A Kingdom of Priests: A Support for Female Ordination

Note: Many thanks to my wife Anne Stewart, whose wide research on this subject bolstered my own efforts. Her assistance with this article was essential and invaluable. It is her beautiful, informed and spiritual example that has been an inspiration to me in seeking Wisdom.


“The [Relief] Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.”[1]

 The context of this remarkable statement was Joseph Smith speaking at the third meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female organization Relief Society on March 30, 1842 (although in those days the Relief Society was an autonomous organization that was yet still connected to the Church in its purpose). Joseph Smith was a guest speaker nine times to the Relief Society before it was disbanded right before his death (and reinstated a decade later when Eliza R. Snow urged Brigham Young to give the organization a second chance). The Minutes were recorded in the official Relief Society Minutes Book in Secretary Eliza R. Snow’s own hand,[2] which are now available online from the LDS Church’s official Joseph Smith papers.

The above statement by Joseph Smith is one of the many pieces of evidence that have made me side with faithful Mormon feminists in the recent brouhaha over the issue of women’s ordination in the LDS Church. To me, this shows that Joseph Smith was considering an expanded priesthood role for women, specifically through the mechanism of an autonomous Relief Society. Unfortunately, conflicts with Joseph’s wife Emma and other women over polygamy, his martyrdom in Carthage Jail, and Brigham Young’s retrenchment tendencies when he felt his authority was being challenged, derailed this possibility of female priesthood being enforced in its fullness (although the Mormon temple endowment, especially the Second Anointing, was indeed a partial fulfillment, which I will briefly and respectfully discuss later).

Women’s roles in the Church are not an issue of “doubt” for me, although there have been times in my life where doubts have certainly raised their unsettling concerns, as they have for most honest inquirers. In the end, however, investigating an expanded role for women in the Church has rather had the opposite effect. I am filled with faith and the Spirit when I’ve prayerfully studied the issue and realize that statements from Joseph Smith (like the one above) and LDS scriptures show that gender issues are not so cut and dry as many Mormons would have us believe, and that revelation still has to come line upon line, precept upon precept to the Latter-day Saints. We are not an “unchanging” Church, but rather an eternally progressing Church that is still striving to live up to its potential of building Zion upon the Earth.   

Rather, doubts have come when I’ve considered the confusing “separate but equal” rhetoric issued to defend the lack of priesthood authority given to women. I feel nothing but alienation, confusion, and darkness when I prayerfully consider such justifications of gender inequalities. Trying to adopt such attitudes in the past have NEVER brought me peace, but rather a repressed unease. I feel farther from our Heavenly Parents when I consider such a constricted view of my mother, my sisters, my friends, my nieces, my in-laws, my aunts, my wife, my daughter, my Heavenly Mother. I not only feel farther from my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, but nearly as tragically, I also feel more distant from those beautiful women in my life. Whether I throw women on a pedestal or in a pit, we are not, at that point, on equal footing. That distance is created.

And I don’t want distance—I long for closeness, friendship, kinship, and fellowship with the women in my life. I have had a long, personal history with women. I have seven sisters. The majority of my friends in Jr. High and High School were female. My mother was a vitally important influence in my life. Many of my historical and literary heroes are women, from Joan of Arc, to Emma Smith, to Charlotte Bronte, to Lorraine Hansberry. My wife is my best friend, and I long for a beautiful, empowering future for my 3 year old daughter. As a general rule, I tend to feel closer and more connection to women than I do with men. Some may not think that I have much “skin in the game,” because I am a privileged, white male in an equal rights struggle. Yet this issue is quite personal to me, and it is spiritually urgent.

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Divine Feminine: Early Polytheist Israel Includes Goddess Worship

File:Hecht Museum, Israel – figurines 004-crop.JPGYahoo News posted on an interesting archaeological discovery in Israel that continues to add evidence that monotheism in Judaism was a late development in its Biblical history, and that one of its most prominent deities was the “wife” or consort of Yahweh. This prominent Jewish goddess was named Ashera, who also had a place in the pantheons of older cultures as well, dating back to the ancient Sumerian and Ugaritic myths.

For those familiar with the work of Margaret Barker and other similar Biblical scholars, this is not breaking news. The worship of multiple (including female) deities, pre-dating the first temple period has been researched and written about for a long time. But the additional evidence, of course, does make it increasingly hard for those who want to claim the root of the monotheistic, Judeo-Christian thought  reaches back to the dawn of time instead of the revisionary, Deuteronomist scribes in King Josiah’s day, will have difficulty contorting around this kind of information. As a Mormon who takes Joseph Smith’s teachings about a “Heavenly Mother” and his King Follett sermon seriously, this already synthesizes with my religious worldview.

Digital Drama: The Way to Keep Mormon Theatre Relevant?

I believe that keeping the flame of Mormon drama alive is important. Especially at my faith tradition’s still early stage of development as a religion and a culture, we already have a rich heritage of dramatic literature filled with a wide range of excellent plays.

As an effort to preserve and publicize that heritage, Zarahemla Books published Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, which includes theatrical works by some of Mormonism’s best dramatists. Michael Perry has recently been collecting a lot of Mormon plays under the umbrella of his Zion Theatricals, which licenses performance rights for Mormon themed drama to theatre companies and community groups. Angie Staheli has been encouraging production of LDS drama on the stake level at her blog LDS Plays. In the realm of higher education, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University continue to produce works by Mormon student playwrights, while independent theatre companies such as the Echo Theatre, Leilani Productions, and my own Zion Theatre Company continue to include Mormon drama in their seasons. There are many individuals and organizations who are striving to continue to vibrant tradition of creating theatre that is informed by the spirituality and beauty of our faith tradition, even when it isn’t explicit in its religiousness.

Yet despite these exciting developments, it sometimes feels like we lose as much ground as we gain, and that we are more often than not treading water. So I’ve been trying to analyze and figure out ways of making Mormon drama not only relevant, but also exciting and profitable, so that it can continue onward. As I’ve mentioned before,  I believe the relatively new trend of digital theatre seems to be an effective and exciting route for Mormon Drama to take.

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“Anything You Can Do…”: Feminist Superhero Revolution Starts at Marvel Films?

Captain Marvel Vol 7 5With recent rumors cropping up (emphasis on rumors!) about the possibility of Battlestar Gallactica actress Katee Sackhoff being in the running for the possible role of Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, feminist comic fans can have a peg to hang their hopes on. There have been a number of compelling female characters in recent superhero films, from Peggy Carter in Captain America, to Pepper Potts in Iron Man, to Catwoman in Dark Knight Rises, but even those characters had problematic elements with the portrayal of their characters. And the above characters also played chiefly supportive roles in the narrative to the male protagonist.

Things are looking a little rosier, though, with the future of the Avengers. In addition to this (albeit speculative at this point) inclusion of Captain Marvel, Joss Whedon, who has a history of writing compelling women in past projects, has already went on record about adding a little more gender diversity to the mix in the Avengers sequel, with the announcement that Scarlet Witch, one of his “favorite” characters (I think she’s fantastic, too) will be joining the team for the sequel, along with her brother Quicksilver.

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Doctor’s Orders: Geek and Proud

Loved the comments from actor Peter Capaldi, set to play the 12th incarnation of the title role in Doctor Who.  As some one who is inherently interested in geeky things, but went through a phase where I stepped away from it all for a while, only to be drawn back into it, I totally related.

It’s very comforting to know that the role will be in the hands of some one who has been a fan of Doctor Who since its early days.

Orson Scott Card and His Imitation of Fox News: Paranoia? Hyperbole? Satire?

After reading novelist and political commentator Orson Scott Card’s bizarre “thought experiment,” titled “Unlikely Events,” I really am quite mystified. In the article he plays a “game” in which he imagines President Obama becoming a fascist overlord ruling with an iron fist over America and being a figure akin to Hitler. Although he tries to reassure his readers that, of course, he doesn’t believe this stuff, and that he’s just wearing his hat as a “fiction” writer, yet he still also insists that “it sure sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Because, like a good fiction writer, I made sure this scenario fit the facts we already have — the way Obama already acts, the way his supporters act, and the way dictators have come to power in republics in the past.” He says that “the writer’s made-up characters and events must seem truthful. We must pass the plausibility test.”

But then Card shovels in comparisons to Hitler and every other dictator he can think of. When people start comparing their ideological rivals to Hitler, they have shown their refusal to speak with nuance and distinction. They have immediately lost the argument, in my mind. He then throws in a huge number of broad generalizations and hyperbolic statements such as this:

Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing “czars” who didn’t need Senate approval. His own party hasn’t passed a budget ever in the Senate.

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt.

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Mormons…the new Jew?: Exploring the Jewish-Mormon Connection

BYU’s Jerusalem Center

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell wrote an interesting comparison of Mormons and Jews in the Jewish Press yesterday. Ever since Orson Hyde dedicated the Holy Land and prophesied about the Zionist movement, Mormons have had a vested interest in witnessing the restoration of the Jews’ place in the world. It should be clear, though, that Latter-day Saint Church leaders are on record in expressing love for towards both Jews and Muslims, lest people think we’re taking a side in certain Middle-East conflict. The late Mormon president/prophet Howard  W. Hunter said in his excellent 1979 address “All Are Alike Unto God”:

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A Wacky, Wonderful Miss Jane: _Austenland_ Both Skewers and Honors the Jane Austen Aficionado

A wonderfully breezy Keri Russell in _Austenland_.

As I looked around the movie theater last weekend in Scottsdale, AZ, it was pristinely clear that Austenland had attracted its target audience. The estrogen in the theater was potent, with only a few sparse men present, attached to girlfriends or husbands. I was definitely the only man there who wasn’t with his female significant other. Despite that fact, I couldn’t have been happier to be there.

Now, granted, my wife Anne was originally supposed to come with me, but she ended up not being able to come (and will instead be attending this weekend with a group of women). But it says something about me that, despite that hiccup, I was still intent to go to the film by myself (not just so I could write the review, but because I was super excited to see it).  Blame it on my seven sisters, but, in my heart of hearts, I’d much rather watch Downton Abbey than the Superbowl. As a result of that brainwashing at the hands of my sisters, I’m very affectionate towards Regency/Victorian literature, BBC period dramas, black and white Jimmy Stewart films, and even a well made rom-com. Thus the new film Austenland, a tongue in cheek love letter to the hordes of Jane Austen fans that span the globe… well, it was right up my alley.

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The Virtuous Atheist or Atheist Maligned: Atheism Comforted and Confronted in my Religious Plays, Part One

ASU's Binary Theatre Company's production of A Roof Overhead, October 2012
ASU’s Binary Theatre Company’s production of A Roof Overhead, October 2012

WARNING: Spoilers ahoy! If you want the context of the play referenced, A Roof Overhead, the majority of the production by ASU’s Binary Theatre Company was recorded and is up on You Tube. It’s not the highest quality recording, and it was a matinee (thus, historically, less audience engagement and laughing), but you get a good sense of that particular production. The Utah production, unfortunately, was not recorded due to technical difficulties (so not even I got to see it!).  Of course, I think the issues the essay raises go beyond the actual play, so feel free to read it if you haven’t the time to watch an entire play at the moment.

James Goldberg’s award winning one act play “Prodigal Son” is a stirring play that flips Jesus’ proverb of the same name, showing the relationship between a former Mormon turned atheist and his son Daniel, who joins the faith his father had long since rejected. The tension and conflict caused by the reversal of the parental disapproval is both ironic and effective. Set in this gem of a play is a haunting monologue addressed to the audience by Daniel’s father:

We’re far too casual, I think, in the way we talk about losing. “I’ve lost my keys,” for example, really means you’ve mislaid them. We say we’re “lost” when we’re just disoriented. And we lose our tempers all the time, only to find them again a few minutes later—

I wish we wouldn’t dilute the best word we have for when things are truly and permanently gone. “Lost cause” is a good phrase. It’s a cold, hard dose of reality. No one goes out to find a lost cause. It’s just lost. That phrase understands the power of the word’s finality…

So when I tell you that a long time ago I lost my faith, I don’t want you imagine that I’ve misplaced or that I could be capable of finding it again. Lost faith is like a lost limb…if it’s broken and bleeding, if you try to patch it up and ends up being inflamed and infected…at some point you have to cut it off. And after you’ve lost it the only thing left is the occasional flash of phantom pain.

I lost my faith. Twenty years later I lost my wife. And now maybe I’m losing my son.

Don’t take away from me the only word I have to cope with that.[1]

Coming from a practicing Mormon like Goldberg, the monologue is unusually and beautifully sensitive towards this fictional father’s disbelief in God and religion. It shows a well of compassion and charity on Goldberg’s part towards what really amounts to a religious minority (at least in the United States and other predominately religious countries, although that trend is fast reversing in many places in the world). It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment in a beautiful play.

In this way, Goldberg has shown that he is particularly ready to clarify the way of the atheist to believers, and pleas for understanding on the his atheist friends behalf—perhaps even to the point of being a warm ambassador or a defensive patron when discussing atheism among believers. Thus it makes sense that, in his review of my play A Roof Overhead, he was quick to come to the defense of the doubter, even though such a vigorous and heated defense was hardly needed considering the context of the play’s intended message of tolerance and pleas for mutual understanding.

As Goldberg is not the only critic to misrepresent my representation of atheism, including a handful of antagonistic reviews written against my plays Swallow the Sun and Prometheus Unbound, I feel compelled to address the issue directly. I normally like my plays to stand on their own artistically, so that people may interact with them based on their own experiences and what they personally bring to the play, without constant and intrusive commentary from me.

However, some have tried to tie me to a pattern of intolerance towards atheists, even resorting to rather personal slights and warnings to others against my work. Thus, in the name of my reputation, I feel it best to clear up what my intent is, and what my intent decidedly isn’t, towards atheism and atheists. After all, if I’m to be lambasted on the matter, I would prefer to be lambasted for something I actually believe.

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Ms. Molly Goes to Hollywood: Mormon Women Authors and Filmmakers Represent with “Austenland”

My monthly post at the Association for Mormon Letters’ blog Dawning of a Brighter Day just went up. This month I explore the interesting possibilities that have opened up with the Mormon female helmed release of the film Austenland  in my post “Ms. Molly Goes to Hollywood: Mormon Women Authors and Filmmakers Represent with Austenland.” Check it out by clicking on the link!

Stephenie Meyer, Jerusha Hess, Shannon Hale