Happiness & Harlots (Alma 39-42)

Monday, July 27, 2020

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Resources mentioned in this episode:
Scriptures mentioned in this episode:
  • Alma 39:3-4
  • Alma 42:29
  • Jacob 2

Transcribed by Maddie Daetwyler of @lightenprint

E: Hi, I’m Elise. And this is The Faithful Feminist podcast. I'm typically joined by the other co-host and my very best friend named Channing, but in the name of self-care, she's taking some time to herself this week, which means that today's episode is a totally solo episode with me. Now, this is not just any Come Follow Me podcast. We do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the Come Follow Me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We are here to show you all the really good ways faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience. We've saved you a seat on the soft chairs. So join us today for a conversation about Alma chapters 39 through 42 for the date, July 27th to August 2nd. We're so glad you're here.

Welcome back. Like I said earlier, today's episode is a solo episode and that means that it will be a little bit shorter than our usual episodes, but nonetheless, it will be just as amazing. Well, not just as amazing because we miss Channing, but it will be also amazing. 

Now just to situate ourselves in the text a little bit, this block of scripture is really the continuation of these father son conversations from last week. Alma is now sitting down with his son, Corianton, to talk about the plan of salvation, maybe some sexuality, and the atonement of Jesus Christ. These chapters are really filled with a lot of doctrinal goodness about the details of the plan of salvation. And in today's episode specifically, we're going to talk about Isabe,l sexuality and what Alma calls, the plan of happiness.

So first I want to spend some time trying to offer a feminist reading or interpretation of Isabel. Isabel shows up in only two sentences in this whole block of scripture, and that's in Alma chapter 39 verses 3 through 4, and Alma is saying “And this is not all my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son.” Did you catch what Alma labels her as? He labels her as a harlot or a sex worker, and that label really stings loudly in this verse. Remember that this type of labeling and name calling is a tool of the patriarchy to make women less than, and therefore able to turn them into sexual objects or objects of little value and to degrade them. So back to Alma and Corianton. It's clear that Alma had wanted Corianton to serve a mission, but according to Alma, it was Isabel who had led him away from his duty. I think the scripture is also intended to prove how terrible sexual sin is because it links it up with the other scripture that says, “Yea, the most abominable above all sins, save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.” But we need to slow down here because the phrase sexual sin or any admittance of sexual illness is not even mentioned at all in this entire chapter.

Yeah. I had to reread that scripture because in my mind, for some reason I had memorized it or had sunk into my brain as saying, sexual sin is the most abominable sin, save it be for the shedding of innocent blood. But that's not what the scripture says at all. In fact, in the first four verses of chapter 39, Alma does this type of kitchen sink thing, where he takes up a lot of Corianton’s faults and his missteps in his “sins”, and then Alma kind of rattled them off to Corianton. He says that Corianton hasn't observed the steadiness of his brother Shiblon. He didn't heed the words of Alma. Corianton boasted in his own strength, in his wisdom. And he ended up forsaking or did not tend to the ministry, which he was entrusted with because he “went after the harlot,” Isabel. Then after this list of mistakes, Alma says, “Know you not my son, that these things, emphasis: these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord? Yea, most abominable above all sins, save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.” And this, on this reading, caused me to stop and say, hang on. What things are an abomination in God's eye, all of the things that Alma's pointing out or accusing Corianton? Is it boasting in your own strength? Is it giving up on the mission? Is it leading people away? And honestly the text makes it incredibly unclear. And so we can see that it's really the Come Follow Me manual, and the thousands of talks that reference the scripture that really reinforce that sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior before marriage are an abomination to God. 

After this call-out Alma says that Corianton must repent and forsake his sins and “go no more after the lusts of your eyes.” And there's an author who goes by the name Spunky who wrote a piece for Exponent II titled Removing the Masculinity from Alma 39, in which they write “So was physical sexual sin committed, or was it just in Corianton’s heart and mind? Would a father who was angry at his son for ditching out on a mission then go to label the son's crush in a demeaning manner as a means of insulting his son? I think so.” And when I was about 18 years old, I was seeing a guy and we went to his parent's house to go swimming. I wore a bikini to hang out with him because that was my swimsuit attire. As we were swimming, this guy's mom came out of the house and she saw me in my bikini and she gasped. She got close to me and said that this is not the way that a good young woman should dress. And that at her house, she teaches her daughters to follow the rules outlined in the For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet. She asked me what type of attention I was trying to get by showing off my body to her son. And then she went inside to the house and came back outside with an oversized t-shirt and told me that if I wanted to stay here, I had to wear this t-shirt. There was so much, I can't even believe I'm sharing this story here because there was so much shame and anxiety built into this encounter. I was a slut for wearing a bikini to swim in. I wasn't a good worthy Mormon girl because my stomach and my shoulders were showing. My body was a temptation for her angel son. And she didn't want him to fall from grace. I had become the harlot, Isabel. 

Along the same line in 2013, Elder Tad Callister of the Seventy placed the responsibility for all of men's spiritual integrity on the shoulders of women when he stated, “The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure. Men and women can look sharp and be fashionable, yet they can also be modest. Women, particularly, can dress modestly and in the process contribute to their own self-respect and the moral purity of men. In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.” And so I hope that you can see all of these things linking up together, right? We can see how easy it is to place the responsibility and blame for men's sexual behavior on women to say, Oh, it was that harlot Isabel, or for this guy's mom to come out and tell me that I was leading her son astray.

Or for Elder Callister to say that, Women, you're responsible for your own sexuality, and you're also responsible for managing men’s sexuality, too. Maybe you've heard of the LDS writer, Jenna Reese, and she actually picks up this passage from Elder Callister and kind of flips it into a satirical post trying to showcase the double standard here. She writes, “Away with shoulder bearing tank tops during your pickup basketball games in the church gym, away with your low slung jeans that drive girls crazy, wondering by what defiance of physics your pants don't drop to your ankles.” Then she puts another spin on it, and at the end she reminds Mormon men that they will marry “the type of woman you dress for.” And gosh, I didn't realize how ridiculous these examples sound like listed one after another, especially when we're talking about Isabel, whose story really takes up two lines. But as you can see, when you dive deeper in this feminist lens, it opens up a whole other conversation. And this conversation or notion of saddling women with the responsibility for men's sexual behavior is not a new one in the LDS church. We see this with modesty culture and the dual edge sword. That quote “modest is hottest,” which reinforces that women's power is sexual power, but on the flip side, women are supposed to be pure and virginal, and have no sexual nature and no sexual desire. And they're also supposed to manage men's sexuality, too.

And to be clear, this ill-placed burden of responsibility, or the idea that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality, also harms men because it suggests that men are nothing more than their sexual instincts. It paints them as insatiable sexual beings at any age. There are so many conversations when we plan girls camp about how girls can't wear leggings. The girls can't wear leggings to girls camp because there are going to be adult male leaders there. What? This type of thinking perpetuates rape culture because it suggests that women are “asking for it” because of the way that they dress and that the man just couldn't help himself. And then when you pair this with a church culture that is incredibly anxious and hyper conservative about sexuality in the first place, this may also lead to men having contempt for women who own their own sexuality and they own their desire, and they're confident in it because it shows that they're are powerful agents of their own beings.

This type of feminist interpretation is needed for everyone, not just for women, for men too. We're complex, and growing up in the church, or kind of moving through church experience, teaches us to disconnect ourselves from our sexuality. Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, maybe you've heard of her, she's a Mormon sex therapist and she wrote her dissertation on LDS women and sexuality. And honestly, she is truly carrying the conversation around sexuality as it relates to members and church culture. And in a piece she wrote titled Moderating the Mormon Discourse on Modesty, she says, “The saddest consequence of this cultural reality of modesty and the discourse around sexuality is the very real impact it has on women's relationships to their sexuality. Placing the anxiety of human sexuality onto women does women and men a deep disservice. It robs women of self-knowledge as well as ownership of and confidence in their sexuality. We are sexual beings, not sexual objects for male gratification. Our parents in heaven gave us beautiful curvaceous bodies. They are lovely and we're celebrating. In my opinion, a modest woman loves and embraces her God-given body, including her curves, her sensuality and her capacity for pleasure.” Your jaws better be on the floor right now. What a fantastic way to reshape our understanding of modesty and sexuality. I think in this way Dr. Finlayson-Fife reminds us that our sexuality belongs to us and it's an important part of being our whole selves. God gave us these bodies. Mother Eve was a huge part in sacrificing to give us these bodies in the first place. And that means that all of our body, all parts of it, the size, the color, the shape, the curves, and the desire, and the sensuality, and the urges, and the attraction, all of those things are God-given and God-celebrated. Sexual beings are of God. I think if the church culture and teachings were to try and follow such an empowering and positive line of thinking about sexuality, I really think that we would be able to move away from a model of sin and guilt and shame, and maybe we could step into a framework of learning how to understand our sexuality. And then be empowered to make conscious, active choices about how we want to be in relationship to our bodies and our sexuality. How do we want to treat our bodies and be treated by others? Perhaps the conversations could revolve more around building personal relationships with God and knowing that God is merciful and loving all the way through. 

On this same line of thinking, I think that there are moments in these chapters where I do feel like Alma is sharing some really loving and redeeming aspects of the gospel with Corianton. Chapter 42 is the first place in the whole Book of Mormon that the plan of salvation is actually referred to as the plan of happiness. And I find it so striking that if we were to follow the Come Follow Me given interpretation of this chapter as a chapter that is counseling us and Corianton on sexuality and sin, then this chapter also teaches us that there is both happiness and redemption available because of this plan that God has created for us, and because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. I don't know about you, but, navigating sexuality in the church as an adolescent and as a teenager was so difficult. And it was always made even more fearful when I had to go in to talk to the Bishop. Often after sexual experiences, I would immediately feel overcome with dread as I then had to think about going and confessing things to the Bishop. And out of this guilt and shame and dread, I would make promises to never do anything like this ever again. I'll just like, deny and turn off my body and I'll never look at a boy ever again. I promise. But then of course, what would happen? The same things would happen again. Did this mean that I was bad and unworthy? No. But I didn't know that then, because that's not what I had been taught growing up. Chewed gum and smashed cake lessons -- those were the lessons that I got and yes, having to confess sexual sins to bishops in the first place is a whole different conversation that we'll get into in another episode. But because I was taught that confessing to the Bishop was what I was supposed to do, that's what I did. And there were times when I had bishops that seemed way less concerned about repentance and forgiveness, and much more concerned about the forbidden nature of sexuality and they wanted to swing down the harsh acts of punishment. And of course this made the experience even more upsetting and made me feel strange or shamefully forced out from both my own sexuality and from God. But I also had bishops who were so understanding and loving. They seem to care less about whatever sexual event or experience had taken place and more about me and about repentance and about helping me reconcile with God.

And as I'm talking about it now, kind of looking and thinking back on those conversations with bishops, it's making me think that God was never truly estranged from me. God was never mad at me for whatever sexual experience I had had. No, it was my own shame that kind of acted like a covering of it. It covered me from God's love. And so when Alma starts talking to Corianton all about the plan of happiness, I just think, thank goodness, whatever sin Corianton has committed, he should know first and foremost that God is ready to welcome him with love and forgiveness. 

In chapter 42 verse 29, Alma says, “And now my son, I desire that you should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance. Oh, my son, I desire that you should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself and the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full say in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.”

I think if I were to put that in my own words, I think it would sound something like, “Oh my son, don't let the guilt and shame, trouble you anymore. Let your mistakes call you to repentance. And that repentance means to turn to a God with open arms. Of course you will face natural consequences, like having to apologize and make amends and yeah, maybe you'll probably be grounded because that is how the justice of God plays out. But don't forget that right alongside the justice there is so much mercy and God is endlessly patient. Let that be the thing that works in your heart. And when you feel the majesty of justice and mercy through the atonement, it will humble you and cause you to feel an awe because of how loving God is.

And at the very end of chapter 42, the opportunity to go on a mission or to go on this ministry is still given to Corianton. After four chapters of Alma laying out all of his sins and calling him out and preaching to him and trying to teach him and guide him, Alma says “You're still worthy. You can still do this. You're not the worst thing that you've ever done. You're so much more than that. And God knows that. And I know that as your dad.” And I just think that is such a lovely way to end this set of scriptures, because at the end of the day, these are the words that Alma said to Corianton. And so we're kind of getting a sneak peek on this intimate conversation.

So whether anything sexual happened between Corianton and Isabel, going back to our conversation about Isabel, she of course deserves respect and our full attention in the story. The slur of harlot, and just a few verses later, wicked harlot, as proof or justification, or blame for Corianton’s shortcomings, is not her burden to bear. It's his. And yet in another reading, maybe Alma realizes that. I mean, he is after all calling Corianton out for whatever mistakes he has made, sexual or otherwise. Could this scold that Alma is giving to Corianton be similar to the scold that Jacob gives the Nephite men in Jacob chapter two, where Jacob and God side with the women and hold the men accountable, fully accountable, for their sexual sin? Could it be that Alma is holding his son squarely accountable and offering redemptive counsel on how to make amends and take part in the atonement? Could it be that Alma is practicing the same balance of justice and mercy that he says God does for us? 

Whatever the case may be, it was only by way of a feminist lens and discussion that we were able to make it to these points together. As you study this week, I leave you with three questions to ponder. 1) How do you see masculinity and patriarchy show up in these set of chapters? 2) What does a feminist lens offer this story that you did not see before? And 3) How do you think justice and mercy play into conversations about sexuality?

Thank you so much for joining me in this solo episode. We send you our love and appreciation for always tuning in with us. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and we're going to continue this conversation, of course, on Instagram this week. So until next time, bye!

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