The Miracle of Belief (Poems for Christmas #4)

716mY1qbPcLThe Christmas season is, among other wonderful things, one of the times that I try to inflict my taste in poetry on the unsuspecting readers of BCC. In past years, this has involved T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Christina Rosetti  and W.H. Auden. This year, I turn to the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky, who made it a habit to write a nativity poem (almost) every Christmas from 1962 through 1995. The poems have been translated by some of the greatest poets in the English language–folks like Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur–and published as a single volume. It is one of the most frustrating, beautiful, contradictory, profane, and sacred things that I have ever read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. [Read more…]

December 25, 1914: The Christmas Truce

 

It did not change the course of the war, or even effect the outcome of a single battle, but the truce that broke out among French, German, and English troops on the first Christmas of World War I is one of those few grace-filled moments in history that tells us that human beings may not be as bad as we thought. [Read more…]

The Ten Virgins: A Parable of Environmental Stewardship

Back in 1995, I was serving in the bishopric of a student ward at the same time that I was teaching freshman composition at UCSB. From time to time, one of the members of the ward showed up in my class, which gave me the dual role of spiritual and academic adviser. On one such occasion, a young freshman came into my office and told men that he had changed his mind about going to medical school when he graduated because of something he heard in Church.

The reason? He learned in an institute class that Christ was going to return in, or very close to, the year 2000, and he didn’t want to go through eight years of college if Jesus was just going to show up and make everything perfect. Not knowing what to say, I told him that he should probably go to med. school anyway because Jesus was probably going to be too busy to heal everyone. [Read more…]

30 Years on Death Row: A Voice of Prophecy

When I was a college freshman in 1984, I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life somehow affiliated with a university. And, since then, I have been. The reason I decided this is that I loved the company, both the professors and students, but also all of the really interesting, life-changing people that regularly show up on a college campus. There is really nothing like it.

One such person came to my university tonight: Anthony Ray Hinton, an African-American many who spent 30 years on the Alabama death row for crimes he did not commit. In 1985, Hinton was arrested for a robbery and picked out of a police lineup in which he was the only person of color. When his alibi proved airtight he was charged with two counts of murder connected to other robberies committed around the same time. The only witness was the victim of the robbery that he was not charged with because he was in a warehouse full of other people when it occurred. The police produced a statement that the same gun was used in all three events. [Read more…]

Cattle in Sackcloth

 

**NB: This is a follow-up to my earlier post about teaching the lesson “Fellowship with Those of Other Faiths” in Priesthood Meeting. When I actually taught the lesson, for reasons that have a lot to do with the way that High Priest groups tend to wander, much of it ended up being about the Book of Jonah,

 

I will admit that I used to have a difficult time believing that a full-sized man—be he Jonah or Geppetto—could be swallowed whole by a “great fish” and then spewed forth alive to pick up life right where he left off. That is just not, in my experience, how things work.

It some point, however, I realized that the whole belly-of-the-whale thing was only the third most ridiculous thing that happens in the Book of Jonah. Much weirder, and much less probable, is the following passage from Chapter 3:

For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. (:6-8) [Read more…]

Mormon Ecumenism

I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.
—President Gordon B. Hinckley

Tomorrow is the day that I have been waiting for since being called to teach the High Priests group in my ward earlier this year: Lesson 20: Fellowship with Those Who Are Not of Our Faith. It is something that I have been thinking about for a long time.

I started thinking about it 20 years ago, when I was in the bishopric of my student ward at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There had been a stabbing in the student enclave of Isla Vista, where our Church/Institute building was located, and a number of religious groups got together to demonstrate for better lighting. I went to the organizing meeting with a half a dozen other religious leaders, one of whom said, in the meeting, “I am so glad you are here. The Mormons usually keep to themselves.” [Read more…]

Stephen Greenblatt’s Great New Book—And What It Misses about the Mormon Adam and Eve

For reasons that are at once tantalizing and elusive, these few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires. It has been both liberating and destructive, a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness, a celebration of daring and an incitement to violent misogyny. The range of responses it has aroused over thousands of years in innumerable individuals and communities is astonishing.
—Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (pp. 5-6).

 

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Stephen Greenblatt on literary culture. As the general editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, he shapes the textbooks used in about 90% of undergraduate British Literature survey and period courses. If literature is “what gets taught,” then Greenblatt is the guy who decides what literature is for the English-speaking world.

Fortunately for all of us, Greenblatt has excellent taste—and a whole lot of knowledge about the contexts in which literature is produced. His recent books for general audiences are the best examples that I know of literary criticism for real people. Will in the World, his context-heavy biography of William Shakespeare, was a surprise bestseller in 2004. And The Swerve, How the World Became Modern (2011)—a literary detective story about how Lucretius’s lost poem “On the Nature of Things” was discovered in the 15th century—won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. [Read more…]

On Human Evil

“No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”–G.K. Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown

 

I hold two literary opinions that I rarely discuss with friends, because they are the sorts of opinions that make one unpopular. The first is that CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series is better than JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The second is that GK Chesterton’s Father Brown is a better detective than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In both cases, my reasoning is the same: there are far more serious and profound ideas at stake in Lewis and Chesterton’s work than there are in Tolkien’s and Doyle’s. The latter works are entertaining. The former are important. [Read more…]

Ten Axioms towards the Academic Study of the Book of Mormon as Scripture

 

(1)   The Book of Mormon is neither history nor literature; it is scripture. It makes historical claims and uses literary devices. The academic study of both history and literature can aid in its interpretation, but employing such tools comes with a price. The price is treating the text like something that it isn’t, which often leads to bad readings of the text itself.

(2) The Book of Mormon is unlike any ancient history that we know anything about. It is also unlike any 19th century work of fiction that we know anything about. It is a lot like other scriptures that we know about, but the textual record that we have access to does not permit the same kind of analyses that are possible with other scriptures. For the purposes of textual interpretation, comparing the Book of Mormon to anything else is full of peril. It is in a genre of one. [Read more…]

Positive Virtue, Pornography, and the Buttonmoulder

If the maxim ‘He who does
No ill does good” is valid—then
I can be sure, more than most people,
That my past mistakes will be overlooked
And my virtues be seen to outweigh my sins.

—Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt,  Act IV

 

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt operates from the maxim that “he who does no ill does good.” He is quite wrong. His life is a mashup of good and evil—but he is generally good natured and usually tries to avoid doing harm. When he comes to the end of his life, he finds that simply not doing evil won’t count as doing good. In the end, he faces neither God or the devil, but the “Buttonmoulder”–a soul recycler who takes the essences of those who qualify for neither heaven nor hell and melts them down to make brand new souls.

When he discovers that his ultimate fate will be to cease existing, he approaches the devil and begs to be admitted into hell. He gives a catalog of his sins, but he is rebuffed because, as the Buttonmoulder says, “it takes more than paddling in the dirt; It takes strength and a serious mind to sin.” [Read more…]

Caffeine and the Hedge around the Law

For the record, I think that BYU’s decision to resume selling caffeinated beverages after a 70 year ban is a horrible thing that will not be good for the Church. As many have noted, this will go a long way towards normalizing those same beverages in the Mormon rank and file. People will start drinking Coke and Pepsi willy nilly without even a nagging hint of guilt. It will be absolutely normal. And this is why I mourn.

Don’t get me wrong. I like caffeinated drinks. I drink far too many of them for my health. Diet Dr. Pepper is my favorite. I have had the caffeine-free version, but it just isn’t the same. Oh, all of the same flavors are there, but the guilt is missing. I like my beverage choices tinged with sin and regret. They just taste better that way. [Read more…]

The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Whichever Way We Bend It

Yesterday, a well-known radio personality went on a cable news show and told a female anchor that the only two things in this country that he believes in absolutely are “the first amendment and boobs.” Exactly one month ago, white supremacists and actual Nazi’s marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting Nazi slogans and doing the Hitler salute. In both cases, my initial reaction was the same, “it is 2017, how can this stuff still be happening?”

It was a bad reaction, or, at least, one built on the very dangerous notion that there is something about the passage of time that guarantees both the advancement of social ideas or the permanence of social achievements. We take too much comfort, I think, in Martin Luther King’s statement that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

[Read more…]

Whatever-Is-Is-Rightism

 All nature is but art unknown to thee,
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
–Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”

“Essay on Man” is a rotten poem. [Read more…]

Reasoning Not the Need

 

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. 
—King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

So says King Lear when his daughters are trying to strip away his retinue—the 100 knights who accompany him wherever he goes and whose maintenance was the only thing he asked of Goneril and Regan when he divided his kingdom among them. He doesn’t need any knights, they say, he is safe enough in their care. But he wants them because, well, it is the sort of thing that kings are supposed to have, and he is a king, isn’t he? Reason not the need! [Read more…]

White Is Not a Culture

 

I hate, in Rome, a Grecian town to find;
To see the scum of Greece transplanted here,
Received like gods, is what I cannot bear.
Nor Greeks alone, but Syrians here abound;
Obscene Orontes, diving under ground,
Conveys his wealth to Tiber’s hungry shores,
And fattens Italy with foreign whores:
–Juvenal, Third Satire, 118 A.D.

For all of the bandwidth it has been getting recently, one might be tempted to think that “white culture” is an actual thing. When the LDS Church issued its forceful condemnation of white supremacy yesterday, the most controversial thing it did was put “white culture” in scare quotes. This was appropriate as “white culture” is not, in fact, a thing. And it never has been. [Read more…]

Call Nothing a “Blessing” Until You Are Dead

“Call no man happy until he is dead.”–Herodotus

 

This oft-quoted line from Herodotus requires some unpacking before it makes sense to modern ears. In the first place, Herodotus is not speaking for himself. He is quoting a conversation between Solon, the great Athenian lawmaker, and Croesus, the fabulously wealthy and magnificently powerful King of Lydia.

This is the point at which (unless you are a Classics student or ancient historian) you say, “wait a minute, I’ve never heard of Croesus. And where the heck was Lydia?” This, it turns out, is precisely the point. [Read more…]

When Satan Was a Trickster

About a week before he went into the MTC, my son, who had been studying the scriptures earnestly like a good missionary should, came down stairs with a look of amazement on his face and said, “dad, guess what I just figured out: the Book of Genesis never actually says that the serpent was Satan. It just says it was a snake.”

That meant, of course, that it was time for “the talk.” It went something like this.

Satan, my son, was a fairly late addition to the Hebrew scriptures. When the Book of Genesis was first set down, there was no concept of a being of utter darkness and evil. The God of these people, Yahweh, was plenty scary. But as Yahweh came to be seen ever more as a good and loving father figure, they needed a place to put all of the evil scary things that were once a part of God. And it didn’t hurt that the Jews at this time were deeply influenced by the Persians, who were theological dualists, meaning that they had a figure of of ultimate evil (Ahriman) to oppose their otherwise monotheistic God (Ahura Mazda).

Even in the Book of Job, which was written around 500 years after the earliest Genesis texts, Satan is not yet the Prince of Darkness. He is not even Satan. He is “the satan,” a member of God’s court who functions something like a prosecuting attorney combined with a store detective—he goes throughout the kingdom looking for people who are disloyal to the King (God in this case) and then prosecutes them before God for their disloyalty. [Read more…]

Peace Like a River/Peace Like a Desert

“Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” (They make a desert and call it peace)—Tacitus

 “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.” (Isaiah 66:12 NIV)

For years I have been haunted by two different symbols of peace. [Read more…]

What Kind of Rules are Commandments?

“There are in nature neither rewards nor punishments — there are consequences.”— Robert G. Ingersoll

If I had to select one thing that sets my adult spiritual understanding apart from the one I had as a child (i.e. until my late 30s or so) it would be that the adult me has adopted of a religious version of the decidedly non-religious writer Robert Ingersoll’s perspective above: I no longer see God as a rewarder or punisher in the sky, but as a natural force that helps us understand natural consequences. [Read more…]

Zion and the State

Like many Americans, I traveled last weekend. It wasn’t a horrible trip—about six hundred miles each way, all but about three blocks of it on big four- and six-lane highways. It was around 18 hours of driving and two and a half days of visiting friends and family. It was a good trip, and I will probably do it again. Family is important.

I can only do this, of course, because the federal government spent 35 years and hundreds of billions of dollars to create the most extensive and impressive engineering project of the 20th century: the US Interstate Highway System. Most of us take this system for granted these days, but there was plenty of opposition to it in 1956. Without the strong endorsement of a popular president—Dwight Eisenhower, who saw it as a national defense imperative—it would likely have never received the funding required to make it happen.

This is pretty much how democracy is supposed to work. The Founders gave us a Constitution designed to make it possible for us to have the society we want—as long as enough of us want it for a long enough period of time. Limits on taxation and spending are, and were designed to be political, not structural. Read Federalist 30-35. It’s all there. [Read more…]

Love Song of the Dandelion Mama

 

 

I was poor. I was divorced. I was a single mother. I was a welfare mother. I was heading back to college in my thirties. I was learning to love and accept myself for the first time. I was helping my children heal and grow after the trauma of losing their father. Everything I had feared, every stigma I had hoped to avoid, had become part of my life. In the prevailing narrative distilled down, my ex-husband was a drug addict, and I was an uneducated single mother on welfare.

So what? What are you going to do about it?

I’m going to reject the pre-written script and write my own story from here on out. All of it. I’m going to own it —The Burning Point, p. 168

By Common Consent Press is proud to announce the publication of our second book, Tracy McKay’s long-awaited memoir, The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope. The book is now available on Amazon and our online store—and the Kindle version will become available at midnight tonight (though it can be pre-ordered at any time). One way or another, you need to read this. It is the sort of book that changes lives. [Read more…]

Reading Thucydides at 40,000 Feet

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.

The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III

[Read more…]

Scripture as Genre: What It Means When We Call Something “True”

Let’s start with an observation that I hope will be uncontroversial: there is a big difference between how people solve crimes in the actual world and how readers try to solve crimes in mystery novels. Here is a crystal-clear example of the difference: in the real world, the person that all of the evidence points to is almost always the person who committed the crime. In a mystery novel, the person that all of the evidence points is the one person you can be sure did not commit the crime. [Read more…]

The Chosen People Are Always Wrong

Can we talk about CPS? I mean, of course, Chosen-People Syndrome, or the belief that one belongs to a race, people, or organization that has a unique and special relationship to God. Latter-day Saints generally believe that we fall into this category, but there is nothing special about that. Most people believe, and have always believed, that their kind of person is special. [Read more…]

Them That Are at Ease in Zion

Woe to them that are at ease in Zion. (Amos 6:1:)

I have not been able to get this verse out of my head since I learned yesterday that the US House of Representatives narrowly voted to eliminate 800 billion dollars of benefits designed to help the poorest Americans get health care in order to fund an 800 billion dollar tax cut for the wealthiest. I have never seen a starker example in my country of the wealthy and powerful manipulating the structures of society in order to enrich powerful people at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. This is exactly the sort of thing that the prophets were always talking about. [Read more…]

The Price of a Soul

For most of my academic life, I have had a minor obsession with stories based on the Faust legend—tales of human beings who wanted something so much that they were willing to sell their soul to the devil to get it. It’s not the oldest story in the world, but it’s up there. What intrigues me so much about the various Faust stories in literature is the wide variety of things that people want most. We learn a lot about individuals, and the cultures that produced them, by studying what they rate as more important than their souls. [Read more…]

Looking for God in All the Cool Places

You’ve probably heard that BCC has embarked on a publishing venture: the BCC Press. You may also know that our first book is Steven L. Peck’s remarkable work of scientific theology (or was that theological science) Science the Key to Theology. But if you haven’t read the book, you don’t yet know how thoroughly Peck’s work, if taken seriously, could change the way that Latter-day Saints interact with science. [Read more…]

Why is April “the Cruellest Month”? The Downside of Hope

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
–T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Here are two things that everybody should know about April. First, it is National Poetry Month, which means that anything I write for public consumption is going to be about poetry. Second, April is famously, according to actual poet T.S. Eliot, the “cruellest month.” [Read more…]

Minding the Gap: What a New Study Tells Us about Mormon Women in the Workplace

 

There is much good news for BYU in the massive longitudinal study on college attendance and income that came out in January. The study looks at millions of 2014 tax records that have been matched to tuition records from the late 1990s, in effect giving us income profiles for people who were born between 1980 and 1982. [Read more…]

Believing Fast and Slow

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.
–Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy

The first time I read these lines—it was in a contemporary poetry class at BYU taught by the completely awesome Susan Howe—I gasped out loud right there in the first floor of the old Harold B. Lee Library. I gasped because I thought that the line “need is not quite belief” was true, and I didn’t want it to be. At the time, I knew that I needed the Church to be true, but I wasn’t at all sure that I believed it.

Conflation of need and belief seemed catastrophic to me at the time. Belief was about aligning my opinions and values with capital “T” Truth and ensuring both my terrestrial rightness and celestial glory. Need was just a pathetic form of self-delusion making me pretend to believer what wouldn’t mess up my life too much. It took me years to resolve this conflict, but resolve it I did, not by coming down on one side or another, but by rejecting the original premise. Need, it turns out, is pretty much the same thing as belief if you look at it from a certain perspective. This post is about that perspective. [Read more…]