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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Forgotten Half: Women of the British Empire

The European continent is home to one of the richest and most diverse cultures in world history.  It has been at the forefront of tremendous change and influence that has both blessed and cursed millions throughout the world.  One of the most influential of all these nations is the little island to the north known as Great Britain. Few would have thought that what started as a relatively small nation would eventually become one of the largest empires in world history yet for all its achievements and conquests, the British Empire is still greatly misunderstood.  Throughout the course of early historiography, the British Empire has been seen and understood through the lenses of male-domination and masculinity.  Rarely if ever is the role of women mentioned within the historiography of the British Empire.  One would think that such an oversight would be foolish, being that half of a given population is essentially discarded.  Yet despite this massive oversight, the role of women in the British Empire is paramount to the understanding of how Britain managed to succeed as an empire.  Though often overlooked, British women played an essential role in the empire by protecting family life, maintaining British culture, and preaching Christian values in the colonies.       

During the early years of colonization, British women played a very small role in the founding of colonies.  In fact, women were rarely seen in many of Britain’s earliest colonies.  In Jamestown for example, the first settlers were exclusively men, being that the most urgent need was for skilled “manly” labor.[1]  Once women began arriving in the various American colonies, most were obligated to suffer under the practice of indentured servitude.  Those who were free, however, married young and began families as soon as possible.[2]  In India, women again were not to be found amongst the earliest colonizers.  In fact, early British colonizers preferred the absence of European women.  They believed that relationships between British men and Indian women actually aided in bridging the gap between the two cultures.[3]  The presence of British women (in their eyes) would only hurt that balance.  The basic rule for women, in terms of British colonization, was that where rule and conquest were the goals, women were a hindrance.  Where settlement and colonization were the aspirations, women were beneficial.[4]

When women finally did make their way to the colonies, their arrival was often met with hesitation and concern.  Though the arrival of women helped to establish and secure British the family culture, it also ushered in an era in which men longed for the “good old days” of concubinage with native women.[5]  No longer were the British men free to mingle with indigenous women, as they had been accustomed.  This change, however, ushered in a new day for British colonizers.  British women brought to the colonies the established customs of European family values.  In turn, women worked to spread such values by networking with one another in their respective colonies.  As one women stated, “An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian empire.”[6]  In short, women strongly embraced the idea that to secure a British-style home within the colonies was the surest way to secure the empire as a hole. 

Life was not easy for the majority of British colonial women.  Leaving one’s home, though exciting, was tremendously stressful as well.  To make matters more difficult, women that entered the colonial world found themselves in more mundane activities than those of men.  As one historian points out, “The colonial world was definitely a man’s world, and women were not allowed to play a meaningful role in it except as petty traders and farmers.”[7]  To help secure the British family structure within the colonies, women worked tirelessly and received little recognition for their efforts.  Within the walls of their homes, women labored as homemakers, wives and mothers.  They were responsible for almost all of the behind the scenes activities that helped to maintain a typical British family.  Whether in the Caribbean, India or Africa, European women faced the every day struggles that were expected on a “proper” British woman. 

As difficult as life may have been as a colonist, it was not without some benefits.  Upon their arrival, many British women were quickly taken as wives.  Since the population of men in a colony was usually twice that of women, many women who came to work in the colonies were quickly married to a willing male.  Their marriage actually proved beneficial, since fewer jobs were available in the colonies than back home.  In fact, fewer women worked outside the home in the colonies than in Britain.[8]  Though not typically working outside the home, colonial women found themselves with more than enough to keep them busy.  The daily tasks of maintaining the home and rearing children were extremely time-consuming.  Fortunately, many colonial women also enjoyed a more luxurious life than their counterparts back home.  A typical middle class family could afford three to six servants in the colonies, whereas back in Britain they could only afford one if they were lucky.[9]

As pleasant as life might have been for some colonial women, it would be a gross overstatement to say that all women shared in the joy.  The reality of colonial life for many women was far from blissful.  For some, the hope for a family of their own was shattered by the horrors of reality.  While trying to escape the struggles of life back home, many women were forced to make their living in the various colonies as prostitutes.  The sex slave trade that grew in the British colonies reached staggering levels.  Some women were even forced to average four customers a night, which provided tremendous revenue for the various brothels.[10]  One can only imagine the struggles of such a life.  The difficulties that accompanied this type of a lifestyle must have been appalling.  In the male-dominated society that was the British Empire, women were often seen (and trafficked) as expendable commodities.  Clearly life as a colonial woman was not as easy as hoped.  Whether working behind the scenes as a housewife or forced to endure the vile conditions as a sex slave, the efforts of colonial women were often forgotten, since women clearly took a back seat in such a society.

Family life was only one of the many ways in which British colonial women were able to make an impact.  Along with the struggles that attend womanhood, was the pressure to maintain and cultivate British culture.  The idea of what it meant to be British was deeply rooted into the lifestyles of many of its citizens.  Not only did it carry the aura of superiority to others, but it also carried masculine overtones.  As Linda Colley put it, “Quite simply, we usually decide who we are by reference to who and what we are not.”[11]  For British women, this meant protecting the British family system from the “corruption” and influence of native populations.  It also meant that women were taught to comply with the idea that a masculine British Empire was the supreme goal. 

One example of the emphasis placed on spreading British culture was the establishment of Empire Day.  Celebrated on May 24 (the birthday of Queen Victoria), Empire Day was a spectacle that was commemorated in nearly 6,000 schools across the empire.[12]  Children across the empire were taught to glory in being British.  Young girls in particular could often be seen singing patriotic songs that celebrated soldiers, while young boys engaged in athletic and warrior patriotism games.[13]  Such activities molded the minds of young boys and girls to embrace the idea of a masculine/warrior society, where women worshipped their fighting men from the sidelines.

In the colonies, the expansion of British culture often grew into full-blown racism. Again, the concept of “Britishness” created an aura in which British citizens felt superior to indigenous people, based on their religion, customs and beliefs.  The British superiority complex was more than evident in India, where the ruling class was exclusively British.  Zareer Masani points out that during the mid 18th century, the British reserved all high offices of administration while, “The subordinate ranks of administration remained entirely Indian.”[14]   By maintaining exclusive control of high offices, the British Empire created yet another means by which British identity was shaped amongst the masses.  The belief in British superiority began to take a very strong hold in the hearts of its citizens.

For women, this idea of British superiority was defended vigorously.  As the empire continued to branch out, women were quickly integrated into the expansion of British ideology.  As teachers, British women were able to help as educators in India, where they worked hard to help “civilize” the local people.[15]  In Africa, British women were also used to help educate and establish British culture in the area.[16]  For the most part, women took these responsibilities very serious, and were often sympathetic to the needs of the native peoples.  British women proved vital in relocating British culture to the colonies.  As Margaret Strobel states, “in the colonies, as in Britain, women were particularly responsible for carrying out these rituals…women’s work was to maintain the status of the family and preserve social boundaries between Europeans and indigenous people”[17] In essence, women were the gatekeepers of British cultural norms.

For all the good done by women in the colonies, there was still a level of xenophobia that permeated British colonials.  British women were quick to put their guard up in defense of their families.  Women even regularly feared the use of native wet nurses for their children, believing that, “the milk of a native woman should contaminate an English child’s character.”[18]  Women were also quick to point out the “savagery” of indigenous men, who were seen essentially as, “would-be rapists or seducers.”[19]  As one African native put it, “The overall European policy in Africa may be summed up in these two words: white supremacy.”[20]  British men were quick to point out the iniquity that lurked if a “savage” was able to seduce a white woman.  In such cases, British leaders (who were men) failed to recognize any wrongdoing in relationships between European men and native women.  Clearly a double standard had been created. 

Along with the concern for the well being of their women, British men were quick to point out how their culture treated its women with much more respect.  According to the British intellectual James Mill, a society could be judged based on its treatment of women.  As Strobel points out, “In Mill’s view, the status of women progresses from low to high, associated with the evolution of ‘civilization.’”[21]  Based on Mill’s estimation, the British felt vindicated in their assessment that they were more “civilized.”  The novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe provides a perfect example of this belief.  The story’s main character, Okonkwo, regularly beats his wives for mundane issues.  In one particular part, he even beats his wife Ojiugo for failing to have dinner ready.[22]  For the British, this would be ample evidence of their superiority, even though it would be reasonable to assume that even Britons were guilty of committing the same acts on their wives.

Another important aspect of British culture was its religious convictions.  For the British, this was one of the major distinguishing factors that uniquely made them British.  As Linda Colley points out, Britons were able to unite more on the issue of their Protestant faith than on any other issue.[23]  For British women, this belief was passionately embraced, since women were traditionally the religious pulse of the family.  In their quest to follow God’s will, British women became zealous missionaries in the colonies.  Their yearning to convert and aid the various native populations made them powerful tools to the empire.  British women were active in establishing villages for runaway slaves, in protesting the ritual burning of native widows, and in seeking an end to the practice of clitoridectomy.[24]  Female missionaries were also successful in areas like India, where they were able to offer education to indigenous women and were able to effectively establish British customs.[25] 

The efforts made by female missionaries convinced many of them that they were capable of branching out and helping even more people.  Women like Dr. Annie Besant, who led the Madras Theosophical Society, helped to inspire much of the nationalist movement in India.  She was able to inspire her followers to unite and, “seek common ground between Indian and European religious and cultural traditions.”[26]  Other women sought to break the patriarchal chains with which they were restrained.  To expand their ability to help, female missionaries in India banded together to create the Ladies Association for the Promotion of Female Education Among the Heathen.[27]  Their goal was to create an organization that would convince the male colonial leaders that a women’s society could organize, convert, and sustain itself.  The measure met with limited success. 

The desire that European women had to branch out and help indigenous people of the various colonies was often met with ridicule, accusation and scorn.  In Africa for example, female missionaries regularly bumped heads with their male superiors in the church.  The male-dominated British social structure had little time or patience to deal with women’s issues effectively.  In one particular instance, the experience of Mary Pigot is very telling of how conflicting male leaders could be with their female subordinates.  While running an orphanage in Calcutta, Miss Pigot was criticized by her male superior, Rev. William Hastie, for how she chose to run the institution.  When Miss Pigot refused to submit to his authority, Rev. Hastie simply accused her of sexual immorality with an Indian man.  Miss Pigot was dragged through six years of legal proceedings, but finally found not guilty.  Despite making false accusations, Rev. Hastie was never reprimanded in any way.[28]  As difficult as things may have been for female missionaries, there is no doubt that their efforts helped numerous people in the various colonies of the Empire.  Their influence helped further the education of countless people within the Empire. 

The British Empire was a vast and diverse world.  For British women, it was a world that offered little recognition for their efforts, and even less praise for their contributions.  In the male-dominated culture that was Great Britain, women took an unfortunate back seat, and their labors received virtually no praise as a result.  Despite the regrettable lack of appreciation for their efforts, British women have left a long-lasting imprint on the legacy of the British Empire.  Through their efforts, British women were able to successfully protect and nurture their families, maintain and cultivate the British culture, and spread the message of Christianity.  Their assistance to the various indigenous populations within the British colonies deserves as much praise as the male missionaries enjoy.  For British women, it was their ability to overcome the chauvinistic atmosphere of male domination that permeated the British Empire.  In the end, this is their greatest legacy.    

[1] Lawrence James, The Rise And Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 39-40.
[2] Ibid, 38.
[3] Margaret Strobel, European Women and the Second British Empire (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 3.
[4] Ibid, 2.
[5] Ibid, 4.
[6] Ibid, 17.
[7] A. Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 107.
[8] Margaret Strobel, 19.
[9] Ibid, 19.
[10] Ibid, 28-29.
[11] Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument,” Journal of British Studies (October, 1992): 309-329.
[12] Lawrence James, 328.
[13] Ibid, 329-330.
[14] Zareer Masani, Indian Tales of the Raj (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 8.
[15] Ibid, 71-72.
[16] A. Adu Boahen, 104-106.
[17] Margaret Strobel, 13.
[18] Ibid, 18.
[19] Zareer Masani, 55.
[20] Ndabanangi Sithole, Imperialism’s Benefits by an Anti-Imperialist African, taken from the online packet. Chapter 9, page 253.
[21] Margaret Strobel, 49.
[22] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Random House Inc., 1959), 29-31.
[23] Linda Colley, 317.
[24] Margaret Strobel, 50-51.
[25] Ibid, 53. 
[26] Zareer Masani, 78.
[27] Margaret Strobel, 53-54.
[28] Ibid, 54.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Did the Irish "Discover" the New World? The Tale of St. Brendan

We are just a few days removed from Columbus Day, which celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus and crew to the "New World" in 1492.  Of course, any elementary school student can tell you that Columbus was far from being the first person to land in the Americas.  History has proven that others (to include Viking Leif Erikson and possibly even the Chinese) arrived long before the hulls of Columbus' Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ever touched American soil. 

History is replete with tales (some true, some fictional) of adventurers who braved the waters of the Atlantic and discovered "new worlds" that were full of fantastic plant, animal and even human life. It is likely that we will never truly know which groups of people made their way to the Americas, but what is clear is that the oceans were not vacant of ships of brave people who were willing to try. 

When it comes to verifying these stories, one of the many problems is the fact that the written record was hard to come by.  Prior to the invention of Gutenberg's Printing Press, word of mouth only took stories so far, and most of these stories were just that: stories.  The ability to produce a mass account that was verifiable was extremely difficult to do.  This is why Columbus' story is the most popular (had Columbus sailed just six decades earlier one wonders if his story would have been as well known).

One of the many stories of brave sailors is that of Saint Brendan (c. 484 - c. 577), an Irish monk from the early Medieval period.  Very little is known about the actual man outside of two texts that have survived from both the 8th and 11th centuries, both of which were written several hundred years after Brendan's death, but are likely based on earlier copies.  Brendan was born in Tralee (southwest Ireland) to Christian parents (arguably some of the earliest Christian parents in Ireland) who raised him to become the same.  He was ordained a Priest in the Catholic Church in 512 and dedicated his live to spreading the Christian message throughout his native Ireland and surrounding areas. 

In addition to devoting his life to the church, Brendan was an avid and passionate sailor.  Records reveal that Brendan spent a tremendous time at sea, visiting nearby islands and cities where he converted large groups of people to Christianity and established a number of monasteries. Brendan’s prowess as a navigator of the sea became well known and he was eventually joined by many other sailors and missionaries who augmented his crew and allowed him to venture even further out into the Atlantic

But Brendan's greatest claim to fame comes from the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot and one of the two surviving documents mentioned above),which tells the tale of Brendan's adventures to discover the Garden of Eden.  Brendan had heard the legends regarding the supposed location of the Garden of Eden from St. Barinthus, who claimed to have made the voyage a few years earlier.  The Navigatio Brendani states that Brendan, along with fourteen other brave sailors, fasted for forty days (each person fasting for 2-3 days to total 40 days as a group) and asked God to guide them on their quest for the Garden of Eden.

During their journey, Brendan's crew encounters massive sea monsters and other fantastic sites that astound the reader (is it any wonder why the Navigatio Brendani became a Medieval best seller?).  Brendan & Co. make a number of stops at previously undiscovered islands where they encounter a vast assortment of plant, animal and human life (there is even one occasion in which a talking bird prophecies to the men about their voyage).

Eventually, the crew arrives at what they call "St. Brendan's Island" where they discover the most beautiful land ever.  According to the Navigatio Brendani, the men remain in the land for several days and bask in the abundant fruits, nuts, jewels and other treasures they discovered.  It isn't until they discover an uncrossable river that the men turn back, with their goods in hand, to Ireland where they share their tale of adventure and discovery. Incidentally, it is the tale of St. Brendan's Island that inspired one Walt Disney to offer up his own unique spin on Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio. Disney's depiction of Pleasure Island (which can be seen by clicking here) was the result of his reading about St. Brendan's adventures.

Naturally, the modern reader senses a number of problems with this tale.  It is clearly full of hyperbole and drama that is typical of any medieval adventure saga.  Almost nobody takes the story at face value.  But like any ancient or medieval tale, there is almost always a few kernels of truth.  Is it possible that St. Brendan ventured far out into the Atlantic and discovered an unknown and beautiful land?

A few people think so.

Author and amateur historian Dattatreya Mandal has the following to say on the matter:
So...what lends credence to this incredible conjecture that puts [Brendan]at the pantheon of New World exploration?  Well, quite curiously, the first known European colonists of America are the ones who tantalizingly provide the much needed allusions.  Yes, we are talking about the Vikings themselves.  The sagas of the Norsemen provide numerous glimpses into how they perceived different foreigners; and in various cases, the Irish were seen as sea-faring people with aptitude for exploration.  Celtic mythology also mirrors this appraisal, with fantastical accounts of the famous Irish voyagers like Bran and Maeldun.
The most intriguing contents of these sagas relate to how the Vikings found Irish-sponsored Christian missionaries in Iceland from before the time they colonized the island.  The 'tumble down the rabbit-hole' continues with one special Scandinavian account mentioning the Norsemen meeting with a particular group of Native Americans who had supposedly seen Europeans before their encounter with the Vikings. There are even vague tales in the early medieval sagas that hint at some natives of the New World speaking a derivative of the Irish language.  Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the Vikings under Leif Erikson called the expansive landmass south of 'Vinland' by the name of 'Irland it Mikla (or Greater Ireland).   

In addition, modern day sailor and navigator Tim Severin demonstrated in 1978 that it was indeed possible to make the journey from Ireland to America using the type of boat that Brendan built in his day: 

Of course, the connections made by Mr. Mandal and the voyage of Mr. Severin do not definitively prove anything other than the possibility exists that Brendan and his crew could have ventured as far to the east as the Americas.  Is it likely?  Not really?  But was it possible? Yes.

In the end, we will never know if Brendan and his brave crew ever landed in the Americas or not. Personally, I think it is highly unlikely.  What I take from the saga of St. Brendan is this: exploration and adventure have always been at the heart of the human spirit.  That and it is quite likely that humans have been exploring for longer (and further out) than we probably think.  If I were a gambling man, I would bet AGAINST the idea that St. Brendan landed in the Americas, but I would also bet in FAVOR of the notion that human beings have been exploring (even as far out as the Americas) all the way back to medieval and even ancient times. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Top 10 Medieval Myths

Knights of the Round table, damsels in distress locked away in a tall tower, fire-breathing dragons of doom, witches and their enchanted spells, magical magicians with their secret potions, Holy Grail legends.  When it comes to Medieval mythology, the list is as long as Merlin's magical staff.

Like most historical eras, the Medieval world is immersed in stories that are, shall we say, less-than-accurate.  In fact, for most who haven't studies this fascinating period of history, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Historical myths are nothing new.  We are all familiar with the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree or the brave warrior Achilles whose bravery gripped entire armies with fear. These tales often tell us more about how people CHOOSE to interpret history as opposed to the history itself.

And when it comes to the Medieval world, the mythology is almost overwhelming. The stories have taken on a life of their own and many have survived even to this day. It is amazing to see just how many people actually embrace the myths even today. Most people today have a very distorted view on the realities of the Medieval world.  For example, here is a small list of just a few of the more common myths that most people today have taken to be true:

1.) Medieval People Believed in a Flat Earth

No they did not! For centuries, scholars had accepted the reality that the world was spherical in shape.  In fact, the ancients of Classical Grease (Socrates, Aristotle, etc.) accepted the fact that the world was round.  Though many of the ideas of antiquity were lost during the "Dark Ages" (the dumbest term ever in history), Medieval thinkers of all stripes accepted that the world was not flat.  Oh, and side note, so did Christopher Columbus!

2.) The Right of Primae Noctis

This is a myth made popular by the Oscar winning film "Braveheart."  In the movie, Medieval Scottish lords are granted the right to have sexual relations with a newly married bride on the first night of her marriage.  The practice, which is more commonly known as Droit du Seigneur, was practices to a small degree in ancient China (and possibly ancient Babylon) but there is absolutely no evidence that it ever happened in Medieval Europe.  In fact, the myth was created in 19th century France to serve as an example of how backward the period was believed to be.

3.) Vikings Wore Horned Helmets

Sorry, Minnesota Vikings fans (and History Channel actors), but Vikings from the Medieval period did not wear horned helmets.  This is complete nonsense. In fact, Viking helmets were quite crude and round.  There were no decorations to speak of.  The idea of horns was born out of 19th century Romanticism and Scandinavian artists who began depicting their Viking ancestors as wearing horns.

4.) The Medieval World Loved Torture

Yes, torture existed in the Medieval world.  Torture also exists today.  Every era has seen some shade of it.  But the Medieval world was NOT obsessed with torture and/or torture devices like we are led to believe.  In fact, the Iron Maiden (which is regularly associated with the Medieval era) was created much later, probably in the 17th century.  There are no mentions of it  being used earlier than 1793!  In reality, most torture devices are created AFTER the Medieval era.

5.) Chastity Belts

There is absolutely zero evidence that chastity belts were ever used in the Medieval era.  In fact, the only reference we have of chastity belts being used in Europe date back to the 19th century, when people became fascinated (for whatever reason) in alleged Medieval torture devices (that were never actually Medieval to begin with).

6.) Water Was Terrible...Just TERRIBLE

Another complete B.S. belief.  Yes, it is certainly true that the Medieval world did not enjoy the sanitation practices of the modern world but this doesn't mean that they had no source of clean water. Simple common sense disposes this myth completely.  Homo Sapiens need water or we...um...DIE! The Medieval World (as well as the ancients) were well aware of this fact.  This is why we are able to find plenty of relics of Medieval (and ancient) wells that provided clean water.  And let's not forget that the Romans built massive aqueducts to transport clean water.  The Medieval world did not somehow forget how important water was.  They were well versed in the process of purifying water for human consumption. In reality, every civilization made (and continues to make) water a priority.  If this weren't the case we simply would not have survived as a specie.  In addition, the notion that Medieval (or ancient) people satisfied their water intake by drinking beer, wine, etc. is completely bogus.  In fact, water was often added to DILUTE the potency of those drinks.

7.) Medieval People Did not Live Long.  30 or 40 Years of Age Was Considered Old

It is true that mortality rates were significantly higher for people living in the Medieval world, but this does not mean that a 30 or 40-year-old person was considered to be old or near death.  In fact, most data shows that if a person lived into adulthood they could likely expect to live into their 60s or 70s.  Life expectancy rates are lower for the Medieval world because there was a far greater infant mortality rate.  Infants were the most at risk group of the Medieval population.  It wasn't uncommon for an given couple to lose several young children due to illness, childbirth, etc.  But if a child could reach the age of sixteen or so, he/she was likely to expect a fairly long life.

8.) Medieval People Did Not Have Good Hygiene

If we judge Medieval hygiene by today's 21st century standards then yes, the Medieval world had terrible hygiene.  But the myth that Medieval society rarely bathed or practiced cleanliness is not true. There are several surviving Medieval sermons in which priests admonish their congregation to ensure that cleanliness standards were being met.  Some cities, lords, etc. created laws to ensure cleanliness. Though they knew little in terms of medical practices, the Medieval world was well aware that disease was less likely to spread if cleanliness was maintained.  Baths were common (though not daily) and several items (to include combs and recipes for Medieval deodorant) have been preserved even today.

9.) Medieval Women Had No Rights

They certainly didn't enjoy the same freedoms as men, but this is something we could say for the majority of human history, not just the Medieval world.  With that being said, Medieval women could inherit land, money, etc. and were allowed to own and operate businesses.  Women were free to travel, buy goods, and do most of the things men could do (aside from responsibilities to be had in the church and military).  In fact, women would experience a LOSS of rights with the dawn of the Renaissance and Early Modern period.

10.) Medieval People Were Religiously Devout in All Ways and Feared the Church

While it is certainly true that the Catholic church was the single greatest influence on the Medieval world, the modern belief that Medieval people were staunchly devout and feared the church is a myth. There is literally tons of surviving literature from priests in all parts of Medieval Europe who complained about the lack of devotion they found in their parishioners.  Priests complained that people were indifferent to the teachings and did not take religious practices seriously enough. They rebuked those who used religious holidays and festivals as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk.

As can be seen, the myths of the Medieval world, which are oftentimes embraced by today's world as being fact, are nothing more than blissful ignorance.  They reveal more about us than they do about the actual Medieval world.  We of the modern era like to suppose that our ancestors of old were crude, dirty, biased and uninformed but the reality is we are the ones who come off looking crude, dirty, biased and uninformed in our understanding of the Medieval world.  It may not be to our liking when we discover that people of the past were not as foolish as we think, but facts are facts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Review of "Meet the Mormons"

Last night, my family and I loaded up in our Honda CRV and made our way to the local Regal Cinemas, where we watched "Meet the Mormons," a film produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Along with several other Mormon families in attendance, we too acted as any good and well correlated Mormon family should by using this Family Home Evening activity as an opportunity to bask in the heavenly ambiance of cinematic wonder, mingled with scripture.  =)

To be completely honest, it wasn't just my family that came with me to the theater last night.  In addition, I (and my wife as well) brought with me a good deal of skepticism.  After all, I had read only negative reviews from all the "worldly" critics (at the time of this blog's posting, Rotten Tomatoes registers only "rotten" reviews of the film).   My fear was that this film was yet another cheesy, popcorn-popping-on-the-apricot-tree-loving production that would reinforce all the South Park stereotypes about who and what Mormons are.

And I wasn't without good reason for feeling this way.  The film opens with a stereotypical young, uber-sweet, naive Mormon woman acting as narrator.  Initially my thoughts were, "Great!  Here we go again!  Could somebody PLEASE save Mormonism from itself!"  The cheesy, sweeter-than-sugar approach of the narrator was just too much to bear.  She came off looking like the offspring of Donnie Osmond and a Care Bear!  My wife and I exchanged "WTF?" glances that communicated the mutual sentiment of "why in the hell did we decide to watch this?"

But to our amazement, "Meet the Mormons" made quite the comeback!  The initial 10 minutes (which completely suck) are saved by the story of Ken Niumatalo, head coach of the Navy football team.  The Niumatalo family, which is like any good American football-loving family, is insanely competitive, completely sports-oriented and...oh yeah,..Mormon.  Their story wasn't portrayed like an infomercial either.  It was genuine, exciting and not cut from the typical Mormon cloth.

And that is what I loved most about this movie: the stories are NOT those you would find from mainstream Mormonism.  Instead of portraying more of the same "white and delightsome" ilk that has made me loathe Mormon films for decades, "Meet the Mormons" gives us the exceptions to the Utah rule.  All six stories portrayed in the film are of people that I would love to get to know and could see myself inviting over for a barbecue.  They seem like the kind of people who know how to cut loose and live an authentic life that is free from uber-orthodoxy and blind conformity.

The six stories portrayed are (in the order shown in the film) that of a young Black bishop living in the Atlanta area, the head football coach of Navy football, a young kickboxing mother in Costa Rica, a World War II pilot who dropped candy to children when flying over Berlin, a man from Nepal who embraces both Mormonism and the Hindu culture of his native country, and a single convert mother who sends her son off on a mission.  Each story is a testament to the fact that Mormons are, in reality, cut from many different cloths.  For all of its emphasis on conformity, I have long been convinced that to be a good Mormon means being an individual, and the stories portrayed in "Meet the Mormons" seems to confirm that notion.

Of course, the movie is far from perfect.  As has been pointed out in several reviews, "Meet the Mormons" does tend to showcase a sanitized version of the Mormon narrative.  The families portrayed are always loving towards one another, their Sacrament meetings are harmonious and free of noise/distraction and EVERYBODY seems just soooooo darn happy to be attending three hours of church (nobody is ever bored in Sunday School and everyone brings their scriptures and is eager to participate).

In addition, "Meet the Mormons" offers little in terms of theology.  There is no discussion of the basic tenants of the faith, nor is there any attempt to address some of the more controversial history of the church.  Instead, "Meet the Mormons" reinforces the Mormon tradition that religion is more about day-to-day acts of kindness and service than it is about pontificating over the "nitty-gritty" aspects of theology.  And make no mistake, Mormons filter their religion primarily through the lens of actions, not theology.  As Mormon scholar and author Terryl Givens has stated:
In the modern era, Mormons have considered the very enterprise of theology to be largely a secular enterprise, a sign of true religion's failure, and not an activity worth pursuing with any energy. 
Instead of becoming proficient on the topic of theology (and I have long believed that Mormons are exceptionally illiterate when it comes to basic theology...of their own faith and that of others), "Meet the Mormons" is another example of how emphasis is placed on living as Christ-like of a life as possible.

And is this a bad thing?  Certainly not.  For as small as Mormonism may be on a global scale (and yes, we are small), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made quite a name for itself. "Meet the Mormons" is proof of this fact.  In addition to these six stories, Mormonism can boast that is has produced two major candidates for the U.S. Presidency (Mitt Romney and John Huntsman), a globally recognized author (Stephanie Mayer of Twilight fame), Generals in command of American troops, tycoons of the business world (Marriott Hotels, Jet Blue, Nu Skin, etc.), several members of Congress (in both parties), and much more.  Heck, we even have our outlaws and serial killers!

In short, despite its emphasis on communal white shirts and ties, Mormonism is a vast cornucopia of diversity that includes all shapes, sizes and colors.  "Meet the Mormons" is a perfect example that to be a good Mormon means to be an individual.  It is for these reasons that I believe "Meet the Mormons" is good for all audiences, but particularly of worth for actual Mormons.  The film was made to "bring greater understanding" for those not of the faith, but to be honest, I believe it holds greater value for current members of the faith, especially those who are of the orthodox, black and white, all or nothing bend.  This film should prove to every Mormon prude out there that members of the church are valued for who they are, not for how they conform.  Every person has their own story to tell, and I for one LOVED the stories found in "Meet the Mormons" (particularly the story of the man from Nepal and the single mom).

So, in conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised by "Meet the Mormons."  Contrary to what I have read from critics, the film is not an infomercial, nor is it a glorified "I'm a Mormon" commercial.  It's a serious and valuable look into what Mormonism can and should be.  For those reasons, I give the movie high marks.

My grade for "Meet the Mormons": A-

Go and see this film!  You will enjoy it thoroughly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Excommunication: A Purifying Fire

"When you complain, you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it.  All else is madness." -Eckhart Tolle

This past week, I have watched as many of my Facebook friends (mostly Mormon) have expressed their feelings on the Kate Kelly/John Dehlin excommunication saga.  For those who are not familiar with these names let me offer you a very brief introduction. Kate Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women: a group that is dedicated to bringing about gender equality by seeking ordination to the priesthood. John Dehin is the creator of numerous websites (most notably Mormon Stories) that are dedicated to discussing some of the more difficult aspects of Mormon history.

To make a very long story short, both Kelly and Dehlin have come under fire as of late, even being issued letters of warning from their local church leaders that included the possibility of excommunication.  For Kate Kelly, the threat became a reality as she was excommunicated from the Mormon church early yesterday morning.

Excommunication is nothing new to Mormonism or to the whole of Christianity.  Jesus himself even prescribed the appropriate situation in which to remove a fellow Christian from among the masses. In Matthew 18: 15-20 we read:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
The bolded text above has been used by many a Christian sect to justify the practice of excommunication.  In other Bible translations, the word heathen is translated as gentile. In other words, he/she who will not heed the counsel of the church is to be cut off from that church.

What I find most interesting about this particular Bible passage is the fact that it is sandwiched between two other important teachings that Jesus emphasized regarding forgiveness.  In verses 12-14 Jesus references the 99 and 1 sheep and the commandment to go to the one lost sheep.  In verses 21-23 Jesus tells Peter that we are commanded to forgive "seventy times seven."  In short, the guidelines for excommunication are neatly placed between Jesus' admonition to succor the one wayward sheep and his commandment to forgive as often as needed.  Coincidence?  I think not.

As far as Kate Kelly's excommunication is concerned, I know that feelings on both sides of the isle are quite tender.  Kelly has had a great deal of support for her cause and many of her supporters see this action as an insult not only to Kelly, but to them as well.  The following video clip from Kate Kelly's rally illustrates just how intense feelings have become over this issue:


It isn't my place or my intent to weigh in on whether or not Mormon women deserve to have the priesthood. Besides, what I have to say on the matter isn't going to change anyone's opinion. Instead, what I do hope will happen from all of this is people on both sides will come to a better understanding of how excommunication can be a great equalizing force for good.

First, let me say that I support the right of the Mormon Church (or any church for that matter) to implement disciplinary standards as they see fit.  It is their right to do so.  And to those who believe that Jesus' love would prevent him from ever excommunicating anyone, I simply say remember the Bible verses mentioned above, along with other verses such as:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matt. 5: 29-30).
Jesus wasn't some hippie who accepted the beliefs, behaviors and ideas of everyone.  Instead he was a revolutionary who believed in unconditional love and preached repentance.

Regardless of what we may think, excommunication is, in many cases, an act of love.  It releases a person from further liability and condemnation.  I realize that this interpretation of excommunication may come off offensive to some so let me explain:

When I was on my mission (in Antofagasta, Chile) I met a bishop who unfortunately lost his wife in an accident.  It was a tragic event for his family and it completely rocked their world.  In an effort to ease his burdens, the church immediately released him from his calling.  He was very grateful for that.  As he later told me, there was no way he could meet up to those responsibilities any longer.

And so it is with excommunication (at least in some instances).  The person has had a life-changing event in which he/she needs to be released from their responsibilities as a Christian.  They cannot live up to those responsibilities any longer and as a result, excommunication is a tool that can help them in the long run.

I am fully aware of the fact that this is easy for me to say.  After all, I have never been a part of, nor have I witnessed a church disciplinary proceeding.  I also recognize that my above description doesn't apply to all cases either. As hard as it may be to admit, there are good and bad cases of excommunication in all faiths, but in the end I believe they almost always lead to positive things.

Just this past week, Pope Francis (my favorite Pope ever) excommunicated members of the Italian Mafia for their lengthy and extensive history in committing a variety of crimes.  I think most of us would applaud Pope Francis for this brave and bold move.  But nearly 500 years ago, another pope made the terrible decision to excommunicate a young radical named Martin Luther, who opposed a number of teachings of the Catholic Church.  And though most everyone would agree that the decision to excommunicate Luther was the wrong one, I also think that a great deal of good came from it.  After all, Luther's excommunication became a galvanizing force for many of his followers and helped to pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.

And the same can be said of my own faith.  During its early years, Mormon leaders excommunicated dozens of members who opposed the doctrine of polygamy.  Some of those members were later reinstated following the 1890 manifesto that officially abolished polygamy in the church.  There are even better examples in recent years.  In 1942, a young 17-year-old German by the name of Helmuth Hübener was excommunicated for opposing the ideas of one Adolf Hitler.  Hübener was later reinstated as a member, but only after being put to death for opposing Nazi tyranny.  He never lived to see his reinstatement.  And then there's the case of Douglas Wallace and Byron Merchant, who were excommunicated in 1976 and 1977 respectively for opposing the church's ban on Blacks not being able to receive the priesthood.  It was only a year later that the priesthood ban on Black members was to be lifted for good.

So how does all of this apply to Kate Kelly?  To be honest I have no clue.  Maybe the day will come when Kelly will be hailed as a hero for having stood upon her principles.  Maybe those responsible will one day eat their words and feel remorse for the role they played in her excommunication.  Or maybe the day will come when Ordain Women simply loses support and those involved come to regret their involvement.  If so, hopefully they will be reconciled to the church and be welcomed back into the fold. Either way, I do believe that Kate Kelly's excommunication has the potential to bring about a great deal of good.

Regardless of how this all plays out, I hope that we will all be able to glean some important lessons from this week's events.  Here are a few lessons that come to mind for me personally:
1.) There are no winners here. Kelly's excommunication does not vindicate anyone. It is a sad day. Even if you disagree with her and her movement we should all agree that our job is to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who need comfort (Mosiah 18: 9).
2.) Jesus really was all about love, but that doesn't mean he was about accepting everyone and everything.  There's enough in that statement to keep us humbly pondering for guidance for the rest of our lives.
3.) Excommunication really can be a good thing, so long as the individual or institution is humble enough to admit that change is necessary.
4.) Even though Jesus prescribed the manner in which to excommunicate, he sandwiched that teaching in between his commandments to care for the one lost sheep and to forgive as often as is necessary.  
In conclusion, I can think of no better way to help us all come to terms with these difficult discussions than to appeal to the Serenity Prayer, which next the the Lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer is my all-time favorite prayer.  It's wisdom is endless:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,The courage to change the things I can,And the wisdom to know the difference."
Amen, and Amen.