Recently Elder Bednar was asked “How can homosexual members of the Church live and remain steadfast in the Gospel?” He responded by explicitly changing the question. “There are no homosexual members of the Church,” he replied. “We are not defined by our sexual attractions.” The rest of the response boiled down to a reaffirmation of a heteronormative cosmology, with the assurance that all had access to it. In practical terms, the answer to the question was to ignore the importance of sexual attraction and focus instead on the doctrine of heteronormativity.
I have many friends who were deeply offended by this talk. I have other friends who built up apologetics and exegesis from it. What made it such a contentious hotspot, I believe, is that it goes to the heart of core narratives, where Elder Bednar seeks to rewrite another’s worldview.
To understand the importance of Elder Bednar’s words, as well as the importance of words in general, we must go back to the beginning. It is important to remember that the Judeo-Christian Creation was an act of speech. At each stage, God spoke and existence followed:
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)
God’s words existed first and were the agents for bringing about reality. John understands this as he opens his gospel with the Logos hymn:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1, 3)
Normally we Mormons are too quick to substitute “Word” for “Christ,” erasing the metaphor in the process, namely that we live in a world made from divinely creative words.
Another man to examine words was Jacque Derrida (1930–2004). He built on the work of other semiologists such as Saussure, who realized that words are only significant in its systemic relation to other words. But if words have no inherent meaning, they cannot describe objective reality, only other words. And since our concept of reality is composed of thoughts, which are in turn composed of words, then reality becomes what we are able to express through language. If an objective reality exists, it is only accessible through the medium of language; therefore we create our own worlds through words. These word-worlds are what we commonly call myths.
The word “myth” has accrued a negative connotation of falsehood in English; myths, we say, stand in opposition to truth and reality. But in its first use, back when it was still the Greek word μῦθος, it simply meant word, speech, story, or narrative, without distinction of true or false. Perhaps a good definition for myth is a story that is central to a people’s identity and worldview. They are the core narratives that shape the way we see ourselves and reality. As I continue to use the word myth in this context, remember that it is not pejorative, nor does it imply anything about validity.
Thus the myth of the Norse gods creating the world out of a giant’s corpse, the myth of God creating the heaven and the earth, and the myth of Big Bang all serve the equal purpose of helping humans understand reality. What is true and false is the wrong question. The question is if your myth, your world story, satisfies you and allows you to function, for we live off of stories as surely as we live off bread (Matthew 4:4). To abandon all myths, all narratives, is to plunge ourselves into the Void, and humans can’t survive long there. We need a story to live.
Myths are the way in which humans maintain control over reality. To name something, to give it shape and form through words, is to gain power over it. For this reason God had Adam name the animals, for he gave dominion of them to man (Genesis 2:19-20; 1:28-30). This is why parents name their children at birth; it completes their creation, gives them concrete form in reality, and gives the parents control over the child’s narrative. It is why God changes the names of others when they covenant to serve him (Genesis 17:5, 15; 32:28). It is why receiving a new name is still a part of Mormon worship today (D&C 130:11). Names have power, and to control a name is to control the person.
Homosexuality has had an equally fraught history with words and power. During the Middle Ages it was termed “the unspeakable crime.” While there were certainly people with feelings of affection and attraction for others of the same sex, and no shortage of sexual intimacy as a result, the concept of “homosexual” as a person, as an identity, did not yet exist. As long as the act remained “unspeakable,” existence was impossible.1 There were no words to express it. It was condemned as an act, but not as an individual. This all changed with the sexologists of the 19th century. They began to study and codify sexual acts and behaviors and, as the –ology suffix implies (Greek λόγος=word), coined new words for people who exhibited homosexual tendencies. It not only brought homosexuality into existence, but placed it in the power of the medical community that named it as part of a pathological narrative of sex. This would prove detrimental to Religion’s control over homosexual people. By giving them a name and existence, the medical world also gave them a voice. Once they learned to exercise it, they began creating their own myths about themselves, ones that were independent of sin or illness. They created their own words or reformed old ones (gay, lesbian, bi, queer), their own language. Homosexuals began to speak, and thus create.
The act of creating new myth, new narratives, is called mythopoesis (litterally “myth making”). Perhaps the great myth-poet of our time was Joseph Smith. He created new civilizations, new heavens, new gods. He revitalized Christianity, proximizing the myths so that they were no longer exclusively an Old World phenomenon, but had American and modern roots as well. Whether he was the instrument of God or created on his own is irrelevant. The important thing is that these myths were created and formed a new cultural identity for the early and modern latter-day saints.
Mythopoesis occurs on several different levels. Each individual ultimately decides what myth he or she will believe. The aggregate beliefs of individuals form a cultural myth. And finally, institutions may directly form canonized or authorized myths. These three layers of mythopoesis (individual, cultural, and institutional) influence one another constantly, shaping and reforming one another. When people subscribe to an institutional myth, they are expected to make their individual narratives conform to those of the institution. Of course, no institution is able to make a comprehensive mythology, so individuals will still exercise mythopoesis within the boundaries of the broader myth. Failure to comply with an institutional myth will often result in formal ostracizing. Rebellion against a cultural myth may result in social estrangement, but cultural myths lack a centralized body to administer formal sanctions.2
The question over LGBT rights and religious freedom, therefore, is not only a question of who is right, but a question of who controls the narrative and, consequently, who controls the people. For nearly 2000 years, religion had undisputed control over sex in the West. But when the medical community took control of the narrative, they altered it from sin to sickness. This created enough of a gap for individuals to enter the discursive process and create a counter-narrative of unjust oppression, reforming the civil rights narrative to fit their experience. It is no wonder, then, that the leaders of the Church have fought so hard to maintain control of the narrative of homosexuality. It is natural for institutions to fight against counter-narratives that threaten their power. In a worst case scenario, a cultural myth will be incorporating into the mythology of a stronger institution, which would limit the control a smaller institution has over its adherents. This is exactly what happened when same-sex marriage became legal; the American government, which nominally has more sociopolitical power than the Church, adopted the counter-narrative and has limited the Church’s control over homosexual individuals. The Church is no longer able to prevent them from having sex, developing relationships, marrying, adopting children, and gaining general acceptance in society.3
The LDS Church has a long history of reserving the rights of mythopoesis for their leadership. Perhaps the earliest example (at least canonically) is that of Hyrum Page, whom Joseph commanded to stop receiving revelation because it was of the devil. Thus Joseph was able to maintain exclusive power over the cosmic mythos he was constructing, divinely instructed or otherwise:
But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses. (D&C 28:2)
Each prophet of the Church has since claimed the same exclusive right, reinforcing the claim through the institutional myth, which seeps into cultural and individual myths. This places a limit on an individual’s ability for mythopoesis and self-creation, and also creates a unifying social order. In some instances, individual mythopoesis, especially myths that run counter to the institutional myth, are strongly discouraged, if not outright outlawed. As Elder Oaks said not too long ago:
Unfortunately, it is common for persons who are violating God’s commandments or disobedient to the counsel of their priesthood leaders to declare that God has revealed to them that they are excused from obeying some commandment or from following some counsel. Such persons may be receiving revelation or inspiration, but it is not from the source they suppose. The devil is the father of lies, and he is ever anxious to frustrate the work of God by his clever imitations.
Thus deviant myths are literally demonized, and the institutional Church is able to maintain control over the narrative and its members.
At last we can return to Elder Bednar’s comment on homosexuality. He saw the words “homosexual member of the Church” as a dangerous syncretism of two different mythologies. By using the word homosexual, a word coined through an outside cultural myth, it opens the door for other contradictory and affirming myths to enter into Church discourse. That is also why the Church is so adamant about using the words “same-sex attraction” rather than gay. If they control the words, they control the people.3
Recently more and more members of the Church are creating an alternative myth, the same myth that Elder Bednar tried to squelch. It is a myth that one can be openly gay and affirming in the Church. Some variants are subtle, merely refusing to think of homosexuality as bad or allowing it to be a part of one’s identity. Others take it further, saying that they can form romantic and/or sexual relationships without transgressing God’s laws. The most extreme do so while remaining active participants in the Church, even after they are excommunicated. These counter-narratives go directly against what Church leaders have said, and so weaken their authority and power over the collective narrative. In this sense, queer Mormons who refuse to accept that homosexual feelings are wrong or broken are all, truly, apostates. Merely claiming to exist, claiming their own words and identities, queers the Mormon mythos. And apostles, as keepers of the Gospel’s purity, are duty-bound to oppose it.
So here is the question for me, and for you, dear Reader. We each have the inherent power of mythopoesis. It is a sign of latent divinity, to shape and form reality according to our words. I, a man, experience attraction to men, both sexual and romantic. Will I submit to my institution’s mythos and accept it as my own? Or will I exercise my mythopoetic power and add to the counter-narratives? And the question that I have put off until the very end, because I do not yet have an answer: Which course is the right thing to do?
1. This is the current narrative in queer theory, but I find it somewhat flawed. Humans have an innate drive to name everything, and it would not surprise me if queer folk at the time did not invent their own words for their identities, a jargon that was never recorded and is lost to the impermanence of orality. Modern scholars tend to overvalue the written word, as it is all they have to study.
2. For more on discursive narratives of power, see Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 1.
3. Such a portrayal of the Church may seem to cast it in a negative light. Such was not my intention. All institutions and individuals seek power to maintain mythological autonomy. Power and its preservation are rather neutral concepts. It is only through the lens of our country’s social myths, of the American Revolution and Star Wars rebels, that domineering institutions take on a sinister appearance. Servitude and willing subjugation has long been a part of Christianity. In fact, the words servant (as in servant of God) comes from the Latin word servus, which is synonymous with slave. It is my own belief that Church leaders act in sincerity when they create, maintain, and enforce their mythos. They truly believe that they are receiving revelation from God, that this particular myth is true, and that adherence to it will ultimately save souls. But this discussion is to describe narratives and how they play into power dynamics, not to debate what is right and wrong.