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

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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…]

Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars

“By taking seriously the canon, one confesses along with the church to the unique function that these writings have had in its life and faith as Sacred Scriptures. Then each new generation of interpreters seeks to be faithful in searching these Scriptures for renewed illumination. . . . Ultimately, to stand within the tradition of the church is a stance not made in the spirit of dogmatic restriction of the revelation of God, but in joyful wonder and even surprise as the Scripture becomes the bread of life for another generation.”–Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis

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On Hypocrisy: A Dialogue with Myself

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

 

 Me: Trump is a fascist. We have to do stuff

Other Me: Oh please. Listen to yourself. Remember when Bush was a fascist? Cheney? It’s not an alternate spelling for “Republican,” you know? Weren’t you the guy who said, “democracy means that approximately half of the time everybody is going to be governed by people that they really, really don’t like.” Of course, that was when Obama was president and you were telling people to get over it.

Me: But this time is different. He really is a fascist. Muslim bans? “My authority will not be questioned”? I mean, we’re one step away from sieg heiling when he walks in. [Read more…]

Letter to a Young Jihadist

About ten years ago, I led a group of students on an art-viewing tour through Morocco. On the last day of the trip, I went to the marketplace in Marrakesh, where I found a beautiful, hand-crafted writing journal with only the first few pages written on in a beautiful Arabic script. I was still unclear about the currency, so I ended up paying more than a hundred dollars for it, which, my guide later told me, was ridiculous. But I was satisfied because it was beautiful, and it has been on our mantle ever since.

A week or so ago, Dr. Sid Hamete Benengeli, my colleague from the university, came to dinner. He was immediately taken with the journal, and he opened it up and said, “why do you have a book called “Letter to a Young Jihadist” on your mantel? I was shocked. I had no idea what was written in the journal, but I figured it was pretty ordinary. That night, Dr. Benengeli translated the whole text, which turns out to have been a letter from an uncle to his infant nephew. I am reproducing it here because of the potential interest in the topic and the author, though I have no way of knowing if it is a genuine letter or just the doodling of an idle child. 

September 10, 2001

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A Time for Prophecy

samuellamanite1

Amos 3:7 reads, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” I know this because it was a Seminary scripture, a Missionary scripture, and perhaps the most important Latter-day Saint proof text in the entire Old Testament. At different points in my life, I have used it to “prove” that the Church is true because it has prophets, that revelation is and has always been important, and that God is a woman and her name is Shirley. It is really a remarkable proof text. [Read more…]

Newly discovered First Presidency Letter Clarifies Mormon Position on Civil Government

October 28, 1838,

Dear fellow Saints,

As many of you know, Governor Boggs issued an executive order yesterday relating to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Missouri Executive Order 44 reads, in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” As a result, the armed forces of our Great State have been ordered to murder all of our men, women, and children or drive us from the state. [Read more…]

It Can Happen Here; Let’s Make Sure It Doesn’t

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”—Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

 

lewisEvery time that Doremus Jessup—the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here—tries to raise the specter of fascism in the United States, his concerns are dismissed by the phrase that becomes the novel’s title: “it can’t happen here.” There is too much democracy, too much freedom, and too much respect for individual rights for our country to ever go down the road that the Germans and the Italians were travelling when the novel was written.

It does, of course, happen here, and in fairly predictable ways. A populist demagogue named Buzz Windrup becomes president with a combination of ultra-nationalism and an attack on journalists, scientists, historians, and other people in a position to argue that one set of facts is superior to another. As president, Windrip begins by restricting the rights of women and minorities and ends by turning the United States into a security state, imprisoning dissidents, and arming for wars of conquest. [Read more…]

My New Year’s Resolution: No More Cheap Outrage

It’s called “outrage porn” for a good reason. Like pornography, it provides all of the sensations of a strong emotion without incurring any of the costs (time, relationship building, risk of rejection). It briefly satisfies our need to experience sensation but does not lead to meaningful engagement with anything. It is risk free, and, ultimately, it is an addiction that works against real human interaction. [Read more…]

“The Height to Be Superb Humanity”: Walt Whitman’s Christmas Greeting to a New Democracy (Poems for Christmas #3)

image1482268730855

It is quite possible that Walt Whitman sent the best Christmas card ever in 1889, and he sent it to an entire country. That year, a Brazilian field marshal named Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the nation a republic. On Christmas Day, seventy-year-old Whitman wrote a brief poem called “Christmas Greeting” to welcome Brazil into the family of democratic nations. Unlike nearly every other Christmas poem I admire, this is not a poem about the birth of Christ. It is a poem about the birth of democracy.

Whitman thought a lot about what it meant to live in a democracy. He was born at a time when self-government was a new thing—an exciting experiment whose success was by no means guaranteed. And he lived through the cataclysm of the American Civil War—one of the most severe tests that any democracy has ever faced. [Read more…]

The Journey of the Magi: Christ Must Change Us (Poems for Christmas #2)

journey-of-the-magiT.S. Eliot, the versatile American (later British) poet who wrote both “The Wasteland” and the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats also wrote what I consider to be the best Christmas poem in the history of ever that is not W.H. Auden’s magnificent book-length oratorio For the Time Being. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi” is much shorter—just 43 lines, into which the remarkable poet packs pretty much everything that matters about the meaning of Christmas.

The poem is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is one of the Three Wise Men, or Magi, who travel from Eastern lands to visit the baby Jesus. It is a hard journey, a really hard journey—which is pretty much all that the poem is about. [Read more…]

In the Bleak Midwinter; or How Christmas Helps Us Love Bad Weather (Poems for Christmas #1)

140219132955-10-snow-days-horizontal-large-galleryI’m going to spend this week blogging about my favorite Christmas poems. I mean, I plan to do other things too, like all of my Christmas shopping and my ritualistic Messiah-sing-a-long-for-introverts, which occurs late at night and with no witnesses. I also plan to eat a lot of cookies. In between bites, though, I will blog about poems that, I think, get to some of the essential things about the Christmas season.

We start with a moderately famous Christmas poem that is also a moderately famous Christmas carol: Christiana Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter, first published in 1872.” Most people have probably heard the song, which has been recorded by everyone from the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge to Erasure. Even without hearing the song or reading the poem, though, most people know instinctively upon hearing the tile that it is about things like bleakness and winter. It is also a lovely poem about the birth of Christ, as the first two stanzas make clear: [Read more…]

A Syrian Ready to Perish Was My Father

Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016, after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters. Syrian rebels withdrew from six more neighbourhoods in their one-time bastion of east Aleppo in the face of advancing government troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

 

And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, “a Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” — Deuteronomy 6:5 [Read more…]

Index to #BOM2016 Posts

Several people have asked whether or not there would be a general index of all of the posts that were part of my #BOM2016 series this year, which came about when I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in more than 25 years and tried to blog about it from the perspective of a trained literary critic encountering its narratives for the first time. Well, yes. Here are all 45 posts. I trust BCC readers to use these for good, and never for evil.
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Moroni’s Message in a Bottle: How to (Re)Build a Church #BOM2016

Moroni 1-10

Perhaps no chapter in the Book of Mormon seems more out of place than the eighth chapter of Moroni. It occurs towards the end of a genocidal campaign against Moroni’s people. He is quite likely the last Nephite left on earth. The record has already been completed, and he is now traveling across the hemisphere schlepping about 500 pounds of gold plates and trying to avoid all of the people who want to kill him, which is pretty much everybody. What a strange time to transcribe a letter from his father about infant baptism.

What’s going on? The standard Sunday School answer would be that the Lord saw our day and knew that we would struggle with the question of infant baptism, so he inspired Mormon and Moroni to include this epistle. And the standard anti-Mormon answer would be that Joseph Smith was making stuff up to speak to a major religious controversy of his day. Both of these answers, I think, treat the actual text of the Book of Mormon as evidence to support or refute a historical argument. [Read more…]

Meeting Mormon #BOM2016

Mormon 1-7

One thing about narratives is that you always have to be revising your assumptions as you get more information. What you think you are reading at the beginning of a book may very well not be what will think you have read when you are done. We see this dramatically in “surprise ending” kinds of narratives—think of the ending of movies like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, which force you to reinterpret everything you have seen in light of the information presented in the last reel. [Read more…]