Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

My husband and I recently saw a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Darmok.” In it, the Enterprise is threatened with destruction if they can’t interpret the language of the “enemy” ship’s creatures. Captain Picard is sent to a planet to attempt communication with one of these “enemy” aliens. As it turns out, the aliens’ language is all based on metaphors from their folklore. The captain must not only interpret the words but the stories behind them. There is no grammar involved, simply the stories.

We know that soldiers who killed those uniformed as “enemies” and then found evidences of their common humanity–a photo of a wife and children, a letter from a parent–were often haunted by the killing. They would use words like “I murdered”, or “I slaughtered.” When suggestions of personal stories are revealed in letters or photos, epithets like “Kraut” or “Gook” or “Jap” fail.  If only for a moment, killed and killer are simply human.

When I was eight years old, my brother and I accompanied my dad to Yucatan. Dad worked with a Baptist minister to learn Maya.  They used Bible stories as their texts. The Mayan minister re-told the story of the Prodigal Son using images distinctive to his culture. The prodigal son, for example, had grown his hair long, a sign to Mayans of rebellion. Such details made the story both particular and universal.

Of course, stories can also divide us.  I think of some I was told as a young person in Provo, Utah–stories that would keep me separate from Blacks.  My seminary teacher informed my class that Blacks were inferior, and that was why God had withheld the priesthood from them.  My home teacher read us an alleged prophecy by John Taylor predicting that Blacks would come en masse from California, would invade our temple, ravish our women, and that blood would run down the streets.  Like today’s endlessly forwarded emails, this “prophecy” was carried house to house, and finally every bishop was asked to read a letter to his congregation denouncing the prophecy as a fake.  We breathed a sigh of relief.

That’s my side of the story, anyway.  Darius Gray, my co-author, experienced it from the Black side.  He, a good friend of the police chief in Salt Lake City, was shown the plans to prevent the impending attack.  He saw where snipers would be put and what other defensive measures were being taken.  As for Darius, he arranged to get his wife out of town, and he planned on leaving by horseback, crossing mountain paths rather than public roads.  He experienced an entirely different type of fear.

As Darius and I got acquainted, we shared parts of our  life stories.  He told me about his mother’s death.  She had summoned her two children and told them that she was dying.  They insisted that the moment hadn’t yet arrived.  She repeated, “Children, listen to me.  I am dying.”  She called her daughter to her and said loving things. It was Darius’s turn next.  She called him by his middle name, Aidan.  “Aidan,” she said, “come here.”  He did.  “Aidan, I adore you.  I adore you.”

For Darius and me, there was no black and white. We were brother and sister. My children refer to him as “Grandpa D.”

Sometimes the stories we tell involve our view of Christianity.  We tend to repeat the notion that we Mormons don’t use crosses on our chapels/temples because we don’t want to remember the crucifixion of Christ but his  resurrection.  (The empty cross does actually imply his resurrection, but that’s for another post.)

Though I  was taught in subtle ways to resist the cross as a symbol of the Savior’s sacrifice, I have been moved to tears by that symbol on another religion’s turf.  My family and I visited Lithuania and saw the Hill of Crosses, boldly built in defiance of Soviet rule, which insisted that no crosses be displayed. The Lithuanians sent crosses down the river to be placed on that hill. My father asked me as we approached, “How many crosses do you guess you’ll see?” I said perhaps one thousand. Actually, they weren’t countable. Every cross had several rosaries (with crosses) dangling from the nexus. I could hardly imagine the courage of these people, who had said to the Communist regime: “We are not yours. We are Christ’s.” The story brought me to them and erased our religious distinctions while I surveyed their inspired monument.

Currently, we see the spin on political stories, calculated to make us fear or even hate the “other” side.  Some fear feminism or homosexuality or former Mormons.  Fear makes us deaf and blind.  We will not hear their stories, nor will we see their divinely created faces.

The gospel asks us to open our eyes, ears, minds, hearts. In one story after another, the Savior tells of many prodigals and “unclean” people who open his wells of mercy.

Imagine saying to someone from another planet: “Jesus, when the grave opened.”  It would be your call for grace, hope, and  it would be your testimony.  Their answer?  Perhaps some name you’ve never heard, followed by “when the walls fell.”

“For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us.”

Make it so.


  1. Jeannine L. says:

    I think that episode of Star Trek TNG should be required watching. A whole fifth Sunday lesson could be made around it…

  2. You remind me of how insidious ignorance and fear are. Shaka, when the walls fell.

  3. There are elements of Mormon theology that truly are different than other faith traditions, and those unique aspects can be important and powerful, but I believe there is so much more than we share without realizing it – simply because we describe those things differently – simply because our religious languages are different. We tend to argue so much over things that, in reality, aren’t that different – or even are identical in the end.

    My Sunday School lesson this week is on the beginning war chapters of the Book of Mormon, and I was struck again as I was preparing it that we use war language in so many situations where there is no attack occurring. We create divisions and then justify our oppositional language and actions based on the unnecessary divisions we create.

    We are called to seek unity, yet we divide so naturally – both inside and outside the Church. Truly, in this way, especially, the natural man is an enemy to God.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Margaret, I love your stories.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Margaret.

  6. I LOVE that episode. What a beautifully told piece. If only … Temba, his arms wide.

  7. “As it turns out, the aliens’ language is all based on metaphors from their folklore. The captain must not only interpret the words but the stories behind them. There is no grammar involved, simply the stories.”

    Why is the Enterprise threatened with destruction? Does Picard succeed in interpreting the stories? How?

    Are you saying that we need to be like Picard talking with aliens when it comes to talking with “feminists, homosexuals and former mormons”? Help me understand.

  8. Lucy–Picard learns the stories and is able to communicate with the mother ship. He also tells the alien some of Earth’s folk stories. You should watch the episode. It’s well enough known that most people can quote from it–as you see in this conversation. My purpose was not to give a synopsis of it.
    I’m saying that if we disregard “the face of the other” (as Levinas would say), we are violating our own humanity, as well as theirs. If we impose labels and our own assumptions about who they really are or what they really stand for without listening to their stories, their griefs; without sharing their burdens, we will become judges rather than peacemakers. The Savior had lots to say about judges and about peacemaking.
    So for example, Lucy, if you decided that any questions I might have about, say, the Proclamation on the Family indicate something heretical rather than something with a story behind it, you would be stepping on dangerous territory–especially if you (in a hypothetical world) had once been my in-laws’ bishop.

  9. Margaret, if I ask you a bunch of questions with no intent whatsoever to represent what you’ve written and, in the process, make a mock of it, will you illustrate the point of your post and answer my absurd, dismissive questions as charitably as you just did?

    This post is an example of why you are one of my favorite writers in the Bloggernacle. I didn’t say thanks explicitly in my previous comment, so:

    Thank you.

  10. Post and comments–slam dunk. However, Kirk was the superior captain; sorry.

  11. Ray, I love you.

  12. EOR–but then Kirk went on to play inept old men (_Miss Congeniality_), while Picard did Shakespeare. And those commercials about what we all deserve if we’re business people. Of course, Shakespeare wouldn’t agree. “Give every man according to his desserts and who shall ‘scape whipping?” (Hamlet)

  13. Ray, you should check out my husband’s thoughts on Captain Moroni here: http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2012/08/captain-moroni-pahoran-and-politics.html .
    Lucy, you might enjoy them as well. Bruce was raised by thoughtful parents whose life stories (many still untold) are redemptive and heartwrenching. They certainly raised remarkable children.

  14. One of my all-time favorite episodes, drawn out by one of my favorite writers! I show it to my Philosophy of Biology class too. I love how Picard, against the common take, assumes the Tamarian are interested in peace and he is ernest in his interest in communicating with them, unlike so much of the rhetoric we get from the ‘alienators’ who assume the worst of those they do not understand and quickly draw boundaries and lines rather than, as Picard did, reach out to understand the alien. Notice also that the depth with which he had to engage with the Tamarian Captain. No superficial straw reading would do, he had to get into the pit, as it were, with the ‘other’ and experience in some depth his supposed enemy before he could communicate with him. I love that. It’s too bad we can’t send those fearful souls who wag their finger at their fellow saints and who they perceive as too different to accept into the fold, to another planet to live together for awhile. I think it would do them some good.

    Margaret and her Father in the Yucatan. Margaret and Darius when the color fell.

  15. #9 Thanks for demonstrating what charity and peacemaking are all about… attacking those who have sincere questions. So the only way to make comments on here is to tell the authors how amazing they are?

    #8 Thanks Margaret for answering at least some of my questions. I read the StarTrek example at the beginning as somehow related to the rest of the post, but I suppose I was mistaken… that is why I asked the question. I see the faces, and I hear the stories… but the stories don’t make sense to me… so I have questions. I have no idea what you are talking about with the Proclamation on the Family and an in-laws’ bishop, and I asked a sincere question directly related to the blog post in order to understand it. I am listening to your stories, and trying to understand your metaphors, but since planet BCC is hostile to questioning, I will return to the Enterprise, where Spock can console me. Live long and prosper.

  16. Love this post!!! I love this episode of Star Trek too, I totally get it, I’m a poet and speak more in metaphor and simile than I do in actual english… the other day I was trying to talk to a class of teenagers and they just couldn’t understand me at all. Perhaps I’m old.

    You’re right, the stories can divide us, but they do give us all common points and points of view… a reference that cannot be tied together with simple words.

  17. #13 And thanks for the entry on Moroni and Pahoran. It’s easy for me to see why Mormon named his son Moroni and not Pahoran, Alma, or even Ammon. The time of Moroni (son of Mormon) was a time like our own, a day of warning and not of many words. Pahoran wasn’t angry because he knew Moroni’s greatness of heart, but he was also happy that someone was finally standing up to the freaks in the government. (President Hinckley also had strong warnings against those who impede the work of soldiers in the field or obstruct the path of those who are willing to lay down their lives for other people’s freedom.) I don’t think that the people of Ammon were pacifists inspired by some ancient version of Noam Chomsky to absorb the Lamanite blows, nor do I think that interpreting Ahmedinejad’s Persian folklore will somehow cause him to open his arms to Israel. Perhaps such tactics are useful in befriending feminists, homosexuals and former Mormon’s, but as far as I know these latter groups aren’t enriching uranium or preparing biological weapons.

  18. You’ve brought me out of lurking to say thank you Margaret for this post and for your stories!

  19. I’ll admit, there are days when I really, really miss Steve Evans.

  20. Amen. Yo, Evans, man where you at?

  21. Quickmere Graham says:

    Word up, lucyralph.

  22. Veritas Ralphiensis says:

    Quickmere, don’t jump to conclusions. There is only one true and living Ralph and I am he. This entire site stinks of positivistic Heideggerian relativism and frankly should just be avoided. Lucy’s comments are woefully and primitively unsuited to the task of battling against the cesspool of brute nihilism and permissive egalitarianism that BCC wallows in and I would appreciate it if you didn’t attribute her laughably inadequate and unschooled comments to me. I’m a professor and a published scholar. Why would I waste my time engaging in pointless and uncivilized pissing contests with a bunch of Nietzschean reprobates?

  23. Doug Hudson says:

    Fantastic post.
    One of humanity’s greatest weaknesses is our readiness to classify different groups of humans as “the Other”, based on skin color or religion or language or whatever. The dehumanizing leads to horrible atrocities, over and over again throughout our history.
    Jesus, on the other hand, rejected “othering”. He embraced the gentile and the Jew, the sick and the poor, the sinners and the tax collectors (and everybody hates tax collectors!). Jesus used stories to teach, stories that have reached a sort of “Shaka, when the walls fell” level in the West–simply saying “the prodigal son” or “the house divided against itself cannot stand”, invokes complicated emotions and concepts.
    lucy, before you can “love your enemy”, you must understand him, and to understand him you must listen to his stories.

  24. Lucy, her face hidden; her arms closed.

  25. Peter LLC says:

    nor do I think that interpreting Ahmedinejad’s Persian folklore will somehow cause him to open his arms to Israel. Perhaps such tactics are useful in befriending feminists, homosexuals and former Mormon’s, but as far as I know these latter groups aren’t enriching uranium or preparing biological weapons.

    Of course, Ahmedinejad would probably need to listen some Jewish folklore if he wants to understand why Israel–in contrast to feminists, homosexuals, former Mormons and Iran–has nuclear weapons and a biological warfare program.

  26. Steve Evans says:

    Shut your stupid face, Lucy. If you were a character on Star Trek, you’d be Daimon Bok. Beat it.

  27. Snyderman says:

    Lucy, perhaps a good starting point for understanding what is happening here is to think of these confusing phrases as referential. That is, the phrases that the “enemies” in the Star Trek episode use (“Temba, his arms wide,” “Shaka, when the walls fell,” etc.) refer to a story from their folklore.

    To use an example from the post and comments, think of the story of the Lithuanians and the Hill of Crosses. If we were ever in a similar situation, the way we would communicate with each other would be to say something like, “We must stand up to these tyrants. We cannot afford to let them dictate our religiosity.” Probably something much more eloquent and inspiring than that.

    The way the “enemies” in the Star Trek episode would express that same sentiment, however, would be something like, “Lithuania, when crosses were banned.” This phrase would refer to the story of the Lithuanians standing up to the more powerful Soviets and saying, as Margaret said, “We are not yours. We are Christ’s.” They would not use language to express the idea of a small group standing up to a more powerful one. They would refer to a story where that happened. Does that make any sense?

    And I think the point of all this is that you cannot understand someone until you know their stories. You may be able to understand the words they use and the ideas they express, but you cannot understand the person without knowing the stories. Excellent post.

  28. AndrewJDavis says:

    Hrm, I never really liked this episode, mostly because linguistically, you can’t build an entire language based on references to cultural history. How do you tell those stories in the first place? How do you describe in detail stories of building a spaceship good enough so that you can build a second one?

    However, having aired my dislike for that episode, I particularly like the message Margaret is putting out there, especially regarding how we approach the ‘other’. Do we regard them as an enemy as our null hypothesis? or do we assume they are friendly until shown otherwise. And even then, how do we treat them? I think the answers to those questions would be critical to how we should respond to the ‘other’.

    It becomes more important when dealing with the people Lucy describes in #17. Do we fight back first? Do we strike back at all? Do we assume they’re building weapons and therefore destroy them first? I believe Christ’s answer was turn the other cheek — even if it means I die for my answer of peace. Even for ‘good’ causes, we are still far more war-like than I think the Christian ideal would be. And yes, if it means we die for it, then such is life. That is why we hope for a better world beyond this one.

  29. Steve Evans appeared??? Did I dream that? No, that’s Evans.
    Snyderman, thanks for the lovely explanation. Lucy actually gets it. “Her” reference to Gilgamesh indicates that “she” is well-acquainted with the episode. (Gilgamesh is an ancient Persian tale.) Her use of Noam Chompsky is unfortunate, as Chompsky’s contributions were not in storytelling but linguistics itself. Nonetheless, even knowing Chompsky’s name indicates high education.
    To the man behind the mask: Glad you enjoyed Bruce’ piece. He admires you greatly. I’m certain that you’re a good and generous person who somehow gets lost in trying to prove a point, and goes over lines of courtesy you’d never cross in face-to-face conversation. My own story right now is that I am with my father for many hours weekly, treasuring whatever remains of his life, rubbing his feet or his back, and listening to his stories, many of which I’ve never heard until recently. These stories have helped me understand my own life and the challenges some of my children are having. I sometimes share Dad’s stories with friends who also need them. The stories have power because they are completely swathed in love. It’s amazing how loving stories make the monster of discord shrink.

  30. In the temple, we are told an ancient story, and then we come to understand that it’s about US. The stories Christ told transcend culture. We see ourselves sometimes as Peter denying the Savior, sometimes as Mary watching her son die (even metaphorically), sometimes as the woman at the well. I have a picture of the Daughter of Jairus on my kitchen wall. It’s the moment before Christ enters, and shows the mother’s depth of grief exactly as hope comes through the door–though she has not yet recognized who has entered. It has become my own symbol, something I’ll look at when I face a crisis I cannot manage alone. And of course, “Darmok” is not just about the legends and communication, but about the fact that there is a monster on the planet, and both Picard and the alien must fight it together.

  31. Snyderman says:

    Andrew, I have to say I’m inclined to agree with you. On the other hand, I like the questions the episode raises in the (meta)physicality of our language. In the Tamarian language and culture, physicality trumps metaphysicality. I’m not so sure that’s true in our society and culture, but I’m inclined to think it should be. But perhaps I should explain a little more.

    Think about the example I gave in my previous comment (#27). In our explanation, we have metaphysical terms such as “tyrant” and “religiosity.” I think our language and culture tends to be grounded in such metaphysical terms and ideas. The Tamarians, on the other hand, refer to a previous event. They refer to actual physical people and those people’s physical actions.

    To explain further, take Hitler as an example of a tyrant. For us, there is this metaphysical idea/definition of “tyrant,” which Hitler fits. Therefore, Hitler is a tyrant. For the Tamarians, there is no “tyrant” idea. There is only Hitler and what Hitler did. Our language is grounded in the metaphysical–the “tyrant” idea is what gives understanding and meaning to Hitler’s actions, the physical is only understood through the metaphysical. The Tamarian language, however, has no such metaphysical aspect. It is previous actions and occurrences that give understanding and meaning to Hitler’s actions–there is no metaphysical lens through which the physical must be interpreted.

    To bring this back to the OP, I believe this has important implications for not judging others. Judging others is based on the metaphysical: lazy, depressed, angry, stressed, stupid, etc. We have these metaphysical ideas through which we interpret and try to understand the person–again, the physical only has meaning through the metaphysical. To build off of Margaret’s mention of Levinas’ “the face of the other” from comment #8, we must remember that “the other” is an actual physical being (I think that’s what Levinas’ phrase is meant to remind us of) and that should be more foundational that our metaphysical judgments of “the other.”

    If that makes any sense.

  32. While purely metaphor-based communication is highly implausible, for reasons mentioned by Andrew above, I really like the way this episode gets us thinking about important shared culture is to communication and understanding, and how important it is not only to understand the other person’s words, but the background behind them. The plot was stolen almost directly from the TOS episode Arena, but I loved how it took the concept one step further to make an even deeper point — moving beyond mercy to understanding.

    Sokath, his eyes uncovered.

  33. Matt Harmer says:


    I doubt you’ll remember, but you and I were in the same class taught by Gene England at BYU, I think in the spring of 1987, although it could have been ’88. Anyway, I know this isn’t the point of your post, but I would loooooove to hear Darius elaborate on the experience you wrote about. Any ideas how we can make that happen?

    For what it’s worth, I liked the Darmok episode.

  34. Matt Harmer says:

    And I really enjoyed your post, by the way

  35. #23 Yes, but before you can love your enemy, you have to actually have enemies, and know who they are, and why they are your enemies, and what their tactics are. Sometimes I think we are like Geordi LaForge without his visor when it comes to loving our enemies. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” ― G.K. Chesterton

    #27 Yes… that makes sense. I believe that the truth we share is always greater than our differences, but that means finding the truth that we share, and we don’t have to be Spock to do so.

    #29 and #30 Thanks Margaret et al. This helps me to understand, particularly the difference between folklore, fables and the Savior’s parables and teachings. It helps me to understand at least one truth that I think we share: the victory in the war against sin is won through Christ, and we are all on the same team. I love you all and appreciate your patience with my questions. Beam me up Scotty.

  36. Matt–I spoke to Darius this morning to let him know I had told his story. Right now, he needs to recover from two surgeries, so no speaking engagements for several months.
    Were we in Mormon Lit? That would’ve been fall of 86, I think. It could have been later. I married Bruce in 1985, and I think I took Gene’s class shortly afterwards. I remember I was late for the final because my car wouldn’t start. I started my novel _Salvador_ in that class. It was my final project.
    Lucy–thanks for those lovely words. I wonder if Christ would ever think He had enemies. He had threats, of course, but the act of healing Peter’s impetuous swipe with the sword and then saying that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword tells me that the Lord would love even those he chastened–including those who showed irreverence at the temple. Again, I’m influenced by memories of my dad speaking indigenous dialects in Guatemala, and then my following his example. I have always wanted to get beyond the walls and into the hearts. I’ve wanted this as a mother, as a writer, as a human.

  37. Margaret, my Sunday School lesson on Sunday is about the initial war chapters in Alma. I am planning on leading a discussion about two things: 1) the “preparation” tactics and what we must do to ward off our tendencies to sin; 2) our “natural (wo)man” tendency to abuse war rhetoric by creating fights that don’t need to exist.

    Those chapers make it crystal cleat that we shouldn’t initiate war – but it’s so easy to forget or not realize how our words often do exactly that, especially with people who actually aren’t fighting us and wouldn’t fight us if we altered how we talk with them. I think that is extremely relevant to my students right now.

    I really dislike the “war on ___________” mentality that is so pervasive in our society – and, unfortunately, we aren’t immune to it in the Church.

  38. Thanks Margaret,
    As always, well said! Yes, the crosses bring tears, tears of joy.

  39. Oh I love it when Pastor Vick visits. And to be honest, I started this post after reading one of his on his blog. One of the great blessings of the bloggernacle is friendship, and I cherish my friendship with Pastor Vick–who I got to meet about seven years ago in Seattle. I am honored to count myself among his friends.

  40. I am surprised by some of rhetoric here. There are some clear examples of ignoring the advice given in the post. What is happening is ironic … and sickening.

    It is so sad to see the unchristianity right before your very eyes – wait .. is that a beam or a mote.

    The post makes some good points. Thanks for the advice. It is a shame that some began to immediately ignore it. Maybe God is extra forgiving of those who are cruel … provided they are clever at the same time?

  41. Ah, Lucy, Regen and mutual assured destruction.

%d bloggers like this: