We went to church with my sister on Sunday. Princess Zurg went to Primary (children’s Sunday School) with her cousins. Princess Zurg has a love-hate relationship with Primary. On the one hand, she finds it a lot less dull than the sacrament service. On the other hand, it is still a little too “churchy” for her tastes. She likes the classroom portion, when they discuss the application of religious principles to real-life situations. She doesn’t enjoy when they read from the scriptures because there aren’t enough girls in them. (She has particular disdain for the Book of Mormon, which is heavy on war stories and mentions only three women by name, one of whom is a harlot of no consequence. That really galls her.) She likes the singing…sometimes, when they’re not singing “annoying” or “childish” songs. In other words, it’s really more of a tolerate-hate relationship.
I feel her pain. I wasn’t too fond of Primary at her age, either. I wasn’t too fond of church, period, and the feeling didn’t become warmer or fuzzier when the teen years hit. I found the church youth programs alternately dull and condescending. Or perhaps both simultaneously. I was probably around thirteen when I decided I just wasn’t going to go to church anymore, because what were my parents going to do, make me? Well, actually, it turned out they could. I think so, anyway. It was a long time ago, and I remember them putting up with my crap for about three weeks, and then the jig was up. I don’t remember exactly what “changed my mind.” I suppose I was just a people pleaser at heart. Anyway, that’s another story. My point is that I sympathize with PZ’s frustration, but at the same time, she’s only ten and not a very responsible ten, and I’m not going to let her just stay home by herself. I don’t think she even wants to stay home by herself. I think she wants us to change religions. That’s not apt to happen. And like I said, we need to take her with us, if only to keep her off the streets.
Historically, PZ has acted out in very loud, very public ways during various portions of the worship service, starting when she was about, oh, two? Two-and-a-half? We were walking into the chapel one day when she suddenly threw herself down on the floor and started screaming, “No! No church! NO JESUS CHRIST!” The incident was all the more remarkable because PZ at that age was more or less non-verbal much of the time. It would take more motivation than I currently have to provide you a laundry list of PZ’s childhood impieties; suffice it to say that the above anecdote is representative of the rest of the iceberg.
We don’t “allow” PZ to disturb other people’s worship–not any more than her school teachers “allow” her to disturb other students’ learning experiences–and in the last couple of years, she’s made great strides in the Appropriate Church Behavior department. In the last several weeks, though, she’s been particularly vocal with her complaints. This Sunday was no exception. Girlfriend was not hip to strange church nurseries, so I was walking the halls with her and happened to pass by the Primary room, where the kids were learning a new song called “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” (Technically, it’s not “new,” but this generation of kids did not know it.) The second verse goes like this:
with strength and wisdom true.
Home is where there’s Mother,
and all the children, too.
Out in the hall, I did my mental Marge Simpson grumble–“Hrmmmm”–and hoped that I had just misheard the lyrics. They didn’t actually set up Father as Mr. Strength and Wisdom whilst lumping Mother in with the rest of the household members who needed his righteous dominion, did they? Well, probably they did, but I was reserving judgment for the time being. Right about then, my sister (who happens to be the Primary president in her ward) came out to the hall and told me that PZ had been quite disturbed that Father got strength and wisdom, while Mother just got stuck with the kids. Yes, we chuckled over it, but I also said, “Good for her.” At least that’s what I was thinking. Inside the Primary room, they were still practicing the song and the music director was telling the kids, “This time, sing it like you mean it.” PZ burst out, “But I don’t mean it!” And at this moment, as much as I wanted her to suck it up and not make a scene or embarrass her cousins, I also couldn’t help but think, “That’s my girl!”
For those of you not up to speed on your Mormon Minutiae, the LDS church has a fully correlated curriculum–it’s a by-product of the David O. McKay era as documented in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (fascinating read, I assure you)–which means that Primaries all over the world teach their kids the same lessons and the same songs. This “Home Is Where the Heart Is” song is, unfortunately, part of the 2008 Primary program set to take place in October, in every Primary on the face of the earth, including ours. So this was not the last time PZ will have to be affronted by this song, as well she knows. She’s written (and mailed) a letter to the General Primary Board, hoping that the lyrics to this song will be changed by prophetic mandate before the October program. No, we have not yet begun to see the end of PZ angst over this topic. And I have to tell you, this time I’m grateful for my daughter’s utter inability to let stuff go. It may be sad and wrong, but part of me is actually looking forward to her complaining every week about this song. I hope she complains good and loud. It’s nothing new–folks in our Primary are used to PZ’s feminist rants–but it has the potential for something big. Like what? I don’t know. It’s just so rare that I can support my daughter’s righteous anger, and I’d like to relish it, if you don’t mind.
I realize how silly this must sound, making such a big deal out of a little song–really, only a little part of a little song–as though I didn’t belong to a patriarchal church with a treasure trove of gender disparities that are hard to reconcile with my basic sense of justice, not to mention logic. You’re probably wondering, all things considered, if Madhousewife doesn’t have bigger theological fish to fry. Well, yes, ordinarily I do. But this is not a theological fish fry. It is a cultural fish fry. Where the fish are sometimes coated in theological batter. I’m going to abandon this metaphor before it destroys me. Next paragraph, please.
I know I belong to a patriarchal religion. I’ve come to terms with that, in a way. I had to find a way to live with it, so I did. Find a way, I mean. And the fact is, most Mormon women don’t feel oppressed by the church’s patriarchal structure. I don’t feel oppressed by it. It is more an intellectual annoyance than anything–because, in fact, there is much in the religion that is empowering to women. Some Mormon women don’t even find it difficult to reconcile those aspects with the patriarchal ones. I am not one of those women, but that is neither here nor there. The church continues to evolve on gender issues. Some things really have changed; others really haven’t. But the fact remains: back when this “Home” song was written, it was not controversial to assert that men had authority over their wives and children, but these days no one would get up in church and say that without ducking. Today there is an increased emphasis on wives and husbands being equal partners, even while the church refuses to repudiate the patriarchal order.
This is frustrating for most Mormon feminists, who would rather deal with open sexism than this political correctness, but I’ve chosen to take the church at its word. We believe in both patriarchy and equality–fine. It may not make sense, but neither does a lot of other stuff; it’s religion, not rocket science. I can dig that. What I can’t dig–won’t dig–is the notion that this doctrinal paradox mustn’t produce cognitive dissonance. Some folks don’t have the cognitive dissonance; I appreciate that. But they need to understand that their lack of cognitive dissonance is attributable to faith, not reason. Not that reason doesn’t inform faith; it does. But religious mysteries cannot be “solved” by reason alone. That is why they are mysteries. I don’t want to remake church doctrine to suit my personal sensibilities, but I insist on acknowledging the mysteries, so I insist on acknowledging the cognitive dissonance.
This is why I’m happy to have my daughter publicly object to this silly Primary song–not because I think it’s a hill worth dying on, but because I know it’s not a hill the church is willing to die on either. It’s just a tiny thing that niggles at me, and so I niggle back. It’s easy to say, “Well, it’s just a song, and there’s a rhyme scheme and a rhythm to maintain, and it doesn’t mean that Mother doesn’t have ‘strength and wisdom true,’ just like Father, but there just wasn’t enough room to say it that way, and for the love of Mike, it’s just a song, what do you want, Madhousewife/Princess Zurg?” But it’s also just as easy to point out this: A hundred little things add up. My daughter hears this song and thinks it diminishes women. I think it infantilizes them. It’s not devastating; it’s not abusive; it’s just annoying–nothing more than annoying, in and of itself. But if the church wants its patriarchy-equality paradox, maybe it should stop teaching my children songs that undermine its professed value of male-female equality. It’s a little thing, precisely. That’s why it’s not too much to ask.
Make no mistake–I labor under no illusion that the church is going to change this song or have it removed from the children’s songbook, nor will I be embittered because of that. I just want other people to think about it, about its implications. Something they won’t be able to help doing when my daughter runs out of the room screaming every time they sing it.