The Mormon Way to Love

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey series.

I’m going to start my discussion of the talks from the Sunday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference in a slightly different place: science fiction and fantasy. There’s going to be some wind up (which I hope you’ll find interesting), and then I’m going to tie it into President Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk “Except the Lord Build the House…”

749 - Star Wars Utah Fanws

Writing for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Christopher Ingraham noted that—based on Google search data—Utahns were “are the biggest Star Wars fans.

During the past week, Utahns have done more Star-Wars related Googling than people in any other state. People in Utah are about 25 percent more likely to Google “Star Wars” than their nearest competitors in fandom, Californians. And they are more than twice as likely to Google the topic as people in Oregon and Mississippi, the two least Star Wars-crazy states.

Ingraham doesn’t have any idea why this is so. He doesn’t even speculated. Instead, he concludes his article with an invitation: “If you have a pet theory for why Utah is home of the nation’s #1 Star Wars Googlers, drop me a line.”

I’ll bite.

The connection is not between Mormons and Star Wars in particular. It’s between Mormons and all forms of geeky entertainment: Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Lord of the Rings, etc. The connection between Mormons and sci-fi and fantasy is so well known that the question (What’s the connection between Mormonism and speculative fiction?) is a recurring topic that many in the genre have taken a crack at. (Including me, one time for Times and Seasons. And also Matt Bowman, more recently and also at the Washington Post.)

In fact, one of my hobbies is to try to suss out Mormon influences in the work of Mormon authors. Historically, you’ve got Orson Scott Card as the big one. There’s also Stephanie Meyers as a really prominent Mormon author, but let’s not go there today. A trio that I’ve been following with great interest, however, are Brad Torgersen, Larry Correia, and Brandon Sanderson. Torgersen’s excellent short story collection Lights in the Deep has a great story called “The Chaplain’s War.” In it, Torgersen deals with issues of faith and the relationship of religion to secularism that–to my mind–show a distinctive Mormon perspective.

Then there’s Larry Correia, whose recent Son of the Black Sword is an incredible epic fantasy tale with some really interesting Mormon influence, which I outlined in my Goodreads review.

But it’s Brandon Sanderson I want to talk about for a moment. Like Correia, Sanderson’s work frequently contains echoes of Mormon theology, culture, and scripture. The quote “it was better that one man suffer than an entire nation continue in heresy” from Elantris, for example, is an obvious echo of “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” In my favorite series, Mistborn, themes of apostasy, restoration, and religious pluralism that borrow heavily from Joseph Smith’s writings are very prominent. In the conclusion of the first Mirstbon trilogy, the character Sazed’s understanding of numerous different religious traditions helps him rebuild the world and he remarks, “The religions in my portfolio weren’t useless after all. None of them were. They weren’t all true. But they all had truth.”

Compare this expansive view with quotes from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young:

“We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” – Joseph Smith

“I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good.  If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine.  we believe it; it is ours; we claim it.” – Brigham Young

But one of the most Mormon aspects of Sanderon’s writing (especially in the Mistborn books) is his treatment of romantic relationships, and that’s where we’re going to finally bet back to President Hinckley’s talk. Here’s an excerpt from my review of The Well of Ascension (the second in the original Mistborn trilogy):

[Sanderson’s] take on relationships is very Mormon… You can tell this is a guy who grew up in a culture saturated with reverence for and wisdom about making marriages work. That’s an incredibly refreshing breath of fresh air in a genre fiction novel. Dynamic, fun, believable, and healthy relationships are just incredibly rare in popular entertainment, which almost always emphasize the pursuit and never spare time for the relationship itself.

So what are the hallmarks of a Mormon view of relationships? I would say there are two: prominence and practicality. Marriage matters to Mormons, and it matters a lot. That comes across in Sanderson’s writing, which not only focuses on romance but does so in a way that emphasizes relationships over sex. This gives Sanderon’s writing—and Mormon culture in general—a very romantic attitude. (There’s a reason Jane Austen is so popular with Mormons, leading to novels like Shannon Hale’s Austenland.)

But the other aspect is a very interesting contradiction with the romantic aspect of Mormon culture: practicality. Sanderson tackles this issue in the newest Mistborn novels, The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self. These books includes the most unique and the most Mormon relationship plotline I have ever read in my life. The protagonist (Waxillium “Wax” Ladrian) returns from self-imposed exile on the frontier to take control of the struggling family business. He soon faces a dilemma. A marriage to Steris will restore the family fortune, but is a marriage of convenience for both of them. Or there is Steris’ half-sister Marasi: she is younger, prettier, and completely infatuated with Wax, but has no fortune to offer.

The Disney expectation is clear:  Wax has to put his heart first and marry Marasi, which is what his friend encourages him to do. The darker, more contemporary approach would be for Wax to marry Steris, but then cheat on her. Or maybe relapse into bitterness and regret. Sanderson—taking the Mormon approach—does neither. He has Wax move forward with the engagement to Steris, remain completely honorable, and slowly—very, very slowly—the two begin to find a mutual affection for each other despite their differences.

Now this is a long digression, but I think it was worth taking, because it shows how deeply the teachings that President Hinckley discusses in his talk have permeated Mormon culture. Sanderson shows Mormonism’s romantic view of the importance and possibility of love, but also the practical side of Mormonism that insists: all marriages are compromises.

Compare that with President Hinckley’s talk, “Except the Lord Build the House …” The talk begins with President Hinckley expressing concern for divorce (the symptom) and marital dysfunction (the disease):

Even in those lands where divorce is difficult if not impossible to obtain, the same disease is evident—the same nagging, corrosive evils of domestic misery, of separation, of abandonment, and of immoral and illegal relationships.

But, ever the optimist, President Hinckley quickly turns from what can go wrong to a discussion of what can go right, providing these four principles for building a strong and happy marriage:

  1. Respect for One Another
  2. The Soft Answer
  3. Honesty with God and with One Another
  4. Family Prayer

Here are some specific quotes from each section:

Respect for One Another

This respect comes of recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God, endowed with something of his divine nature, that each is an individual entitled to expression and cultivation of individual talents and deserving of forbearance, of patience, of understanding, of courtesy, of thoughtful consideration.

The most important thing to note here is that the “recognition that each of us is a son or daughter of God,” is entirely generic. It applies to everyone. This is a major departure from modern views of love, which enshrine the idea of compatibility between two specific people above all else. That ides is totally absent from this view, which leads to President Hinckley’s stark statement:

True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well being of one’s companion.

This is pretty much exactly the opposite of what the world believes about love and marriage. Not coincidentally, it is exactly the kind of relationship that is beginning to develop between Wax and Steris in Sanderson’s books.

Companionship in marriage is prone to become commonplace and even dull. I know of no more certain way to keep it on a lofty and inspiring plane than for a man occasionally to reflect upon the fact that the help-meet who stands at his side is a daughter of God, engaged with Him in the great creative process of bringing to pass His eternal purposes. I know of no more effective way for a woman to keep ever radiant the love for her husband than for her to look for and emphasize the godly qualities that are a part of every son of our Father and that can be evoked when there is respect and admiration and encouragement. The very processes of such actions will cultivate a constantly rewarding appreciation for one another.

This is another example of President Hinckley’s teaching that the love within marriage doesn’t depend on finding your soulmate, on being compatible, or on any particular attribute of the spouses. It’s also a very realistic view of marriage, and one that emphasizes work. According to this view, it is a husband’s duty to protect his own love for his wife (and vice versa).  Mormons don’t believe in finding soulmates. They believe in making soulmates.

The Soft Answer

President Hinckley’s second principle is very simple: “We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly.”

It is also an opportunity for President Hinckley to again emphasize the importance of work within a marriage: “There is need for a vast amount of discipline in marriage, not of one’s companion, but of one’s self.”

Honesty with God and with One Another

President Hinckley’s observation here is both practical and profound:

If you will share with the Lord whom you do not see, you will deal more graciously, more honestly, and more generously with those whom you do see.

Family Prayer

President Hinckley’s last principle includes a long series of beautiful promises that any husband and wife will cover for their family. It doesn’t really fit the theme of this post (emphasizing the collision of practicality and romance), but it is beautiful so here it is:

Your children will know the security of a home where dwells the Spirit of the Lord. You will gather them together in that home, as the Church has counseled, and teach them in love. They will know parents who respect one another, and a spirit of respect will grow in their hearts. They will experience the security of the kind word softly spoken, and the tempests of their own lives will be stilled. They will know a father and mother who, living honestly with God, live honestly also with one another and with their fellowmen. They will grow up with a sense of appreciation, having heard their parents in prayer express gratitude for blessings great and small. They will mature with faith in the living God.

The destroying angel of domestic bitterness will pass you by and you will know peace and love throughout your lives which may be extended into all eternity. I could wish for you no greater blessing, and for this I humbly pray in your behalf, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

I thought it was fun to compare Brandon Sanderson’s writing with the teachings of President Hinckley to show how extensive the Mormon adoption of President Hinckley’s (and other leaders’) teachings on marriage and family peace and unity and harmony had become. These are clearly some of the lessons that many Mormons have taken to heart.

And now, here are just a few of quotes from other talks from this session that struck me.

In “Choose You This Day” Elder N. Eldon Tanner  writes that “there is strength in humility and weakness in pride.” That is a good thing to keep in mind.

In My Brother’s Keeper Elder John H. Vandenberg writes about the connection between sacrifice and love, reversing the ordinary causality:

What is the seed of mother love? Is it not sacrifice? Such love is considered to be the deepest and most tender. Is this because a mother passes through the valley of the shadow of death to give birth to her child and is continually sacrificing for that child’s welfare?

Is this why Christ loves the world? Because he toiled to make it? Because he sacrificed his life for the world and its people?… We all love that for which we sacrifice.

So, instead of loving motivating sacrifice, sacrifice can engender love. Elder Vandenberg also included a poignant reminder that is work keeping in mind as we think about everyday service: “The chips are down someplace every day.” There is always someone who needs our help.

Here are the blog posts from the other participants in the General Conference Odyssey.

Trump and Fear

749 - Anti-Mormon Political Cartoon
Religious discrimination. Mormons have been there, done that, and got the political cartoons to prove it.

Let’s talk about Donald Trump.

Believe me, I don’t like it any more than you do. I find Donald Trump’s success in the GOP primaries exasperating and depressing. I haven’t written about it very much because I don’t like to think about it very much. I changed my mind when he announced that he thinks we should ban all Muslims from entering the country. The Hill reported:

Trump, in a formal statement from his campaign, urged a “total and complete shutdown” of all federal processes allowing followers of Islam into the country until elected leaders can “figure out what is going on.”

This was very, very far from the first ignorant/crazy/fear-mongering thing that Trump has had to say during this campaign, and I am sure that it will also be far from the last. Up until this point I didn’t see much point in writing about them. If I wrote a blog post every time Trump said something execrable,  I”d never write about anything else.

But that one was just so egregiously bad that–much as I dislike bandwagons and outrage porn–I made up my mind to go on the record with exactly what I thought of his proposal.

I am a Mormon. My people understand what it is like to be targeted because of our religion. Some of my ancestors survived the massacre at Haun’s Mill, our prophet was murdered by a mob, and in 1838 Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order which read, in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”

So, as a Mormon, I’m sensitive to issues of religious persecution. We’ve been there. We didn’t like it very much, and we don’t think anyone should have to go through it. That’s more than just a matter of bad historical experience, however. For Mormons, religious pluralism and freedom of conscience are matters of doctrine. The 11th of our Thirteen Articles of Faith states:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

After I had already started work on this blog post, I was incredibly happy and proud to see that my Church, which doesn’t often weigh in explicitly on political matters, had found Donald Trump’s statement worthy of formal, public repudiation. In a short, pointed press release the Church quoted Joseph Smith:

If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a “Mormon,” I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.

They also found an ordnance from Nauvoo that specifically mentioned Islam in the context of religious freedom:

Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city …

Additionally, I’ve been very proud of Utah Governor Herbert for being the only Republican governor in the nation who has refused to bar Syrian refugees from entering his state. I thought I couldn’t be more proud of Utah then when Bill Clinton came third in 1992, but they’ve topped it.

So that is what I think of Donald Trump’s suggested policy on banning Muslims: don’t. And that pretty much sums up most of my responses to his policy proposals. Since I’m writing about Trump now–and since I hope to do that as infrequently as possible–I might as well include some related notions.

1. Is Trump Going to Win?

Short answer: probably not.

Trump’s apparent dominance of the GOP race is very misleading, according to Nate Silver. He made his view clear in November with: Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls. His main point was that primary polls have very little predictive power (which makes them quite different from general election polls), in part because so many voters are undecided until the last minute. Once you include the undecideds, for example, the poll numbers look more like this:

754 - Trump Hope

I had some fun with that 5% number by contrasting it with a report from Public Policy Polling about American opinions on various conspiracy theories. In ascending order, here are the conspiracy theories that have at least as much (or much more!) support among Americans than Donald Trump currently does among GOP voters:

  • 5% believe that contrails are “actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons”
  • 5% believe Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1968
  • 6% of Americans believe Bin Laden is still alive
  • 7% believe the moon landings were faked
  • 9% believe that fluoride is added not for dental health but for “more sinister reasons”
  • 14% believe in Bigfoot.
  • 15% believe that TV broadcast signals contain mind-controlling technology
  • 20% believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism
  • 21% believe the US government covered up a UFO crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico

In case you’re curious, basically all conspiracy theories have more support among Americans than Donald Trump does among Republicans. In fact, there was only one conspiracy theory that had less support than Trump. That was one the one about “shape-shifting reptilian people” who “control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.” It came in at 4%. And that one isn’t even a real conspiracy theory! It’s just a 1980s TV miniseries. The primary difference is that, for example, Bigfoot believers don’t attend boisterous rallies and wave signs and get massive, wall-to-wall coverage.

So, writing back in November, Silver said flatly that although Trump’s chances are more than 0, they are “(considerably) less than 20 percent.” Harry Enten (also writing at Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site), took up the issue again on Dec 4: Donald Trump Won’t Win Just Because More Voters Are Paying Attention. Enten was rebutting a theory that–because more voters are paying attention to this primary season–the polls might be more predictive than usual. His response? “The hypothesis is possible, but there’s no evidence to support it.” The FiveThirtyEight gang weighed in again on Dec 8 in a group chat: What If Ted Cruz Wins Iowa? Although the talk wasn’t specifically about Trump (obviously, from the title), they did mention some interesting data points. The conversation starter was this:

A Monmouth survey came out yesterday showing Ted Cruz leading in Iowa — the first poll to show Cruz atop the GOP heap there. And overall, Cruz has crept into second place in the RealClearPolitics Iowa aggregate.

Nate Silver himself pointed out that, although it’s still possible for Trump to pull out a win in Iowa, his chances of bringing home the nomination are slim.

We’ve been saying for months that Trump could win Iowa or another early state. What we’ve said is that he’s quite unlikely to win the nomination. And he’d still probably be an underdog conditional on winning Iowa, although that depends on a lot of things.

Silver also conceded, however, that if Trump pulls off a win in Iowa, “that’s an epistemological game changer.”

So, I doubt Trump wins in Iowa. If he does, I doubt he wins overall in the nominations. There’s no way he wins in New Hampshire, for example. If he does win the race, I still very much doubt he has a majority, and that means we have a contested convention. Instead of just corronating the nominee, which is what most DNC and GOP conventions are about, the GOP convention would actually be a political fight to the death to see who wins the nomination, and I doubt Trump survives that. Even if he passes all these “I doubt it” moments, the reality is that the Republican establishment will not accept him as the nominee, period. If he somehow walks away with the nod, then the Republican Party will run Mitt Romney (or someone else) rather than allow Trump to run uncontested. Make no mistake: Hillary Clinton wins in that scenario so it’s all symbolic, but the GOP will not accept Trump ever. Not after his remarks about banning Muslims from entering the US. That was the final straw for the establishment GOP.

2. What Does Trump Mean? How Did We Get Here?

There are basically two options that matter to me here. Either Trump’s fear-mongering is a genuine reflection of the GOP party, or there is some other explanation for his rise.

Clearly, I’d like to believe the latter. The fact that Trump is only polling at 5% (once undecideds are accounted for) combined with the fact that you can basically find 5% of Americans to poll in favor of any given wacko conspiracy theory makes this plausible. I would also add that a lot of Republicans view Trump as a way to lash out after decades of being pilloried as bigots. There is a very large degree of self-righteousness in left-wing condemnation of the right before and during Trump’s rise. Let me give you one example of this. Here’s a Facebook status from an individual who attended the same high school that I did:

750 - Allies

In this case, he was responding to some particular incident in Virginia (I don’t know which) that seems pretty analogous to Trump’s statements. So, I agree with his stance against religious bigotry.

But look at that last, highlighted sentence. Somehow in the space of just 4 paragraphs he manages to make an attack on his Muslim neighbors about him. The mind boggles. And yet, on the other hand, this is what an awful lot of the criticism of the GOP looks like to me (and to other conservatives) going back for as long as we can remember. It’s ostensibly about standing up for minorities, but somehow in the end it ends up as a self-righteous ego-trip for the upper-middle class more often than not.

In short, there’s a mixture of immature backlash from the conservative base and also a kind of “boy who cried wolf” dynamic. After being called bigots no matter what they do for 20 years, Republicans seem to have become desensitized to the point where some (at least 5%) are supporting an actual bigot.

But there is also the second, much darker and more depressing possibility. Trump might really represent where a significant portion of the GOP base is located right now. That’s what this poll from Bloomberg Politics seems to indicate:

748 - Muslim Immigration Poll

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans support Trump’s proposed ban. That is way, way more than the 5% who support Trump directly. This is a potential sign that fear might be much more deeply entrenched in the Republican base than I would have believed possible.

I hope that this poll is anomalous. It is, after all, a single poll taken fairly recently after a terrorist attack in a highly toxic political environment about a temporary ban. I’m not defending the folks who answered in favor. I think they were wrong, and I couldn’t be more clear about that. But I’m expressing hope that this is not truly reflective of where the GOP base is at. That this poll reflects symbolic belief and/or a short-term reaction.

More polls will come out in the coming months, and we’ll also have the GOP primary to continue to keep an eye on. We will learn more. If it is an anomaly, then I have hope that the GOP voters will resoundingly reject Trump in the end. He might peel off enough support to spoil the election, but if that’s what it takes to lead this specific fringe out of the GOP tent then it might not be a bad thing in the end. On the other hand, if it is not an anomaly, if it reflects the long-term view of a vast majority of likely Republican primary voters, then I am very disappointed indeed. I’m with Paul Ryan: “This is not conservatism.”


Beginnings and Endings

764 - Beginnings and Endings

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post for Times and Seasons responding to a 1981 General Conference talk by President Hinckley that I found challenging. In the post, I worked through some thoughts about President Hinckley’s talk, and I included this sentiment about reading the word of modern prophets:

President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago. I was a baby then, so of course I have no memory of this talk. I did not know that it existed until last week… And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.

Max Wilson, who runs the blog Sixteen Small Stones, pointed out that there was nothing preventing me from converting that sentiment into action. Together with a few others, we hatched a scheme. We decided to start with the April 1971 General Conference (the earliest readily available online) and read them all at a rate of one session per week.

I plotted this out in a Google Spreadsheet and found that, assuming General Conferences continue to include 6 sessions per year as they currently do, it would take us until 2029. Late in the summer of that year we will revisit the April 2029 General Conference and finish it up before the October 2029 General Conference begins.

Naturally, because we’re all bloggers and writers of some stripe or another, we also decided to do a post every week in response to one or more of the talks that we’d read the week before. So this post—in which I decided to write about President Ezra Taft Benson’s talk Life is Eternal—is the first in a weekly series that is going to go on for the next 14 years.

My motivation is pretty simple: I seek to take modern prophets seriously. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that our leaders are fallible and make mistakes, but we also believe that they are inspired and serve as watchmen on the tower. I want to know what the watchmen have been telling us. I especially want to look across a really large volume of contemporary writings to see what trends, patterns, and themes stand out most prominently.

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

The first thing that struck me about President Benson’s talk was his optimism. “I am convinced that our Father’s children are essentially good,” he wrote, and then, “Again I say, our Father’s children, my brothers and sisters, are essentially good.”

And then I was struck by the simple beauty and simplicity of President Benson’s talk: “Yes, life is eternal. We live on and on after earth-life, even though we ofttimes lose sight of that great basic truth.”

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about death. Not in a morbid way, but with the attitude of someone who has a finite budget and aims to make the most of it. I don’t know how many years I will have, of course, but I want to have achieved basically two things when my time does come.

First, I want to have felt that I gave everything I had. “We should waste and wear out our lives,” Joseph Smith told the Saints from Liberty Jail. Time and energy are resources. We can conserve them in the short-run, but in the long run the objective is to spend everything. My father taught me that when I was young, and I decided then to do my best to live up to it.

Second, I want to meet my death with confidence. I’m too keenly aware of my own capacity for rationalization. I can imagine—if I was careless—spending a lifetime as an active member of the Church only to learn at the very end that it was a combination of wishful thinking and agile mental gymnastics that had kept me going that whole time, and that in the end I didn’t know—not really—what was coming.

It’s rather fashionable to discount faith as blind belief, but what those critics do not understand is that no one is more sensitive and apprehensive about the capacity for self-deception than a believer. This is doubly true for believer with an intellectual bent. Anyone with an interest in philosophical can easily invent arguments that take the risk out of faith. The problem is that what that leaves you with is counterfeit faith. Then you really do have nothing but wishful thinking and blind belief.

I’m not sure this is what he intended, but consider Pascal’s famous wager. The logic goes something like this: if you act as though you believe in God then at worst you will die and lose nothing (because there is no God) but at best you stand to gain eternal live. If you act as though you do not believe in God then at best you will die and gain nothing (because there is no God), but at worst you stand to miss out on eternal life. The argument is famous for its contribution to probability theory and decision analysis, but it’s also clearly an attempt to arbitrage our way out of risky belief.

Well I don’t think that’s possible. There are lots of temporal benefits from membership in the LDS Church: longer life expectancy, a warm community wherever you move in the world, a great place to raise your kids. These are all real benefits, and anyone can enjoy them no matter what the truth about Joseph Smith and the Restoration might be, but I don’t believe that in the end these benefits alone—the self-evident, temporal ones—are worth the price of admission. I don’t think they are worth the time we spend in meetings, the effort we put into our callings, or the vulnerability we incur when we tie so much of our lives to a bureaucratic institution run by ordinary mortals.

The real danger is in fooling ourselves into thinking that we can participate in the Church without facing the tough questions. If we let ourselves be lulled into a kind of passive, consumerist version of faith we run the risk of waking up one day and realizing that we got the cost/benefit calculations wrong, but not having the individual spiritual reserves to sustain our membership because for so long our spiritual witness has atrophied while we relied on the obvious benefits to paper over a need to ask hard questions and subject our faith to intense scrutiny. If we do not interrogate our own faith, then eventually life will, and our testimonies will wilt under the inquisition.

Or, returning to my fear, we might not reach our own moment of truth until we are facing death’s final question. Then, for the very first time, we may realize that we can’t rationalize our way around the final question. That’s the motive behind my second goal. I want to be able to face death with confidence because only then will I avoid finding out, when it is too late to do any different, that my faith is made of paper.

And this is why, returning to the talk, I found President Benson’s words so full of resonance.

Our affections are often too highly placed upon the paltry perishable objects. Material treasures of earth are merely to provide us, as it were, room and board while we are here at school. It is for us to place gold, silver, houses, stocks, lands, cattle, and other earthly possessions in their proper place.

Yes, this is but a place of temporary duration. We are here to learn the first lesson toward exaltation—obedience to the Lord’s gospel plan.

And also:

Yes, there is the ever expectancy of death, but in reality there is no death—no permanent parting. The resurrection is a reality.

Symbolism and allegory are nice, but they are not what I am searching for in this life. What I am searching for is reality. I want to live with the real sense that my time spent on earth is time spent at a waystation. I want to face death with the conviction in my heart, as sure as my conviction that a dropped object falls to the floor, that I will live again. That is something that wishful thinking and blind belief cannot produce. Only real, genuine, tested and tried faith can produce that.

That’s the kind of faith that I believe our Father wants us to have, and I think that is one major reason why we face a life so full of chaos, uncertainty, and tragedy. If things made sense, we could rely on rationalization and philosophy. We could escape the hard question until it was too late. But things do not make sense. The world is, as Camus noted, absurd. The hard questions dog us like the stubborn hounds they are. It is the very absurdity of the world that gives us the chance—time and time again—to cast aside the crutches of convention, of inertia, of rationalization, of tradition, of herd mentality, and of anything else that can provide a façade of faith to seek to try and find the real thing.

I won’t stop until I find it. I won’t be satisfied with anything less.

Here are the other folks participating in this grand scheme who have also written blog posts responding to the Saturday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference. (If any of the links don’t work, try back later. They are all coming online during the day.)

T&S Post: The Assurance of Love

776 - Hendrick ter Brugghen - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
This Monday’s Times and Seasons post went live a little late, but it’s live now. The title is The Assurance of Love, and if you want to see how a Mormon who talks about the dangers of epistemic humility works out a particularly tough pro-certainty talk (in this case, President Hinckley’s October 1981 General Conference address: Faith: The Essence of True Religion), well then here you go.

I didn’t really explain the image I picked in the post. It didn’t fit. But I’ll provide the explanation here. It’s a painting of Thomas doing his doubting thing (The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Hendrick ter Brugghen), and I went with it because President Hinckley’s talk made me self-conscious about not having enough faith. Of course, I’d like to have enough faith. But maybe I don’t, and maybe that’s my fault. And, if so, then Thomas is my hope. He caught a talking-to, but He was still allowed in the presence of His Savior.

T&S: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart

788 - Thrice Today was my day for another post at Times and Seasons. This time, I went for a very, very short post about the connection between suffering and empathy, with a little help from neuroscience, my favorite band (Thrice), and quotes from the books of Alma and Matthew. The message: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart.

Give it a read, if that piques your interest.

T&S: Reading the Book of Mormon for the First Time Again

789 - Angry Pterodactyl 2

What do giant, angry pterodactyls, vegeta, Harry Potter, and the Book of Mormon all have in common? Read my latest post at Times and Seasons to find out: Reading the Book of Mormon for the First Time Again. (Sort of. In reality, the only thing they have in common is that they’re all in that post.)

Wisdom and the Wiesn

O'zapft is!
O’zapft is!

Beer, lederhosen, dirndls, beer, and giant pretzels and beer. Oktoberfest is here again!

I’ve been living in Munich teaching English for nearly eight years and every year I know to expect the question from my students: So are you going to the Wiesn this year?

Oktoberfest is held each year at the fairgrounds of Theresienwiese (Theresa's Field), nicknamed by the locals as the "Wiesn"
Oktoberfest is held each year at the fairgrounds of Theresienwiese (Theresa’s Meadow), nicknamed by the locals as the “Wiesn”

I usually tell them that I might go to take some photos (the ones in this post!) but since I don’t drink, it’s not as much fun for me as for others.

You don’t drink!?

This then invites the question about why I don’t drink and pretty soon I’ve outed myself as a Mormon. Which is great! I get to answer questions about my faith, dispel myths, educate, and maybe do a little missionary work. But answering Mormon questions isn’t always easy and some concepts in Mormonism are more nuanced than others, and the principle that keeps me from drinking beer at Oktoberfest is one of them.

Non-Mormons enjoying Oktoberfest.
Non-Mormons enjoying Oktoberfest.

On its face, the Word of Wisdom would seem like a fairly straightforward practice: we abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and harmful drugs and should in turn eat and drink foods which are healthy and nourishing. But if you look at the original revelation that later became commandment then it’s not quite so clear. For example, here is the bit that forbids coffee and tea (Doctrine & Covenants 89:9):

And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.

Friend: What, no hot drinks at all? Not even hot chocolate?

Me: Well, that has been clarified as meaning specifically coffee and tea. Hot chocolate and even herbal teas are just fine.

Friend: Ok, so it’s the drinks with caffeine that are taboo. I see.

Me: Well, no… Coke and Pepsi are not prohibited.

Friend: So it has to be hot then? So like an ice tea or iced coffee would be ok?

Me: No, it really has nothing to do with the temperature of the drink nor the levels of caffeine. It’s just coffee and black (and green?) tea are no nos.

Friend: But a can of Coke is much worse for you than a cup of earl grey (hot).

Me: Maybe, but one is specifically forbidden by the Lord and the other isn’t.

Friend: Hmm…

I can understand if my friend is rather bewildered by this law of health. He might even be confused as to why it’s called “The Word of Wisdom” rather than a title more specific to health like “Nourish and Strengthen Your Bodies!”

Indeed we usually present the Word of Wisdom as a law of health and rightly so since it talks about these foods in context of being good or bad for the “body or the belly” and couples obedience with promises of receiving “health in their navel, marrow in their bones,” and “they shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.”

Oktoberfest 2015-5
Useful blessings for an Oktoberfest server.

Healthiness is clearly the core of the commandment. These specific proscriptions against tobacco, alcohol, coffee, and tea are natural starting points from which we can use our own intelligence and agency to decide what is good or bad for our bodies and more fully live the law.

Friend: Wait, sorry, I’m still not satisfied. I mean, no tobacco and alcohol I can understand, even coffee to some extent. But tea? There are many health benefits of tea even black tea. And you won’t even take one sip even though you’ll happily down a mug of Diet Dr. Pepper.

Me: No, not diet. That’s gross.

But my friend has a point. Why does tea make the list? Tannins? Here’s where I believe the Word of Wisdom is not simply about health. It is about obedience, of course, but it is also about setting ourselves apart from the world.

The World

Wine, beer, coffee, tea – is  there a major culture on earth where one of these four drinks does not play a major role? Whether its beer in northern Europe, wine in France and southern Europe, tea throughout the Middle East and Asia, and coffee the world over, these drinks are essential elements in the social rituals and daily habits of pretty much everyone everywhere.

We bond over beers, celebrate with champagne, party with cocktails, meet up for coffee. In Asia it’s all about the tea. Have you tried traveling the Arab world, India, or East Asia without drinking tea? I mean, you can do it but if you’re dealing with locals then it’s a lot of awkward declining hoping that you don’t offend your hosts. Imagine living there as a tea-totaler!

Bonding over beers
Bonding over beers

The point is, these beverages and their communal consumption are important in making an individual part of the in-group in a society. Imbibing is integration. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it can be rather beautiful if you think about it, but it’s also not entirely essential. This is where the wisdom comes in.

I believe that by strictly avoiding these drinks, Mormons establish themselves as being peculiar in a way that is distinct and sometimes difficult on a personal level when faced with the peer pressure, but it also doesn’t completely alienate them from society either.

Einmal ist keinmal!
Those girls will probably still be friends with me even if I don’t drink, right?

That societal pressure to become fully integrated in the in-group is for some Mormons a very difficult trial of their faith. Yet if they are faithful to this commandment, the consequences are rarely more severe than a loss of status or the failure to fully share in a group experience. In other words, it’s a commandment that directly affects our pride. It’s brilliant.

You know you want to be a part of this in-group.
You know you want to be a part of this in-group.

Since the Beginning, God has given commandments that have set His people apart from the world without physically isolating them from it. The ancient Israelites constantly chaffed at the peculiarities of the Mosaic law with its jealous monotheism, its odd prohibitions, and its rituals. The early Christians were one of the few religions to be systematically persecuted by the generally tolerant Romans for their stubborn refusal to conform to certain political and religious norms. It seems the Lord has always carefully designed his commandments to keep his people separate and strange while still expecting them to remain otherwise integrated in whatever society they are in. He seems to want us to have a constant reminder that in whatever society we find ourselves, our first loyalties go to His society, even the family of Heavenly Father, Mother, Brother, and siblings that we have chosen through covenants. It can pull us upwards to a higher perspective that reveals us as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” The laws of peculiarity are divinely-anchored lifelines against moral danger—not just that of getting drunk or getting hooked on a substance, but the danger of forgetting where our better natures have once chosen to belong.

A vivid example of this is when the Israelites were living amongst the Egyptians as their slaves. They too suffered from the plagues brought on by the stubbornness of Pharaoh, but before the final plague they were given a commandment to do something that would distinguish themselves not only from the Egyptians but even the less faithful Israelites. They were told to mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb. Very peculiar. Weird even. But those households which made themselves separate from their neighbors through obedience to this commandment were saved from terrible loss.

With this in mind, the final blessing for those who keep the Word of Wisdom is especially apt (D&C 89:21):

And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.

Not exactly a passover sacrifice.
Not a passover sacrifice.

Of course, the wisdom doesn’t stop there. A bonus feature of the Word of Wisdom is that its peculiarity gets people to ask questions to its adherents. Those questions lead to opportunities for Mormons to discuss their faith and invite others to come and see why they think it’s so great. In my experience, the question that has most often revealed my Mormon faith and led to further discussion is, “why don’t you drink?” I am sure I am not alone in this.

I'm all over the pretzels, though.
I am all over those pretzels, though.

And so I am happy to forego the revelry of Oktoberfest and in exchange distinguish myself as Mormon, part of a peculiar people, but not without good reason for the hope and whatever wisdom might be in me.

The LDS church building is just one street away from the Wiesn.
Fun Fact: The LDS church building is just one street away from the Wiesn.


Check out more of my photos of Oktoberfest, Munich, and a bunch of other places here.


RCR: The Mormon Option

807 - The Mormon Option

My good friend Betsy VanDenBerghe has an excellent post up at Real Clear Religion: The Mormon Option. In the post, she builds off of Damon Linker’s experiences as a non-Mormon professor at BYU. Despite having to abide some very strict rules, Linker found that:

strangely enough . . . within a system of strict behavioral requirements, academic freedom flourished. “I was perfectly free to teach whatever I wanted in the classroom. And I did,” including the radical writings of everyone from Machiavelli to Rousseau to Nietzche and his suggestion that “God is dead.” When a singular complaint arose about a scandalous scene in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, the department chair let Linker know “that I had his support. There was no reprimand” — nor demand for trigger warnings or syllabus alterations.

VanDenBerghe suggests that what is true for Linker is also true for devout members of strict religions:

Outsiders associate behavioral guidelines with intellectual and emotional ones, but dismissing believers as incapable of empathizing with those outside their belief system usually comes from those who have never experienced the congregations they disparage. If they went inside, they’d discover a big and surprisingly diverse world of believers moving along the straight and narrow path.

In addition, she points out that if you’re looking for diversity the politically progressive mainline protestant denominations are not the way to go, since they “tend to be whiter, older, and more educated.” By contrast, “It’s American Catholics, Pentecostals, and evangelicals who are less white, younger, and more economically and educationally diverse.” And Mormons, with our population brimming with folks who have served 18- or 24-month mission to strange lands (from Albania to Alabama) is a group that is particularly accustomed to the reality that there are lots and lots of different kinds of people and different ways of living out there.

Hey, maybe Bernie Sanders’ welcome at Liberty University wasn’t such a fluke after all, eh?

T&S Post: “A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.”

861 - The Suicide of Edouard Manet LARGE

In keeping with my renewed every-other-week schedule at T&S, I posted some speculations about theology and gender at Times and Seasons yesterday: “A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.” The article is about as popular as you’d expect, which is to say: not very.

I am reasonably certain that the rise of gender and sexuality politics in our culture is an opportunity for theological and cultural growth, but also that neither of the prevailing political attitudes are capable of revealing the lessons that are there to be learned. Social liberals are too committed to a view of human nature that is too shallow and superficial to do anyone any good. (In this, I’m basically echoing Pinker’s critique in The Blank Slate.) Social conservatives, I think, are doing a good job of holding onto important traditions that are necessary for a healthy society, but are also too willing to veer towards fearfulness that leads to bigotry on the one hand and prevents consideration of new explanations for why these traditions are important on the other.

This article is just another example of me trying to extricate myself a bit from this morass–without abandoning positions I think are important–and reach for new understandings of old truths.

Don’t Blame Cars if Your Church is Weak

831 - Cars

There’s an interesting article over at First Things: The Death of the Parish. David T. Koyzis is fundamentally right about the importance of not being free to pick-and-choose your congregation. The alternative–which most of us are living today–means that we cannot avoid a consumerist approach to our worship as we pick-and-chose a congregation that fits what we’re looking for. That meets our needs.

Of course, as a Mormon, I’m coming at this from the opposite side of the coin. Mormons–who do drive cars just as much as anybody else–do not pick and choose their congregation. With almost no exceptions, we go to the ward (congregation) we are assigned to based on our address. In fact, back when I was growing up in Richmond, I went to three or four different wards in two different physical buildings (sometimes multiple congregations share meetinghouses) based on how the church redrew the geographical boundaries of the congregations. It was always jarring and often unpopular to split and recombine congregations, but we all went where we were told to go to.

Only in later years did I come to realize how important this was. Not being able to choose who you rub shoulders with every Sunday is a big and important part of why Mormon congregations feel like family: you’re stuck with people. So you sort of have to learn to love them, or at least live with them, just to make life bearable.

All of this makes me rather dubious of Koyzis’ argument (based on Adam Graber’s piece “How Cars Created the Megachurch and put churchgoers in the driver’s seat”) that cars are to blame:

Now it is not quite right to blame the automobile as such for this defective ecclesiology. After all, it is our use of the automobile that lies ultimately at its origin. Yet no technology is neutral. The automobile has exacerbated the individualistic tendencies already at work in our culture, empowering individuals to treat even so central a community as the church as a mere extension of their personal tastes.

But there’s a flipside to this. If I didn’t have a car–if I was very limited in where I could go to Church–I would possibly not be able to visit a Mormon congregation. Not that I have anything against worshiping with other denominations from time to time (I have done so, and always enjoyed it), but for me and for most Mormons living in suburban America, the car is an enabler of our commitment to a particular faith tradition rather than some kind of individualistic corrosive. So, perhaps, it’s not the car that is really the problem here.

This is especially apparent when you consider Koyzis’ proposed solutions:

However, what if every new church building were to forgo the ubiquitous parking lot in the interest of restoring a normative ecclesiology? Might it force the churches to reach out to their own neighborhoods? Might it compel people to re-embrace the parish model, attending the church to which they can most easily walk?

Not only is the proposed solution untenable–many churches are only accessible by car for all practical purposes–but I just can’t imagine it even beginning to work. The totally unworkable nature of the cure highlights the fact that the ailment itself has been misdiagnosed.

Christian denominations in America are weakening, and it is a problem. But cars are not the issue.