Sunday, July 24, 2011

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

Seafinch - I've Got to Make Things Right

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 2, 2011

When Ideologies Collide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Church history nugget

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