherhood (abortion) and less funding and attention is given to the choice for motherhood (maternity leave, adequate health care, child care, etc) Not to get too political here but if we are unwilling to support mother's in the care for their children, is it any wonder that some see abortion as their only choice?

The occurrences of domestic violence against women, rape, and practices such as female circumcision and women's general lack of political representation in many parts of the world are another evidence that women are seen as power poor, emotionally lesser and physically  weak.

After some discussion about the world’s treatment of women (including an appendix in the end of the book) It then talks about what is the church membership getting right when it comes to women rights and what can we still be working on.  The church leaders are wonderful about advocating that men and women should be equal within a marriage and that men should not command or be a dictator in the family.  They are advocates for fidelity within marriage including that we should not be involved with pornography (an industry that is very oppressive to women and men who may or may not be willing participants in making it). They have also been very clear about including women in councils on the ward and stake level and recognizing that women have talents and skills that are needed within the leadership of each group.  They have also been advocates for women obtaining an education and growing their depth of knowledge.

However, there is also, of course, further work that needs to be done.  Just because the leadership have told us to include women in the council doesn’t mean that everyone is doing it.  And even if they include the women are they giving them an equal voice? Does their voice have as much weight as the high priest group leader?  Are their opinions listened to?  And if it is important at the family and ward levels for women to be involved in the preaching and teaching and administering why would it be any different at the church-wide levels?  Why are there only two female speakers during the general sessions of conference? These are all areas that we as a membership must work together to make sure that there are no “poor” among us.  The proclamation to the family makes it clear that men and women have different divine attributes.  If both are equally important within a family group they must be equally important within a church group. Men and women together can see a wider picture and move us toward a more Zion like state of being.

Also, even though we’ve been taught that men and women are equals within a marriage- and while marriages today are progressing forward- I think there are still some teachings and practices that don’t quite seem to echo that belief.  As I mentioned previously, even though polygamy is no longer physically practiced the reason for and duration of polygamy within the early church is something that needs to be addressed to put some of these worrisome beliefs and ideals about male/female relationships to rest.  Also, I think we could stand to have some further clarification about how both spouses are equal but the husband still presides.  The book does address this and they do a good job but I still need more guidance to understand this.

Also, we need to look at the amount of time that is required of men to be in church meetings (and thus the amount of time the woman is required to be at home raising the family by herself).  Not that men shouldn’t be doing good things and serving in the church and not that women can’t do an amazing job of raising children but are we supporting men and women in the same ways.  If she has a calling that demands her time is her husband picking up the slack at home or is she expected to be super woman? Do we see women’s meetings as important as men’s meetings? And more importantly, are we making sure that both men and women are having adequate time to focus on their own spirituality and be edified.  In my own stake I’ve seen many times that the stake priesthood meeting is held on Sunday nights so that all men can attend and nothing is scheduled over it.  But the women’s meeting is always on Saturday mornings and has often been scheduled over with ward baptisms or other events that make it hard for women to attend.  Are the meetings given equal weight of importance? Also, are we training the women in important and spiritual matters?

Similarly, while many men are happy to take the baby to Elder’s quorum or to a presidency meeting some are not.  I can remember early on in my own marriage when my husband and I were both 1st counselors in our respective presidencies.  I took our two oldest children with me to every meeting but one night I was helping someone with something and I couldn’t bring the girls.  When I asked if he could take them to his presidency meeting he replied he didn’t know if it would be appropriate.  My husband is a very thoughtful and enlightened man and realized as soon as he said it that he had, without realizing it, always had a double standard about child care.  If both meetings are equally important- then it would either be equally appropriate or equally inappropriate for us to take our children.  

I mentioned previously that the leaders of the church have advocating for women to gain an education.  But that has usually been followed up with “so that she has a way to support herself if she has to sometime”.  I recently read an amazing BYU devotional given by Eva Whitman that explained there is value in educating women beyond just making sure they can work if they have to. It’s important to gain knowledge always to improve our lives and minds. And it’s okay for women to want to receive education and to want to work.  We don’t have to wait until we “need” to work because of financial reasons.  And furthermore we need to be better about not criticizing the timing or choices of other women getting their education, working or staying home.  I loved the concept of avoiding “friendly fire”.

Another improvement we can make as members is to avoid misusing or interchanging words inappropriately.  Instead of saying church leadership- we may say “brethren” forgetting that there are also women involved.  Instead of saying priesthood holders we may say “the priesthood”.  Men are not the priesthood they hold keys in administering the priesthood. The priesthood is the power of God on Earth and is available to and given for the blessing of all people of the earth.  

On the topic of the priesthood the book does a good job of going over women and how they relate to priesthood.  It does acknowledge that it’s clear we do not fully understand all the facets of the priesthood.  The fact that women used to give blessing and annointings (for example the woman who anoints Christ before his crucifixion, the women who are going to prepare His body afterward, and the early saints who performed an anointing ordinance for other women in preparation for child birth) is a reason to believe that the priesthood and it’s use can be given to different people at different times.  The book is careful to say, and I will be too, that I’m not advocating that women be ordained in the priesthood exactly as men are now.  I know we are different and will approach it in different ways.  But the book does say that we as a membership can be doing a better job in discussing the ways that women do interact with the divine- whether it be through the priesthood itself, motherhood, or some yet to be revealed form of priestesshood.  We know that women cannot conceive or bring children through the first veil without a man. And we know that a man cannot pass into eternal life without the woman.  “Neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord”.  So there has to be a reason that women are needed within the priesthood ordinances.  And I don’t, nor do the authors of this book, believe that it is just to be eternal wombs to grow new spirits in the eternities.  There is definitely a connection between the powers of God and women that we are yet to fully comprehend.  

We should also be discussing Women's roles in eternity more.  In my stake on mother's day nothing was posted at all about women on their facebook page but on father's day there was an article posted about how fatherhood prepares men to become like God.  Maybe they didn't post a similar article on mother's because one has never been written but that is exactly my point.  We talk all the time about how we are here to become like God but we see God as a Father and a Priesthood holder.  Two things I am not.  So how do I, as a woman, become like God? This probably means we need to talk about Heavenly Mother more and also womanhood in general.  How does being a mother prepare us to become like God? I believe that it does, I just wish that it was talked about more.  We've heard quotes at church that being a mother is the most important job, that as a mother we have been given divine power to accomplish raising a family, that it's a noble and respected position.  But we need to go further...why is it an important job? What divine strengths are we given? If we don't even talk about mother's on mother's day in my ward and then have the stake president come to speak about fathers on father's day it's hard to feel respected. Don't get me wrong, the father's day talks were wonderful and we should talk about fathers! I just wish that mother's day could have talked about womanhood, motherhood, or sisters.

So that it doesn't feel like I'm throwing people under the bus there is also a lot of good that goes on in the stake and ward that I'm a part of.  People taking care of one another and trying their hardest to be of one heart.  I know a lot of men and women who have taught me so many important and wonderful things about being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ.  I know that there are always so many needs to address and people to help that sometimes things just get forgotten here and there. I'm grateful for those who have helped me on this journey for the last year also.  So many people who encourage and answer questions!
Well, these are my 8 pages of thoughts about this book and many things outside of this book that I’ve contemplated in my own life.  I would strongly recommend this to any of my friends who are seeking more understanding about what God thinks of women and what we as women can accomplish.  I’m already moving on to more books about these topics and am always on the lookout for new and exciting articles pertaining to them.  I’ll be discussing some other interesting articles I’ve read through BYU studies and would love it if others have a recommendation for me.  While I can only approach this topic from an LDS woman’s perspective I know that some of these pitfalls in gender relations happen within many organized religions and I’m interested in how that effects members of those communities too.  I know that Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father love their children.  All of their children.  That if we can use our differences together we can accomplish more good, see a clearer picture of God, and move toward being a Zion people.

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1 comment:

  1. So many wonderful ideas, Julia! Thank-you for being so diligent in sorting and expanding each thought so clearly, you are an amazing writer! And reading some thought brings back so clearly those endless-seeming days of tending to tiny children. It is so hard and feels endless and all consuming! I am so glad "that" time is behind me now, and I won't indulge too much, I don't want to borrow trouble, but I am proud of your formulating the ideas into great a presentation. Maybe you'll allow my out-of- this -world view... Today, we are flesh and blood. We will become flesh and bone. This means, perhaps, water, blood is only part of this mortal estate. So what will power / mobility be in the next existence? LIGHT. What is light? electricity... maybe more. As things approach the speed of light there is no time. This makes me think of atoms, of particles, of positive and negative charges substances. Man is not complete without women ( and vice versa). So maybe in the next existence we will merge ... Should I be writing a sci-fi??? But when I think this way, I feel fully a part of him - his purpose, his future, his sphere, his responsibilities in the church, in all things. Labels of men and women mean little when the next existence is so totally transformative and probably beyond comprehension! So, I hope you allow for inspiration to move you well beyond today's injustices. What you are doing is important, but please be open to our Heavenly Farther ( and Heavenly Mother, who is staying busy with her joys in her state and allows Him to speak for both ) may present. So many of our lessons are so far beyond words and this is one reason many of the temple lessons are left to inspiration. Love you!

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