Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Picture of Jesus

I found this article, about a peculiar happening in the aftermath of the Provo Tabernacle fire, interesting. Obviously, it's a nice faith-promoting story that can bolster one's faith in Christ. Alternatively, one could ask why all (or many) of the other pictures of the Savior were fully destroyed (or, in the sarcastic words of one commenter on the Herald's site: "Oooooh. Jesus['] right hand is burned off. What does THAT mean?").

What the events mean to any individual says a lot about the individual but perhaps not as much about whether or not there is a God and whether or not He specifically intervened in this instance.

But I'm most interested in the response from the many Mormons who do see this as a sign of divine protection. I got the picture above from a friend's facebook (I don't know where she got it) who seemed to think it was pretty cool; the woman interviewed at the end of the Herald piece, Cynthia Dayton, got emotional describing the symbolism she saw; others are paraphrased in the story as calling the remains of the painting "remarkable"; it's apparently under "emergency conservation and stabilization" by the LDS church, so I guess someone somewhere in the hierarchy there feels similarly. My question is: why?

I don't mean that question in a patronizing way at all. It really is a cool story and could very well be divine in origin--I am a firm believer in the truth of this church and of Christ in particular, so why not? Weirder things have happened in Christianity. But Mormons traditionally have downplayed (sometimes we've verged on (OK, gone over the line towards) ridiculing) the "icon worship" of other faiths. I have heard Mormons (and, sadly, participated in it myself) speak derisively of Catholics praying to crosses or adherents to the Russian Orthodox faith confusing images of Christ with the actual Christ. Why then do we seem to want to jump at the chance to say that an inkjet print of a painting that shows a caucasian Christ (and which originally portrayed winged angels--something Mormons don't believe in) was protected by a higher power?

I don't think anyone believes that allowing this print to burn would have taken away from God's power or glory or our reverence towards Him. The only possible explanation would be that such an act would be for us, to remind us that God really is in charge of everything. While that could arguably be accomplished through this kind of preservation, it seems like miraculously protecting something that had real value--like a human life, or at least an original, priceless work of art--would be a better way of doing so (though of course the painting-saving method has the benefit of being open to interpretation and thus allowing us to choose faith instead of some rational explanation).

I think though that really, for all our talk of not having idols, of not revering mere images of the Lord (favoring instead to worship God directly), we do impute inherent holiness in our representations of holy people and places. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

We Mormons disagree with Catholics about the nature of the Lord's Supper: they believe it literally becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, we believe it mattereth not what we eat because it's just a symbol of renewing our covenant to remember Christ and take his name upon us. And while that sounds nice in theory, it is tempered by what we really believe. I heard a funny story about a guy from my home ward who, when he was late to church and missed the sacrament, would just pop into the sacrament preparation room as the Teachers were cleaning up and take a piece of the bread and a cup of the water; he did so half-jokingly, like it wasn't ideal, but still better than nothing, as if the tokens had a spiritual half-life so that even though they weren't quite as potent as right after being blessed they still had some residual spiritual properties to them. Granted, we might not all give the pieces of white bread and plastic cups of water quite this much literal significance, we do give it more than nothing. We do show reverence towards the symbols. Again, this isn't a bad thing.

When we think of the symbols we use as really representing something very powerful, real, and holy, how can we not transfer some of that mysterious force to the symbols themselves? Doing so helps us reify those abstract and unseen concepts, to strengthen our faith in the hoped-for. It's hard to treat symbols of something holy lightly without also treating the holy thing lightly as well; it's really hard to separate our feelings towards one from our feelings towards the other. As long as we don't take it to an extreme and mistake mere symbols and simple images for the truths they convey, I think it can serve a useful purpose.

So while I might be a bit skeptical of how much God's hand held back the fire around the copy of a painting of Jesus in the burning Provo Tabernacle, I can recognize how that symbolism of Christ withstanding fiery darts carries a deeper truth to the hearts of many. Christ really can help us overcome our worries, our problems, our walls caving in, and anything else. If this recent story helps you believe that, then I believe it too.

In closing, listen to this beautiful Ben Harper song and think about how you can appropriately find strength through images any symbols. I especially love the lyric that says "I long to be a picture of Jesus." What a lovely thought, no?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Layers of Culture

I've been listening recently to Girl Talk's most recent album, All Day (free download). I've heard of Girl Talk, but never sat down and actually listened to any of his stuff before now.

I love the way it's a compilation of layers and layers of culture--and not just recent culture, it samples the Stones, Cyndi Lauper, Nirvana, Madness, Simon & Garfunkel, and tons more. It melds mellow memories of listening to my parents music with the aversion I have to mindless modern pop into something entirely new. The hooks that pop up literally every few seconds trigger fireworks of neurons that don't normally fire up together.

Yes, Girl Talk didn't write any of this music. He just stuck all the songs on top of each other in an amazingly complex, 71-minute amalgamation, olio, mashup, whatever you want to call it. It's genius. It's a cultural fun-house mirror that bends the sounds we thought we knew into something that's alternately amusing, weird, catchy, funky, ridiculous, and grotesque.

Here's a sample:

Feel free to download the whole hour-plus-long album here (legally!), but be aware that it has cuss words strewn liberally throughout.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Most Beautiful Music You'll Never Hear (Update: Now with 100% more audio)

OK, you can hear it, technically, but you won't really be able to hear it in the way it should be heard because it's in Estonian and the lyrics are magical. So unless you want to learn a more obscure version of Finnish (or you were lucky enough to be born Estonian!), you'll never hear it.

But I want to share it with you anyways.

The Johanson Brothers, Märt and Jaak, play some awesome folk-inspired Estonian music. One of the songs from their awesome 1993 album Põhja Vahemäng (Nordic Interlude) is called Mu Süda Ärka Üles (Wake Up, My Heart). It's a traditional Estonian folk song and they do a wonderful and powerful arrangement.

You can read the Estonian words here if you'd like, but I'll provide you with a (liberal) translation into English here: (I'm using the words from the song, not from the online version--there are fewer verses and a few minor changes)
Awake, my heart
And praise the Creator in song
Who provides us with all that is good
And bears our burdens too

When I laid down to sleep
I buried my head in father's lap
Satan tried to catch me
But father denied him

"Stay calm," you cried
"My child, I will protect you.
He can't hurt you--
You will yet see the light of day"

Your word has come true
I have seen the new day
No harm came near me
Your might sheltered me

I thank you for this
and honor you greatly
I offer up to you sighings
and holy prayers

May your kindness remain always with me
May my heart be a temple to you
May your word nourish me
and show me the heavenward path

Awake, my heart
And praise the Creator in song
Who provides us with all that is good
And bears our burdens too
Trust me, it's amazing. Here is a youtube video I made with the music playing in the background (if anyone knows of a simple website for recording only audio so that I don't have to have a pointless video with almost no motion, please let me know).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

T9 Subspellings

You know how they say you can’t spell dysfunctional without the word ‘fun’ and other stuff like that? Well, if you run it through the T9 predictive text system, there are other interesting entertaining things that you can’t spell words without: as you try to type a longer word, sometimes a fun variant of the first part of it comes up first. For example, you can’t spell:

Info without God
Mormon without moron
Smart without soap
School without pain

I prefer the theological implications of the first to the second. I think we can all agree, though, that the final pair is the truest of them all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Things Which, if I Were Only Slightly More Ridiculous, I Would Make a Page You Could 'Like' on Facebook:

* that random, sharp intake of breath when you remember a really embarassing moment
* the smell of childhood toys
* pouring the last bowl of cereal from a box and not have it be all crappy and in tiny dust-pieces
* opening a big book directly to the exact right page
* having clothes you got from DI outlast stuff you bought from a real store
* scrapes from climbing trees
* finding a sock that you thought got eaten by the dryer in your shirt when you pull it out of the drawer a week later

If any of these actually already are 'likeable' on Facebook, please don't tell me. I have a very fragile faith in humanity at the moment and that kind of blow would likely be fatal to it.

What are the most ridiculous things you can come up with that would still be plausible 'likes' on Facebook?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy National Coming Out Day!

I have a friend who once told me the spiritual trait she was most interested in cultivating (at that time, at least) was honesty. She wanted to be more honest with herself about what she did and didn't believe, and with her friends and family about who she was. Given the title of this post, you might assume I'm talking about a lesbian, but nope, she's straight. She just wanted to be more sincere and real. I think that is an awesome idea, truly something we should all be working on more. And I think it goes along great with National Coming Out Day, which is today!

Whether it's that you're gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or straight; whether it's that you're Mormon and you're worried about your co-workers finding out or that you're an atheist and you're worried about your co-workers finding out; whether it's that you actually love musicals or country music or ballet despite years of professing otherwise; whether it's that you secretly hate football or romantic comedies or fast & testimony meeting or your family's favorite board game in spite of social pressure to do otherwise; whether it's that you feel like you have a facade up when you act social and you're afraid people will find out that you're really not very outgoing at all but you can't change your public identity *now*!--WHATEVER it may be that you don't feel is sincere about yourself... come to grips with it today. Face it head on. It might be something that you want to embrace and tell other people about. Or it might be something that you want to work on improving but that you can't address until you accept that it's there. The first step is knowing yourself better and introducing more of your real self to the other people in your life.

Be honest with yourself. What are your flaws? What are your secret talents? Who do you have a secret crush on? (Married friends: disregard that last one) Let the appropriate people know. That might mean you just need to tell yourself, it might mean tell your best friend, it might mean tell your family, it might mean make it your facebook status in ALL CAPS, it might mean mailing it in to PostSecret. You know what's right for this secret for you right now.

And to bring this down from the wholly abstract and impersonal, I'll come out about an aspect of my personality I haven't really shared much of publicly: I'm really bad at sharing my inner thoughts and feelings with people. I always say I want a confidant, but I never take advantage of opportunities to have one. It would require actually confiding things.

So there's something for me to work on. How are you going to come out more fully today? For best results, it should be something you're scared to tell people. Do it anyways!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pumped for Church

In high school, guys on the football team would listen to System of a Down or Metallica or something on headphones really loud before a game to get really pumped up.

Today, I listened to the Hallelujah Chorus right before church on my big fatty headphones with the volume turned way up. It was epic. I recommend it highly.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jujitsu Faith

This is something I wrote a little while ago for You can read the England essay this post is about here (pdf).

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?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

God created the world. Mormons understand that to mean that God the Father* (who I'll refer to by the title Elohim) directed the pre-mortal Christ (Jehovah) who actually did the creating. This sounds fine to me, and I believe it.

Except the delegation continues, as we also believe the pre-mortal Adam (Michael) assisted in the creation as well. Further, while I don't know what the official status of it is, I know that a common LDS belief is that we all helped, to some extent, in creating the earth. I think this is a cool doctrine. I like it and I believe it.

The atonement is seen, I think, as a very unilateral thing in general Mormon thought. Jesus took upon himself all our sins, guilt, pain, sorrows, and death, and overcame them all. The only thing we did to contribute was to sin or feel sorrow--not very helpful :) We can apply Christ's atonement by repenting and forsaking our sins, then God will remember them no more and we'll be cleansed. I love this doctrine and I believe it.

I wonder if there's something akin to our deeper understanding of the creation that could also apply to the atonement. Can the prophetic imagery of plural "saviours on mount zion" refer to more than just baptism for the dead? (I'm not saying it doesn't apply to temple work--it does--but I think there's more too)

I love how Abinadi teaches that when Isaiah says that Christ will "see his seed" when his soul is made "an offering for sin," that his seed includes all prophets and all the people who have looked to Christ for a remission of their sins (Mosiah 14-15). Abinadi, in effect, says that Christ saw us, his disciples, while undergoing the atonement--and the inference is that seeing us helped him go through with it. Knowing that billions of people had been waiting for the atonement for millennia, and also that billions more would in the future depend on it, was a source of power to him at that time of greatest need. That can motivate us to be worthy of that trust, to live better, more divine lives.

Further still, I think of Father Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov. He said "Each one of us is guilty before everybody for everything, and I am more guilty than anybody else." And again, "There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan's pride and murmuring against God."

I'm not saying that we can effect The Atonement ourselves, any more than we could create an entire world in our pre-mortal state. I know that Jesus was the only one who could redeem us all and save us from the effects of sin and death. But is it not possible that Christ can ask us to become co-creators with him again, acting under his direction, but this time in the creation of a salvation of the world? Are we not taught to be even as he is, to act as he would act, to stand with those in need of comfort as he did?

I believe that as we 'take upon ourselves' other people's sins, sorrows, and grievances, we can also bear one another's burdens, if only by showing them some small sample of what Christ can do to lighten our yokes. We should feel a measure of pain when other people sin; it should wound our souls like it wounded Christ's; we are our brother's keeper. We should work to gain greater empathy by placing ourselves in the shoes of the sinner and the sinned-against. That is what Christ-like love is. In turn, we should look to our family, friends, confidants, in our own times of need. Christ takes our burdens upon himself, and I think he often gives us people who will show us a portion of what he is doing so that the reality of it can really sink in for us.

We can extend the immediate effects of the atonement into our lives and the lives of those around us. This seems to me like a wonderfully empowering and challenging way to apply the atonement in our lives. Certainly we can in no degree discount the necessity of Christ and his perfect sacrifice, but no longer do we need to see it as a wholly unilateral act. We can see it as an act in which we can play a part as well.

This can easily be taken too far, as an invitation for endless guilt that we are responsible for everyone's sins, but I think that when taken in moderation, it can be a lovely idea. I like it and I believe it.

*I have no doubt but that Heavenly Mother was included in this direction, and that Eve and other daughters of God helped throughout the process too.

Monday, September 13, 2010

C-SPAN: Will you become a human being so I can marry you?

So if you haven't noticed yet, I'm kind of* nerdy. Going along with that, my three favorite TV channels are C-SPAN, C-SPAN2, and C-SPAN3. One of the proudest moments of my life was when whoever my cable provider was in Provo took C-SPAN2 off the air and I called in and got them to put it back on. It's a dramatic story, remind me to tell you about it next time I see you in person.

But this specific PDAific blog post about C-SPAN comes from me just randomly flipping through them while eating dinner today and seeing that next up was video of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf speaking in NYC. His talk was absolutely wonderful, informed, compassionate, strong, and warm. I recommend watching/listening here.

Where else can you get extended coverage of newsmakers speaking in their own words, without a filter? Nowhere. C-SPAN should be your favorite channel too. Unless you don't like news, in which case you should hate it.

p.s. C-SPAN: You really need to make your videos embeddable, c'mon!


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Humor in the Book of Mormon

If there's one element of our appreciation of the Book of Mormon we need to improve on, it's looking at it as a source for good humor as well as inspiration. Here are a few of my favorite Book of Mormon-related humorous scriptures/anecdotes.

My favorite funny verse in the whole book has to be 3 Nephi 3:13: "Yea, he sent a proclamation among all the people, that they should gather together their women, and their children, their flocks and their herds, and their substance, save it were their land, unto one place." I obviously have no idea what was going through Mormon's mind when he was abridging this history, but I really hope he was just getting kind of tired of summing up years of history so he threw in some sarcasm: "But just to be clear, they didn't gather their land together in one place."

One of my MTC teachers told us about a meeting they had with an investigator who was trying to decide if he wanted to get baptized. My teacher was with a new missionary for the day who didn't speak Estonian too well, but who nevertheless decided to speak up and share a powerful scripture to help this man decide to exercise faith and trust in God and join His church. Unfortunately, instead of 1 Nephi 3:7, he opened to 3 Nephi 3:7, and handed it to the investigator to read aloud. My MTC teacher was understandably shocked when the investigator started reading: "Or in other words, yield yourselves up unto us, and unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works, and become our brethren that ye may be like unto us—not our slaves, but our brethren and partners of all our substance." Not exactly the message the eager missionary meant to send.

A friend once pointed out a goof by Abinadi. Mosiah 12:1 reads, in pertinent part, "Abinadi came among them in disguise, that they knew him not, and began to prophesy among them, saying: Thus has the Lord commanded me, saying--Abinadi, go and prophesy unto this my people." Abinadi, you totally just blew your own cover!

My last example is from a wonderful little remembrance of lessons learned from Hugh Nibley by Boyd Petersen. I'll just quote from Petersen's remarks:
Hugh often stated that "if you take yourself seriously, you won't take the gospel seriously and the other way around." One of my favorite examples of this comes from Curtis Wright, who was a graduate assistant for Hugh. One time Wright came into Hugh's office and found him there absorbed in reading the Book of Mormon and laughing. Wright asked Hugh what was so funny, and Hugh replied that he had found an error in the Book of Mormon. "You did, huh?" Wright responded. "Yes," Hugh stated and handed the scriptures to Wright pointing to Alma 42:10 which says that "man is carnal, sensual and devilish." "What's the matter with that?" demanded Wright. Hugh responded, "They left out stupid."
Do you have any good memories of laughing related to the Book of Mormon? I believe strongly that as we look for humor in the Book of Mormon, we'll appreciate it even more as a book to live by.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Long set-up spoonerisms

Marley was a good kid, taken all together. His parents weren't around much and didn't show much feeling towards him one way or the other, so he hung around other kids' houses after school a lot. Well, mostly the Chans' house. Mike Chan was his age and their areas of troublemaking didn't overlap too much so they mostly stuck to typical, harmless stuff. What's more, Mr. and Mrs. Chan loved Marley and loved to have him around. It was a running joke that they'd pretty much adopted him.

But one day Marley messed up big time. We're talking called in to the principal's office, cops consulted (though they didn't have to come), parents summoned, the whole nine yards. When Marley's dad, Mr. Brown, finally showed up--he couldn't be torn away from work until an hour and a half after the school called--he was greeted by a red-eyed Marley. After speaking with administrators, he took Marley home and went back to work; didn't say much, but you could tell he was upset--though it's unclear whether it was because Marley had been so bad or because he had been interrupted at his big important job.

Marley wasn't too worried about his dad's reaction, or his mom's later that night. What he really dreaded was what the Chans would say. So he didn't go over there for a whole week. He avoided Mike at school. Mr. and Mrs. Chan were getting worried and pressured Mike into getting Marley to come over again. Finally Mike cornered Marley before school and got him to promise to come over that afternoon. There would be fresh-baked cookies.

Marley walked very slowly the four blocks north and one block west to the Chans'. That last left turn was especially hard as the modest one-story came into view. But he did it. He missed the Chans too.

It didn't take long for Mrs. Chan's motherly affections to get Marley to cough up what happened. They were surprised but knew that Marley was sorry and that it wouldn't happen again; they quickly and completely forgave him. But he still wasn't any happier. They asked what the matter now was, and his answer tore at their heart-strings:

"I feel like I've dirtied your family's reputation. People almost think of me as a Chan because they know you guys take care of me and now that they've seen what I've done they'll think less of you. That's what really eats me up inside! I'm a terrible member of your family!"

The room was quiet, nobody quite knew how to console him for a moment. But Mr. Chan was able to give voice to what all of them were thinking:

"You're a good Chan, Marley Brown."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Constrained Theology

I went to a Bible study session last night with the school's Christian club. It was a lot of fun, for many reasons. One thing that I particularly enjoyed was how it forced me to engage in what I'll call "constrained theology."

This idea is a riff on constrained writing, where certain things are forbidden or a pattern is enforced. One of my favorites examples is haiku: you're constrained to write a poem three lines long in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.

The Bible study was constrained theology because when we were talking about how Paul didn't get his faith just from a vision I couldn't bring up Alma 5:46. When we discussed how we receive inspiration I couldn't bring up D&C 9:8. And so on.

But of course, that didn't mean I couldn't participate, I just had to constrain my scriptural citations to the Bible. It reminded me of James Talmage in Jesus the Christ--he didn't have the Joseph Smith translation available to him (or at least he didn't trust it if he did--the LDS church was worried the RLDS church might have made alterations to the manuscripts when they published it) so he had to deal with all the tough passages in the New Testament as they were. He ends up doing a wonderful job interpreting them honestly and persuasively, but his understandings are now somewhat obsolete because we now just look at the JST footnote and don't struggle over those hard passages. But the point is that because Talmage was constrained, he wrestled with the tough questions and still came out on top. I fear that we look today too easily to "easy" answers that clean up all the possible contradictions or paradoxes in scripture, the JST being just one small example*.

I believe there's a lot of value in the wrestle. Constraining myself to using only the Bible to support my views was a good time to remember that. There are still tons and tons of examples to be drawn from the Bible to answer the questions I mentioned above, but because there are such pat answers in other scriptures we Mormons tend to overlook them. It was great to look at the Bible in a new and more independent light last night and remember that there's a lot of answers in there that I don't know as well as the answers I know in the Book of Mormon and D&C. Hopefully I can work on getting to know all scriptures better and also remember not to let a simple answer be the end of a difficult question.

* Not that I'm against using the JST, but I think it should be one factor to be weighed in understanding a verse, not a complete replacement for the original verse we have.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why I love Twitter

Note: This is not meant as an argument for you to love Twitter too. It's just a statement of fact.

This morning, a friend of mine tweeted "I like honey. I like nuts. I like cheerios. I like honey nut cheerios." I can just imagine him walking down the stairs with a simple, happy smile on his face, chanting this little mantra in his head, looking forward to starting off a productive day with a delicious bowl of a favorite cereal. A typically meaningless tweet, yes?

But then, not three minutes later, he tweeted, simply "Somebody stole the milk."

The heartbreak! The horror, the horror! The juxtaposition of these two, simple statements made me laugh out loud at the bitter irony of life's little moments.

And to think, I never ever would have known about this without the stupid invention of Twitter. My life would just be a little less colorful today. So I am grateful today for useless inventions, because sometimes they end up being the vehicle for a bit of happiness to come into my life. Three cheers for Twitter!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Book of Memento

One of the problems I have with reading the scriptures consistently is that if I know the plot, my mind tends to switch to autopilot and skim. It's very difficult for me to concentrate on words I've read dozens of times.

So recently I started the Book of Mormon again, but from the end reading backwards. I'm into 3rd Nephi now and I can report that it's going quite well. It definitely breaks up the monotony of beginning with the same story every time (though as I've mentioned before, I think that shared experience has a larger meaning) and smacks of Memento, the deliciously clever movie where you see all the scenes in reverse chronological order. Ether was especially interesting because it's such a microcosm of the whole Book of Mormon--ending with a bloodbath and seeing how it came to that, chapter by chapter. It's like flashbacks that fill in the motives behind the climax you already witnessed. I like it.

How have you studied the scriptures in unique ways?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Being a Burden

A (virtual only, unfortunately) friend wrote a blog post recently that struck home for me. It concerned depression, which I've mentioned once or twice before. The part of his post that really struck me was this line:
Lately I've been having dreams of suicide. I don't mean to scare anyone because I'm not on the verge of doing anything rash during my waking hours.
I've had similar feelings in the past*. If you've ever contemplated in a distant way or had a dream about suicide, who are you supposed to tell about it? It seems like if you mention it to anyone they'll get super overly worried about you and semi-flip out. (This is assuming you're nowhere near actually attempting to take your life--if you're ever seriously thinking about suicide, tell somebody--anybody!--about it and let them help you.) So if it's not a really serious thing, but still something to worry about (and I believe any thought/dream of suicide is), how do you go about telling someone about it?

It just feels so taboo to mention if you've ever considered the idea, however remotely. It seems like it would turn you into a burden that your friends have to worry about non-stop. So I am proud of Abelard for being brave enough to mention it and help break down those fears. I think more people would feel better about sometimes feeling that way (as opposed to letting that fact just drag them down further) if they knew other people felt that way too. Another reason Postsecret is so awesome. The end.

*I'm doing quite well right now, though, so nobody need worry.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part V - Gender is Eternal

The Proclamation on the Family states that "gender is an essential characteristic of premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." This isn't in conflict at all with the thoughts I've been outlining on gender as an important part of our identities, but one that isn't always so easy to fit into strictly defined categories with clearly delineated boundaries.

The sentence before that potentially presents a bit more trouble. It states that everyone "is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents." Seems like we have a solid binary there, though interestingly enough one drawn on a spiritual and not necessarily physical level (not sure if that difference ends up being important, mind you, but it could be). One possible reconciliation is that this statement reflects the culture it was written in and isn't meant to convey the ultimate understanding of gender. Or it could be referring just to biological sex and mean something like the generally accepted biological definition of male, which is anyone who has at least one Y chromosome and everyone else is considered female. Or maybe I'm just completely on the wrong path--I certainly wouldn't discount that theory.

It feels like getting down into the details of harmonizing less rigidly binary theories of gender with Mormon theology is speculation on top of speculation. While one level is interesting enough, it seems to me that adding layers of admitted speculation on top of each other is just building on sandy foundations. So, on that note, I'll more or less punt on the issue that was supposed to be the conclusion of this series. Lame, I know. Sorry. Just like a man to run out on his responsibilities though, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part IV - Continu-What?

Part I - Introduction
Part II - Binary Breakdown
Part III - A Gender Continuum

This is the part where things get sketchy and especially tentative. It's always easier to tear something down than to build something else in its place, right? (But knocking down the Lego buildings was always my favorite part!) Anyways, here are my thoughts attempting to not just throw stones at traditional gender theory, but to contribute some positive ideas as well.

Gender could be thought of as something like the gender continuum but with lots of different continua instead of just one (note: this is your cool plural of the day). Instead of placing people's gender on a single continuum with masculine at one end and feminine at the other, we have one continuum for each trait we typically associate with gender. Yes, that is a lot of continua. So there's a compassion continuum, a nurturing continuum, a competitiveness continuum, a hairiness continuum, a likelihood to cry continuum, a who-you're-attracted to continuum, a chromosomal continuum, and so on. There are continua for emotional, physical, mental and many other kinds of characteristics. Everyone has a position on each of these continua, and you can think of gender as the conglomeration of all your continua. Men might tend to have positions that tend to one side on certain continua while women tend to have positions on the other side of those continua, and some of the continua might be gender-neutral (at least, in Western culture--things like small feet would be seen as more feminine in China in previous centuries, for example).

This would make it clear that the genders "woman" and "man" are vague and fuzzy at times, and that's OK because this concept of gender isn't an either/or choice. Ultimately, one can simply self-identify as one or the other, or neither, or come up with some other name for another general type of position on these continua. Our gender doesn't determine who we are or what we have to look or act like, rather our gender follows from who we are.

In this theory, traditional gender becomes a short-hand for classifying ourselves, not unlike saying "I'm outgoing" or "I love reading," but not meant to define us particularly rigidly. We happen to know that most outgoing people like parties whereas introverts don't, but it's also OK for an outgoing person to not be comfortable in large groups. People who love reading generally read a lot of books, but some might just really enjoy reading every once in a while and that doesn't make them a hater of reading. So a woman could say she isn't much of the nurturing/mothering type and that wouldn't lessen her womanhood. She would just be a person who happens to have one of her continua positions closer to the stereotypical "man" side, but that wouldn't be weird because we would all realize that no one has all their continua weighted towards just one way. We could better celebrate people as individuals--yes, the words "man" and "woman" would still be useful, but they wouldn't be thought to completely describe someone, they would be understood as just a first clue into who that woman or man is in her or his totality.

I believe we as a culture have already started to think of gender in this way. The old stereotype that girls don't like sports is fading fast, for example, and guys who can cook are sexy nowadays (I wish I could cook!). There is still a lot of baggage left from the old, rigid, binary gender way of thinking, though. It's still seen as strange, in my opinion, for a dad to stay at home and raise the kids while the woman works for a living. Granted, I'm now kind of conflating gender with gender roles, but the general point stands. People are starting to have less definite conceptions of gender, and I think it's moving towards something like this gender continua theory I've laid out.

What are your thoughts? Does that make any sense? (I really would like to know, it mostly makes sense to me, in my head, but I'm not sure I communicated any of my ideas well at all) Where does this framework fall short? Is it coherent?

In the last installment in this series, I'll try to make sense of this more complex understanding of gender within a Mormon framework.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part III - A Gender Continuum?

The first instinct, for me at least, when considering that a simple binary model of gender is insufficient, was to just say "Hey, we'll just make a gender continuum!" The thought here is that you would have two polar opposite points on a continuum--archetypical man and archetypical woman--and a person's gender can be located anywhere along that scale in between those extremes.

This might be helpful for those "hard cases": someone born with ambiguous genitalia might be right about in the middle of the continuum, effeminate men would be (as the adjective implies) closer to the middle but still on the "man" side, and other cases might be resolved similarly. Case closed!

Not so fast, though. Who decides what the extremes are? As my picture shows, is manly man required to be super-buff and a protector while a woman has to cook and care for dozens of kids?Are those really what men and women fundamentally are? This is just the same problem as the basic binary model: we still can't define what must be there for a woman to be a woman or for a man to be a man. A single woman who has no children cannot in any rational way be called less of a woman than the mother of ten.

Even if we could define the prototypical man and woman, a continuum is still too limiting because it assumes that you can rank every person as either more manly or more womanly than anyone else, and that is just ridiculous--if two men are identical except one loves football and has a high voice while the other loves opera and has a low voice, how do you rank them based on their differing attributes? They send such mixed messages! It seems pretty clear to me that a continuum model for gender is only slightly better than a simple binary model. So if that doesn't work, what will? I have a possible idea, but it will have to wait for Part IV.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reconsidering Gender, Part II - Binary Breakdown

Newton, interestingly enough, died in Middlesex--an apt transition into why it appears that a binary approach to gender is insufficient in general.

I’ve lately been trying to define the difference between the genders (beyond just chromosomes or genitalia) and it’s really, really hard to say that “All men are ____” or “All women are _____.” Statistically, you can make arguments (brain size, approach to problem-solving, tendencies to listen or sympathize or interrupt, etc) about the differences between genders, but I can’t think of any characteristic that is fundamental to either masculinity or femininity. There are always some men or women who don’t have a certain trait stereotypical for their gender but who are still very much men or women. It gets confusing because we, as laypeople, sometimes use 'gender' synonymously with one's physical sex and other times we mean something like personality types.

I’ve asked a few friends if they can think of any characteristic that all men must have or that all women must have in order to be a man or a woman. So far, we haven’t come up with anything. By all means, if you can think of anything that every woman does (nurture? listen well?) or every man does (be aggressive? provide for a family financially?), I’d love to hear your thoughts. Suffice it to say, though, that when you get down to it, the two categories of man and woman can’t really be defined beyond “I know it when I see it” except, again, perhaps statistically. A stay-at-home dad who is 5’4’’ without much body hair or muscle mass can still have a deep bass voice and be a wonderful father to his children. And someone who is tall, muscular, and aggressive can be no less a woman than a demure home-schooling mother of nine.

This is why I feel like binary gender theory is incomplete. It is an impossible-to-fully-define shorthand into which we shoehorn the people we meet. And that fundamental flaw is apparent even before we get into the hard cases. For example, what do we make of gay people? Is a man who is attracted to men less of a man? I don’t think so. Further still, what of hermaphrodites or people with significant intersex characteristics? Or people who have all the physical characteristics of a female but have always felt that, deep down, they were a man? Yes, such people are a relatively small minority, but we can’t just ignore them when it comes to gender (or anything else, of course) any more than we can ignore the fact that stars are not where they should be during a solar eclipse according to Newton. Where do these people fit in the binary gender model? They don’t.

Can we find a model of gender that accommodates those who don't fit comfortably in the binary system? In part III, I'll take a first stab at just that.

P.S. For further thoughts on why a simple binary system causes problems, see this recent post at Mormon Matters.

Reconsidering Gender, Part I

In 11th grade, I took physics. We learned how to calculate everything from how far a rock would fall in one second if thrown with an initial downward velocity of 2 m/s to what the escape velocity is for the earth. We used equations first published by Isaac Newton in 1687. Those laws of physics were good enough to get men to the moon--sadly, they apparently weren’t good enough to get women to the moon, but that’s another post. My point is: Newton’s laws are powerful because they work. So they are true, right?

Well, technically... no, they aren’t true. It turns out they are just approximations of what’s actually happening. The reason they work so well is that unless you’re getting anywhere near the speed of light (186,000+ miles/second) the difference between what Newton predicted and what actually happens (a.k.a. what Einstein predicted in 1905) is so small that we didn’t even have the technology to detect a difference until the last half century or so, much less have any expectation to find any discrepancies. My point is: Newton’s laws are true for all practical intents and purposes except in the most extreme circumstances. They almost always work.

For centuries, Western culture has operated under a binary model of gender: woman and man, and never the twain shall meet. But what if this is approach is akin to the Newtonian model of physics? Clearly the man-woman dichotomy is useful. It helps us make sense of our lives and the people around us in a myriad of ways. But there seem to be circumstances where it begins to feel more like an approximation than the final say.

So with that introduction, I’m going to toss around some tentative ideas about gender. It’s an attempt to (begin to) lay out a theory of gender that does to the binary theory what Einstein’s theory of relativity did to Newton’s theory: replace it in theory but yield to it for simplicity in almost all cases, because I think a binary understanding of gender almost always works, too.

Disclaimer(s): these ideas definitely are not set in stone, I don’t know how much (if at all) I believe them, they might not even be very original (I haven’t done very much research into theories of gender), but I figured I’d blog about them. Because what is the internet if not a place to sound off on half-baked pet theories? So this is Part I of a series of posts: watch this space for the actual substantive thoughts soon. In upcoming installments I'll talk about why I think the gender binary fails to capture all of the human experience, what gender could look like beyond the either/or we have now, and maybe even how it intersects with Mormonism. I hope you'll chime in along the way with your thoughts, emendations, or remonstrances.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Two Much Honor

UVA has an honor code and I like it a lot. One interesting thing about it, beyond the actual code of conduct, is that it is entirely student run: students wrote the honor code (and can amend it), students report possible violations, students investigate the reports, students advocate for defendants and prosecute cases, and students make the decision about guilt or innocence (and if you're found guilty of cheating, it's automatic dismissal from the University). This strikes me as a great example of Joseph Smith's famous dictum about how to govern such a large body of people: "I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves."

At first I was sad that BYU doesn't follow a similar method. [Of course, the BYU honor code was instigated by students and originally was based exclusively on academic honesty, Ernest Wilkinson was the one who appropriated (some might say hijacked) it into an administration-run system that expanded to include things ranging from modesty to advocating homosexuality as moral.] But then I thought about it and I think I actually prefer it the way it is now.

To some extent, and in an idealized world, I do wish BYU's honor code were run by students. But... I also worry that if we handed that duty off to students today it wouldn't work too well in practice, in fact I would argue that in many ways it would be more strict than it is today. I mean, I could just see too many people who are the hardcore-"honor" types taking over the enforcement and not showing any mercy on people who leave a person of the opposite gender's apartment at 12:15, or on people who support civil unions for gays, or who wear tights underneath a skirt that doesn't reach their knees. While I admittedly haven't had any personal run-ins with the honor code office under the current regime, I would think administrators, who have had a lot of experience with people in bishoprics and relief societies and wards in general, would have a bit more mercy on things.

Or maybe I'm way off.

If it were up to you, would you have BYU's honor code enforced entirely by students? Are my fears of honor fundamentalists taking control and ruling with an iron grasp paranoid?

Monday, August 23, 2010

What your Subconscious Knows

I've started law school at the University of Virginia and, among many crazy-cool things going on, I wanted to briefly blog about the doors here. Specifically, the doors to a big inner courtyard at the law school.

The law school is a big square of four connected halls with a nice big pleasant courtyard in the middle of it all. The weird thing is that the fire marshal has designated the courtyard as "interior" space, so in the case of a fire you would have to leave the courtyard (through the building) and go to the "real" outside. What this means from a practical perspective is that the doors between the courtyard and the building open into the building.

Now, I know that doesn't sound like a big deal. We're all used to glancing at doors we're approaching and determining if they have a push-bar or pull-handles and acting accordingly. We don't even think about it, so who cares which way these doors open? I've found that my subconscious overrides that action when the doors in consideration are doors to the outside. The concept that, if I'm exiting a building, I can just push the doors and they'll open is deeply embedded in my mind. But in this case, even though I'm exiting the building into the courtyard, the doors open the opposite of what I would have expected, and I often find myself trying to push when I exit or pull when I enter and looking like a moron.

All of this is to say that your subconscious mind knows a lot more than you think it does. I don't have anything more profound to say than that, but I think it's cool and worth being reminded of.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Old Time (Mormon) Religion

Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
Oh give me that old time religion
It's good enough for me!

You may have heard the gospel standard "Old-Time Religion." It's an ode to the spiritual devotion of previous generations of Christians ("It was good enough for my mother/my father/Paul and Silas/the Hebrew children" etc). Setting aside possible qualms about its inherently fundamentalist nature, it's a wonderful song and I love it.

Pete Seeger wasn't big on organized religion, but he didn't let that stop him from performing (his own version of) a classic. He just pretended to be nostalgic for equally ancient religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. He sang it with verses like "Let us pray with Aphrodite / Let us pray with Aphrodite / She wears that see-through nightie / And it's good enough for me!" and "We will pray with Zarathustra / We'll pray just like we used ta / I'm a Zarathustra booster / And it's good enough for me!" and "We will pray with those old druids / They drink fermented fluids / Waltzing naked through the woo-ids / And it's good enough for me!" Egyptian, pagan, and new-age religions are also included. It's a wonderful parody. Here's some guy on youtube performing one version:

So what would a Seegeresque Mormon version--one that gently pokes fun at our tendencies to lionize early leaders and only tell our best history--sound like? I've come up with two verses so far:
We will pray with Joseph Smith / Say monogamy's a myth / We'll get married--who knows with / And it's good enough for me!

We will pray with Brother Brigham / We'll embrace the curse of Ham / And believe that God is Adam / And it's good enough for me!
I'd love to hear any verses you all could come up with!

Note: This isn't meant to be disrespectful or antagonistic towards any person or the institutional church--in fact, I'll bear testimony of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and its current prophet-president, Thomas Monson, to anyone who will listen. It is rather meant to be taken both as a celebration that we are a living church and as a reminder that church leaders and members haven't always done things that are easy for us to understand and wholly accept. That doesn't make the church untrue, it makes it colorful!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

1000 Awesome Things #47.3

If you haven't heard of the blog 1000 Awesome Things, well, you should have.

As a tribute to that fun idea, I offer my own awesome thing: Walking over a stream using a fallen tree.

Sure, you could walk through the water--it's not deep, and the nice cool water might even feel refreshing--but soggy shoes are not fun to walk back in. Using nature's bridge lets you feel like a tightrope walker, perched perilously above a raging river (or restful rivulet, as the case may be). You are getting to the other side safe and dry, and best of all you're doing it in a way that is


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Minesweeper, or My Personal Brand of Nerdiness

Since early June, I've now played 1000 games of Minesweeper on my new laptop on the expert difficulty level. That's an average of about 20 games per day. And that doesn't count the games I've played while on conference calls at work, during each of which I can probably get through 20 games easy. So yes, I am addicted.

But I love it. I love Minesweeper because it's a wonderfully maddening mix of logic and luck, NP-completeness and silliness, pointlessness and the opportunity to win a million dollars.

And it's an addiction of choice: I blogged once before about giving up Minesweeper for a year. It wasn't too hard, though I did pick up a decent Freecell habit (laced with occasional Solitaire) to compensate. And once New Year's Eve was here, I was right back in it. The point is: I really can quit any time I want.

While I like to see how fast I can beat a board, my main goal is to win. As often as possible. So if I get in a complicated situation, I'll take time to stop and think about it. I love the never-ending new situations that come up. To the right is a recent finish
that I liked a lot. There are two right answers for which mine to click, and two wrong answers; the proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

Apparently, I'm in a minority in caring about winning percentage. In the (minuscule) world of Minesweeper enthusiasts, it seems like the decision to keep track of win percentage is ridiculed in favor of obscure stats that tell you how fast you can go. I certainly couldn't find anyone via Google who kept track of best win percentages. But I am quite proud of my 33% (339 wins in 1000 games) on expert. (I was this close to getting to a 34% winning percentage, I'll have you know, but it just wasn't meant to be.) But fortunately the two goals--speed and winning percentage--aren't completely mutually exclusive. My best time is 80 seconds, which ain't too shabby.

It would be interesting to try to figure out what the maximum winning percentage is in the limit. There are a lot of games that come down to guessing, but I've been able to keep steady at about 33% for a good while, so I feel pretty comfortable proposing that as a lower bound. And while I certainly don't make optimum moves all the time, and human error creeps in for sure, I don't think a winning percentage too much higher than that is feasible in the long term. Maybe low 40's. That will be my first question when I get to heaven.

And thus concludes my random celebration of a beyond-meaningless milestone. Please share any Minesweeper anecdotes or thoughts on obscure addictions.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Poll results

Well my recent little poll of readers on whether women will someday get the priesthood resulted in a 76% majority (16 votes) for Yes, with 24% (5) saying No. I was a little surprised that my blog readership slanted quite that far to the liberal side, but not too much. I only wish either side would have left a comment or two explaining their thinking.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Imagine No Religion

I know a lot of religious people who don't like the song 'Imagine' by John Lennon because of its message. It's just an exhortation to imagine a universe without heaven, hell, personal property, nations, or religion... I can't imagine where the problem is!

My response is based on a Joseph Smith quote that I can't verify* and can only paraphrase. It goes something like "Whenever I am criticized, I sit down and look inside myself and see if there is any kernel of fault in me that may have prompted the complaint. And more often than not, I do find a fault in myself and can go to the offended and apologize." Lennon's dream in the song is to bring about a world where people are "living for today." I believe his criticism of institutions we hold dear is conditional on the idea that they are harmful; he's not criticizing them just to be a jerk, he honestly believes they make people do bad things, whether pointless wars or just not living life joyfully.

So we have to ask ourselves: does Lennon have a point? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. Clearly these institutions have been causes of terrible things. The existence of nations has led to horrendous acts in the name of nationalism. Fear over going to hell has wrought psychological trauma, been a factor in suicides, and promoted superficial righteousness. Belief in heaven has made people ignore injustice in this world or been used as a red herring by oppressors to distract their victims. Capitalism ensures the strongest survive, but incidentally also ensures that the weakest suffer. And religion, no one can argue, has been the root of some awful atrocities, from the Inquisition to Mountain Meadows to September 11th. If we do as Joseph Smith (perhaps only in my mind) said, we can find plenty of validity in Lennon's accusations, and indeed we owe him and all others harmed by these institutions an apology.

Does this mean we should scrap all of these institutions? I concede that John Lennon was probably in favor of the idea. But I believe we can answer his critiques better by proving them wrong, by leveraging these institutions for good. While the institutions Lennon assails undoubtedly have been used for evil, I don't believe that they must be. They are not inherently bad, but they're not inherently good either. They are inherently powerful, and anything powerful can be wielded for good or ill. (Obviously, they are not necessary conditions for evil: terrible acts have been committed by atheistic and socialist and anarchist organizations in abundance too; bad people seem to use whatever ideology and tools at their disposal to be dastards.) The answer lies in the line from the hymn 'Have I Done Any Good?' that sounds like it could have been penned by Lennon: "Wake up and do something more / Than dream of your mansion above." Realize the strengths and weaknesses of every institution, then work hard to minimize the weaknesses and maximize the strengths!

Let's make sure our religion really is helping us "live for today." Let's not forget that Jesus himself was a harsh critic of dead religious practices. If our ordinances and meetings and doctrines aren't making us happier, we need to take a look at them and at ourselves. Let's let our belief in the afterlife be an impetus to make the presentlife more like that future paradise. Let's not believe that America can do no wrong, but also remember it's astounding potential. Too often Lennon is right about me and my life. But as I strive to live a Christlike life, I have experienced periods of the abundant life he promised. I find an answer to Lennon in the restored gospel of Christ, but it's an answer I have to continually struggle to give as I tend to lapse into the kind of life Lennon assails. That's why I'm grateful to Lennon for his eternally relevant admonition to look critically at all our institutions. I believe he would agree with Spencer W. Kimball that "People are more important than programs."

So the point is, 'Imagine' should be included in the next version of the hymnal.

* This comes from a Truman Madsen lecture on Joseph Smith that I listened to on CD on my mission. This would have been 5 years ago now, so I'm sure my memory has greatly mangled the quote. Any alert readers recognize it and can help correct it? I think I still have mp3's of it all, but I haven't had the time/inclination to listen through all 8 CD's looking for the exact wording. And even if he didn't say this, I believe it's true (and a post on the problem of appeals to authority may be coming up soon).

Monday, July 19, 2010

But what of Yellow?

I just started reading The Gift of Asher Lev, and at one point Potok happens to use the word "urinated." An earlier reader kindly marked the word with an asterisk and made a note at the bottom of the page reading
Oh how that made me laugh. God is good.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've been thinking recently about introspection and what a powerful thing it is. This has been brought on by recently re-reading The Stranger by Camus, creating a profile on the new, and a few other random experiences.

The Stranger is about a guy who lives life without any introspection or thought about what he is doing. He does what feels good and avoids what is painful or annoying, solely acting on instincts. He is not much different from an animal, really. After killing an Arab for no reason (for which he feels no remorse, of course) he begins to actually think critically* about life. He has a soul-shaping epiphany at the very end of the book as he realizes that not only does he not believe in God, he doesn't even care about the question; however, he succeeds in finding meaning in a moment of existential baptism after his anger with a priest who tried to get him to gain faith while on death row:
"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself--so like a brother, really--I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."
I love love love this ending! I could easily write an entire paper on it. No, I don't agree with his militant agnosticism, but it strikes me as important that he only becomes human, an agent unto himself, when he has actually looked into himself. His life has no meaning until he has searched his soul for meaning and forged it with his own will. He sees the world as alien and hostile, but he has a narrative, a purpose, a desire to act and not be acted upon. While I don't reach anywhere near the same conclusions as he does, the book got me thinking about how important it is to be looking critically at our own lives, thoughts, and goals.

I had similar thoughts as I filled out my profile on the revamped The new design is genius, as far as I'm concerned. [One of my favorite featured profiles was of Josh, a NYC skateboarder. I wish I could embed the video, but go here and click on the guy on the right with the beanie and Buddy Holly glasses.] The wonderful variety of voices come across as simply real. I have high hopes that it will be a wonderfully effective missionary tool.

But back to the theme of the blog post: I created my own profile (and I encourage you to do the same), and found it forced me to inspect my faith in a somewhat new way. I think about my faith and Mormonism in general multiple times every single day. But it was different to try to answer simple questions about that faith for an audience that knows next to nothing about it. What's the best way to explain "Why am I a Mormon?" or "What is a 'testimony'?" Putting my answers succinctly (or semi-succinctly...) into words made me stretch some spiritual muscles and think a bit deeper--or at least from a fresh angle--about what I really believe. It was a great experience.

These thoughts on introspection stem also from my budding appreciation for literary criticism. I've always thought that reviews of literature and articles on literary theory were pointless--just write good literature, don't write about good literature! But reading Eugene England's review (warning: long!) of Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch started changing my mind. For one, it is epic--the review doesn't even start discussing the book it's nominally about until halfway through (paragraph 28, beginning "Well, my main point today..."). England dissects Card's career not just from a literary, but also from a theological angle. He critiques, celebrates, and puzzles over Card's works, and then situates Pastwatch within that context. Another thing I loved about the review was that it was a work of literature in itself. No, it didn't use beautiful similes, introduce me to new characters, or other things I have always thought of as important to literature; it is admittedly a much more functional literature. But it was fundamentally creative. It interpreted a large body of work in an original way, it gave a framework for understanding a writer's books in a new way, it exhorted me to apply the atonement in my life. It went beyond a simple I-liked-this-but-didn't-like-this-and-I-gave-it-4-out-of-5-stars kind of review. It was a true response to literature. And this has gotten me taking works of literary criticism--which is nothing if not literary introspection--more seriously.

So finally, I'll tie this all up by mentioning how this blog has been an important vehicle for me to examine myself. I view it as a somewhat more public version of my journal where I actually re-read what I wrote at least once to edit it for a minimal level of clarity. As I type out what at times may seem drivel, I am thinking about what I think. Just as my profile doesn't come close to capturing the totality of my spirituality, just as literary criticism is probably as often fruitless as it provides useful insights, so all introspection is most valuable not in what it produces, but rather in the fact that the process is occurring. Essays about literature can't answer my questions about what makes good literature, but they can give some great do's and don'ts. My personal journal is more a reflection of a confused life than a well-ordered history from which I can easily pick out valuable life lessons, but it is therapeutic and empowering to create. Camus' stranger may have only found his humanity on death row, but how much better off will he be in the afterlife he doesn't believe in for it!

Moral of the post: introspect. Today, write in your journal trying to understand yourself, and don't worry when you don't. Today, take time to look in a mirror, not to judge but just to see. Tonight, read The Stranger and argue with the conclusion. But before any of that, don't forget to go do some fun missionary work on!

* I hate that the English word "critical" can mean both "fault-finding" and "analytical"; I am using it throughout solely in the latter use. When we analyze something--our lives, the scriptures, relationships--critically we may find some faults, yes, but it is not with that purpose in mind that we undertook the analysis. Rather, it is to better understand the subject in its entirety, warts and all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

All are Alike unto God

Bruce R. McConkie commented on 2 Nephi 26:33, a scripture which says that the Lord "doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."Elder McConkie said
These words have now taken on a new meaning. We have caught a new vision of their true significance. This also applies to a great number of other passages in the revelations. Since the Lord gave this revelation on the priesthood, our understanding of many passages has expanded. Many of us never imagined or supposed that they had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have.1
He was speaking, of course, two months after the LDS church extended the priesthood to include all male members in good standing, regardless of race. He was saying that the Lord had broadened our understanding of what it means for God to treat all his children equally with regard to the priesthood.

My question is based on the fact that the scripture not only says that "black and white" are equal in God's sight, but also that "male and female" are alike unto God. So, does that mean that at some point God will broaden our understanding of that same scripture even further to mean that women will have the priesthood in the same sense that men of African descent have since 1978?2 If not, why? Your thoughts?

I'm also including a quick poll so you can voice your opinion without having to explain it :)

1. "All are Alike unto God" - speech by Bruce R. McConkie at BYU 18 August 1978
2. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm not interested in thoughts on whether women already hold the priesthood in some sense after going through the temple, just in whether they will some day have the same ecclesiastical priesthood roles as men do today.

Friday, July 9, 2010

No, No, No, You're Not Alone

Feeling alone sucks. Which is why I think the MoHo Map (a MoHo is a Mormon Homosexual, btw) is such a cool idea.

All of the gay Mormons I know have said they felt at some point like they were the only Mormon who was attracted to members of the same sex. That kind of loneliness, as you can imagine, is oppressive. Homosexuality is a taboo topic among most Latter-day Saints except when we're strongly disagreeing with it. I think it is easy to see how a young Mormon guy who finds himself attracted to other boys can easily take that doctrinal position and feel like it is an attack on him personally (and sadly, sometimes our overzealous condemnations of homosexual activity do carry over into explicit condemnations of homosexuals). And feeling like you're the only one exacerbates the problem and too often leads to emotional scarring and/or suicide.

So the idea of the MoHo Map is simple: there are lots of gay Mormons out there. See for yourself! I know a handful of these guys, and each one is a great person. If you're gay or just curious about how many gay Mormons are in your area, check it out. I assume if you're gay it would be reassuring to see, and if you're straight it might be a little weird at first, but trust me, you've known gay Mormons all your life, you just haven't realized it. So let's all be more kind, tolerant, and overall, just a bit more Christlike!

They're working on adding functionality to put friends/allies on the map, and I'll be there to sign up once that happens.

Thanks to Abelard Enigma for the cool pic, and also check out the Moho Directory that he's put together: a listing of gay Mormon blogs that span the spectrum from fully active to fully former Mormon--I'm proud to be listed as a friend of the family.