Review – The Challenge of Honesty

The Challenge of Honesty“Combining memories, conversions, and convictions, filled with wisdom and insight gleaned from a lifetime of joy, discovery, and discipleship, this remarkable book will be enjoyed and valued by many.”
—Marcus J. Borg, author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time

“Come listen to the wise and knowing voice of a Mormon progressive foremother.  Frances Lee Menlove reminds us that seeking and questioning have always been part of the Mormon experience and that none of us is alone in our seeking. Nor are we the first!”
—Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith

“Open Frances Menlove’s The Challenge of Honesty and be reminded that the warmth of the smallest act can change a life, perhaps the world. Hear the call to conscience in her essay on religion and politics. Feel the lift of her voice when she says, ‘We are a marvelous mixture of dust and divinity.’ Join her at home in the Mystery.”
—Rev. Charles Busch, founder of Peace Village 

“The pieces in this collection beckon the reader to join the author’s adventure. And not just any adventure—this one will require the full engagement of mind and heart. The gentle tone of the invitation to follow her through new paths of thought does not suggest the boldness and courage required on this journey. Fortunately, the guide is sure. She lays down elegant sentences, offers oases of wisdom and poetry, and occasionally hammers in a well-­formulated aphorism as a toehold on the steep slope of a difficult idea.”
—Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

David M. MorrisInternational Journal of Mormon Studies 

The Challenge of Honesty, by Dr Frances Lee Menlove is a thought provoking and intellectual examination of what it means to be honest, both with self and others (but more likely the institutional LDS Church). It is a compilation of the author’s writings, however, it is less about controversy but more about reconciliation of difficult theological\moral issues and a less judgmental Mormon mindset.

Dr Frances Lee Menlove holds two academic degrees: a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan and a MDiv from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. She was manuscripts editor on the founding staff of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She serves on the board of directors of a small Oregon non-profit called Peace Village, which since 1996 has been teaching non-violence to children in interfaith settings. She also volunteers with the American Red Cross, offering counseling services during national emergencies.

The title of this edited collection comes from its first essay, published nearly fifty years ago in the inaugural edition of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.[1] Perhaps, this is the best known essay of Menlove, however, the collection also includes a further four essays and twelve sermon/devotionals. Most of these have been previously published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought or Sunstone Magazine between 2002 and 2013 but still seem current with today’s quandaries. The introduction to The Challenge of Honesty’s reiterates this point and is written by the collection’s editor, Dan Wotherspoon, a former editor of Sunstone, who speaks warmly of Dr Menlove and focuses his thoughts mainly on the first essay, including its influence as well as its wide distribution.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the clarity of Menlove’s messages, perhaps it is indicative of freeing oneself of lifelong dilemmas, or simply being conscience led rather than blind obedience to a given faith. The essays and devotionals are well argued and call more for understanding and empathy rather than condemnation. Even if you disagree with the premise of the discussion, or segue to subjects that most Mormons seem uncomfortable with, LGBT (“The Unbidden Prayer” and “Walking the Road to Emmaus.”) / Women and the Priesthood, to name but two, you still feel compelled to consider the arguments and their implications. Rather than being a contentious rant for change, it is well argued and supported by the source literature including New Testament sources demonstrating Dr Menlove’s professional training. The overarching sentiment is one of compassion and understanding and a call to remaining true to oneself.

Perhaps it is its relevance in today’s world that struck me most while reading the first essay. Of course a wider application could be made of the moral dilemmas but this essay loudly challenges the struggle with the LDS Church, or the disparity between historic and moral inconsistencies and the powerful feeling of being unable to openly challenge them. This essay has also become more relevant with the publication of more candid essays by the LDS Church in an attempt to reconcile some of these difficulties. These are acknowledged by most scholars as a good start but still much to do. Perhaps, Menlove’s description in 1966 of “the myth of the unruffled Mormon,” [p. 4], is also pertinent today. The sanitised versions of narratives is where the honesty is acutely challenged, in fact Menlove argues that: “human failing and occasional misdirections must not be suppressed or omitted from our books but recognized as the manifestations of those who are less than perfect struggling within the limitations of their understanding.” [pp. 14-15]

Menlove finds great significance in an experience between her grandfather and his bishop surrounding the communal sacrament cup: “Granddad went to see the bishop one Sunday and explained to him that he knew Sister Brown had tuberculosis, and besides, who knows what other diseases were running around the ward? Even without these known ailments, the practice of passing one large sacrament cup down the row with each person taking a sip was unsanitary in the extreme.

“Brother Greaves,” the bishop huffed, “do you really think that God would allow his sacred water, which has been blessed by the priesthood, to cause disease, to make people sick?” “Bishop,” my grandfather replied, “do you really think that God would have given us brains if he didn’t expect us to use them?” The bishop suggested he go home and repent. My grandfather’s reply to that suggestion was “Horse feathers!” My grandfather helped get the practice changed. My memory is that Elder John A.  Widtsoe, another scientist, was his ally.” Menlove concludes: “even though Church authorities sometimes act like jackasses, the Church has a way of righting itself.” [pp. 23-23 & 110-111]. In the repeating of this episode in Chapter Seven, “A Listening Heart”, Menlove advises that “the most frequent moral of this story, however, was, “Never let obedience trump conscience.” [p. 111]

In the fourth essay, “If Not Now, When? Mormon Women and the Priesthood.” Menlove turns her views to the argument of women and the priesthood. This a thought provoking chapter although personally I was not totally convinced by the argument presented of universal priesthood without deference to gender. Conservative and liberal Mormons are likely to be challenged by, or in some cases offended by this essay, however, it useful to at least make the journey, if not only to be informed. A key section of this essay, provides a contextual background to early Christianity and role of women in the nascent church. Commencing with Junia, the one that Paul called “apostle”, Menlove explores the practice of the early Saints [p. 67]. In fact she highlights that “as scholars unpeel the layers, it is becoming clear that women as well as men were initiators of the Christian movement, women as well as men were at the center of early Christian history.” [p. 66] As part of a continuing narrative of women and the church, Menlove next focuses her attention on early Mormonism, particularly through the research of historians D. Michael Quinn and Edward W. Tullidge which support the idea that both “Mormon women, as well as men, hold the priesthood”. [p. 75] In an endeavour to support the possibility of such, Menlove cites a November 1997 interview on Australian television with President Gordon B Hinckley, when the interviewer asks:   “At present women are not allowed to be priests in your Church…Is it possible that the rules could change in the future?” President Hinckley responds: “Yes. But there’s no agitation for that. We don’t find it.” [p. 75]. The proposition of course, is if there was an agitation for it then the policy or practice should be reconsidered. In this mind Menlove links this with other emotive practices that have changed due to agitation, slavery [p. 77] and Women’s suffrage [p. 79] and concludes with “to recover the understanding that we are baptized into a community that transcends race, nationality, and gender. The time has come to ordain women to the priesthood. Or so it seems to me.” [p. 86].

In the fifth essay, “The Unbidden Prayer”, Menlove turns her focus to another controversial subject and recalls her experience while serving on a hospital ethics board. A baby had been born that manifested both male and female genitalia, more commonly known as a hermaphrodite. The in-depth discussions of the family and professionals was in determining the gender to be recognised for the child, involving significant surgery and physical changes. In achieving agreement, it was decided that the baby would be raised as a girl. Menlove’s “prayer was simply this. ‘Thank you, thank you, God. Thank you that these parents are not Mormon.’”[p. 90] Menlove explains that had they been Mormon they would have been burdened by the LDS Church’s official statement on gender, as found in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” which so clearly defines gender in the pre-mortal and mortal existence as important to identity and purpose. “How would living inside a story of gender essentialism affect the parents and their child’s understanding of her divine nature? How might this theological frame influence the self-perception of a growing girl whose gender was determined by a human decision? Sounds like a nightmare to me. A toxic spiritual burden. That’s why I was grateful the parents were not Mormon.” [p. 91]. Clearly, these issues are worthy of developing further, it always is when there appears to be a one fit policy or declaration. To reinforce the opportunity for change, like in the previous essay, Menlove then include issues around blacks and the priesthood, “homosexuality, transsexual and intersex”.

In her own words: “During times of tension within the Church over morally complex issues like those surrounding sexual designations, it is tempting to cherish certainty over truth. Certainty alleviates the anxiety and the fear that frequently accompany ambiguity. But certainty is difficult to maintain when reason and experience don’t support it. Reality has a knack for pushing truth up through the underbrush, a knack for trumping false certainties. We can’t anchor Church teachings to bad science. The demands of the real world and the obligations of conscience won’t be trumped. How do I feel now, after these few years, about my sudden burst of gratitude that Paula was not born into a Mormon family? I stand by it.”

The second half of the volume is a compilation sermons and devotionals and are brief but most contain common wellbeing thoughts as well as a final reflection or prayer. For example, in a “A Listening Heart” she “learned that not only the body changes with age, but also our relationship with God and what we mean by spiritual life. As I listen to my life, I find God is less easily spoken about—more audible in the silence or between the lines than in theological formulations. I no longer demand, expect, or even want clarity. I relish the mystery.” [p. 115]

Connecting with the first essay two devotionals, “Memory is Our Teacher” and “The Message to Remember” [p. 122] identify the issues with history: “As we remember our history, we cannot avoid remembering the challenging parts. We know that historical facts are always interpreted facts and that cleaning up our history, smoothing over the tensions, is akin to turning our most intimate teacher against us. Memory is our teacher.” [p. 124] Clearly this is a continuing theme throughout the collection.

To look at one more devotional, “Self-Righteousness: A Parable for Our Times” focuses on the way in which pride, patriotism and attitude is manifested. “The problem is in his attitude, his sense of self-righteousness….Contempt for others is always a partner of self-righteousness.” [p. 134] Patriotism is manifested in like manner, and we are reminded that “Christianity is not synonymous with the celebration of American prosperity and freedom.” [p. 137] “Individuals and nations alike are at their worst when they are persuaded of their superior virtue and crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity.” [p.141].

In conclusion this is an interesting book and well worth the read. It is not too often that a reflective volume is published of this calibre. If you do not agree with the moral or theological positions, readers will no doubt consider at least come away reflecting their own actions and at least become better for it.

[1] Frances Lee Menlove, “The Challenge of Honesty.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 1 No. 1 (1966): 44–53.