It might just be my memory adding details to make the story better, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to read the first Eugene England essay that I did. At least, it wasn’t assigned reading. I found it in a fine anthology called “Readings for Intensive Writers” that I had to buy for my freshman honors writing class at BYU in 2003–04 and, in a move that I’m sure would have made Gene proud, I soon started reading all the non-required essays it contained. Wendell Berry, Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, Hugh Nibley, Lowell Bennion—the book was loaded with original, beautiful, moving writing. But none of those authors were the reason I later brought that book along for the plane ride to the MTC (again with the rebelliousness: what was I doing as a set-apart missionary reading non-Church approved materials?!). I brought that anthology along with my scriptures and Talmage’s Jesus the Christ because it contained Eugene England’s most famous essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” It was the last non-correlated thing I read before entering the MTC (I knew they’d search out any contraband there, so I gave the book to my dad to take back home with him) and it served me well throughout those two years and beyond.
I wanted then and still want now to have the kind of faith that Gene talked about in that essay: a jujitsu faith that turns frustrations into patience, idiots and dullards into near-Gods, enemies into beloved fellowmen, and planks we must walk into springboards to Christlike natures. Gene is not naive; he doesn’t gloss over problems with the institutional LDS Church in the essay, which is why it is so powerful. He fully acknowledges faults and shortcomings—perhaps even plays them up a bit!—but then owns them and turns them to good. In fact, the bigger the problem, the more powerful a force for good it seems to become in his hands. If there is a more Godlike attribute, to be able to create light from darkness, I don’t know it. Gene had that Christlike ability to see—and more importantly, to cultivate—the good in people and situations.
The contrast Gene draws in that essay between his heady, academic years at Stanford and his more service-filled experiences as Branch President in Minnesota is a useful one for me. It’s easy for me to get bent out of shape around theoretical questions about doctrine and politics, but Gene is constantly reminding me about those lonely members on the plains of the heartland in my wards: the overwhelmed Relief Society president who would rather talk about how to convey the power of the atonement than about patriarchy; the gay member who just wants to meet faithful male role models, not think any more today about any injustices—perceived or actual—directed towards him; the new kid who just needs to be introduced to some other kids who he’ll get along with. The beauty of Gene’s work, of course, is that he tackles both the theoretical and the practical problems, but he never forgets that the immediate, real-life needs of his sisters and brothers come first.
I could ramble on and on about my gospel crush on Gene, but the most important thing I can say about “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” is that it has helped me look for and find the atonement of Christ in my experiences with the Church. It has done that by giving me a framework to view negatives as opportunities. Just as Christ’s disciples came to understand that the pain they felt on that bleak sabbath when their Lord was buried in a tomb was ultimately necessary, Gene has shown me a way to appreciate disappointments and problems in the organization I love the most, to hang on even when it’s painful, and to turn the magnitude of obstacles to my advantage.
Do you have any favorite Eugene England essays/memories?