Wednesday, July 01, 2009

BYU Made the Huffington Post

This past weekend, I was shocked to see an article on the Huffington Post about BYU. The Administration of the conservative university that is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has finally allowed students to access YouTube on the school's Internet service and computers. They had blocked it to "protect" students from content that might run the risk of violating the notorious Honour Code (which all students have to sign and agree to abide by as a condition of attending the school). Professors had another view. Many of them apparently told the Administration that YouTube offers many video clips that are used or referenced in their lectures. Its simply one more learning tool to engage these students who grew up on technology. What's the harm?

I attended BYU a decade ago (1997-2000) and back then, while we had Internet and chatrooms, there wasn't YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, or Friendster. Google existed but wasn't well known yet. I knew at the time that the school computers were monitored and someone told me that typing certain profane words would trigger a call to the Honour Code office. I was skeptical about that but didn't test it out. I'm good about following the rules.

What was most interesting about the Huffington Post article, though, were the comments! Particularly the knee-jerk anti-Mormon people who haven't a clue about Mormon culture or what BYU was like. Their responses were hilarious. They ranged from accusing the Mormons of being a police state, of being as antiquated as the Amish, that Scientology made more sense than Mormon beliefs, that they are polygamists who hate black people, and that Joseph Smith took orders from a talking rock in a hat.

I wanted to comment on the website but I kept logging in to add my opinions and correct some strange claims, but for some reason the Huffington Post wouldn't register me as a new person. There was one person who thought BYU was not an accredited university. Trust me, it is. No one would've gotten school loans if it wasn't. BYU does teach evolution in science class (my biggest concern when I decided to go there was that they would not teach it but rather some form of "intelligent design" which is faulty science). That's a requirement of universities wanting accreditation with the higher education system. I believe schools like Bob Jones University and Regents University, both fundamentalist Christian universities are not accredited because of their refusal to teach evolution in science classes.

Anyhow, since I could not comment on the Huffington Post about my experience at BYU, I decided to write about it on my blog. I think I offer a unique perspective because I'm not a member of the LDS Church or ever was. Though I belong to a splinter group that shares the same heritage, my views are pretty mixed to the point where I can understand how non-religious people and evangelical Christians view Mormons while also having a deep understanding of how Mormons view their own church and others.

Yes, BYU is a conservative university. The Honour Code we had to sign each school year reminded us of our commitment to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, caffeinated drinks, drugs, and sexual activity. Men also had grooming standards (not military strict, but more business professional) and shorts could not be higher than knee level. It was pretty straight forward and nothing I objected to. I was only there for a few years to get an education so I appreciated no distractions. I did not want to go to a party school, so I really liked that BYU did not have the Greek system of fraternities and sororities. I did see people acting crazy, though. I guess you don't need alcohol to be immature.

There were varying degrees of strictness, though. For me, R-rated films weren't a big deal nor was shopping on Sundays. To many students, they swore that it was a God-given commandment and thus a sin to do such things. In my opinion, a personal choice. I loved shopping on Sundays because the stores were less crowded. I remember going to a party once and one guy bragged that he had the edited version of A Few Good Men (it was taped from a network television broadcast). That wasn't what shocked me, though. It was the oohing and ahhing of the other people at the party, like he had a hard to find personal home video of U2 or something.

The biggest controversies while I was there included BYU's Art Museum censorship of the traveling Auguste Rodin sculpture exhibit because of the famous "The Kiss" statue, which BYU officials deemed "pornographic." I remember the absurdity of that argument. I told someone, "yeah, staring at a cold statue is really a turn-on." There was a small protest that I wanted to attend, but I slept in and missed out. Had I made it, I might have become friends with Matt Baker in my first semester, rather than my last semester (in D.C., he was my favourite roommate).

Another controversy was BYU's student run theater editing movies without film studio approval. My first semester, I made the mistake of going to see Batman and Robin at the student theater. They basically silenced everything Poison Ivy said in the film (too much sexual innuendo). The whole Titanic craze got BYU's practice of illegal editing noticed in Hollywood. Mormons didn't want to watch the film unless the sex scenes were cut out. Somehow, Steven Spielberg took offense and sent a cease and desist letter. It wasn't even his movie, but I guess there was a solidarity among film industry types. That killed the theater, which briefly closed, and possibly sparked the now thriving Mormon film industry (I have many Mormon made movies on DVD. I'm a fan, what can I say?). The strange thing is that the International Cinema did not edit the films and not many people seemed to mind. I became a huge fan of foreign films because of the International Cinema at BYU. Truly a great institution!

When MTV came to Provo looking for a Mormon to be on the next installment of The Real World (in New Orleans), that also raised some controversy. I heard many students complain about the "immorality" of MTV. Yet, my apartment had cable and my roommates and I loved to watch The Real World and Road Rules. We even watched the late night Loveline with Dr. Drew, Adam Corolla, and that gorgeous lady (I forget her name). I was finished with college and back in Atlanta when The Real World: New Orleans aired. The result was that the Mormon girl was kicked out of BYU because she lived in a co-ed housing arrangement (another violation of the Honour Code). She seems to have made a career out of MTV Real World vs. Road Rules challenges, though. Lame.

The other controversy I remember is that some guy who owned an adult store in Utah County (often called the most conservative county in the most conservative state in America) was brought up on indecency charges. The judge made the jury (most of whom were Mormon) watch some of the films that were seized (I found that hilarious) and they ended up acquitting him because of his argument that the movies he sold were some of the same movies that hotel guests could order in room service at the Marriott Hotel (owned by a Mormon). Let's not be hypocritical, eh?

I must admit that there were times when I wanted to quit. The bland conformity sometimes got to me. Mormons are so wholesome and "all-American" that I sometimes wanted to barf. I often sought out the most diverse students...a guy from Kenya, a lady from Jamaica, a guy from India, and I fell for ladies from Russia, Tahiti, France, Japan, and the Dominican Republic. I got involved with the BYU Democrats, which was a pathetically small group and we ended up not doing much more than sharing our funniest stories of dealing with the rest of the BYU crowd who thought Mormonism and the Republican Party were one and the same. I found amusement in the knowledge that it was the Republican Party that forced the Mormon Church to rescind polygamy, which Brigham Young swore would be a sign that the church was in apostasy. They deserve each other.

Despite the overwhelming conformity of the student body, there were a few oddities on campus. One guy in my English class wore a Cow costume on Halloween and he raved about shopping at the Pottery Barn. Call me a snob, but I think Pottery Barn is stupid. If I don't like the name, I won't set foot in the place. One girl I worked with was so sheltered that she claimed that everytime the LDS Prophet gave a speech or sermon, the whole world stopped to listen to what he had to say. Most people who aren't LDS have no idea who the Mormon prophet is and besides, even the U.S. president didn't have that ability to get people to stop what they were doing to hear what he had to say. But, this was a girl who got offended by Carol Burnett's character in the child's film Annie. I found that hilarious...offended by Annie!

The religious differences were tougher to deal with than I thought. I even joined a Students of Other Faiths group but was dismayed when these students learned that my church shared the same heritage as the LDS Church. I didn't find them welcoming either. I was truly between a rock and a hard place. Not Mormon enough for Mormons, too Mormon for the non-Mormon students. Give me a break! In fact, at the start of each semester, I would get a call from the Mormon Missionaries. Someone had placed my name in the referral box. I went through the motions, mostly to practice my debating skills. They were so on script, I found it creepy. For instance, in the spring of 1999, I met with Missionaries even though I knew how it would end up (discussions always broke down after the second lesson). I told them that I believed in reincarnation and it was like they didn't even hear me. They continued with their practiced script. They should have known that I was unconvertable at that point. Though I share with Mormons the belief of "the eternal progression of the soul", we differ on how this is achieved. Reincarnation would never be accepted in LDS theology because they believe that they are the One True Church and that souls live just one lifetime on earth. Basically, the only way I'll ever be a Mormon is in a future lifetime, if my soul chooses to be born into a Mormon family.

The conservative nature of the university didn't bother me, though. I believe that's because in my core, I'm pretty conservative. I felt comfortable at BYU. The rules and Honour Code did not bother me at all. I agree that people who have a problem abiding by the Honour Code should not even attend. However, my friend Matt Baker (a temple-worthy priesthood holder) wrote an article for the school paper that was not published which was titled "Why the Honour Code is Unchristian." He majored in print journalism. I knew several journalism students and all of them wanted to write a story about me for the school paper but they all claimed the same thing. Someone higher up nixed that idea. I have my hunches why. Come on, I was the only member of my church to attend BYU in a decade. I was so worthy of a story but I believe that they were afraid of bringing up my church or highlighting it in the life of a student.

Because I generally didn't reveal my church membership right away, I could blend in and I would often hear interesting comments about my church. I never knew what Mormons really thought of the RLDS Church until I went to BYU. To my shock, most of them view the church as a "cult" devoted to the Joseph Smith family. The irony is that Mormons talk about Joseph Smith more than members in my church. That illustrates one of the major differences between our churches. Mormons are encouraged to be obedient to their leaders. In the Community of Christ (RLDS), dissension and disagreement is considered healthy and natural. Its just the nature of conservative mindset (which prefers authoritarian leadership) versus the liberal one (more democratic and tolerant of diversity).

What can I say but that it was an experience. Evangelicals who knock Mormons for being a cult really ought to look in the mirror first before they judge. If people are curious about this religion, they should talk to both members and those who have left the faith. However, Mormons who left the faith to become evangelical Christians might have credibility problems. At least to me. Hearing two conservative religious people argue is absolutely hilarious to me because I can see both sides and understand each person, but also view them both as wrong. I'm tired of the Your God versus My God argument. It's all one God. Human ego gets in the way.

Mormons are good people. I have enough disagreements that I could never be a member unless I was indoctrinated since birth. But I'm glad I went to BYU and experienced it for myself. It was a very good education. And I even got the best compliment ever when my D.C. roommate wrote in the Memory book I put together that I was the person he admired the most because (and I quote) "he kept his faith intact at BYU." When I read that, I nearly cried. I said to him, "you realize what this means?" He said, "no." I looked at him and said, "You won't ever baptize me as a member!" That was the best compliment a Mormon could ever give me. My one wish at BYU was to find just one Mormon who would not make an issue of my religious membership and he was that person.


brooklyn said...

fun to read. perhaps we would have met at the rodin protest also! i think we share some of the same non-angry disagreement with some aspects of the church. in fact, i "had" to say the prayer at a couple of the protest meetings (who says a prayer at a protest?1) because the people organizing it said they were too angry to pray.

also, i was always drawn to anyone who was different too. too bad we didn't know each other. you would have loved my house. my roommates were from korea, panama, mexico and a black girl from pennsylvania.

Sansego said...

Even though it would have been nice to meet you, Matt, Janell, Mandy, and Jantzen much earlier, I appreciate the moment I met each of you and remember specifically when each happened. For example, the moment you and I met will always be a great moment in my life. I remember it clearly because I knew right away that you weren't like the other Mormons I met at BYU.

Why were people angry at the protest? I remember laughing about the ban because it was just one more example of the LDS Church's conservative nature. I had already seen the Rodin Museum in Paris, so I found it funny that anyone could think his works of art were "offensive." Besides, it takes more than cold statues to make me "aroused". Anyone who saw "The Kiss" and wanted to go home and "get busy" really needs help!