This is my body . . . or, Sally Quinn, PZ Myers, and the coming millennium

By August 2, 2008

Recently (and weirdly) the Holy Eucharist has been in the news.

Back in June, noted Washington socialite and journalist Sally Quinn, an announced agnostic, took communion at Tim Russert’s funeral Mass.  There was a fair amount of furor over what appeared to be Quinn’s blithe transgression of the sacred barriers surrounding the Eucharist.  More recently, in the culmination of a convoluted and fairly childish series of events, the University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers declared himself baffled by the furor (extending all the way to threatening emails) with which Catholics responded to the theft of a consecrated Eucharistic wafer by a student.  In retaliation for such behavior, Myers announced his intent to publicly desecrate a Host.

Baffled is a good word for the whole thing.   Meeting every appeal to theology, tradition, and symbol with the phrase “It’s a frackin’ cracker,” [warning; language] Myers dismisses as silly and nebulous all arguments that the theft could possibly carry greater cultural weight than, say, stealing a Triscuit.  Strangely, it appears that Myers actually believes that deep down Catholics really acknowledge this – they must, so it goes, because people are inherently rational – and are simply being pigheaded to spite him.

Quinn, on the other hand,  is a devotee of the church of Sheila, a favorite of sociologists and other students of contemporary American religion.  Sheilaists see little value in boundaries, in self-denial, in the mysterious grandeur of an inscrutable and demanding God.  Rather, like the eponymous Sheila (described by sociologist Robert Bellah) they seek self-fulfillment in religion, tinkering with the symbols and meanings of a variety of faiths Eastern and Western, mixing and matching theology and therapy in pursuit of personal validation and meaning. For Quinn, to partake of the Eucharist was to “feel closer to Tim” – not to participate in any sort of meaningmaking so particular as that which a denomination might offer.  She meant “no disrespect,” she says, and the sentiment is certainly sincere; indeed, being true to her own system of faith merely trumps the exclusive boundaries of Catholicism.

So, the exclusivity, the determined supernaturalism of Catholic rite have always seemed foreign and a little (or lot) strange to Americans raised and nurtured on an increasingly inclusivist and rational Protestantism.  Myers’s harshly sarcastic castigations and Quinn’s airy boundary blurring stem from the very same and very American, impulses: egalitarianism, suspicion of authority, confidence in individual common sense, a preference for practicality over mysticism.

I’ve ruminated a bit before (here) about Mormon eucharistic theology.  But these particular events have caused me to think a bit more about what precisely the elements of “the sacrament” are to Mormons, and what it does.

Though I’d imagine most Mormons would surely find Myers’ actions offensive, such a reaction probably stems more from his belligerent disrespect for religion in general than from the particular sense of sacrilege that Catholics feel.  Like many reformed Protestants, heirs of the theology of Reformer Huldrich Zwingli, Mormons, in general, are memorialists.  The bread and water are merely that, symbolic reminders of Christ rather than metaphysical bearers of saving grace or his ‘real presence.’  (See here for a recent discussion of Mormon baptism that takes a similar position.)

This theology may also indicate why Quinn’s action would be less disturbing to the locals if it had taken place in a Mormon sacrament meeting.   Like many other Christians, Mormons restrict the Eucharist – but it is, paradoxically, a mark of the modern interpretation of the rite that such restriction is only enforced upon straying members of the elect as a means to encourage self-examination, while non-Mormons are left to their own devices.   The bread and water is now spoken of as a time to renew one’s covenants, to reaffirm one’s dedication to follow Christ.  To partake, like Quinn, absent such commitments is meaningless rather than sacrilege, because the meaning of the Eucharist has in the twentieth century become dependent upon the covenantal state of the communicant.

There’s a part of me (the same part that enjoys Calvin) that wishes Mormon theology was less austere and accomodating than this.  But of course, Mormons have their own sacraments, those of the temple, in which such is precisely the case.   Mormonism’s public sacraments resemble the democratizing and demystification of the Radical Reformation; their private sacraments mystical and exclusive Catholicism at its highest.

However, Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants, transcribed in August 1830, long before the sacramental theologies outlined above hardened, is interesting to consider here.   It foregrounds an aspect of the Eucharist often overlooked; that is, the bread and wine as a type of the wedding feast of the Lamb, a millenarian interpretation that overwhelmed theologies of memorialism.   The Saints here are instructed that wine will be restored to the cup in place of water when Christ himself comes to drink.   The prosaic reason why water is commended to the Saints, of course, is that wine was associated with ‘enemies,’ merchants and vintners who stood part of that looming, vaguely hostile Gentile world that early Mormons saw all around them.  But such a warning is linked to an implicit promise: that world would be subdued when Christ came again.  Soon.

In this way, then, the Eucharist was tied to an electric sense of the supernatural; a vibe of holy expectation shot through it in a way that utterly bypassed the question of the properties of the bread and water themselves.   The Eucharist of section 27 is a divine boundary marker, dividing the wheat from the tares, re-orienting human society along supernatural lines, marking the Mormons as God’s elect, the invisible and the visible church in one.   The elements themselves hold no sacred power; the grace of the rite, rather, resided in the boundaries, and in history.  To take the Eucharist from the hands of Joseph Smith was to become a part of a radical and apocalyptic world.  But the bread was just bread, and the wine could just as easily be water.

Of course, scholars like Jan Shipps have argued that the sacred boundaries of the nineteenth century, marking off literal Zions and holy territory, have since dissolved into less grandiose borders marked through individual behavior.  The evolution of the Mormon sacrament may reflect this.  But there also may be something less academic to it.  In the introduction to Ritual in Early Modern Europe, author Edward Muir recalls his own experience as a Mormon priest, blessing and uncovering the sacramental trays, and the holy awe he felt.  “My account of the sacrament neither follows church doctrine nor was designed to promote faith,” he writes.  Rather, “It was designed to identify something about the emotional experiences that are possible by participating in a ritual.”  [7]   The meanings of the Mormon sacrament have changed over time; not always in logically coherent or consistent ways, but always in ways that held meanings for individual people.   One lesson Mormon history could take from the Myers and Quinn experience, then, may be that the popular and personal can give us great insight into the ways theology is experienced as religion.

Article filed under Current Events Intellectual History Theology


  1. Superb post, Matt.

    Comment by kris — August 3, 2008 @ 7:58 am

  2. Agreed, Kris. I don’t have much to add, but this is an insightful post.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 3, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  3. A sad little affair, really, which will certainly do more harm to Myers and the New Atheism than it will to Catholicism. And it unmasks campus speech and civility codes for the hypocritical shams that they are.

    Comment by Dave — August 3, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  4. Thanks, folks.

    Dave – Quite possibly on your first, though on your second, being a campus member myself, I think I’m less given to sweeping pessimism.

    Comment by matt b — August 3, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  5. Matt, as I mentioned to you the other day, I greatly enjoyed this post. When I read Myers’ article, I was reminded of this comment from Elder Holland’s infamous “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” talk:

    I know of no one who would … rush into the middle of a sacramental service, grab the linen from the tables, throw the bread the full length of the room, tip the water trays onto the floor, and laughingly retreat from the building to await an opportunity to do the same thing at another worship service the next Sunday. No one within the sound of my voice would do that during one of the truly sacred moments of our religious worship.

    Comment by Christopher — August 3, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

  6. You might enjoy this thread at Mixing Memory. (Note the author is himself an atheist)

    Having said all that I think this is much ado about nothing. Myers is being childish, his followers more so. But he didn’t do anything remotely on par with “grabbing the linen from the table, throw the bread the length of the room, tip to water trays on the floor, and laughingly retreat.” He took some bread and kept it. Big whoop.

    Heck, as a Mormon, I’m just happy they aren’t tar and feathering us.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2008 @ 1:24 am

  7. Thanks, Christopher, and thanks for the link, Clark.

    I’d just point out that it was the student who merely stole a consecrated communion wafer. Myers stole a consecrated wafer (the body of Christ), rammed a rusty nail through it, and threw it in the trash with some old coffee grounds. It’s hugely adolescent behavior, but in Mormon terms of offense, it’s closer to taking an axe, spray paint, and a pornographic video into a celestial room than it is to burning garments.

    Comment by matt b. — August 4, 2008 @ 1:45 am

  8. No it’s not. It’s more akin to Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson or Jimmy Swaggart ripping up a Book of Mormon on stage. As I said, big whoop. Try and shock me and I don’t care. People stupid enough to get upset are doing exactly what these guys want.

    As I said, so long as they are merely attacking our symbols who cares. It wasn’t that long ago we had to deal with real violence. I’d take Myer’s antics over that any day of the week.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2008 @ 2:06 am

  9. Clark – In theory I agree; the point, though, is that, unlike for Mormons and other memorialists, to Catholics the Host is not merely a symbol; it is, in fact, sanctified in the same way (or perhaps even more intensely) than the interior of temples are.

    Comment by matt b. — August 4, 2008 @ 2:24 am

  10. A young man took a consecrated wafer back to his seat in a Catholic church. For this, he received death threats and threats of expulsion from his college. It is the juxtaposition of the harshness of the response with the mildness of the “crime,” that provoked the phrase “It’s a frackin’ cracker.” A human being is more important than a, uh, cracker, even if blessed, don’t you think?

    Comment by djinn — August 4, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  11. BTW, I love the word “consubstantiation,” yet rarely find the opportunity to drop it, lightly, into conversation. I think you missed your chance.

    Comment by djinn — August 4, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  12. djinn – I think no side should take the low road, beginning with the student who participated in a religious ritual primarily to subvert it. Certainly death threats are not appropriate, but should not Catholics be allowed to be upset that things they consider sacred were mishandled?

    I’d have used consubstantiation; but unfortunately, no Lutherans make an appearance here.

    Comment by matt b — August 4, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  13. Are you serious? You really think death threats (in the case of Prof. Myers, against family members as well) are within the rough category “allowed to be upset” due to something thought sacred, but mass produced and worth pennies at most, being mishandled?

    I realize this is tangential to your main point; roughly that the literal transformation of bread and wine into Christs’ body in Catholicism, is no less a potent transformation to the partaker in Mormonism, even though the bread and water are but symbols. But in any case, presumably, the symbolism, the meaning, is of some sort of Christian charity, not particularly well demonstrated by said death threat makers?

    Comment by djinn — August 4, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  14. DJ – That’s not quite what I meant. I’d lump death threats into taking the low road. Rather, my comment was an attempt to find some common ground. A fair number of people have acted inappropriately here.

    Comment by matt b — August 4, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  15. But Matt, I don’t think Mormons would react if someone broke in and desecrated the temple the way the Catholics did. And that happens. We’ve all seen the garments for sale on eBay, the folks who snuck a tape recorder into the temple, the people who bought a recommend on eBay to go through the temple, etc. Compared to past persecutions it’s so minor that while we may be pissed off it’s ultimately much ado about nothing.

    Not even on par with someone coming in during the middle of Sacrament meeting and vandalizing things.

    I’m frankly more annoyed at the guys yelling at me at Temple Square while I try to go to conference.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

  16. Clark – I’m hesitant to make sweeping generalizations about “the Catholics” or “the Mormons.” There’s the Catholic Defense League, the official Catholic hierarchy, random angry Catholics, etc. Similarly, there’s FAIR, the Quorum of the Twelve, random angry Mormons, etc. The head of the Catholic Defense League expressing disapproval is similar to the head of FAIR stating something; neither’s representative of the group as a whole. Similarly, the actions of Sampson Avard don’t represent all Mormons.

    Comment by matt b — August 4, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

  17. That’s a fair point Matt. I didn’t mean to say it was typical of all Catholics, just that I think there was more reaction from that community than one would have encountered in a Mormon community. Which isn’t to say Mormons don’t have buttons that get pushed and people over react.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

  18. Well I certainly disagree with Myer and think that even rational people can consider the Euchrist more than a mere saltine.
    Was Quinn out of line? I don’t pretend to know bit if Tim was a Mormon I imagine with some certainty that that Tim really would be smiling down and saying, ?We?re winning you over after all, aren?t we Sister Sal?? He might even glowing about the seed he had planted in Sister Sally.
    I didn’t know the history of water/wine but enjoy that, like many parts of the Mormon’s faith, it seems to ignore precise theological explanations and jump to saying this is a revelation or this is how it happened and this is what God told me. Hopefully it not to long until we can switch back to wine (not because I’m a fan of wine, but rather because it would be nice to have Christ back).
    Excellent post Matt everything was engaging and clear.

    Comment by Wayne V — October 17, 2008 @ 10:48 am


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