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One Size Does Not Fit All, Part I: What is the Design?

September 16, 2012

This post is the first part in a series. Please find part 2 here.

I probably haven’t devoted any posts here specifically to this phrase, but I use it often in comments across many sites…and it is such a versatile phrase.

I have traditionally used it in realms of beliefs and worldviews and philosophies…I think that any given religion can be helpful to some, but utterly unhelpful — or perhaps even harmful — to others. If we have an ideal of there being “one true church,” then we can often become miserable by sticking too closely to this ideal — either because the church that we consider to be true just doesn’t work with us, or because even if it works for us, our zeal for it harms our relationships with others.

One of my friends was writing about God’s ideal (especially for families) being like a shirt pattern. She alluded to a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at a leadership training meeting. To quote from Holland:

You’ve also heard other spoken and written messages, including carefully worded letters from the First Presidency regarding the need to strengthen and protect the family. One of those letters, to have been read in sacrament meetings and delivered to families by home teachers, contains this language: “We call upon parents to devote their best efforts to the teaching and rearing of their children in gospel principles which will keep them close to the Church. . . . However worthy and appropriate other demands or activities may be, they must not be permitted to displace the divinely-appointed duties that only parents and families can adequately perform.”1

You realize we are addressing the entire adult population of the Church in this broadcast. It may seem unusual to have young single adults invited to a discussion primarily about building up a righteous posterity. But we have extended that invitation consciously. You single adults must and will be the parents of tomorrow. And while you’re planning and preparing for that opportunity, you are very much part of your own parents’ posterity now and in the future. We are praying for all such to be righteously devoted to the family principles the Church and your parents espouse.

Furthermore, we know that others in our audience and in the Church are not now married, nor do some have an intact family fitting the ideal we regularly refer to in the Church. Please be assured we are fully aware of the many different circumstances that exist among our members. We love every one of you. We also realize that as more and more families are in disarray and as many cultural forces devalue marriage, children, and traditional family life, the General Authorities and general officers of the Church feel increased urgency to speak of ideals and gospel-centered principles. Otherwise, the moral drift which the world inevitably experiences could take us to a point where earnest people in and out of the Church are truly at sea when it comes to divine expectations in marriage and eternal family standards.

Patterns and Replicas

Let me use a parable that I hope can make this point, whatever your marital or family circumstance. For lack of a better title, I call it “The Parable of the Homemade Shirt.” My mother, bless her, was a marvelous seamstress. In my childhood years, when money was short and new clothing hard to come by, she would sometimes make clothing for us to wear to school. I would see a shirt in a store window or in a mail-order catalogue, and my mother would say, “I think I can make that.” By looking at the shirt as closely as she could, she would then cut cloth and put in seams to a degree that was close to the expensive original.

I pay her the tribute of being both willing and able to do that. But she didn’t like to do it that way. While she could study the commercial product and come close, what she really wanted was a pattern. A pattern helped her anticipate angles and corners and seams and stitches that were otherwise hard to recognize. Furthermore, if she went back for a second or a third shirt, she was always working from a perfect original pattern, not repeating or multiplying the imperfections of a replica.

I think you can see my point and hers. We are bound to be in trouble if a shirt is made from a shirt that was made from a shirt. A mistake or two in the first product—inevitable without a pattern—gets repeated and exaggerated, intensified, more awkward, the more repetitions we make, until finally this thing I’m to wear to school just doesn’t fit. One sleeve’s too long. The other’s too short. One shoulder seam runs down my chest. The other runs down my back. And the front collar button fastens behind my neck. I can tell you right now that such a look is not going to go over well in the seventh grade.

Holland later goes on to talk about the pattern of marriage and family, but the church has drawn its position on these matters more fully with The Family: A Proclamation to the World. I trust you are familiar with that, but if not, please check the link.

Shirts, side by side

Nips/tucks or Redesigns?

In her article, my friend writes:

As a reluctant seamstress, I can attest to the power of a pattern and the need to sometimes nip or tuck here and there. I can also attest to the power of cultural forces that seek to assuage the pain of unpleasant circumstances by altering the ideal to fit them. A nip and a tuck is quite different from a redesign. My particular shirt is short-sleeved, because the sleeves were torn from mine. I can walk about with ragged edges, or I can mend them and hold onto the pattern.

Pieces of the Pattern

The family is central to God’s plan for humanity. Everything we do should center on protecting families. While one of the best ways to do that is to have a family and organize it under revealed principles, when that isn’t possible we uphold the family as an institution and help strengthen others in their family work. Every person on earth is part of a family and has a role to fulfill. We are part of something much larger than our day-to-day experience.

Marriage is enlivened by parenthood, and children are entitled to that foundation. In a society that is child-focused, as the plan is, marriage between men and women who honor each other provides the best stability for children and for that society and mimics eternal work temporally. While the individual adaptations to this pattern are many and varied, altering the pattern would subvert eternity and destabilize the best chance for children to thrive.

From reading and rereading these points, I wonder if it the field isn’t actually beset with some of the Mormon ambiguity and plausible deniability of which I am becoming fond. What is the pattern? What is the ideal that the church teaches? Well, I can agree with protecting families. But what is a “family”?

The Family: A Proclamation to the World would seem to proclaim what a family is…well, to the world. Many people take the Proclamation on the Family to speak out against gay marriage and relationships. After all, it says:

THE FIRST COMMANDMENT that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

…THE FAMILY is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.

…WE WARN that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.

So, isn’t it clear? The family is ordained of God. And then, the next line talks about marriage between man and woman. Aren’t we supposed to fill in the blanks: marriage between man and woman is the family that is ordained of God?

If this is the “design,” what would satisfy as a nip and tuck? And what would be example of “the power of cultural forces that seek to assuage the pain of unpleasant circumstances by altering the ideal to fit them“? What would be a “redesign”?

Earlier, I mentioned that this might all be beset with Mormon ambiguity and plausible deniability — what I mean is this: so many people take the Proclamation to be anti-gay marriage. But as the church did with caffeine in the Word of Wisdom, it would be too easy for the church or its newsroom to come along later and say:

Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out the family (The Family: A Proclamation to the World) does not mention committed gay relationships.  The Church’s proclamations prohibit violations of chastity, abuse of spouse or offspring, and failure to fulfill family responsibilities.

In the same way that people today (both before and after the church statement) filled in the ambiguities of the Word of Wisdom to include caffeinated sodas (or not include caffeinated sodas, depending on the person), and would even gather quotes from General Authorities and prophets to bolster their claim, there will of course be people who will point out that there is a pattern of action items and statements from church leaders that speak out against gay relationships and gay marriage. However, there is no question that the church’s changing of policies recreates history for the new generations that grow up in the church — I will have to write a post going more into detail about it, but Invictus Pilgrim has written about the change in historical interpretations of President Kimball’s words on homosexuality.

While the shift in interpretations must surely be frustrating for those who grew up under the crushing feelings of guilt and inadequacy of pre-change interpretation, and while the glacial pace of change must be frustrating to those who think change is long overdue, there is at least some hope to believe that in softening and shifting rhetoric on things like homosexuality (e.g., what’s the position on it? Is it the attraction or just the action?), there will be room for more change.

Anyway, I digress. What I mean to say here is that I can’t even take it for granted that the Family Proclamation is a clear and explicit position on gay marriage or committed gay relationships. It is a mirror into which people see whatever they grew up being taught to see.

As a result, I don’t know what is the pattern for this shirt…so I don’t know what would be a redesign and what would be a nip or tuck. (For whatever it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that in the minds of members, the issue probably doesn’t feel anywhere near as “ambiguous” as the caffeine issue…I’m pretty sure most, if not all, members understand the church to be against gay relationships, no matter what. But my point is that to do that, they will have to fill in the gaps of the Family Proclamation with things from other sources.)

This post has gotten too long, so I’ll cut it here, but as a sneak preview to the next post(s?) in the series, I’ll just raise these questions:

  1. Why would we want to focus on mass-producing shirts based on a pattern when we could have custom tailored, bespoke clothing?
  2. If one size truly doesn’t fit all (or doesn’t fit all very well), then shouldn’t the church try to come up with different shirt sizes in the same pattern for different body types, so to speak?
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6 Comments
  1. Why would we want to focus on mass-producing shirts based on a pattern when we could have custom tailored, bespoke clothing?

    Because you can get more people into shirts when you’re stamping-out the mass produced variety.

    It’s about the marketability of one group’s ideas [even what could be potentially good ideas]. It’s the gospel, as analyzed through the lens of economics of scale. It’s about trying to broker the impractical, pie-in-the-sky idealism of Zion’s one-heart and one-mind as a commodity of approved thoughts, behaviors, fashions, vocabulary, books, web-sites, beverages, film genres, pews, and paint colors — that span all space, time, and culture in an objective, absolute, and context-independent manner.

    I’m sure that devotees of the “mass-produced shirt patterns” school of thought would say that it’s OK because God showed them that particular pattern — and if it doesn’t fit you, then you need to tailor-make yourself to fit into the clothes [instead of vice-versa].

    But I think that God is about love [that’s His “shirt pattern”]: real love — chesed or agape — that open-faced, fully-naked, no-stinginess at all, complete sharing of all things kinda love — which is why God is uncontrollable [or all-powerful], even anti-control.

    But there’s a fear of relative truth or subjective ethics because they’re uncomfortable — they aren’t well-defined edges and lines that we can check-off and box-in. But love requires the situational, the voluntary, and the accepting.

    It’s funny that it’s among the religious where one will encounter the most hostility towards the subjective/situational — given the situational ethics of the scriptures: e.g., it’s wrong to kill [unless it’s not], it’s acceptable to take plural wives and concubines [unless it’s not], it’s required to circumcise the flesh [unless it’s not]. The reason all of the law and the prophets hang on the single concept of love — is that without the context of love — being “true” or “right” is meaningless.

    The gospel is meant to apply to every human who’s ever lived [or will ever live] – ever. Each generation, each culture has to bring the word [this “pattern”] to Life in their language, their world-view, and the conditions found among them, at that time and in that place. One gospel, expressed through diverse forms according to the doctrine of expediency.

    If one size truly doesn’t fit all (or doesn’t fit all very well), then shouldn’t the church try to come up with different shirt sizes in the same pattern for different body types, so to speak?

    Isn’t that rhetorical? Shouldn’t the community that purports to be the place where the Framer of the Universe desires all human beings to gather to fellowship with each other and learn how to come unto Him have answers/solutions tailor-made to fit the various conditions found among the diverse range of human experiences?

    I would hope that a community claiming to maintain a direct link to fresh, new, and living revelation from the mouth of God could give me something more substantial than a size-M crew neck.

  2. Justin,

    Thanks for the comment…I had read your latest post and it highlight many of the same ideas.

    Isn’t that rhetorical? Shouldn’t the community that purports to be the place where the Framer of the Universe desires all human beings to gather to fellowship with each other and learn how to come unto Him have answers/solutions tailor-made to fit the various conditions found among the diverse range of human experiences?

    I would hope that a community claiming to maintain a direct link to fresh, new, and living revelation from the mouth of God could give me something more substantial than a size-M crew neck.

    Well, it’s as you said earlier:

    I’m sure that devotees of the “mass-produced shirt patterns” school of thought would say that it’s OK because God showed them that particular pattern — and if it doesn’t fit you, then you need to tailor-make yourself to fit into the clothes [instead of vice-versa].

    For this post series, I’m probably being deliberately narrow by focusing on the heteronormative/heterosexist dynamics of the church, but as I see it, the “size-M crew neck” the church provides is Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s era ideal Mom-at-home, Dad-at-work, and 2.5 kids. The church literally doesn’t seem to have any other message to anyone who doesn’t fit this “ideal” other than to say, “Look upon the ideal as something that you could have had, and maybe will have in the eternity.”

    This is especially relevant in the realm of gay relationships. I mean, with gay marriage *actually* being a possibility, the church could be on the forefront of pioneering a monogamous, committed sexual ethics for both straight and gay folks. (And I mean, yeah, that would bring up some complaints of homonormativity from many queer theorists, but whatevs)

    But the church doesn’t do that. Instead, its current position ends up not even being consistent with itself. As you wrote elsewhere, groups like the Catholic church can consistently offer celibacy as a valid (and indeed privileged) life path. But Mormonism doesn’t have that luxury, coming from a considerably different theology…so when Mormonism essentially relegates gay folks to celibacy, that’s not an answer, but in fact, the evidence that they don’t have an answer tailor-made to fit there.

    That being said, I think there is room for relevation. I think it is a lot quieter, subtler, and slower than people want it to be, and I’ve only just started thinking about how it could work with the latest caffeine soda/Newsroom stuff. I’ll have to do a lot more research to see if it’s plausible or not…

  3. I’m […] focusing on the heteronormative/heterosexist dynamics of the church, but as I see it, the “size-M crew neck” the church provides is Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s era ideal Mom-at-home, Dad-at-work, and 2.5 kids.

    The historical basis of the “family” was multihusband-multiwife tribes that shared food, labor, childcare, and sexual partners — not our present narrative of the 2-parent nuclear family with college-educated urban employment and suburban house, with the 2.5 kids [maybe 4 or 5 if you’re a “good Mormon”] and a dog.

    The church adopted itself into that institution and respun our “Eternal Marriage” story to garner the “family values” of US culture for recruitment purposes in the wake of the 1890 Manifesto and renunciation of polygyny.

    I think Mike S makes a great point everytime he brings it up — the church has presently organized itself as a gerontocracy, so leadership today represents the 1950’s era “Leave it to Beaver” Mormons from a Utah-centric, cis-, hetero-, anglo-, middle-class privileged lifestyle.

    With power concentrated in the hands of these few, we get a gospel presented in those terms, and those terms alone — with nothing for people who’s narratives differ either slightly or greatly from that.

    So we’d either have to change our seniority system — or just wait for the younger generation to work its way through the ranks [hoping they don’t get their opinions changed on the way up]. And there’s also the dynamic of the Bednar’s of the church, who are of the generation under Monson, et al. — but who grew-up within the separated wall of that same Utah-centric view of Mormonism.

    I mean, with gay marriage *actually* being a possibility, the church could be on the forefront of pioneering a monogamous, committed sexual ethics for both straight and gay folks.

    I think making the move to get onto that forefront would necessitate a re-evaluation of our stated positions on what the fundamental purpose of marriage covenants really is, what God’s design for getting adults together into families is really all about — what is He wanting us to do/foster in human society by organizing ourselves this way.

    Right now, the regurgitated, stock-responses are [as you say], not internally-consistent with themselves:

    * We parrot traditional American Christianity by saying that marriage is about One-man-and-One-woman, but we allow marriages after a spouse’s death and after divorce [which would be serial monogamy — not a true mono-]. Then we take it further by sealing polygynous and polyandrous eternal families through of policy of sealing any deceased person to all spouses they had while living [again, not one man and one woman].

    * We tie the purpose of marriage families together with reproduction — when many couples are infertile, many couples are not economically-sound enough to provide for the maintenance of large families [especially when we keep them separate with sanctions against polygamy], and there’s millions of already-born children who aren’t cared for well-enough and could be adopted instead.

    I agree that we can successfully associate marriage covenants with fidelity, cooperation, commitment, service, intimacy, fellowship, fulfillment, and companionship — without needing them to be hetero- and monogamous. And I think we can associate “the family” with greater purposes than reproducing children.

  4. Justin,

    I think making the move to get onto that forefront would necessitate a re-evaluation of our stated positions on what the fundamental purpose of marriage covenants really is, what God’s design for getting adults together into families is really all about — what is He wanting us to do/foster in human society by organizing ourselves this way.

    One thing that seems to be the case to me (although I am far from the best read person on this matter) is that in the early years of the church, Joseph Smith and company were providing the foundation of redefining what marriage covenants really were about, what community really was about, etc., That’s why there are quotes like, “Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism” — he was binding people into a super-family based on this new (or in his statements, revealed/restored) religious narrative. So, it’s not that we would need to invent new positions here…we would just have to look back and restore what those positions were…but as you say, many of these positions changed in light of the 1890 manifesto, for purposes of political survival…

    * We parrot traditional American Christianity by saying that marriage is about One-man-and-One-woman, but we allow marriages after a spouse’s death and after divorce [which would be serial monogamy — not a true mono-]. Then we take it further by sealing polygynous and polyandrous eternal families through of policy of sealing any deceased person to all spouses they had while living [again, not one man and one woman].

    This, BTW, is another place where I think the Orthodox (and to a much lesser extent, Catholics) have a very different theology, but still it is consistent with itself. From what I have heard from the most informed Orthodox people I know, divorce already is frowned upon (but yeah, a lot of people frown upon it)…but remarriage after divorce is *especially* frowned upon. I think one blog I was reading about it called the Orthodox position on sexuality radical monogamy — I have a post about that somewhere in my archives, when I was comparing different religious groups’ theologies on marriage and sexuality.

    Mormonism simply doesn’t fit this pattern. Monogamy is really patched together for political purposes, but I mean, I don’t think that’s going to change publicly any time soon. Interestingly, I could see a Mormon theology that challenges hetero- and homonormative ideals on monogamy, but I think the church doesn’t want to face the political suicide it would face from the Republican party and evangelical conservative Christians if it did such.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. One Size Does Not Fit All, Part II: Tailor-Made vs. Ready to Wear « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. One Size Does Not Fit All, Part III: Resizing for Niche Markets « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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