An exciting new book was published this fall by Deseret Book titled Our Heavenly Family, Our Earthly Families, written by Bethany Brady Spalding and McArthur Krishna with artwork by Caitlin Connolly. YMF contributor Marla interviewed the authors to discuss the book, Heavenly Mother, and more–see the slightly condensed transcript of their discussion below!
About the book: Celebrating distinctive LDS doctrines, this landmark children’s book illuminates the essential role of families both in heaven and on earth. No matter where we live, what we look like, or what we believe, all of us are children of Heavenly Parents who love us perfectly. Our Heavenly Parents gave us the gift of earthly families to help us grow and become like Them. Families are the best school for learning how to love, forgive, cooperate, pray, create, work, play, and figure out how to be with each other forever. Depicting the deep joys as well as the messy realities of family life, this book will inspire you and those you love to practice building an eternal family every day. See other reviews and interviews regarding the book here, here, here, and here.
Marla: Let’s just start out with the basics. Bethany, I noticed by your profile picture that you have kids. Is the cute little one your only kid?
Bethany: I have three daughters—I think that picture was a little bit old—my daughters right now are nine, seven, and five. And McArthur and I are the old feminists, you’re the young feminists, and I guess my girls are the really, really young feminists. But they from their very earliest beginnings have had a feminist streak, and love talking about Heavenly Mother, and love being excited about all things feminist.
McArthur: And we don’t mean feminist in cute little ways. Bethany’s daughter the other day prayed in primary that she was grateful the church was making strides on feminist issues. That’s a very seriously aware and brave and nonchalant—I mean, she was just like, “Yeah this is something we should all be grateful for, so I’m gonna put it up there.” Which is just incredible. The reason the first book we did came to be is that she said, “Where are the girls?” when she was reading a cartoon book of scriptures. That’s what started this whole process.
Bethany: Even at a young age of three, she recognized that she wasn’t being reflected in the stories we shared as sacred. And she recognized that everything, all the stories, all the lessons, all the manuals are filled with boys, but there’s an absence of girls. And so, like McArthur said, that sparked our work with the Girls Who Choose God series, so that we could shine light on the really bold, courageous women in the scriptures, and give girls and boys more models of really powerful women. Girls Who Choose God is about courageous women in the Bible, and we also wrote Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Strong Women from the Book of Mormon.
Marla: I noticed the artwork on the cover of Our Heavenly Family really is fantastic—who influenced that, or was that just something that you came up with?
McArthur: Bethany and I had decided when we were putting together these books that we wanted fine art; from the very beginning when we wrote the Girls Who Choose God series [illustrated by Kathleen Peterson], we wanted someone to open the book and feel inspired and uplifted and a little bit stunned even, by the offering. We didn’t want it to be kind of cute illustrations. We were talking about things that were bold and powerful and noble. And we wanted the illustrations, the art in the book, to match that.
So when we were looking around for our third book, we knew we needed a different artist since it wasn’t part of the Girls Who Choose God series, so we started looking at female Mormon artists and kind of narrowed down and looked through and found Caitlin’s work. And partly what we liked so much about Caitlin’s work was that she often uses triangles to represent human figures, which is obviously a heaven-pointing shape, but is also talking about men and women and God working together. And “God” of course being Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother working together. But this idea that we’re all part of this triumvirate team. So we were very intentional about how and who put the art together. Caitlin is lovely and talented, and the front cover image—we could not be more pleased with it. It’s an amazing picture of Heavenly Mother, and the inclusiveness of her family is just beautiful.
Marla: What made you focus specifically on Heavenly Mother for this book as opposed to doing more in the Girls Who Choose God series?
McArthur: We might end up doing more Girls Who Choose God books—we’d like to finish out the canon and do some powerful church history women. But Bethany is amazing at finding the gap—Bethany’s three year old at least in the beginning. Her three year old saw that there were no women in the scriptures, and so that was the first women that we were missing. The next women we were missing were Book of Mormon women, and we looked around and we realized that even us had assumed there were not women in the Book of Mormon. Most of us, who think we’re knowledgeable about the Book of Mormon would say there’s 6—and three of those actually come from the Bible. But what we realized as we sort of dived in and started reading and researching is that there are actually 150 times women are mentioned in the Book of Mormon; even if they don’t have names, there’s enough meat there for stories.
So then the next thing to look around and to say, where’s the missing piece, where’s the gap, of where women are not being talked about and not being honored, and not being available to us to help our lives. Because that’s obviously what this is about. It’s not just about pushing in a gap, it’s about where addressing the gap is useful to us to bless us.
And so the obvious gap there, at least obvious if you’re Bethany Brady Spalding, is Heavenly Mother. And understanding that Heavenly Mother is an active participant in our lives, that She loves and cares and reaches for us, that She’s part of the council in heaven, she was part of creation. These things are all things we know from modern day revelation—these are not things that we’re just making up, or even just kind of extrapolating. And so when we looked around and we realized how much we knew about Heavenly Mother, we definitely wanted to do a book that focused on Her. At the same time, frankly, Heavenly Mother by Herself isn’t the point. The point is that we live and work in partnership—even if we’re not married now, the eternal, divine partnership of our Heavenly Parents is a key model. So it was important to us to have Her have Her rightful place but in the context that was most meaningful for our divine progression.
Bethany: To add to that—we’ve had the theology or the doctrine of Heavenly Mother for a long time, since the early beginnings of the church. But we haven’t cultivated that knowledge or incorporated that into our worship, curriculums, conversations. So we have the knowledge but the practice of Heavenly Mother is missing.
My mother—this was never a concern to her. This didn’t become a concern for me until I was in my thirties, when I started to give birth. But I believe that our young girls, maybe even from young Mormon feminists on down, there’s an absolute desire to know and appreciate Heavenly Mother. And that keeping her hidden or in the background is no longer acceptable. So the timing of our book is ripe in that there’s a desire, a craving, a hunger, a thirst for recognizing the feminine divine, and bringing that knowledge and theology out of the dark and into the light.
McArthur: What do you think Marla, how does this look from your angle?
Marla: I’m actually a convert, so for me it’s interesting just to see how She exists. It’s different than the way I grew up. I grew up with a belief of the Trinity rather than the Godhead, so to add a Heavenly Mother to the mix was a little mind-blowing. But I definitely think that it’s one of the reasons I prefer Mormonism to anything else.
McArthur: That’s interesting because I actually live in India, and we have a plethora of goddesses, so for people in India it’s not mind-blowing at all, in fact it’s almost necessary, because they already have and understand and believe it’s necessary to have this concept of the powerful divine feminine. So it’s just interesting to hear about different people’s experiences with this knowledge.
Bethany: How long ago Marla did you convert to Mormonism?
Marla: When I was 18, and then when Kate Kelly was excommunicated, I took my name off the roles.
Bethany: I’m sorry for that whole drama and that painful experience.
Marla: I’m getting re-baptized though!
Bethany: Wow! That’s exciting too. It sounds like you’ve had quite a story, in just a few short years!
Marla: Yes, I have. It’s been a faith journey and honestly, older feminists like yourselves have definitely played a part in my spiritual-ness, and even though this is a children’s book, I’m very glad you put this out and I can’t wait to put my hands on a copy of it.
Bethany: With all of our books, they’re children’s books, but the message is for everybody. There’s enough rich content in them, and new content that we haven’t been reading and discussing before, that they really spark an interest. Even up to 90 year olds have been reading the book. So that’s one thing we’ve been thrilled about, is that the scope and reach of the book has been really broader than we ever imagined.
McArthur: And if there’s a 91 year old out there reading it, we want to hear about it, she can break the record!
Bethany: The book is being used in wards and High Priests Group, so old men are reading this book too, at least the Girls Who Choose God book. It’s a children’s book, but it has a universal appeal.
Marla: How did it feel being picked up by a more mainstream Mormon publisher?
McArthur: We were absolutely delighted. In fact, we took our first manuscript to them, to Deseret Book first. And that was intentional, because we are very, very clear that what we’re working with is pure doctrine, as one of the reviewers of our book said. We need the pure doctrine of feminine equality to be a mainstream idea. So I really like Neylan McBaine’s quote where she said we have the theology of equality, but not the practice of it. For us to have Deseret Book publish it, to us, is an absolute testimony that our theology in our books and in our intentions is pure. There’s nothing wild and crazy about acknowledging that there’s faithful women in the scriptures. There’s actually nothing wild and crazy about acknowledging that our Heavenly Mother is part of our heavenly family.
We did a lot of research and deeply appreciate Dr. Paulsen’s work in A Mother There. One of the things that his research has shown is that there has never been a General Authority or a prophet, so that means no position of leadership, has ever said that we should not speak of Heavenly Mother. It’s just become something culturally that has been propagated because of our own human understanding or perspective or maybe best intentions by the people who wanted to protect Her. Well Bethany and I are of the mindset that She’s a Goddess, and does not need protection by frail humans.
But I think it’s important that we understand that this is a mainstream doctrinal idea with a perhaps cultural taboo, though the more people we talk to, the more people we see who are completely comfortable with this. Bethany and I did a talk in Plain City, Utah, and I love those people. They are eager and happy and salt of the earth and down to earth—they were so much fun. And when we asked their perspective on Heavenly Mother, they didn’t even blink! They just said, “Yeah we’ve always known we have a Mother.” I think for a lot of people it’s just a very natural idea, and we just kind of have to scrub away the edges of the taboo-ness about it. So Deseret Book was absolutely key to acknowledging and legitimizing and being able to spread the word, because they are the most popular Mormon bookseller, and for us to be happy within their family of authors, I think is great.
Bethany: I love what you said, that we have to scrub away the taboo-ness. Also, Deseret Book publishing it gives it the stamp of approval and allows it to be used at church, in class, at Girls’ Camp, Boy Scouts—at all sorts of church functions. Publishing it with Deseret Book gives it that sense of authority and affirmation that I think really drives the message home even more. And with many, many more people reading than if we had published with another group.
McArthur: And frankly they’ve been wonderful to work with. They’ve been super supportive and super professional and have been exactly in line with Bethany and I that we wanted this book, and all of the books but this book in particular, we wanted it to be directly tied to what we know from modern revelation. And Deseret Book and us kind of kept each other honest—we wanted this to not be something that’s pushing out the edges. There’s a place for that, and we celebrate that place, but that was not what this book was about.
Marla: Are we going to see any follow up with this book, or is a stand-alone book?
Bethany: I’m sure there will be more books in the future, but right now we feel like being able to celebrate our Heavenly Parents and our heavenly family and our earthly family in this book—this is a unique kind of stand-alone book on its own. I’m sure there will be other books in our future, but we feel like this is unique in and of itself.
McArthur: This is a landmark. That’s not self-aggrandizing, it just really is.
Bethany: And just making the language of Heavenly Parents normal. We write children’s books so that we can cultivate the next generation of Mormons in being absolutely comfortable with Heavenly Parents and being able to use that when we think about God and our connection to God.
McArthur: And to have it feel startling when we see other language not like that. Just watching General Conference this past weekend, there was at least three General Authorities that used “Heavenly Parents” as their term. That’s what should feel normal. And when someone doesn’t, it should feel like “hey we’re missing something here.” And I think that’s important to prod along this shift of lexicon.
Marla: What I’m getting is that separate from the book, ya’ll believe that you may not see as much change as we would like in our lifetime, but definitely in your children’s lifetime or in my children’s lifetime it’ll be more normative to have the divine feminine mentioned.
McArthur: That’s funny because that had not even occurred to me that it would not be—I fully expect it in my lifetime, but also in my lifetime, I expect to see the shift. For my children, I expect them to grow up with that already existing. I don’t know about you Bethany, but in some ways, the shift is already in motion. There’s a wave that’s coming. BYU has had two major art installations focusing only on Heavenly Mother. Having General Authorities very intentionally and very calmly use “Heavenly Parents” through General Conference. These are things we didn’t expect five or ten years ago at least very often.
Bethany: The lead article in the August edition of the Friend was by President Monson and the discussion was all about Heavenly Parents, and not just talking about Heavenly Father but also Heavenly Mother, and speaking about Heavenly Mother specifically. So McArthur and I are old but we’re only 40, I still have 50-60 years to go.
McArthur: We’ll be those 90 year olds reading our books!
Bethany: I definitely believe that in our lifetime, the church and the gospel and the way these ideas are shared will be drastically different, they have to be. I definitely agree with McArthur that our lifetime will have seen the shift change, our children’s lifetime—this will be their reality and the truth will shine and they’ll get to grow up with all of this goodness.
McArthur: And for anyone who doesn’t know, the Friend is doing rockstar work. They’re amazing. Really, really impressive board—we’ve met with them and just love what they’re doing. They’re very quietly and very intentionally building the new normative, and it’s fabulous.
Marla: So we’ve talked about the book, how you feel about your kids and the next generation, but let’s talk about Heavenly Mother. What does she mean to you?
Bethany: Heavenly Mother to me represents maternal love, the wonder of creation, fertility, and all the attributes I attribute to my own mother and to myself as a mother. I think of this unbounded, unconditional limitless love. I think of Heavenly Mother as this force of beauty and of creation, and nurturing and guiding and blessing and loving. I feel that she’s an untapped resource in our mortal lives, that if we can connect with Her and build a relationship with Her, there’ll be more of those attributes of love and beauty and creation in all of us.
McArthur: As I’m sitting here with my baby and tending to her needs, thinking about that model that I’m trying to aspire to of wisdom and unconditional love—for me I’m really grateful to know I have a Heavenly Mother who can be a balm to my soul as I’m trying to navigate this new stage of my life. That matters to me. I also have a fierce sense of justice, and so while Heavenly Mother doesn’t need me in any way to defend her, I think that by my small efforts to make Her part of what our lexicon is and part of what our worship and part of what our world understanding is, I think that there’s a lot of fall out that’s really important.
So for example, I live in India, and bigotry against women is present from literally conception. When you’re pregnant in India as I was, you’re not allowed to find out the sex of your unborn child, because too many people will abort girls. And there’s reasons for this, I mean culturally as you get older your girls marry and go live with in-laws and basically belong to them, and the people who take care of you in your old age are your sons, so people need sons. But when you have the concept of a Heavenly Mother who is of equal power and might as our Heavenly Father, then room for bigotry just disappears.
That trickle down effect for me is what is so important, that we have no room for bigotry in our lesson manuals, in our budgets, policies, practices; because when we understand we have a Heavenly Mother who works in partnership with our Heavenly Father, then that is a model that we can replicate and it just erases any possibility that anything else is okay. So I think there’s reasons that She feels intimately important to me, and there’s reasons that she feels societally more important to me. What does she mean to you, Marla?
Marla: Still working on that…I’m actually also Jewish too, so for me, Heavenly Mother is a calming presence. She is the essence of home and family life. Not sure how much you know about Judaism, but when we go through services, there’s a point in the Shabbat service where we welcome in Shabbat as a woman, as a bride. For me, that is welcoming Heavenly Mother in and asking her to be a part of our worship. And so that’s what she means to me. She’s a mother, and specifically, she’s my mother where I didn’t have one growing up.
McArthur: I think you’re bringing up a really important point—that this is a necessary figure for all of the shortcomings of our earthly existence. And the Shabbat is a beautiful idea.
Bethany: Such a powerful story that you shared, Marla. My family and I just recently went to a bat mitzvah of a 13 year old neighbor here on our street. And it was so beautiful and so rich and so symbolic. And also just so powerful, to see that we had been to her brother’s bar mitzvah a few years earlier, and so to see both of them being able to participate—both the young men and the young women participate in the same rituals and ordinances, and that their gender didn’t separate them from what they were able to do and be given and experience. I think we have a lot to learn from progressive forms of Judaism, of using the male and female deity to allow all members of the faith to experience the rites and the rituals and opportunities it affords. So my girls were really, really envious when they saw this girl be able to do a bat mitzvah.
Marla: Yeah we’re just not at that point where we can even have elders and deacons. Honestly I think in the scope of things, the next step would be to at least have women be able to pass sacrament. I think that might be the next thing, because I’m noticing in a lot of evangelical cultures—my parents aren’t Mormon, they never have been and they never will be, but even in their church which is very conservative and very straight-laced, their denomination’s nickname is “The Frozen Chosen”—they’re already starting to incorporate women as leaders where they weren’t before.
McArthur: Tell us about your conversion story, I’m so interested!
Marla: Okay! It really started out when I was 17. I was actually also adopted, so there’s just layers and layers to my story. But I was 17, two weeks away from turning 18, and my adoptive mother kicked me out of the house and basically left me to fend for myself on the streets in the middle of winter. I ended up hiding out for two weeks with various friends. Then I turned 18, I had a birthday party with a childhood friend, and one of our mutual friends had just joined the church and we started hanging out, and then we started dating. He wanted to serve a mission and said, “hey you should get baptized before I go.” And I was like hey, why not. So I started taking lessons with the missionaries and joined in 2011. It was really cool, because the missionaries told me “hey, you should pray about this,” and I was like eh, I wasn’t really going to join, but I actually had this really cool dream where I was speaking—and I found out later that in my dream, I was probably speaking at General Conference, and I had never watched General Conference before. When I woke up from that dream, I felt this presence, even though there was nobody in the apartment with me. So it was just really special to me and I definitely can say that I experienced God in that moment. That was really the key point for me converting, because I hadn’t felt that, I hadn’t felt the presence of the divine. To finally feel that, I felt like hmm, I’m finally on the right track.
McArthur: So how are you also Jewish—where does the Jewish part come from?
Marla: I did a DNA test through Ancestry, and I found out that I am predominantly Ashkenazi, and there’s like 12% of a specific genome that is only present in Levite, the branch of Judaism that is from Levi. But it’s through my mother, I’ve gone back and traced the genealogy as well. We’re Spanish Jews that converted and fled to France, and that’s where all that loveliness comes from.
Bethany: Such a fascinating story, it’s beautiful, thanks so much for sharing it with us. And I can’t wait to hear you speak at General Conference someday! That will really liven things up!
Marla: I can’t wait! I know I’m not gonna be the first feminist speaking there, but I hope that by the time I get there, that I can actually pray to Heavenly Mother and not just say Heavenly Parents, and not have anybody screaming down my neck.
One last question: throughout this whole process, have you gotten any negative feedback, whether it’s from Mormons, super conservative Mormons, or just other Christians who have heard about your work?
Bethany: It’s so fascinating—when we wrote this book, we thought that Mormon feminists would just be elated and incredibly excited about this book because it is really the first mainstream embrace of Heavenly Mother. And we also wondered “wow, is mainstream going to be a little bit hesitant and a little bit skeptical?” But we’ve actually found just the opposite. Everyone from my neighbors of other faiths just think it’s beautiful, I’ve shared the book with them and they find the concept just beautiful and comforting. And then to mainstream Mormons, like McArthur said, from the women we chatted with in Plain City, Utah, to folks we meet at Deseret Book stores, just in general Mormons—it just resonates, it feels good, it feels right, and there’s been a warm response. We’ve been surprised, Mormon feminists have been a bit prickly about it.
Marla: Why do you think that they’re prickly, as opposed to other people? You almost expect a reversal of that. Why do you think that is the way it is?
McArthur: I think if you can convince mainstream that it’s doctrine, then they kind of roll with it. So in seeing that all of the references in our book from General Authorities and prophets and women leaders are names that they recognize and trust, means they take a look at this and shrug and move on. They’re like “yep, these are people that I’ve been taught to trust and love, so carry on.” So that’s been really beautiful to see.
On the flip side, I think there’s a number of reasons that the progressive Mormon community has been more hesitant. I think partially it’s people who don’t see this as being quite far enough. So there’s places in the book where we say Heavenly Parents, and you yourself just said “You know what, I wanna use Heavenly Mother.” And we use both in the book, I mean there’s tons of places in the book where we use Heavenly Mother, but I think for some people, the book doesn’t go far enough. That’s one.
I think that there are concerns with whether or not Bethany and I were sensitive to the LGBT community. And we were, and considered that, and that was something that we definitely had discussed, but we were also clear that we were writing a book where we needed Heavenly Mother to be in her rightful place. And so it’s not that we were throwing that community under the bus, but there is no other way to talk about Heavenly Mother except in the context that we understand her. And that was an important enough idea to use that we decided to go ahead with the book.
I also think that people in the progressive community want to see more. This is a book about families, and we tried very hard to make a book that was not a cookie-cutter family book. I mean just listening to you reminds me again that all of us come from such a diverse background and family experience. And we tried really hard to make sure that this book would reflect that kids can be adopted, you can be married, you can be single, you can be divorced, I mean there’s lots and lots of family configurations. Wherever you start from, you have the opportunity to be a member of a family. Because even if you’ve experienced something as horrific as what you described, the truth is that you still have divine family. And you’re still a member of this broad, rich, earthly family. So I think that in our efforts to be as inclusive on race and gender roles and family structure, I think our intentions may not be as reflected in the book as thoroughly as what someone would want, though we tried very hard to be gentle. So there’s times where we say, “A family might be like this” or “A family might look like this.” We tried very hard to understand that our human experience is wide and diverse, and that we are all beloved children of our Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father.
I think the last thing honestly is that maybe feminists don’t understand the power of a children’s book, that the power of a children’s book is underestimated, that Bethany and I are working very intentionally. So we’re grateful for the BYU professor’s work on doing this scholarly research, but Bethany’s kids aren’t reading his document, right? So that’s a useful document and we absolutely applaud its contribution to our life. But for someone to help our children feel the warmth of this knowledge and this doctrine—that’s not where you start from. And if you want to make change, you educate from a young age a new idea. So for Bethany and I, a children’s book is a very, very powerful medium. And I don’t think everybody in the grown up community sees a children’s book that way. So I think there’s a number of reasons that people were not as celebratory as we thought they could be.
Bethany: McArthur really hit those well. I’d say too that our children’s books aren’t only reaching the children, they’re reaching parents that would never read scholarly articles or feminist blogs. There’s a lot of writing out there that is important but is not accessible by mainstream children or adults. So our book fills that space and reaches a lot of people. I agree with everything McArthur said, and it has been surprising that the biggest applause has really come from mainstream Mormonism, and the Mormon feminists have been a bit more blasé and critical than we ever anticipated. When you’re an author and as you offer something to the world, we do our best, we try to be inspired, we try to craft it as sensitively and beautiful as you can. But it’s an offering, and it’s imperfect, and we’ve learned that you have to have thick skin as you share your work with the world.