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?