Author: Ryan

Ryan graduated cum laude from Brigham Young University, where he studied Chinese and Political Science. While at BYU, he worked as a Teaching Assistant in the History Department, as Editor-in-Chief of The BYU Political Review, and as Student Editor of The Rice Papers (BYU's Asian Studies Journal). Ryan was accepted as a 2011 Teach For America Corps Member and teaches 5th-grade History at Brownsville Collegiate Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Ordain Women. (At Least They’re Not Black Men.)

Kate Kelly, Ordain Women Founder

For the past month or so, Kate Kelly has dominated my newsfeed. Her organization, Ordain Women, takes a faith-affirming approach to addressing gender inequality in the Mormon Church and opening the male-only Mormon priesthood to women, asking church leaders to “take this matter to the Lord in prayer.”

For her audacity, an all-male ecclesiastical jury convicted her of apostasy and excommunicated her, essentially sentencing the former missionary to damnation by revoking all priesthood blessings, covenants, and ordinances, which the Mormon Church teaches are necessary for salvation.

While the excommunication seems to me unduly harsh, what irks me most is the ignorance of overzealous blogger-critics whose rambling posts ooze righteous indignation and all make the same argument: “The church leadership says women can’t have the priesthood, and if that confuses you, ask God, not the church. But do it quietly, and by the way, women will never receive the priesthood.”

What critics of Ordain Women seem to have forgotten is that, just under forty years ago, members of the church were asking the same questions about black men—and that, after a few excommunications for the loudest agitators, Mormon doctrine changed.

From about 1852 to 1978, the Mormon Church prohibited black men from holding the priesthood, participating in higher temple ordinances, and holding leadership positions within the church. In the 1970s, a wave of dissention confronted the church as more and more church members (and non-members) began to question this practice. In 1978 the church finally reversed course and announced that all worthy men could hold the priesthood, regardless of race.

The difference this time is that, considering Mormon doctrine and scripture, women have a much better case for admittance to the priesthood than black men ever did. Why? Because while women are shamefully underrepresented in all books in the Mormon canon, we are not taught that they are “an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety.” Or that they were “cursed…as pertaining to the priesthood.” The same cannot be said of black men.

In fact, the conflict of the entire Book of Mormon surrounds the rivalry between the dark-skinned Lamanites and the light-skinned Nephites and begins in 2 Nephi 5, when the righteous Nephi leaves his wicked and fratricidal brothers, taking his family members into the wilderness for their own safety. Nephi describes the experience, saying that God had “caused the cursing to come upon them [his brothers and their families]…because of their iniquity” and that “as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” Nephi continues: “thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing…And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety…”

The Book of Mormon promotes the repulsive notion that white skin is beautiful, that black skin is not, that black skin is in fact curse from God and that, because of the cursing, those with black skin became “loathsome,” “idle,” and “full of mischief and subtlety.”

Yet the Book of Mormon was not the sole basis for the ban on blacks holding the priesthood. Prior to 1978, Mormon leadership and apologists repeatedly answered the priesthood question by referencing the Pearl of Great Price, which expands the notion of the dark skin curse, explaining that Noah cursed Ham and his descendants, forbidding them the priesthood. (Abraham 1:20-27)

Bruce R. McConkie, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, extrapolated further, identifying the dark skin curse as the same curse God placed upon Cain after he murdered his brother Abel: “Cain, Ham, and the whole negro race have been cursed with a black skin, the mark of Cain, so they can be identified as a caste apart, a people with whom the other descendants of Adam should not intermarry.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 114)

References from church leadership to God’s curse on black men and women are myriad and easy to find (try perusing the Journal of Discourses, vol. 2), so suffice it to say that abundant evidence from the scriptures and from church leaders seemed to demonstrate clearly that it was not God’s will to grant the priesthood to black men. Ever. But in 1978, the church did exactly that.

Women today who desire the priesthood face an uphill battle, to be sure. But unless the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon contained a detailed description of a more severe no-priesthood cursing God placed upon women for their disobedience, I feel somewhat assured that women will hold the priesthood in the Mormon Church in the not-so-distant future.

The Rest of the Story

In preparation for applying to law school, I spent hours today working on drafts of personal statements in various forms. While working just now, I was inspired to share something I should have posted years ago.

In April of 2011, I published the post “The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-out”. In it, I shared the letter I wrote to my father in February of 2009 where I confessed my disbelief in God. Writing that letter was, perhaps, one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. What I neglected to mention in 2011, however, was that reading my father’s response affected me more powerfully than my writing him in the first place.

Until that point in my life, friends, family, and my entire worldview had been shaped by my membership in the Mormon Church. I worried that leaving it would mean losing friends, expulsion from the university, and—worse by far—wounding my younger brothers and sister, my mom, and my dad, who all believed that with faith in God and worthy membership in His church, family ties would endure beyond the grave and into eternity. Confessing my burgeoning atheism would, to them, come as a rejection of more than just faith—it would come as a rejection of their love and eternal companionship. I imagined telling my father—the man who had baptized me; the doctor who had once, full of faith, laid his hands on my head, and commanded me to be healed by the power of God; who had taken me aside as a boy and showed me a painting of Jesus calming the storm and said, “Son, I believe this really happened.” I imagined telling him that all my professions of faith had been lies. I imagined his disappointment, and it broke my heart.

It took more than a year to find the courage, but with shaking, clammy hands I finally wrote him that letter in February of 2009 and confessed my disbelief. At first the words were halting and awkward, but shortly pages of the most honest and cathartic prose I have ever written came pouring out of me. He responded simply:

Ryan,

I love you little man. Many people, including me, have found themselves in your position. We will work through it. I don’t have any doubt of that. Be your cheerful, optimistic self and do what you know is right. I can’t wait to see you.

Dad

Instead of addressing my concerns or asking why I hadn’t said something earlier or even telling me he was sorry I felt so conflicted, he told me exactly what I needed to hear, even though I didn’t know it was what I needed when I wrote him in the first place. He reaffirmed what was, to us both, so much more important than religion: he understood me, and he loved me. Absolutely and without question, he loved me. And nothing I had said or done had changed that or ever would. Reading that made me feel shallow-minded. I had worried, whether I knew it or not, that my family’s love for me would be, at least in part, dependent on our sharing a similar religious belief. Reading his response put my mind back into perspective. It reminded me that my family loved me dearly and always would, and it reminded me that there was nothing that could be more important.

Shane Koyczan

Over the past week or so, I’ve run into spoken word poetry by Shane Koyczan (COY-zan) online three or four times. A friend posted a link on Facebook, I clicked one of the related videos suggested by YouTube, and there he is.

Shane is a 36-year-old Canadian poet, writer, and artist. I hadn’t heard about him until days ago, but I can’t turn him off. I don’t want to. It’s incredible.

Do yourself a favor and watch one of these all the way through.

The first is called “The Crickets Have Arthritis”. It’s about sharing a hospital room with a 9-year-old cancer patient.

Part of this reminded me a bit of one of my own posts (just much, much better). I can’t explain why, but Shane’s words hit me as perfectly…real.

And they visit every day and stay well past visiting hours because for them that term doesn’t apply. But when they do leave, Louis and I are left alone. And he says, “The worst part about being sick is that you get all the free ice cream you ask for.” And he says, “The worst part about that is realizing there is nothing more they can do for you.” He says, “Ice cream can’t make everything okay.”

And there is no easy way of asking, and I know what he’s going to say, but maybe he just needs to say it, so I ask him anyway. “Are you scared?”

Louis doesn’t even lower his voice when he says, “Fuck yeah.”

I listen to a 9 year old boy say the word ‘fuck’ like he was a 30-year-old man with a nose-bleed being lowered into a shark tank–he’s got a right to it. And if it takes this kid a curse word to help him get through it, then I want to teach him to swear like the devil’s sitting there taking notes with a pen and a pad. But before I can forget that Louis is 9 years old he says, “Please don’t tell my dad.”

The second is an animated project called “To This Day”, and it aims to confront bullying. It’s very good.

Why I Teach For America

Many Americans accept educational inequality as an unsolvable, self-perpetuating economic quandary. Children in low-income areas (most of them children of color) receive substandard education, find substandard jobs, follow substandard career paths, and live in low-income areas where their children follow the same substandard pattern. And that’s if they attain jobs and careers at all. Children in these areas are many times more likely to go to jail or die an early death than their (mostly white) counterparts in middle- and high-income areas. While this entrapping financial spiral is tragic, the greatest travesty lies beyond economics: education and learning are essential, not only to a successful career, but also (and more importantly) to a complete, satisfying, happy life.

My own passion for learning and insatiable curiosity have given me such a life. In high school, I applied for an Idaho Public Television internship in the Idaho Capitol. Covering committee hearings and floor debates sparked my intense interest in politics and rhetoric that continues to this day. Three years later, I left on a two-year church mission to Taiwan, curious about the world and hoping desperately to find faith in God. My doubts only increased, but despite this challenge, I returned with a deep understanding of a new language and culture, and with the confident assurance that I could sacrifice personal wants and dedicate myself to a single cause from sunup to sundown, seven days a week. Two years ago, spurred on by my love of political rhetoric and a desire to stretch myself, I applied for and accepted the position of Editor-in-Chief with The BYU Political Review. Frantic editing and all-night publishing sessions before monthly deadlines became stepping-stones for some of my most meaningful conversations and deepest friendships.

Through these experiences, it has consistently been my parents and my teachers who inspire and challenge me to learn and grow.

Last year, as I was approaching graduation and still entirely unsure of what I wanted to do in life, I heard about Teach For America. At the time, I was mildly attached to the idea of law school—that great catchall for vaguely ambitious students with undergraduate degrees as useless as mine. While studying for the LSAT, I discovered that two good friends of mine—both brilliant, ambitious, and capable—were applying to Teach For America. I read the flyers, met with the recruiter, and perused the website.

Teach For America (TFA) takes a two-pronged approach at addressing educational inequality in America. The first step is to recruit a critical source of ambitious, altruistic, energetic, accomplished individuals (most of them recent college graduates) with a strong record of leadership experience. TFA coaches these individuals (called Corps Members) through an intensive summer training program and helps to place them in low-income area schools throughout the country. Once placed, these Corps Members teach for a minimum of two years.

The second step is the natural result of the first. Affected by their experience with TFA and in teaching, many Corps Members continue to work in the field of education. Others go on to work as lawyers, doctors, politicians, scientists, etc., but, changed by their experiences, Corps Members promote positive and effective social and political reform aimed at eliminating educational inequality regardless of their profession.

Inspired, I cancelled my LSAT registration and began my application within a few days. I joined Teach For America because it represents the best and most effective opportunity I have to instill in others the same passion and love of learning that has brought me so much joy. I joined so I could teach.

How to Get 40% Off Xbox Live. Today.

Microsoft has a long history of trying to rip me off.

Just a few days ago, I received notice that my Xbox Live subscription was scheduled to be automatically renewed in July. When I purchased a 12-month subscription this time last year, the price was $50/year. Then in November of last year, Microsoft upped the price to $60/year.

Now, I’m reasonably willing to pay 4 to 5 bucks a month in order to play games online with my friends in different parts of the country. But Sony’s Playstation Network allows its users to do exactly the same thing for free. With that in mind, paying ANY number of bucks per month for the same service makes me grumpy.

So I called Xbox Live’s customer support to complain. They immediately gave me 40% off.

The following is a step-by-step guide to getting your Xbox Live subscription reduced by 40%:

  1. Be a current Xbox Live customer
  2. Get mad that Microsoft is ripping you off
  3. Call Xbox Live customer support (1-800-4MY-XBOX) any day of the week
  4. Tell them you would like to cancel your subscription after it expires (whenever that is for you)
  5. When they ask you whether it’s because you won’t be able to use it or because of the price, tell them the price is too high and that Sony gives their members free online gaming
  6. They will immediately give you 40% off
  7. Enjoy your hard-earned and well deserved $25

That’s really all there is to it. There is no reason for you to pay $60 for Xbox Live. They started my new 40% off subscription the day I called in to complain and prorated me (at the pre-discounted rate) for the month I had left. That means (I assume) that you could do this even right in the middle of your 12-month subscription. No need to wait till later to save a bit of cash.

Enjoy!

Give ’em What They Want

Someone asked me recently why so many of my posts deal with religion. It’s a fair question, considering religion comes last in my tagline.

When I began blogging more frequently, I had actually envisioned spending quite a bit more time discussing East Asian politics, Chinese history and literature, Sino-American relations, and other China-related topics that my education gives me somewhat more authority to discuss. I’m no foreign policy expert, and my Chinese isn’t at the point where I peruse PRC white papers over breakfast, but I thought with my penchant for things Chinese and my mild ability to relate international affairs to practical living, maybe my readers would find it worthwhile.

To my dismay, however, my few posts on Chinese culture and sayings are among my least popular posts. Even recent and flippant posts like “Weiner’s Weiner” have received more all-time hits than “Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow“, which is still one of my favorite posts.

Judging by my stats page, what readers really want are abrasive rants on religion. My posts on religion receive many, many more on-site views, comments, and syndicated views than posts on any other subject. And the more I stray from dispassionate reasoning and toward impassioned raving, the more hits and feedback I receive.

So why do I write about religion so frequently? Here’s half the answer:

STIRFRIES hits per day. The arrows indicate new posts (red for religious posts and green for other posts).

 

And here’s the other half: I was taught to pray before I learned to ride a bicycle. I know more religious songs than most people know secular ones. I graduated from a 4-year religious seminary and attended a religious university where part of my general education was regular classes in scripture and doctrine. I spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I was taught to feel guilty if I thought about anything BUT religion. And all told, I have spent over a year of my life inside a church building—and that’s excluding classrooms at BYU, all of which are dedicated to God and most of which are used for religious observance on Sundays.

Since I was a child—and until only very recently—my social and family life has revolved around religion. Doubting Thomas and perpetual critic that I am, I have spent thousands of hours considering the role of religion in my life, in society, in human history, its benefits, its drawbacks, its consequences, its veracity.

Religion is what I know. More specifically, doubting religion is what I know. If a few hundred hours of study and a piece of paper that says I know Chinese language, literature, and culture qualify me to comment on Sino-American anything, then a lifetime of theological study, indoctrination, and private criticism give me the right to say a few words about religion.