Sunday, December 25, 2011

Commercialism: A Crucial Component of Christmas?

Ah yes, commercialism: the perennial chestnut roasting over the Christmas debate fire. It's easy and commonplace to denounce its reach and prominence throughout the holiday season. I say it's easy because Christmas' true meaning really is to remember Christ's birth and the sublime gift that he was and is; and what with all the stress and shopping and travel and everything, it can be hard to remember much of that. I say that it's commonplace to bemoan this fact because every religious service around this time of year that I'm aware of does this to one degree or another. And this is a good thing: we all need more reminders to focus on the eternal and not put too much stock in the transitory.

But it's also easy and fun (in the mean, bursting balloons way) to point out that there has never been a golden age of Christmas, in which families did not stress out, Christ was foremost in everyone's mind, and there was no exploiting the holiday for commercial gain. Jon Stewart and Christopher Hitchens love to point out how Puritans banned the holiday in America, for one (two?). And who can really believe that children since time immemorial didn't put too much stock in the gift-getting part? But this idea that Christmas commercialism is nothing new has been especially on my mind today as I read a great (commercial) present I got today: Christmas at the New Yorker. Some examples from the 35 pages I've read so far:

  • One cartoon has a woman about to enter a scrum surrounding a "Xmas Sale $1.98" sign; she has a rope tied around her waist in the style of a mountain-climber; she's telling her husband, who's holding the end of the rope, "When I jerk twice, pull as hard as you can." The year? 1938.
  • A 1962 tidbit reads in full: "Overheard on Fifth Avenue, a cheerful soprano voice: 'It's nice to see the Christmas decorations going up. Thanksgiving will soon be here.'"
  • Searching for the center of Christmas in New York in 1962, John Updike wrote, with tongue in cheek, "We debated whether to head north, toward the great Norway spruce of Rockefeller Center, with its Currier & Ives prospect of skaters, or to head south, toward the gossamer, tree-shaped web of electric-light bulbs clinging to the front of Lord & Taylor. The latter seemed more crassly commercial, and hence more truly in the spirit of things, so south we went..."
  • The Christmas-themed cover from the Dec. 13, 1930 issue (pictured on the right), which depicts harried shoppers, frazzled mothers, and crying (presumably greedy) children with all the same fervor that we employ today to decry the same.

But romanticizing the past to make it sound rosier than the present (the so-called golden age fallacy) brings to mind two related ideas and makes me not want to pick sides in this fight.

First, there's the universal of coming-of-age process, the motif of a loss of innocence. We as humans need to remember a time that was more idyllic, an Eden to which we want to return. Christmastime is a great time to do this culturally, to wish for a more loving, caring world in which family is more central than it is now, in which money is not the true focus. This ideal is the most important thing to aspire towards, regardless of how well it tracks the historical record of centuries past.*

But the most interesting thing about this conversation is that it is really a debate about ritual. Religious-minded people want to promote "the true meaning of Christmas" (a phrase, by the way, that I truly believe in, aka those aren't scare quotes). But as this intriguing (and contrarianly-titled) blog post Celebrating the Commercialism of Christmas argues, "commercialism" of some sort is probably an important vehicle for that true meaning. The author draws the devastating comparison with Easter, which by all accounts ought to be the most celebrated Christian holiday, and concludes that the lack of both meaningful traditions and, yes, commercialism surrounding Easter doom it to an eternal second-rate status in too many people's minds.

Rituals are a vehicle for a deeper truth that serve an invaluable purpose but also come with potential pitfalls. Without any ritual truths are easily lost or thought of only in passing. Think of the proud, millennia-long Jewish tradition and how often it can die out: all too often, non-observant Jews' children will not identify as Jews, and certainly their children won't. Rituals like the passover keep their community alive. On the other hand, if too much emphasis is placed on the ritual (see, e.g., some pharisaical practices in the New Testament era) then the underlying truth can be crushed. In the Mormon tradition, temple rituals are central to our worship and are in large part what helped give Brigham Young and the apostles the nod over Sidney Rigdon in the succession controversy--the apostles controlled those, and those were what created a lasting, distinct church that would outlast Rigdon's offshoot branch of Mormonism.

I don't mean to argue that we should celebrate Christmas commercialism for its own sake, but rather that we consider whether all its secular and commercialistic trappings might not be a "ritual" that makes us really care about the deeper meaning of Christ's birth. Let's face it, the excitement of presents, both giving and getting, the beauty (and even the tackiness, at times) of the lights, the distinctive carols, the crazy stressful family get-togethers--they all make us anticipate the big day and give a greater opportunity to think about what it all means. They provide a context (and a foil!) for the extended worship of the Christ child.

In summary, ask me whether the ritual of baptism is important, salvific, and even "true": I'll emphatically say "yes." I'll quickly concede that water literally doesn't literally wash away our sins when we're baptized, but I'll still argue forcefully for the necessity of the ordinance--with an appropriate emphasis on the underlying truth it symbolizes. Likewise, ask me whether Christ's birth heralded the beginning of the most momentous life ever lived on this earth, and I'll emphatically say "yes." And now, I think I might just argue that, while decidedly secondary and not in itself of any lasting significance, perhaps the busyness of the Christmas season might just be a necessary means of promoting the celebration of Christ's miraculous birth and the eternal gift that he has given each of us.

Merry Christmas!

* A discussion of how historically accurate our discourse about the past needs to be in these regards is beyond the scope of this blog post; suffice it to say that I think the answer is: "it depends."

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Here's my contribution to Christmas this year:

The Estonian lyrics are available here (or on the youtube page) and here is my English translation:

On Christmas Eve, an angel visits each room
Flittering there in the candle's cascading glow
You can scarcely see her with your eye
But still you sense she wishes you well.

A tinge of Christmas wafts from the tree's branches
And in the angel's hair, a strand of tinsel glistens.
She pets the teddy bear in your hand,
Tells a fairy tale in your dreams.

You go to bed, feeling somewhat sad
But the tree remains in the room a while longer.
Upon waking you notice how
The angel's hair glistens there upon the branches.

On Christmas Eve, an angel visits each room
Flittering there in the candle's cascading glow
You can scarcely see her with your eye
But still you sense she wishes you well.

Friday, December 2, 2011

If I could start just one internet meme...

Here's the thing: I like to talk about politics. I also have a facebook account. Thus I am prone to starting, and often contributing to, those annoying, endless, frustrating, pointless political facebook car wrecks posts. I promise I don't mean to.

The point is: today one (OK, OK--two) got started on my wall, and even after I bowed out, some new participants came along and started pouring--unintentionally I'm sure--proverbial gas on the proverbial fire. Seeing where this was going and not wanting to delete comments (damn you, deeply-engrained First Amendment ethos!) I resigned myself to my fate and just added a comment that read "Oh boy, this [thread] is gonna get worse before it gets better"* and a link to one of my favorite Simpsons moments:

I don't know that it will help any, but I like to think it's clever.

Go ye and do likewise.

* Alteration in original. <-- sorry, but I have to be precise like that. It's an OCD thing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

That was a family, according to your religion

I loved this excerpt from a recent Daily Universe (BYU's student newspaper) letter to the editor. It begins by describing a quote from the director of a Swedish nursery that tries to be 100% gender neutral that put the author "over the edge":
“…When they’re playing ‘house’ and the role of the mom already is taken and they start to squabble … we suggest two moms or three moms and so on,” she said. 
It isn’t the action that bothers me — I know plenty of little kids who play house with multiple moms because everyone wants to be the mom. I’m bothered because the director’s goal is to make them feel as if a house should have two or three mothers. 
It shouldn’t. 
I want the world to remember what is right, what is good. Some things in this world should remain sacred; the family should always be sacred.
Because heaven knows no Mormon family ever had two (or--gasp!--three!) mothers! Wow...

Friday, November 11, 2011

My pre-mission Wikipedia time capsule

I was an early adopter of Wikipedia since I was a geek my freshman year of college (2003-04). Back then, nobody knew about this weird encyclopedia anyone could edit, and there were still plenty of red links to create! It was heady stuff, let me tell you. I created, for example, the article on Pearls Before Swine! Compare my original entry with what it has become today :)

Anyways, I loved Wikipedia, so much so that one of the last things I did before getting set apart* as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in September, 2004, was to create a "time capsule" of predictions about Wikipedia and the world for when I got home two years later. You can view it here. I'm happy to say that my first prediction (that "Wikipedia will have grown in reputation and size to be a serious source of information for the average websurfer. We're talking Wikipedia as a household name.") absolutely came true while I was gone. However, one of them (cough cough my prediction that the Red Sox still would not have won another World Series cough cough) crumbled in under a month of my leaving for the MTC...

Fun stuff, eh? What are your predictions about what the world (or Wikipedia) will be like in two years?

* I created the bulk of the page on September 25, 2004--the day before I was set apart. However, you'll notice that the date at the bottom of the page says September 27 2004: I snuck online the day after I was set apart (when I wasn't supposed to be using the internet), made one more prediction (which didn't even end up coming true), and even had the gall to change the date on it to make my crime more obvious! My guilt must have been immense! :)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What makes a prophet a Prophet? Or: How I learned to stop worrying and learned to love repetition

What makes a prophet a Prophet? Well, a lot of things. But I think that our support, sustaining, and hope play a vital role in it.

This is related to the scriptural reminder "seek and ye shall find." If we have faith and look for God's word in the teachings of the prophets, we will find it. The collective power in thousands of people coming to the Conference Center in SLC twice a year, and of millions more watching and listening around the world, create an atmosphere of faith in which godly counsel can reverberate in and increase in volume. And that's part of what makes our modern-day prophets Prophets. The expectations coming in and the ensuing discussion and study improve the whole experience.

This approach also helps me cope with the fact that--let's face it--a lot (almost all?) of what we hear from modern-day prophets is not new or groundbreaking in its substance. We already know we need to have faith, study the scriptures, love and serve one another, pay tithing, etc. But the expectation that we can hear God's voice in their words helps us get to a deeper level: we see old things in new ways that are more personal, a phrasing sticks out at us as more clear than previous explanations, our hearts are open to (sometimes completely unrelated) personal revelation from on high, and so forth.

I'm not explaining this very well. But I'm very grateful for modern-day prophets, seers, and revelators. I know that they speak for God and help us more fully understand and live Christ's gospel. Part of what gives them such strength and power is the sustaining votes you and I give them. So thank you!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Spooky poetry

I got to participate in a spooky, halloweeny poetry night my ward did (how cool a ward is mine, no?). I read Edgar Allan Poe's classic The Raven (click the link: it's Christopher effing Walken reading it!). But as the night went on, I thought perhaps I should have done his lesser-known The Bells. I love it, so here it is:


Hear the sledges with the bells-
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


Hear the mellow wedding bells,
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And an in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!


Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor,
Now- now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows:
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells-
Of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!


Hear the tolling of the bells-
Iron Bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people- ah, the people-
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All Alone
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone-
They are neither man nor woman-
They are neither brute nor human-
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells-
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells-
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells:
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells-
Bells, bells, bells-
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Do you have any favorite Halloween poems?

Best. Description. of Depression. Ever.

I'm not particularly a fan of Hyperbole and a Half, but this comic is great (for its explanatory power). I've never been that depressed, but the gist is spot on.

[oh and warning: some language]

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Thin Line (ba-dum ching!)

I don't diet too often, but when I do, I'm afraid I'm walking a thin line between eating less and getting an eating disorder. I'll be back to my unhealthy overeating soon enough though, I'm sure.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To the Saints

Here's to the Saints: the people who come to wherever you are, walk back up with you, and help you see things the way they really are again. God bless them that they can continue to be so utterly awesome.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Devil's advocate

Mormon argument regarding same-sex marriage: "marriage" has meant the union of a man and a woman forever. We can't re-write millennia of history and tradition by now re-defining marriage as something fundamentally different to include a much broader group of people.

Mormon argument regarding Christianity: "Christian" has meant a belief in the Nicene Creed (and others) for millennia, but now we as Mormons want to be included in the meaning of "Christian" even though we disagree with those creeds and call them abominations, arguably re-defining the term to include a much broader group of people.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Just Sayin', Gospel Edition

My gospel pet peeve for today: that Clive Staples Lewis quote that says
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Besides the false trilemma that I think this is (read the Wikipedia article for details), it also presents the difficult position for Mormons, if accepted, of what to do with the 1978 First Presidency statement that said
The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.
So if Mohammed, a man who claimed to have a vision from an angel and receive new scriptures that were literally the word of God, can validly be considered a "great religious leader" who "received a portion of God's light" and "[m]oral truths," why can't Jesus be considered the same? Why do we not accept the Q'uran as scripture, but we think it's impossible to separate Christ's claims of divinity from his other great teachings? I just don't see it.

A note of clarification: I do believe Jesus was the literal Son of God, divine, savior, redeemer, etc etc, but I also think Lewis' trilemma is a specious argument in favor of that position.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Law Power

Written for the Virginia Law Weekly, a law student-run weekly newspaper at UVA. Thus, the audience of this article isn't all that in line with the audience of this blog. Oh well.

Three men on a 1968 Mexico City Olympics medal stand after the 200-meter dash. Two African-Americans, heads bowed, boldly raise black-gloved fists in the air. You’re probably familiar with pictures of the event; maybe, like me, you even had one on your wall as an undergrad. Saturday evening, I got to hear John Carlos, the bronze medal winner in that picture, speak about his new book. I’m not going to be an Olympic athlete; I probably won’t ever get to bring international attention to human rights on anywhere near the scale that John Carlos and Tommie Smith did, but I was inspired to use this extremely influential bully pulpit of a Virginia Law Weekly column to think aloud a bit about how we as future lawyers can stand for something too.

First, why do people still care about what those men did in Mexico City in 1968? As with all enduring symbols, the image of that medal stand is multivalent. What values do you hold? You’ll be able to find them represented. Are you a member of a group that has been marginalized? The salute’s immediate context suggested Black Power, a declaration of sovereignty and self-worth from members of a group so long oppressed. Do you want to protect human rights around the world? Tommie Smith has said that it was, in fact, a human rights salute. Do you fight for workers’ rights? John Carlos wore his Olympic jacket unzipped (a breach of strict Olympic protocol) to honor the blue-collar workers he grew up with in Harlem. Are you concerned about the poor? Smith and Carlos are shoeless with black socks, representing black poverty. Are you religious? The two cited God as a source of strength in doing something they knew would create a tremendous backlash. Do you despise political correctness? So did they; many, including the audience that booed them, saw the gesture as an attempt to turn the games into a political platform. Are you a Second Amendment nut? Carlos’s hand, unlike Smith’s, wasn’t raised straight up—he said he wanted it cocked, ready to punch in self-defense in case someone tried to rush the stand. Whatever your cause is, you can find it on that podium — and you can probably also find one you don’t support. And whether you think they should have done it or not, no one can deny their courage.

Peter Norman (the white guy) also deserves mention. He was the Australian silver-medalist and a vocal critic of his country’s own racist policies. He supported the two Americans wholeheartedly, wearing, like Carlos and Smith, a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization that urged African-Americans to boycott the games. He also came up with the idea for the two to share Smith’s pair of gloves after Carlos forgot his in the Olympic Village. Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes when they told him of their plan for the medal ceremony, but instead, he said, “I saw love.”

All three athletes were censured by the International Olympic Committee, disciplined by their national Olympic authorities, and withstood intense negative media coverage. Carlos and Smith received death threats. Norman was not invited by Australia to compete in the 1972 Olympic Games.

So what does that have to do with U.Va. Law? After all, most of us are going to end up working in law firms, where the bottom line is profit, not justice. No Law Weekly article is going to change that, especially when its author is hypocritically going to be one of those soulless corporate lackeys himself. But even if you aren’t going to be working at a non-profit, tirelessly advocating for those who can’t afford to wield significant legal power on their own behalf (and many, many props to you public service people who will do just that), something John Carlos said Saturday strikes me as appropriate for us. He talked about how sports were never his primary focus. He was good at them and worked hard at them, but he realized at a young age that his talent as an athlete was, for him, a tool for something more important. He knew that people don’t listen to some guy in Harlem talk about racial inequality, but they do pay attention to an Olympic medalist.

When you’re making scads of money (and relative to the world’s population as a whole, all of us will), what are you going to do with it? Some of us will use our wealth and influence to stop people like Troy Davis from being put to death. Some of us will be entrepreneurs, creating new technologies that create unimaginable opportunities for everyone. Some of us will be legislators, or draft legislation, and have the chance to influence society in ways large and small. Some of us will volunteer for local charitable organizations. Some will try to implement Ayn Randian capitalism to achieve ultra-efficient economies. Some of us will be the ones raising our fists to the sky, and some of us will be the Peter Normans, doing what we can to help.

I don’t care what it is, and I can’t agree with all of your projects, but I think John Carlos and Tommie Smith teach all of us something important: Think beyond yourself. Use your power for something you can call the greater good. We’ve all gone from bright-eyed world-changers to cynically resigned law students — even you, 1Ls! The disillusionment happens quickly, as Civ Pro grinds hope out of even the most stalwart idealists, and realism has its place. I’m hoping not to be naive. But think, at least sometimes, of this education we’re receiving as a gift — an opportunity to do something in the coming years to make the world better in some way.

Make sure you piss off The Man at least once with your black-gloved law degree.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In which I proclaim my non-racist-ness

I confused an Asian girl with another one today. I fear that I mess up minorities' names they judge me, like I think "they all look alike." But really, I confuse white people all the time too. I still can't tell apart two of my white law school "Peer Advisors" (upperclassmen who mentor 1L's) from last year. Crap.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What Rules My Life

The following is an exact transcript of an English class essay I wrote in middle school (9/29/98, to be exact) recently rediscovered by my parents in our basement. I was such a brat.

What Rules My Life

People often talk about how hard it is to live with a teenager, but they never seem to talk about how hard it is to be a teenager and live with your parents. Parents can be nice, but a lot of the time they are mean or annoying. For instance, I'll be up in my room, doing homework or listening to music, when all of a sudden my dad calls me to come down. I get up, put down my homework or turn off the radio and start down. After about two seconds, my dad will yell up

"Come on Austin!!!"

Which, of course, is exactly what I'm doing, so I yell back down to him

"I AM!!! I can't get there in two seconds!!!"

Which by then gets both of us mad. There are a lot of things like this that make my parents seem a lot meaner than they are. Take for example, piano lessons. I HATE playing the piano. I think it's boring, hard, and useless (unless I could get a job for playing the piano which I couldn't). But my mom, a piano teacher, couldn't possibly have a son who isn't another Beethoven or Mozart, so I've been taking piano lessons for about six or seven years, hating every minute of it.

Parents also make me do stuff like staying up 'til 10:00 to do English assignments instead of doing them in the morning, eating stuff I hate (like peas) and doing so many chores I could probably sue them for child labor and win (we're lucky to earn one hour of minimum wage in a WEEK!).

Then of course, there are grades. My parents have this idea that all their kids should get all A+'s on every report . [sic] They might let a B slip by now and then, providing it's a B+. In other words, we have to be almost perfect on our report cards. One little slip and they take away TV, computer, N64, food (well, not quite food YET, but maybe soon).

This is the end of my wonderfully fabulous essay about my parents, my Supreme Dictators for Life. Please give me a good grade, because if you don't, you never know. I might not come to school, one day, then the next, then the next. Finally you get curious and call home, but my parents completely deny ever having a son named Austin...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sild on Katki

Meie tahame taeva minna
Selle suure seltsiga

Ei saa minna, sild on katki
Nõnda minna me ei saa

Millega me parandame?
Siidiga või niidiga

Hõbeda või kullaga
Selle selge mullaga

Sest meie tahame taeva minna
Selle suure seltsiga

Viimne laps saab kinni võetud
Kelle oma oled sa?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Testimony booster of the day

I swear, the number of Democrats/liberals/feminists (unbeknownst to the Elders* Quorum Presidency) I have been assigned to home teach  over the last two years is statistically significant. It's great.

* Is it just me, or does it feel like there should be an apostrophe there? Every time I write it, it just feels weird.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I've been working on taking the word 'retarded' out of my vocabulary, but I've never been able to come up with a good (inoffensive) replacement... until now: 'daft.' If I can overcome the weird "are you British?" reactions, I think it would be a wonderful substitute.

What do you think? Feasible? Weird? Daft?

Sunday, September 18, 2011


One time in high school, a friend of mine was trying to tell me something from across our history class. She was able to get my attention, but I had never become fluent (or anything near unto it) in lip-reading, the lingua franca of high school distance-speaking. She quickly realized I wasn't understanding, and shortened her message down to the most important word or two--still no comprehension on my part. She exaggerated the vowels, slowed it down, etc... Finally I just did an "Ohhhh! Got it!" face to get her to stop trying because it was hopeless.

That anecdote, writ large, is my life.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Future Inconsistency with Present Positions does not (Necessarily) Hypocrisy Make

Today I briefly debated the merits of the "death tax" with a good friend. Of course, I know virtually nothing about it, but that's what makes debating fun, right? Well the point is that he was against it, I was in favor of it. And he was very against it. It was an interesting discussion, and I enjoyed it.

Only afterwards did I find out that someone close to someone he loves died yesterday. Youch.

While I'm certain this friend would be against the death tax no matter his personal circumstances, I'm sure those circumstances also played into the emotions he was expressing during the course of our debate. And it reminded me of something I've thought about now and again: how in certain situations I myself wouldn't agree with my (current) positions--and why that's OK.

I first realized this while thinking about the death penalty. In 1988, Michael Dukakis famously answered a question about the death penalty in a way that a lot of people thought was very cold:

And let's face it, they were probably right. However, I don't think his answer was true. If someone raped and killed his wife, Dukakis almost certainly would be in favor of the death penalty for the bastard. He probably would have strangled the killer with his own hands.

I think a much better answer would have been something that acknowledged the inevitable, perfectly understandable anger and natural desire for vengeance that would occur in such a terrible situation, but which also noted that someone so emotionally involved might not be the best person to decide the issue of ultimate punishment. I think that's what I'd say to anyone who asked me the same question. The family of a victim should not decide a convicted felon's fate. Let's make a rational decision about it; and that involves bringing in a neutral judge who, while certainly appropriately offended by heinous acts, has enough emotional detachment to pass a sentence that is best for everyone.

So today, while I'm rational, I can make the argument against the death penalty--and I don't think I'm being hypocritical to then also say "If my wife/mother/father/brother is raped and killed, don't ask me then to decide what the punishment should be; follow my advice that I'm giving today."

Same thing for a number of issues. I think it's a mature thing to realize ahead of time that you might do something rash in the heat of the moment. If someone close to my loved one died and the deceased's estate was heavily taxed before going to someone I felt didn't deserve to be given less than their full share, I might well disagree with the estate tax then too. But today, I say it's OK.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


If I ever manufactured an alcoholic drink (is that even the right verb at all???), I would totally call it "Regal Lager" and its tagline would be: "It's a palindrome, so it tastes just as good going down as it does coming back up!" Take that for what you will.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In which I share that rare specimen: good contemporary religious music

Seafinch - I've Got to Make Things Right

I love this song for a lot of reasons. For one, it's the only song I know of written from Judas' perspective, and originality is a big plus in my book. I also love horns, so anything with a horn arrangement gets another bump.

I love singing along with the climactic finale ("Not even He / could forgive me") because it reminds me that it's not true in my case. Though at the same time, it has that taint of irony because the character singing it might just be right.

I love that it takes Judas as a human being instead of a caricature. One who made a horrible choice, yes, but one who is still human and realizes what he's done. It is masterfully tragic.

I feel like it's hard to get a good religious song nowadays--they all either hit you over the head with their moral, sound like crap, and/or are just downright sappy/cheesy/campy. Seafinch has a whole album full of the exception: religious songs that, if you weren't paying close attention to the words, could pass for solid secular music (see especially "It Might Be You"). The songs are sung from the point of view of the New Testament's marginalized or underappreciated characters (a number of women, for example, are represented) or the famous at their less-than-best (Peter's remorse from denying Christ).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

When Ideologies Collide

I recently listened to a Mormon Stories podcast on mental health and religion by Dr. David Christian, a psychologist from Logan, Utah. It was very interesting; although I don't agree with all of it, I think it's a useful listen that gave me a lot of food for thought. If you don't feel like going through the whole hour and a half, just know that it advocates a pragmatic approach to religion: focus on what works for you in your life, and if something is harmful to you, don't believe/do it; get away from an "is it true?" framework and into an "is it useful to me?" framework. This is, of course, a very modern and "liberal" approach to religion and truth. It focuses on the individual and makes her or him the final arbiter of a personal and relatively relative truth.

While listening, I immediately thought of President Packer's (to some infamous) statements that "Some things that are true aren’t very useful" and that "a lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness." [1] These are statements made by someone universally considered to be "conservative" in his religious attitudes. They represent a worldview in which ultimate, objective truth exists and is not something individuals can define for themselves. Prophets are the ones who reveal a pre-existent, eternal ontological truth which individuals can choose to embrace or reject, but truth cannot be changed. [2]

So here we have a very liberal ideology and a very conservative ideology both embracing the same proposition: the utilitarian value of information can, and should, trump truth. What does this mean that two sides that wouldn't agree about almost anything seem to agree on this?

Well, I've purposely overstated the similarities a bit. A concise summary of the positions does make them sound almost identical, but the ends sought are quite different. Dr. Christian's goal is the greatest (objectively quantifiable) present well-being of individuals; Pres. Packer's goal is the greatest sum total of faith in Jesus Christ and in his restored church. Both are utilitarian arguments, but with different "goods" to be maximized. Pres. Packer's position, I believe, would also be that limiting access to "truth" is a temporary thing: ultimately, all truth should be known, but it's a question of milk before meat.

But despite the ultimate differences, I think there's an interesting tension here too. Neither side is committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all the time. There is some compromise, of a sort, in both positions. These very liberal and very conservative approaches to religion both seem to say that a fixation on unadulterated truth can, at least in some situations, be opposed to the ultimate good.

Do you agree? Am I crazy? I think it's interesting to think about, at least.

A final thought is that Jesus said "I am ... the truth". Can we equate our approaches to coming to know Christ with our method of approaching truth? In other words, are there some things about Christ that, if we knew right now, would be more harmful than helpful? I think so, and it seems to be in line with learning things line upon line, precept upon precept. But it's also kind of disconcerting when put in such stark terms, huh?


[1] These quotes come from President Packer's PBS interview with Helen Whitney. He has expressed similar thoughts elsewhere: here's an analysis of another (purported) related statement of his. Compare some of Elder Oaks' very similar comments to Whitney: e.g., "It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord" and "But not everything that’s true is useful. I am a lawyer, and I hear something from a client. It’s true, but I’ll be disciplined professionally if I share it because it’s part of the attorney-client privilege. There’s a husband-wife privilege, there’s a priest-penitent privilege, and so on. That’s an illustration of the fact that not everything that’s true is useful to be shared."

[2] See the awesome hymn, "Oh Say, What is Truth?" (number 272 in your hymn books, number one in your hearts). And as an interesting semi-aside to this whole post, see a classic post from Steven Peck, BYU biology professor and science activist, titled "Oh, Say what is Truth?--OK! I Will" which introduces some conceptions of truth and how they might interact with Mormonism.

Church history nugget

Many people don't realize that, due to a secretarial typo, when Joseph Fielding Smith became president of the church he was originally sustained as a "prophet, seer, and relevator." Never one to question the wisdom of a calling, he made it a point to try to make things relevant--the most notable example being his famous "Multidimensional Calculus and the Eternal Law of Tithing" talk from the April, 1970 conference. That sermon attempted to make what was previously an obscure area of knowledge to most saints a bit more relevant. After the October conference of that year, when he was re-sustained with the more traditional "prophet, seer, and revelator" title, he focused much more on mainstream topics.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When did you choose to be straight?

I like that video, and I was reminded of it when I read this fun questionnaire:

This questionnaire was invented in the early 70's to put people in the shoes of a gay person , but is also kind of fun in its own right . Check it out and you can post your replies. Also feel free to post this in your own blog, Myspace, crackbook, etc. as it is intentionally in the public domain.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

2. When and where did you decide you were a heterosexual?

3. Is it possible this is just a phase and you will out grow it?

4. Is it possible that your sexual orientation has stemmed from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

5. Do your parents know you are straight? Do your friends know- how did they react?

6. If you have never slept with a person of the same sex, is it just possible that all you need is a good gay lover?

7. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality... can’t you just be who you are and keep it quiet?

8. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?

9. Why do heterosexuals try to recruit others into this lifestyle?

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual... Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual teachers?

11. Just what do men and women do in bed together? How can they truly know how to please each other, being so anatomically different?

12. With all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?

13. How can you become a whole person if you limit yourself to compulsive, exclusive heterosexuality?

14. Considering the menace of overpopulation how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?

15. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don't you feel that he or she might be inclined to influence you in the direction of his or her leanings?

16. There seem to be very few happy heterosexuals. Techniques have been developed that might enable you to change if you really want to.

17. Have you considered trying aversion therapy?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Everything, even blog posts, is a remix

So there's a fun video series (2 of 4 of which have now been produced) called Everything is a Remix. Its premise is that every form of art owes so much to previous works of art that calling it a remix isn't too much of a stretch. It calls into question our notions of "creativity" but in a good way: I don't think it's saying that creativity doesn't exist, but rather that it's not quite so isolated as we think. Anyways, here's the most recent installation in the series, about movies. Part I, about music, is here.

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

I like this idea, and I think it's pretty true. It reminds me of a paper I wrote in college for a class on the detention of Japanese-Americans of the West Coast during World War II. Specifically, it was about Topaz, one of the camps they were sent to in desolate central Utah. Seeing the remains of the camp (which were minimal) and thinking of the forced removal of thousands of American citizens and loyal legal aliens reminded me of a song by The Nightwatchman (a.k.a. Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine fame) called No One Left, embedded below. My rough draft was subtitled No One Left, as I recall, and I may have quoted a line or two from the song. As my paper evolved (I love watching drafts do that, especially the interplay between the title and what you actually write, and vice versa), I moved away from the idea so that it wasn't explicitly mentioned, but it remained an inspiration. Just the fact that a song about 9/11 by a member of RATM inspired the beginning of a written document for a BYU class about Japanese-Americans strikes me as a good example of the Everything is a Remix ethos.

Have you ever remixed anything like that? I know my sister once wrote a philosophy paper about Calvin and Hobbes, I think that's a great example. Or what's your favorite movie/music/art remix (preferably non-overt)?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mormonism and Universalism

I got my first request! In response to that post about John Lennon's song "Imagine," reader Adam asked about my thoughts on the extent to which Mormonism and Universalism are compatible (see how easy instant fame is? just ask!). I've thought a bit about that as well, and what better place than your own random blog to put some inchoate thoughts into writing and by writing end them clarify them.

First off, the obligatory definition of terms: I'll be using "universalism" to mean "everyone will be saved and get to heaven eventually." Hopefully that's what Adam meant, or he's going to get a whole load of tangent.

The best place I know of to start when talking about Mormonism and universalism is the Vision--more commonly known today as D&C 76*. In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman discusses this universalist-esque revelation that sends such a tiny portion of people to hell as to almost be Universal in its scope. While Bushman notes--quite well, I think--that it is distinguished from universalist doctrines in important ways, it is also interesting to note the reaction from some members who thought it was too close to salvation for everyone: one member was excommunicated for proclaiming that "the vision was of the Devil came from hel[l]." This is a good reminder of how inclusive our basic doctrine is: virtually every single person ever to have lived on the earth will at least achieve an inheritance in a kingdom that "surpasses all understanding"--this is de facto universalism as far as most of Christianity (and the world) are concerned. So Adam, in a sense, Mormonism and universalism are very compatible, almost even identical. But I have the feeling that's not what you were asking, since that is basic Mormon doctrine that every Sunbeam knows.

Moving into speculation-land, then: can universalist doctrines apply to the really Mormon concepts of heaven? I mean, no Mormon is excited about making it to the Telestial kingdom, so can we reconcile universal salvation in the Celestial kingdom with Mormon doctrine? I propose that it is possible, though I don't make any guarantees that it's true.

There is an idea about the possibility of progressing from one kingdom of glory to another. It is controversial--Bruce R. McConkie called it one of his 7 Deadly Heresies (though he also called evolution one, and that is taught at BYU, so what does that say? :) He decried the idea that God is progressing too, which I also agree with) and Spencer W. Kimball, Joseph Fielding Smith, and George Albert Smith are also on record opposing it.

However... you also have James E. Talmage, Brigham Young (via Wilford Woodruff's journal), Joseph F. Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and B. H. Roberts in favor of it, with the Secretary to the First Presidency issuing a letter (twice) saying that the church has no official position on the question, plus Lorenzo Snow and Harold B. Lee saying things that seem to imply the possibility. (see here for most of the quotes (don't miss the first comment there as well for the Roberts quote) and here for Talmage's softening stance between editions of Articles of Faith).

My point with all these quotes isn't to prove the doctrine either true or false--there are pretty impressive people on both sides--but just to show that both are (I believe) valid options for believing Latter-day Saints.

Again, I don't claim to have a testimony about this issue, but as a generally merciful-leaning type I hope that there is progression available between kingdoms. True, the scriptures at first glance don't seem to support the idea (and even appear to debunk it), but I don't think it's quite that simple. D&C 19 makes it clear that sometimes God lets us believe things to be harsher than they really are so that we will be motivated to do what's right, which is actually beneficial to us. So yes, I do think it's possible that there will be progression between kingdoms and thus universal salvation in the Celestial kingdom. I wouldn't bet on it (a la Pascal's wager) but I hope for it. As it is, I highly encourage everyone to do what they can to get to the Celestial kingdom on the first go-round as it will make you happier sooner at the very least.

What about the sons of perdition? Can we create a true Mormon universalism? Well, D&C 76 describes outer darkness a lot like D&C 19 said hell is often described--that is, sounding like it's endless but really just meaning God-given (and thus very intense and long), so maybe even they'll get out eventually. As verses 44-46 say, only they who are consigned to that state will know the end thereof. As an alternative speculation, Brigham Young once voiced his opinion that the sons of perdition would be recycled (for lack of a better term) into their native element and get another chance at some kind of kingdom!

So Adam, does that answer your question? To sum up: Mormonism definitely includes saving virtually everyone in some version of heaven, and it's possible that it extends that to exaltation as well. Fascinating to think about, but important to remember that we should repent and work out our salvation as best we can today!

P.S. There was a great short story in a recent edition of Dialogue about a guy in the Terrestrial kingdom that touches on this subject. It's called "Eternal Misfit" by Roger Terry. I highly recommend it. If you're super interested, email me and I might be able to email you a pdf of it.

* As an aside, does anyone else hate the new online scripture format? I don't want to scroll through 75 section summaries to get to the link I want.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

But if Not - Redux

Last year for MLK Day, I transcribed Martin Luther King's awesome sermon "But if Not." This year, I've created a youtube video of the audio because there are only snippets of it on there already. Since I think a lot of people looking for MLK speeches and sermons use youtube to search for them, I figured it made sense to put it up there. Unfortunately, I had to split it into 2 videos due to the 15 minute time limit, but here they are:

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! What are you doing to celebrate?