Monthly Archives: March 2013


Tonight, I was asked to introduce a staged reading of my dear friend Scott Bronson’s play,Tombs.  I ended up thinking about the plays of Corpus Christi, and transubstantiation and stuff.  Anyway, this is what I ended up saying.

“I stand before you, on this Good Friday, to talk about a play.  A play, as it happens, written by one of my dearest friends.  I’ve seen the play in production; I regret that I will not be able to stay to see it tonight.  But I want to begin in a place a long time ago, and a long way off.  The towns of York and Wakefield and Chester in the North of England, sometime in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  It’s June, and spring harvests are in. Nights still a bit chilly, days crisp and clear and warmed by the sun.  A parade has begun, and the priest carries before him a holy wafer and a vial of wine.  Perhaps we hear a song in Latin “Oh, salutaris hostia,” sung in perfect, four-part harmony. Tonight, there will be a feast; today, a parade, and performances.

The feast of Corpus Christi begins on the Thursday six weeks following Easter; six weeks, that is, after Maundy Thursday.  Corpus Christi is Latin for the “Body of Christ.” The Feast day celebrates the eucharist, the real presence of Christ in the elements of the host—the body and blood of Christ.  Holy wafers and wine, in the Catholic tradition.  Tap water and Wonder Bread, in the Mormon faith.  Served by twelve year olds, their shirts too big for their necks, clip-on ties askew.  Every Sunday, at mass, back then, we’d take the sacrament; as Catholics still do.  But in addition, an annual holiday celebrated the host itself.  Corpus Christi is primarily a Catholic feast day, though some denominations in the Anglican tradition also celebrate it. We Mormons don’t bother with it.  About the only Holiday we worry about in June is also about Fathers: when we get our Dads a tie or some cologne.   But for Catholics, 13th through 16th centuries, Corpus Christi was a major holiday, and a fun one.

The idea for Corpus Christi came from a woman, Juliana of Liege, an orphaned child-turned nun, who had a vision of the moon, darkened by a spot, signifying, in her mind, a deficiency in the liturgical calendar.  She suggested that in addition to the weekly Eucharistic service, that a special feast day be established just to celebrate that Sacrament, and the miracle of transubstantiation.  Pope Urban IV eventually established Corpus Christi as a feast day in 1264.

One of the main ways in which the Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated was through the performance of plays.  That may seem a little strange at first, until we interrogate the practice.  Although we Mormons don’t share with Catholics their belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is at the heart of Corpus Christi, we also practice it, do we not?  In this miraculous art form we call theatre? In transubstantiation, the substance of sacramental bread literally becomes flesh, and wine becomes blood.  Well, what do actors do, but take upon themselves, with the aid of some greasepaint and a costume piece, literally flesh out, provide flesh to, an idea, an abstraction, a series of constructions of language.  Dramatic characters, living human souls, enacting a story, for our edification and enjoyment.

Initially, Corpus Christi started with a parade honoring the elements of the host, but in time, plays were written and performed by the guilds of the community—the solid backbone of Christian society, the tailors and bakers and nailmakers and cobblers and wheelwrights.  The plays they wrote have survived, especially in England.  We call them Mystery Plays, perhaps to celebrate the twin mysteries of Incarnation and Atonement, in which God became Man, and later died for our sins.

Joseph of Galilee was a favorite character in the plays of Corpus Christi. The unidentified and anonymous authors of the these plays understood something fundamental about drama; that comedy and tragedy are not competing, but complementing masks and styles.  Noah is a doddering old buffoon, his dottiness juxtaposed against the shrieks of drowning neighbors.  Herod’s soldiers are drunks.  And even the soldiers crucifying our Lord are comedically bad at their jobs.  We’re allowed to laugh, just before we’re invited to weep. Astonishingly, shockingly, the plays still work in production.  And are still frequently produced.

Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, is a comic figure as well.  He’s old, a senile and feeble cuckold.  The ‘foolish old man, married to a younger woman’ would become a staple of Moliere, of Cervantes, of commedia dell arte and TV sitcoms.  And in the York version of Corpus Christi, the play of the Annunciation, performed by the pewterers and metal-workers guild, Joseph contemplates suicide.

The purpose of the Corpus Christi plays was to humanize the characters of the Bible, to make them accessible.  Since the liturgy was in Latin, most congregants likely went through Sunday services in a bit of a daze.  Stained glass windows served as a nice aid to communication.  So did acting; and some priests became as adept at chewing the scenery as in administering the wafer and wine.  But so did these annual exercises in community theatre, which were not in Latin, but in the vernacular, in the robust and blunt Middle English of Northern Britain.  The point was to point up the shared values of the entire town, to celebrate together the hard-won spirituality of the late Middle Ages.  When we read about medieval Christianity, what strikes us are its heresies; the mortification of the flesh, the violent sexism and anti-Semitism. The violence: period. Products, perhaps, of a culture too close to death, too used to instant, sudden, inexplicable annihilation.

But we can relate to the plays.  The plays and the music and the cathedrals—the products of genuine devotion—we can look there, and feel the same kinship and wonder we feel in holy places today; the caves of Lescaux, and the temples of India, and Tenochtitlan and Machu Picchu, or in concert halls, listening to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  That sense of shared humanity and reverential adoration.

And here, tonight, at UVU.  In Tombs, Scott Bronson shows us a very different Joseph, the kind and caring father to whom our Heavenly Father entrusted his Only Begotten.  Joseph has just died, in fact–though we flash back to catch a glimpse of his parenting style–and Mary and Jesus mourn together outside his tomb.

But in many respects, Tombs reflects the same impulse that drove the plays of Corpus Christi.  It tells us the story of our faith.  It reorients us towards our theology, towards the beliefs that center us and define us.  It reminds us of what we hold most dear.

It’s a deceptively simple play, really.  A mother and son mourn together, and she presses him to tell her his plans.  They share memories.  He has an upcoming task that he dreads—she presses him to let her share his burden.

As I re-read the play once again this morning, that word came back to me—burden. In a very real sense, Scott has written a play about unburdening.  Through confession and conversation, through memories and recollections.  Through atonement.  These characters, so familiar, and yet also doctrinally distanced from us, unburden themselves to each other. As we literally unburden, pass on our burdens, of sin and pain and regret and error, to our Savior, who then chooses to bear them himself, for us, out of love.  And the play ends with two words, the two words above all others, all Christians wish we could speak. Thank you.

Juliana of Liege saw a flawed and incomplete moon, and sought to fill it with a celebration.  And communities and towns across the medieval Catholic world enhanced that celebration by writing and rehearsing and designing and directing and building and performing deceptively simple plays, reflecting the profoundest stories and beliefs at the heart of their culture.  Scott Bronson has done the same here.  He reminds us what must never be forgotten; he speaks for and to our culture of our most central and enduring shared faith.  He makes The Word flesh, he theatrically transubstantiates.  He places us outside a tomb, and reminds us of a tomb found empty, and how that emptiness fills our hearts.  He nourishes us with the bread of mimesis.  From the Guild of Scribblers and Thespians, we bring you our fondest story.  We share with you: Tombs.

Conventional wisdom and the Loop

The ten year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq has now come and gone, with the usual hand-wringing and revisionism that defines such anniversaries.  Rachel Maddow did a piece on MSNBC, Hubris, based on reporting from David Corn and others.  Basically, President Bush, and Vice-President Cheney, and Condoleeza Rice and Doug Feith and the CIA and basically the entire intelligence community all were able to sell us on the idea of Saddam’s WMD.  And I’m not sure they lied. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t lie. I think they probably thought Saddam did have them.  He didn’t.  So how did they get it so wrong?

Locally, former Senator Bob Bennett also defended the war. Bennett points out that “Britain’s intelligence agencies said that Saddam had WMD — hence Prime Minister Tony Blair’s full support for Bush — as did the Israelis and the Germans.”  And Maddow’s show made it clear how complicit the media were.  The Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS News–basically they all stopped practicing journalism, and became cheerleaders for the war.

In fact, as Maddow also points out, evidence for Iraqi WMD was pathetically weak, had anyone bothered to look at it critically.  Secretary of State Colin Powell started to.  He wasn’t really in the intelligence loop, and when he received the intel he was supposed to sell to the UN, he was troubled at how paltry it was.  But they couldn’t all be wrong, could they?  Of course they couldn’t.  All the Really Serious people were certain.  And so Powell embarrassed himself and tarnished his legacy by making a case for war.

What we had was a massive negative feedback loop where all the people making and conducting and reporting on policy were busy talking to each other, and nobody else.  A consensus of Very Important People, here and abroad, formed, based not on evidence, but on the very fact of that consensus.

The thing is, though, I remember that time very well indeed. Heck, ten years; not that long ago.  I knew perfectly well that Saddam Hussein did not have WMD.  And I’m not particularly smart. I was just a college professor, teaching Theatre, in Provo, UT.  And I knew how bad the evidence was, and I knew that when we invaded, we wouldn’t find any WMD.  I’m kind of a news junkie, but I got my news the way everyone does–TV, newspapers, news magazines, the internet.  And I knew. Most folks knew, if they were paying attention. I remember going home teaching one night shortly before we invaded, and it was all we talked about, every family that night.  And my ward is very conservative, very very Republican.  And every visit, we talked about how wrong this war was, and how we all knew there weren’t any WMD.  We all knew.

I knew because of a guy who is never once mentioned in Rachel Maddow’s special, and who Senator Bennett never mentions either.  In fact, in all the many ‘ten year after’ stories about the war that I’ve seen in the last month, I’ve only seen this guy mentioned once.  His name: Hans Blix.  His job: he was head of the UN inspection team, in Iraq, looking for weapons of mass destruction.  And he wasn’t finding any.

Blix was appointed in 2002 to go to Iraq and look for WMD.  Specifically, he was named head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission. He was an expert in the field.  And although Saddam initially hindered the Commission’s work (in fact, that was one of the stated reasons for our invasion), by the fall of 2002, Blix and his teamwas allowed free access throughout Iraq.  They found bupkus.  And it’s not like Blix kept quiet about it.  He went to Washington, tried desperately to meet with anyone in the Bush administration who would talk to him.  He met with Congresspeople.  He talked to every newspaper who would give him an interview. I remember it well.  He was very visible, and very vocal, and his message was clear–WMD labs are big, and lots of people work in them.  We’ve gone everywhere they might be.  We haven’t found a thing. And I can’t get a meeting with the people in charge.(Oh, and also the CIA was bugging his phone.  Which was also true.)

So there we were, February, March 2003. The United States is preparing to invade Iraq.  The cassus belli: Iraq is a threat to American interest, because of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Powell makes his case; it’s clear that he has some evidence, but no proof, of WMD.  Condoleeza Rice says ‘we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’  Scary stuff.  So why not send somebody to Iraq? Say, like an expert in inspections and in WMD.  An unbiased outsider.  Give him a team of experts, have them look around, see what they can find.  They do.  They find nothing.  No WMD: no case for war.  The expert tells everyone about it.  We invade anyway. (And of course, in retrospect, it turns out that Blix was totally and completely right.)

So why did nobody, and I do mean nobody in Washington, nobody in power, nor the journalists covering the people in power, why did nobody listen to Hans Blix?  Because he wasn’t in the circle, not in the Loop.  The only people people in power listen to are people in power.  Not experts in the field, and especially not experts with specific information relevant to their decision-making process.  If outside experts contradict the official narrative, they’re not listened to.

Ibsen got it. Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906), the Father of Modern Drama and the playwright I have spent most of my life studying.  His most political play, An Enemy of the People, usually gets performed in a version (it’s not really a translation) by Arthur Miller.  And that’s a shame.  Not because the Miller version is bad.  It’s worse than bad.  It’s really good.  A really good Arthur Miller play.  It just doesn’t have much to do with the play Ibsen wrote.

Dr. Stockmann, the hero of Ibsen’s play, says all sorts of undemocratic and anti-liberal things in the play.  Most infamous of all, he says, at one point “The majority has
might on its side–unfortunately; but right it doesn’t have. I’m in the right–I and a few other individuals. The minority is always in the right.” 
(I’m spot-translating on the fly here; I’m working on translating the whole play.)  And then Stockmann attacks liberals, and political parties, and especially the stupid docile average voters in an average democracy.  A stalwart liberal like Arthur Miller found it all too ridiculous–elitist, maybe even fascist, and made sure not a hint of such views would appear in his version of Ibsen.

But Ibsen’s target isn’t democracy, it’s insularity.  It’s the Loop.  It’s the way people in power only talk to people in power.  It’s the build-up to Iraq, basically, where all the important intelligence people and all the important political people and all the important journalists talked to each other and to nobody else, and especially not to the one guy who actually did know what he was talking about.

Take the US budget issues. The talks right now, between Congress and the White House.  The Really Important People all agree; we need to cut spending.  (Watch the Sunday talk shows–everyone agrees on this, except for the rare economist who maybe sometimes gets invited).  We need austerity, and if we practice enough austerity, and cut enough spending, business confidence will pull us out of our recessionary doldrums. The Confidence Fairy will wave her wand!  Yay!

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong and all the other major Nobel Prize winning macro-economists with specific expertise on precisely this issue are going on every talk show they can get booked on, saying no, dead wrong, absolutely not, austerity will lengthen the time we spend in a liquidity trap, we need to increase aggregate demand.  Get more money circulating.  They’re all Hans Blix, and maybe, possibly, President Obama is listening to them, some, a little.  I hope so.  But the Loop can’t believe his presumption, and the new line is ‘we need Presidential leadership!’  To do what We have all decided needs doing.

Two interesting documentary films come to mind.  First is The Fog of War, brilliant documentary about Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense.  The Cold War created the biggest negative feedback loop in our nation’s history, a false narrative so compelling it rendered policy makers quite helpless.  Of course Vietnam was a disaster.  Lyndon Johnson knew it, and so did McNamara.  But the Loop wouldn’t permit dissent.  And the one specifically qualified guy to speak up on the issue, war hero George McGovern, was the one guy you absolutely could not listen to.  The other doc I haven’t seen–have only seen clips from it.  The World According to Dick Cheney.  Who is still convinced, apparently, that Iraq went swimmingly, and that no mistakes were ever made, ever, especially by him.

Education’s another one.  American education’s all Loopy too.  The buzzwords are Accountability and Assessment and Learning Outcome Metrics, and though everyone admits standardized testing is way out of hand and warps educational processes and causes more problems than it’s worth, every proposal expands it.  And really, the only people anyone should be listening to are the people who run public education in Finland.

Meanwhile, Dr. Stockman, and Hans Blix, and Paul Krugman, and Henna Verkunnen (Finland’s Minister of Education, just looked her up), are treated as gadflies and irresponsible and irrelevant annoyances.  And the Loop expands, and excludes, and crappy decisions get made.  Ibsen saw it.  But he was describing human nature, the tribe and cult of leadership.  Overcoming it isn’t easy.

The name of this blog suggests how much I admire iconoclasts.  In any democracy, there are chiefs and there are Indians.  But when a Medicine Man shows up and tells us things we’d rather not hear, we should maybe probably listen anyway.  Doncha think?





Birther conspiracy redux redux

I have an unhealthy fascination with conspiracy theories.  I think they’re interesting.  Crazy, sure, but the human mind seems capable of accommodating all kinds of crazy.  Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford.  The moon landings were faked.  Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA/FBI/Secret Service/Castro/the Mafia/The Illuminati. Love that kind of thing.

It’s a little harder to like the Birther issue.  I mean, sure, it’s really silly.  And it helps that the people who push the case are, uh, colorful.  Orly Taitz, for example, the Queen Bee of Birferstan (a really mean nickname, which I feel terrible about using, except that I also think it’s pretty funny).  She’s a dentist/attorney/real estate agent, the ‘attorney’ part coming from an on-line diploma mill.  She’s got one ally: Joe “Tent City” Arpaio.  What these two have in common is a love for publicity and controversy.  To which end, they both think Barack Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, but in Kenya, making him ineligible to be President.

Let’s first of all get our facts straight; President Obama was born in Hawaii.  Here’s how I know; I investigated it very very carefully.  As carefully as was needed.  REALLY carefully.  I glanced at the short-form birth certificate on the internet for a second or two.  Done and done.

I mean, come on. 1960, an 18 year-old college freshman at the University of Hawaii, Ann Dunham, meets a grad student from Kenya named Barack Obama.  They date, she gets pregnant, they marry, in 1961.  Her parents live in Hawaii.  She has friends there. She has the baby in August, 1961. None of this is really disputed.

Now, this is the subsequent narrative birthers want us to swallow.  Somehow, instead of having her baby in Hawaii, where she lived, where her parents lived, she’s supposed to have somehow gotten herself to Kenya and had the baby there, then snuck straight back to Hawaii.  Somehow, she got the Hawaiian newspapers to put a birth announcement in their pages, and she snookered the state of Hawaii to put a fake birth certificate in their files.  She did all this just in case her baby wanted to run for President forty seven years later.  She went to Kenya to have the baby despite the fact that her marriage had already turned so sour that when the baby was one month old, she moved to Washington to get away from the dude.

Or, you know, there’s another possibility.  She might have just had the baby in Hawaii, where, like, her Mom could be there for her.  And the local papers put in a birth announcement, a routine matter, and the birth certificate got filed with the state, as per procedure.

So you’ve got two stories.  One of them is sensible, the other one is nuts. Occam’s Razor.

So, okay, President Obama was born in Hawaii.  But see, there are new developments!  Check out this video.  Local news at its best.

Essentially, this crack investigator concluded that a document scanned into a computer and released on the internet looked like it had been scanned into a computer.  And of course, this local news station just interviews one source, the guy claiming the birth certificate is fraudulent.  They don’t bother checking with other experts, because that’s not what a local news broadcast does. And this story is way beyond the usual local news ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ capabilities.  It requires, like, research.  A search for truth. Can’t have that.  They also strive for ‘balance,’ which they define as quoting two local residents, one on each side.

This isn’t just shoddy journalism.  It exposes everything idiotic about where TV news is nowadays.  The sensational allegation, unsubstantiated, and uncontested.  The phony-baloney ‘balance,’ achieved by quoting two people, neither of them informed or expert.  The empty-headed anchor throwing the story to the equally empty-headed reporter, neither of whom has done the basic research necessary to actually get to the bottom of anything.  It’s facile, it’s fake, it’s a simulacrum, a form of journalism, but denying the power thereof.

And now Sheriff Joe wants Congress to look at this, to investigate it.  This won’t happen, I suspect.  There are surely Congresspeople silly enough to want to investigate something like this–never underestimate the capacity of Congresspeople to make fools of themselves–but it’s also the kind of thing that can hurt you electorally.  I mean, even Michele Bachman has backed down from it.

Orly Taitz is making a big deal of the fact that Chief Justice Roberts accepted her brief (filed with several other actual attorneys) to look at her evidence regarding Obama’s birth certificate.  SCOTUS grants certiorari in about one percent of the cases before it. Granting cert just means that they agree to decide the case.  But they get thousands of cases annually.  On her website she implies that Justice Roberts himself will be reading her thousands of pages of birther nonsense.  He won’t–that’s why the Justices have clerks.  Poor guys.  For the record, Chief Justice Roberts has four clerks this term: Caroline Edsall, Jonathan Ellis, Benjamin Snyder and Sina Kian.  One each from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Penn.  One or all of them will have to read at least some of the collected works of Orly Taitz.  Remember them in your prayers.

So what’ll happen is that the clerks will read Orly’s brief (or as much of it as they can stomach), and make a recommendation, which will be in this case, to deny cert.  And Orly will blog ominously about how Chief Justice Roberts is being blackmailed or something.  What it won’t do is end the conspiracy talk.  No amount of evidence has ever, in the history of the world, ever ended a conspiracy theory.

Why?  Why insist so strenuously on something so ridiculous.  But the overreaction on the Right to the Obama Presidency really is something to behold.  They really think our country’s in desperate shape.  They think this because they’re freaked out over the very thought of a black guy in the White House they think Obama is a socialist, that he’s going to change our form of government to something all, like, European and icky.

Radical fringe liberals had a conspiracy theory of their own.  I know people who believe that President Bush was behind the World Trade Center devastation.  Bush apparently wanted to accelerate the war on terror, plus he was desperate to invade Iraq.  So he faked 9/11.  You’ll hear scientists talk about how the collapse of the towers looks more like a controlled explosion than a meltdown caused by exploding jet fuel.  I thought President Bush was kind of historically inept as President.  But this ‘truther’ nonsense is as silly as the ‘birther’ nonsense the Right is so fond of.

These conspiracy theories do offer a certain comic relief, though it’s the kind of comedy you feel bad about afterwards.  And they do offer us some insight, into the depths of hatred, the intensity of feeling people can bring to an issue that frankly doesn’t affect them personally.  The truth of things, though is this: for liberals, President Bush was a President we disagreed with on some policy issues.  For conservatives, President Obama is a President they disagree with.  Let’s talk about issues.  And let’s bring logic, information, evidence to the debate.  Not paranoid nonsense.



Sports, for people who hate sports

I like sports.  I grew up playing basketball, baseball, football, tennis.  I played all these sports very badly, but in our backyard, or the backyards of neighbor kids, or in our driveway.  It was how we bonded, and it was also how we excluded.  One neighbor kid didn’t play sports–he was somehow even less coordinated than I was–and didn’t want to.  We didn’t mean to treat him badly, but we did.  I still feel terrible about that.  But we loved sports, and when we weren’t playing sports, we were watching them, either live or on TV.  Or talked about them. My brother was just in town, and while he was mostly here on family stuff–his daughter’s baby’s blessing–we did fit in two basketball games on TV.

I know lots of people who can’t stand sports, who especially can’t stand televised team sports.  I am, in fact, married to one of those people.  I get that. We sports fans can be quite sadly fanatical in our devotion to the teams that have earned our allegiance–that’s where the word ‘fan’ comes from, after all.  I hear from people from time to time who tell me they like this blog, and usually they add “except for the baseball ones.”  I get that too, which also doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing baseball ones.

But why?  Why do we attach ourselves do devotedly to something as artificial as a professional sports team?  Or college team.  In fact, isn’t inter-collegiate athletics somehow worse?  Doesn’t big-time college sports detract from the educational mission of high ed?  Doesn’t it divert resources that might be better used to hire a new math professor, build a new lab, construct a theatre rehearsal room or dance studio, pay TA’s properly?  Are we seriously seriously, pretending . . .  no.  Wait. Stop! I like sports.  I’m arguing for them.

How?  Why?

It’s good to care about something.

The great New Yorker writer, Roger Angell, used to make this argument; that caring deeply is a basic human good, even if it’s for something silly.  In fact, lots of things we care a lot about are silly.  Once we silly human creatures have got the Food, Sex, Shelter thing down, turns out we have plenty of time and brain-space for silly stuff.  And full-blown life-long infatuation with a sports team is, turns out, mentally healthy.

It’s a shortcut to bonding with other people.

So this past weekend, our family spent some time interacting with my niece’s husband’s family.  I found myself spending some time conversing with my niece’s father-in-law.  Seemed like a nice guy, and we chatted a bit.  Then he mentioned being a baseball fan.  And we went from ‘awkward family party conversation with a stranger’ to ‘my gosh what a cool guy how much fun were we having?’  We got along immediately.  I know the guy now, know how he thinks about something important to both of us.  And it was something safe, not something really volatile–politics, religion.

There’s a theological angle to it, a celebration of human potential, of human beauty.

The human beauty we’re talking about here. . . has nothing to do with sex, or cultural norms.  What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.  There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body.  We can just quickly mention pains, sores, nausea, odors, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits–every last schism between our bodies and our actual capacities.  Can anyone doubt we need help to be reconciled? Crave it?  It’s your bodies that die, after all.

Great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch, to move through space, to interact with matter.  Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things the rest of us can only dream of.  But those dreams are important.

David Foster Wallace “Federer both Flesh and Not.”

And as a Mormon, I believe that the human body is magnificent, not sin-filled and vile.  I believe that bodies enhance and enable spiritual capacities, not stunt them.  There is not Mormon equivalent to the heresy of ‘the mortification of the flesh.’

BYU is in a basketball tournament right now, the NIT (National Invitation Tournament), and one of the announcers last night was Bill Walton.  Walton was one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, sort of a hero of mine.  He’s also a dreadful announcer.  Too talky, too interested in long stories about his own career, and not, like, the ballgame right there in front of him.  He was a former teammate of Danny Ainge and we got to hear many stories about what a great guy Ainge was.  And so on.  But then he talked about Kresimir Cosic.  Cosic was a genuinely brilliant player, for BYU and later, for the Yugoslavian and Croatian national teams.  And Walton stopped himself, got a little choked up, trying to describe the beauty of Cosic’s game.

This happens sometimes.  You remember a Willie Mays, a Joe Montana, a Wayne Gretzsky, a Magic Johnson, and your eyes get a little teary.  What they did was so beautiful, it still takes your breath away.

It’s good to care about things, and to care about beauty.  And of course, I get that same feeling when I hear a great tenor sing, or a great dancer dance, or a great actor in a great role.  If there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, praiseworthy . . . So watch this kid,twenty years old, from Africa, already a college graduate.  Watch him soar: Victor Oladipo, from Indiana.  Meanwhile, the NCAA tournament is on-going, and baseball season soon to start.  Go Hoosiers, and go Giants.


“Not a feminist”

At a family party over the weekend, my brother and I found ourselves chatting about our grandmother.  I’ve written about my grandmother before; a remarkable woman.  Her husband, my grandfather, was murdered in 1940, leaving her with five children under the age of nine.  She moved in with her mother, and went to work. While working as a teacher, she earned an MA and a PhD, and ended up on the faculty of BYU, in Library Science.  She was a strong-willed and forceful woman, and her four daughters grew up to be equally remarkable.  My mother and her sisters (my deeply admired and redoubtable aunts) are woman of extraordinary accomplishments and talents.  Two of them earned doctorates; the other two, master’s degrees.  Two of them are published authors.  One is an extraordinary playwright, another a remarkable poet.  I love them all deeply, and continue to be astonished by their humor, wit, energy and intelligence.

Anyway, my brother and I got to talking about my grandmother. We were in a big family gathering, surrounded by our kids and their kids and in-laws, and we were sort of evangelizing about this amazing woman who was such an important part of our early lives.  And then my brother said something that completely amazed me.  He said “of course, she wasn’t a feminist.”

Well, of course she was a feminist.  She was a feminist pioneer.  One of the first women to be hired as tenured faculty at BYU.  A former Utah Mother of the Year.  An actress and a writer.  She fought for equal pay.  She raised her daughters to value higher education, and she taught them the importance of working outside the home. And her daughters all did–they were, all of them, well respected professional women. Obviously she was a feminist.  They are, all of them, feminists.

But for my brother, it was equally obvious.  Of course she wasn’t a feminist.  How could I even suggest such a thing. Yes, she was an accomplished woman, a fiercely independent woman, a professional woman of extraordinary abilities.  But that didn’t make her a, you know, a . . . a feminist.

It blew my mind, honestly.  And it was a big chaotic family gathering–not a setting where we could really pursue it, or where I could ask the question burning in my mind: “what the heck do you think ‘feminist’ means?”  The moment passed, the conversation swirled off in another direction.

And I love my brother, and I respect him.  But come on.  If my grandmother, of all people, wasn’t a feminist. . . .

But I do think she might have rejected that label.  She opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, back in the day.  She was a loyal Republican, and she thought the ERA might bring with it serious unintended consequences; she thought it wasn’t worth the risk.  I talked to her about it; she said she preferred to work one issue at a time–on equal pay, for example, job by job, rather than a big federal approach, or something as potentially scary as a constitutional amendment.

So what is it about that label?  Why is feminist a new F-word?  Why do some women, bright, independent, strong women, still resist calling themselves feminists?

My Mom’s one.  When I was a kid, my Mom always ‘worked outside the home,’ as all those sacrament meeting talks back then insisted married women had no business doing.  She was a school teacher.  My Dad was an opera singer and a music professor; I don’t know much about their finances, but she told me once that she didn’t work because they needed the money.  She worked because she needed to, because staying at home with kids drove her insane.  She chose to work.  So when I got home from school, it was my job to watch my younger brothers.  Which was completely no problem–all we did was play basketball.  Home from school, drop the book bag, grab the ball.  Babysitting made easy.

Mom wouldn’t go to Relief Society for years.  Every time she went, there’d be a lesson about not working outside the home, and so she’d stay away for another year or so.  Finally, after years gone, she finally started going, because they made her RS President.  But my Mom also didn’t consider herself a feminist.

Feminist means . . . well, to me, it just means someone who believes in and supports equality.  To me, feminist means equal.  Period.

But for some people–people every bit as committed to equality as I am–feminist means, well, all sorts of nasty things, I imagine.

What I think, though, is that the central feminist critique of patriarchy, of how patriarchy functioned in the past and how it still controls the power centers of our culture, that the feminist rejection of patriarchy (such a potent and central concept in academic feminist discourse), that that may be the key to why so many LDS people are uncomfortable calling themselves feminists. ‘Patriarchy’, a pejorative word for feminists, is a positive one for Mormons. We give patriarchal blessings.  We talk of honoring our patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  Priesthood is exclusively patriarchal.

I’m reminded of the probably apocryphal story of the kid, graduating from primary, brought up to the pulpit by the bishop.  The bishop tells the congregation “little Sally here will be joining the Young Women’s, and I was so impressed with her bishop’s interview.  Let me show you.”  He then turns to the girl in the best beaming bishoply fashion, and says, “so Sally, a little quiz.  There’s something that your Daddy has that your Mommy does not have.  And it starts with a ‘p.’  What is it?”  The girl stares up at him, appalled, and finally replies, “I think I know the answer, but I don’t think I’m supposed to say it in Church!”

My wife likes to say that she doesn’t mind not having the Priesthood right up to the point that some man, talking about women’s roles, says she shouldn’t mind not having the Priesthood.  And my Mom and grandma were much of the same mind.  I used to love watching my grandma in Sacrament meeting.  Whenever a speaker would talk about ‘women’s roles,’ or why women shouldn’t ‘work outside the home,’ my grandmother would start cleaning our her purse.  And she would say ‘oh, dear, oh dear,’ under her breath, just loudly enough that the speaker could barely hear it, but not so loudly as to be distracting.

But ‘feminist’? That’s going to far.  That suggests, maybe, that patriarchy itself is at fault, that an organization run entirely by men, correlated by men, is inherently, automatically unjust and unequal.  That society itself remains unequal, despite the undoubted advances women have made. And for some women, that’s pushing things too far.  They’re perfectly happy being women, comfortable in their skin.  And they don’t feel they’ve been disrespected, either in Church or society at large.  Sure, there are problems, and we need to work to fix them.  But we don’t need to completely re-order society.

Of course, ‘feminism’ means many things to many people.  To some feminists, the essence of feminism is the critique of and opposition to patriarchy.  To other feminists, the essence of feminism is simply equality.  For some, my grandmother’s muttered comments in Church when men talked about women’s roles was an act of feminist subversion (muted to be sure, but certainly unmistakable).  But to others, her rejection of the ERA couldn’t be reconciled with committed feminist activism.

My grandmother was a strong, independent woman.  To me, that makes her a feminist, an important and powerful feminist pioneer.  My Mom is equally strong, equally independent, and very much a feminist too.  That’s because, to me, feminist is a positive word, a terrific thing to be. To others, it’s another ‘f’ word.  Either way, equality is what we’re aiming for.


American Exceptionalism

A friend of mine recommended this video, the seventh in a series of videos by this Bill Whittle guy.  He’s a hard-core conservative, but comes across as reasonable and articulate, and I rather enjoyed it.  If you don’t want to watch a 12 minute link, a summary: he’s arguing for American exceptionalism, and goes through all sort of ways in which America is really ascendent–scientific papers published, Nobel prizes, business innovations, inventions and discoveries.  Plus military domination.  Plus cultural ubiquity.  I’m not sure I’d use Hollywood action movies as a measure of American awesomeness, but otherwise he makes a strong case.  And he attributes it all to limited government, lack of government regulation, and the Second Amendment.

As I say, the guy seems pretty rational.  I’m an American, after all; I like my country, I consider myself a patriot.  But though he gets the evidence for American greatness pretty well right, his analysis is way off.  In fact, it’s actually pretty funny.

First of all, he doesn’t understand what ‘American exceptionalism‘ means.  It doesn’t mean ‘American awesomeness,’ which is how he seems to understand it.  ‘Exceptional,’ in this context, doesn’t mean ‘really terrific,’ it means ‘unique, an exception to the rules.’  Most historians today reject exceptionalism, but it’s not because they’re all a bunch of America-hating commies.  It’s because they see the preponderance of evidence as suggesting that American culture is essentially an extension of European culture, including imperialism and war-making. He’s confusing actual exceptionalism for, I don’t know,  pop culture hegemony, plus half-baked imperialism, plus corporate world-domination.

But, okay, let that go.  Here’s what Whittle doesn’t say.

America, he says, leads the world in science.  Evidence: Americans publish more scientific papers than the next seven nations combined.  I think that’s great, and it’s probably true.  Why?  Because of investments by government.  Because of research grants, federally funded.  Because of corporate grants for research, and the tax break that results.  Because of directly funded scientific research, like the Hubbell telescope, or NASA, or Los Alamos, or at universities all across the country.  Because of land-grant colleges, which expanded education access to basically everyone.  Because of Pell grants and college loans.  I think everyone would agree that there are lots of problems with American education and higher education, but there’s a reason we’re a magnet to kids the world over.  We were the first nation on earth to decide that every kid who wanted to go to college should be able to, and to use federal money to make that possible. And we’re reaped a great harvest.

Whittle talks about Norman Borlaug.  Calls him one of the greatest Americans, a man who did as much good for humanity than anyone else who has ever lived on the planet earth.  Boy, is he right about that!  Borlaug’s agricultural innovations may have saved a billion lives, may have saved a billion people from starvation.  An extraordinary man, a great scientist.  Educated at a government funded college, his research funded by the Rockefeller foundation and the US government.  Federal money, sensibly invested.

Why does America lead in business innovation?  It sure as heckfire ain’t limited government.  It’s because we lead the world in government investment in infrastructure (or used to.)  It’s because of the national highway system, and computer technology (developed initially for government research), and the internet (a government innovation.)  Al Gore did not invent the internet, nor did he ever say that he had.  What he did do was sponsor legislation freeing this government resource for commercial use.

Now here’s the thing.  Every bit of that, the infrastructure and the educational programs and the colleges and the research grants, all of it, were proposed by liberals and opposed by conservatives.  It’s really remarkable.  Whittle thinks he’s making a case for The Greatness of America.  And he does.  But really, it’s the Greatness of Liberalism.  Every single item on his list was initially a liberal innovation, proposed by a liberal legislator or President, fought for in Congress by liberals, enacted and signed as a result of liberal support.  He talks about how remarkable the Marshall Plan was.  Indeed it was.  What other major military power, having defeated its enemy, then goes on to spend national treasure to rebuild that same enemy’s economy, to feed the enemy’s children, and rebuild his homes and industries.  Who does that?  America did.  In Germany and Japan, that’s what we did.  Well, do you have any idea how hard conservatives fought against the Marshall plan?

Here’s my personal fave rave, the single funniest thing on the video.  Whittle says that America is ‘exceptional’ because of our military world dominance.  Well, that’s a real thing–American armed forces are incredibly effective, well trained and well-armed.  I wish we didn’t use that military might to invade countries with whom we have no quarrel (lookin’ at you, Iraq!), but the military is effective.  This, he says, is because of the American system of limited government. Yep.  Just savor that thought.  Just bask in it.  We have the greatest army in the history of the world.  The biggest, the baddest, the toughest.  And it exists because of our tradition of limited government.  The itty-bitty tiny little government envisioned by our Founders finds its truest expression in . . .  a 1.4 trillion dollar military.  Annually.  Which pays for 1.3 million personnel. Plus, you know, tanks and planes and helicopters and submarines and aircraft carriers and destroyers and . . . . Well done, limited government!

See, here’s the thing: the central doctrine of the US constitution is NOT limited government, as Whittle seems to think. The Founders did NOT want a small central government.  If they had wanted a limited federal government, they probably would have said so.  They’d already experienced limited government with the Articles of Confederation.  They were fed up with it.  They wanted a big activist government.  The key to understanding the Constitution is the general welfare clause.  They wanted government to have lots and lots of power, and do lots and lots of good things, but they were simultaneously wary of the possibility of any single branch of government wielding too much of that power.  Hence separation of powers: the single central constitutional doctrine.

Oh, sure, Thomas Jefferson said some things about limiting government.  And then, the second he became President, he expanded the size and influence and power of the federal government exponentially, with the Louisiana Purchase.  (This is a guy, after all, who could write with a straight face about ‘all men’ being ‘created equal,’ and on the same day, write his overseer about capturing escaped slaves.)  Don’t get me wrong; I like Jefferson.  But don’t expect philosophic consistency from the man.

No, we get this ‘limited government’ argle-blargle from the likes of Ronald Reagan, who loved to talk about ‘government is the problem, not the solution,’ while greatly expanding both its size and reach.  Or Reagan’s fellow conservative George W. Bush, who loved small government rhetoric, but who even the Wall Street Journal admitted was a government expanding disaster. Liberals, on the other hand, who like government and want  to work effectively, who see the direct link between sensible government investment and American expanding prosperity, tend to reduce the size of government.  As Bill Clinton did, and so far, as has President Obama.

So I would suggest to Mr. Whittle: he’s absolutely right about American awesomeness.  Well done, sir! But he’s got the causes completely skee-wampus.  Our country is successful.  Our Founders great experiment in democracy has succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings.  And our success is built on effective, competent, far-sighted liberalism, as expressed legislatively, and administered by the federal government.

Oh, and the Second Amendment.  Sorry, I forgot Whittle’s final conclusion, that all this success was built on the foundation of the Second Amendment.  I was wrong: that’s the funniest thing in his entire video.  Oh my word.  Nothing in the Constitution could be less relevant to our current prosperity than the Second Amendment.  It’s like saying “Joe Montana’s great career as a quarterback was built on the foundation of Bill Walsh’s hair-stylist.”  It’s like saying “the Empire State Building is built on the foundation of sidewalk hot dog sales.”  It’s like . . . no, sorry, can’t think of anything silly enough.

Bill Whittle has a big following, I gather.  He’s an appealing on-camera personality.  His research isn’t half bad.  But he’s an ideologue of the first order, and his analysis is just preposterous.  Government generally works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t, let’s work together to fix it.



Anna Karenina: A review

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be really eclectic; movie reviews and cultural commentary, political thoughts and book reviews, theology and history, with an occasional smattering of baseball.  That’s kind of who I am, a guy with many interests.  I’m a playwright–we dramatists have, by nature, pack rat minds. So after a few days on a single subject, it’s time for a review.

And Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina film is really something special.  Such an interesting director: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna give some idea of his versatility.  Now he turns Tolstoy’s novel into a highly theatrical exploration of the separate lives we live in public and in private.  Given a taut, literate, compact screenplay by Tom Stoppard, Wright turns the material inside-out and upside down, opening up the material and transforming it.

We start in a theater. An older proscenium space, with a huge forestage and capacious fly space.  And in a sense, the entire film takes place there, in that theatrical setting.  We see a stage door open, and an actor step into a Russian winter; we see actors step through a door, and find himself in a train station, we see a horse race, all rapt faces and thundering hooves, but no actual horses, and when finally horses appear, they’re racing past a proscenium opening. We see flats and backdrops.  Actors enter, and have to negotiate their way past footlights.

The dance where Anna meets Count Vronsky, where he woos and wins her, is a sinuous waltz, the dancers using their hands as well as their feet, precisely choreographed serpentine writhing hand movements simulating making love.  As Keira Knightley as Anna, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who made a brilliant John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) as Vronsky dance, the other dancers freeze, until Anna and Vronsky swing past and free them.

The mystery of Anna Karenina is what on earth Anna sees in Vronsky.  She’s married, and we have no reason not to see her marriage as a happy one.  Although Jude Law captures Karenin’s stolid dullness, he also shows us, unmistakably, his essential goodness.  He’s a considerate, pious and decent man, and he desperately loves her.  Why would she throw away her marriage and her family and her child, why would she toss all that aside for a vain little popinjay like Vronsky?  Taylor-Johnson is unquestionably good looking, a precise little man with gorgeous hair and perfect mustache, but he’s comparably insubstantial.  Karenin has what Vronsky does not: integrity, character, a position, and kindness to spare.  You know Vronsky’s going to cheat on Anna as soon as he’s bored with her, and when he does, the only thing that’s surprising is that he lies to her for so long about it.  Vronsky’s Mom (Emily Watson), offers the secret to his character: “so you’ve had an affair with a married woman.  That’s a valuable experience.  But it’s time to move on.”

But what Wright does show us, through the dance scene, is the beginning of a hopeless, desperate, self-destructive sexual infatuation.  The dance encompasses it–it’s exciting, intoxicating, dangerous.  When we finally see Anna and Vronsky in bed, their flexuous writhing echoes the dance; they make love like snakes.  And then we see them entangled in bedclothes, and we can barely tell where Anna ends and Vronsky begins.

They’re in love, says Anna repeatedly.  She’s in love with him.  But they hardly seem ever to talk, and when they do talk, she seems insane; insanely jealous, insanely besotted.  And this is where Knightley’s performance strikes me as so extraordinary.  She plays every moment full out, every emotion as an extreme, without seeming to care if those moments are stitched together into a complete characterization.  Having seen the film, my initial response was to wonder why Knightley wasn’t nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, instead of, say, Naomi Watts, whose character in The Impossible (though exceptionally well acted) spends most of the movie in a coma.  I think, though, that Knightley’s commitment to each moment of the performance may have struck some critics as ill-conceived, like she had no sense of the character, and so just overplayed individual emotional states.

But I thought her performance was perfect for this movie, for this approach to the material.  Wright’s over-all strategy isn’t realistic, not ever for a moment.  It’s entirely stylized, almost Brechtian.  Knightley isn’t so much a character as an enigma, a huge question-mark at the heart of the film. The rapid-fire mood changes fit the shifting scenery and ever-present mirrors–it’s not human life we’re seeing, but a fragmented approximation.

And by playing her that way, Wright is able to emphasize what seems really to interest him; the sexual double-standard.  Anna is a ‘fallen woman.’  She is disgraced.  And she is therefore ostracized.  So we see her at the opera, and no one will speak to her, except Shirley “Moaning Myrtle” Henderson, in a tiny role as ‘Rude Opera Woman,’ who disses her so completely that Anna dissolves in tears and leaves.  Vronsky sees all this, and seems bothered by it.  But it takes two to tango, and one can’t help but notice that Anna’s partner in adultery gets off scott-free, because he’s a guy.

Meanwhile, we see another side of love, another version of conventional propriety.  Domhnall Gleeson plays Levin, another aristocrat, hopelessly in love with the lovely Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  She’s young, though, and her head has been turned by Vronsky; she rejects Levin’s proposal.  Levin, meanwhile, tries to care for his revolutionary brother, who is living with a woman to whom he is not married.  Eventually, Kitty matures, accepts Levin’s proposal (in a lovely scene involving wooden letter blocks.)  And Levin feels like he needs to shield her from any ‘scandal’ involving her acknowledging the ‘fallen woman’ in his household.  Kitty impatiently rejects any such nonsense, and patiently and kindly helps her nurse the invalid brother back to health.  Compassion is possible–convention can be successfully navigated.

Of course, Anna dies; we knew going in that she would, that she would fall between the wheels of a train.  The final image of the film is the field where her children play, patiently and lovingly looked after by Karenin.  And then the camera pulls back, and we see the field, the flowers and grasses, and they’re part of a stage set, on the stage floor.  And we end where we began, in a theater.

It’s a strangely beautiful film, a superb adaptation of a great novel by an immensely inventive director and writer.  It’s a film that’s in part about the tragic mystery of intense sexual infatuation.  It’s a film about more lasting varieties of love.  And it’s a film about a society that refuses to allow women equality, not in love, and not in sin.  It’s spectacular.  See it.

What’s in the way?

So what’s getting in the way?

What aspects of Mormon culture hold us back?  What sorts of things get said in our culture that aren’t helpful?  What cliches drive us crazy, what ideas are just teeth-grittingly annoying? And how can we look for the humor in comments that might otherwise hurt and sting?

For a long time, I was a staff writer for something called the Sugarbeet. Sort of a Mormon answer to the Onion.  Basically, we made fun of Mormon culture.  We put out a book and everything.  And although I was a very minor part of the whole enterprise, I found it really did wonders for my, well, testimony. It helps to laugh.

I’ve heard it all my life; people ‘go inactive’ because people in the Church say something that offends them, and that drives them away.  But to me, it’s not comments from ward members that hurt, but the attitudes those comments reveal.  And it’s not really that we ‘get offended.’  It’s more like we start to wonder ‘where do I fit in?  If that’s what everyone believes, and I don’t believe it, why am I here?’  So let’s look at some things people say, and how we might possibly respond.

“We’re living in the Last Days.  And our inspired constitution is hanging by a thread.  It’s up to us, the Priesthood of God, to save it.”

Okay, I’m a liberal Democrat, and I live in Provo, Utah.  I’m outnumbered.  I’m, like, Custer-at-the-Little-Bighorn outnumbered.  The folks in my ward are really nice about it, but every once in awhile, people blurt out something about that Moslem Socialist in the White House, and it’s annoying.  Comments like this have diminished since a Certain Somebody lost the last Presidential election, but they haven’t gone away entirely, as recent comments by a Utah stake President have shown.

It helps to know the facts.  The ‘constitution hangs by a thread’ stuff comes from something called the White Horse prophecy, which Joseph Smith probably never mentioned and which the Church has officially repudiated.  (Here’s a link to a scholarly article in BYU Studies on this prophecy.)  But like many folk doctrines, folks still believe in it, and cite it all the time.  Even Glenn Beck, I understand.  It’s best just to remember that the Church’s official policy is non-partisan, and that lots of Church leaders have likewise been Democrats.  And that might even be worth pointing out, from time to time.

“Don’t you believe in the prophet?”

Said with a condescending smile, right?  What happens is that you’ll be talking, and you’ll say something maybe slightly unorthodox, and this is the conversation-stopping response.  I see it a lot in science/religion discussions.  You’ll say something about, say, pre-Adamic death, and someone will quote Mormon Doctrine at you.

Mormonism is built on a foundation of continuing revelation.  But that doesn’t mean that every comment made by a General Authority is equally authoritative.  Sometimes the Brethren have disagreed.  At times, even, they’ve gotten things wrong. My main way of dealing with this kind of comment is to say something like ‘well, we’ll have to agree to disagree,’ and walk away.  But I think that’s a really lame response, and wish I had a better one.  Any suggestions?

“President Benson said that R-rated movies. . .”

I love film, as an art form.  I see lots of movies, I taught classes on film at the college level for twenty years, I study film theory.  I like movies.  And I have really good reasons to reject the MPAA rating system as a guide to, well, basically, anything. I see many many movies, and I don’t much care what they’re rated.

But for some people in the Church, President Benson’s comments about the rating system suggest an absolute standard, binding on all Latter-day Saints.  And the thing is, it simplifies matters.  R-rated=bad, PG-13=okay.  But the fact is, I have seen R-rated movies that were profoundly and powerfully moral, that changed my life for the better.  And PG-13 movies that were bad aesthetically and morally.  A letter-of-the-rating approach completely ignores the complexity and subjectivity of art generally, or of film as an art form, but if you’re not much into movies, that may not matter much.  I’m going to see the movies I’m going to see.  And give a friendly wave to ward members I happen to see at the cineplex.

“Read approved works by the Brethren.  We don’t need to read works by atheists or agnostics or anti-Mormons.  Just read approved materials and you’ll be fine.”

So, what, I’m supposed to research the religious views of every author I read?  Really? I’ve got a five book a week habit goin’ on here.  I don’t have the faintest idea which of my favorite authors are atheists. More to the point, I believe in actively seeking out books that are virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy.  An active search takes effort.  And to me,it’s worth it.

There are book people, people who love to read, who go to the library twice a week, who would rather read than eat.  I’m one, so’s my wife.  And then there are people who don’t enjoy reading.  That’s totally cool.  I don’t feel like I have the right to comment on what other people do for fun.  (Hunting, fishing, really any outdoor sports). I’m going to read a lot, all the time.  Most of what I read is non-fiction, because to me, it’s fun to learn about the world.  I don’t read a lot of ‘approved materials,’ because they’re boring.

“I know. . . .”

The Church is true.  The Book of Mormon is true. That President Monson is a prophet of God.

I understand, rhetorically, that to say ‘I know’ seems stronger than to say ‘I believe.’  But my reading of the scriptures tells me that we’re saved by faith, and not necessarily by knowledge.  In fact, to just believe is considered as much a gift of the spirit as ‘knowing.’

 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful. D&C 46: 13-14.

I don’t know very many things on this earth.  I’m pretty confident in gravity. But religiously?  I try.  I do my best.  I wish testimony meetings could focus a little less on certitude, and bit more on the struggle for faith. Faith is, after all, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Let me find sustenance in that paradox, and be grateful for what I do not know.







So, what now?

Yesterday, I posted about doubt, about the crisis of faith in the Church and issues many of us have with Mormon culture.  I appreciate all of you who responded.  One respondent linked to a talk by Richard Bushman, the brilliant historian, author of what I believe to be the finest Joseph Smith biography, Rough Stone Rolling and perhaps the most thoughtful LDS apologist.  Here’s the link.

Many of Bushman’s thoughts resonate with my own.  I was especially taken with his description of disillusioned members of the Church who have managed to find their way back. I kept nodding my head–‘yep, that’s me, yep, there I am.’  According to Bushman:

We’ve learned the Prophet was human. We don’t expect him to be perfect.  I would add that Joseph Smith clearly regarded the Word of Wisdom as good advice, not a set of requirements, for example. He wasn’t a good businessman. He was flawed.

We also don’t believe he was led by revelation in every detail. Nor, I think, do we see current Church leaders as led by revelation in every detail.  We don’t believe, for example, that every talk in General Conference is equally valuable.  Revelation’s hard.  It’s hard for us, and it’s hard for them.  And human beings make mistakes, even pretty serious ones.

We newly revived Latter-day Saints also develop a more philosophical attitude toward history. We come to see (like professional historians) that facts can have many interpretations. Put in another along side other facts, they do not necessarily destroy Joseph Smith’s reputation. Having said that, knowing about Joseph Smith and Nauvoo (and earlier) polygamy is really tough to deal with.  To me, it’s an entirely repugnant part of our history.  I plan to spend a later blog post just on this subject.

Revived Latter-day Saints focus on the good things they derive from their faith.  Which doesn’t mean that some aspects of Mormon culture don’t drive us crazy. black and white thinking, self-righteousness. The stuff, in fact, that other cultures also have, and that are annoying parts of those cultures too.

Obviously, some LDS people decide to leave the Church.  I’m not sure it’s possible, though, for someone who has been part of this culture to separate entirely from it.  It’s still part of you, it’s still one of the things that shaped you, that made you who you are. Most, I think, find that they still have to come to terms with their past, with their heritage.

But some LDS doubters, and I count myself among them, come through doubt to a place of renewed faith.  The experience of doubt does change you, and I think in good ways.  (I genuinely do believe that doubt is one of the most important genuinely creative forces in human history.)  But okay; we’re here.  We plan to stay.  What now?

I can’t talk about anyone else in this regard.  I’m not a prophet–I don’t have definitive answers for anyone.  i can just speak about my own experiences.  But here are a few things I’ve learned.

For one thing, Sunday school answers aren’t really very satisfying anymore. One Sunday School answer, of course, is ‘read the scriptures.’  I love the scriptures, and I enjoy reading them; always have.  But they don’t really invite the Spirit for me.  The spiritual exercise of reading fifteen minutes a day (or thirty, or whatever), just doesn’t work for me at all.  I read Mosiah 2-4, and find King Benjamin’s talk wonderfully edifying.  I read 2 Nephi 9, and wonder what the heck I’m supposed to get from all that olive tree grafting stuff.  Sometimes, reading the Book of Mormon really builds my testimony.  Sometimes, it really feels like a nineteenth century text, so conveniently answering every 1830s Protestant American doctrinal issue; a product of that time and place, and not an ancient one.

The real questions are these: does God exist?  Does He communicate with human beings?  I believe the answer to both those questions is yes.  So there’s this: 2 Nephi 29: 9-12:

Because I have spoken one word, ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished. Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written. For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.

What does this mean?  To me, it means that God has spoken to every culture on earth, to everyone.  That when we talk about ‘the scriptures,’ we mean all the scriptures, every inspired, edifying word.

It means the Qur’an is scripture.  It mean the Baghavad Gita is scripture.  But I’ll never truly understand those scriptures, because they’re the scriptural accounts of God’s dealings with cultures very different from my own.  I can read them, and profit from the experience, but I’ll get a lot more out of the scriptures of my own culture.

So I do read the Bible, and I do read the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon.  But when those pall (and sometimes they do), I think, well, what else have I read recently?  Well, Taylor Branch’s great three-part history of the civil rights movement and of Dr. King.  Is that scripture?  I don’t know if it counts exactly as scripture, but wasn’t Dr. King basically a prophet?  Mormonism tends to equate ‘prophet’ with ‘President of the Church,’ but historically that wasn’t what a prophet was–most Old Testament prophets were rebels, trouble-makers, agitators against the political and cultural status quo.  That was certainly true of Amos, sheepherder and farmer, who protested the cozy complacency of Samarian politicians. It was also true of Father Lehi; a successful businessman, but a thorn in the side of the ruling elite.  So does reading about Dr. King, reading his speeches, watching him speak on Youtube, does that count as scripture study?

I’ve decided it does, for me.  Don’t recommend it to anyone else, necessarily, but it draws me closer to my Heavenly Father, it edifies my soul.  And that’s the point, isn’t it?  Aren’t we supposed to look for actions that draw us closer to the Lord?

What about that other great Sunday School answer: prayer.  Prayer is massively important to me.  It really is.  But I have spent much too much time in my life engaged in two kinds of prayer that really don’t get me anywhere.

First of all, there are the perfunctory prayers over meals and at bedtime, prayers full of cliches and catch-phrases.  The ones where you feel like you could just plug in the same four-to-six sentences regardless of circumstances.  The prayers that feel like a chore–okay, I’ve said my prayers, check that one off the list.

The other ones are probably just as annoying to my Heavenly Father; the long, angst-ridden, desperate-for-an-answer prayers where you’re upset and mad at yourself and basically want God to solve your spiritual problems for you.  You want to force an answer; you insist on an answer.  I want to know. And I want it now.

I am not an accomplished pray-er by any means.  But what I’ve been working on is just trying to build a relationship.  I mean, what kind of friend is it who either just speaks in cliches, or spends every conversation whining?  I get that God is infinitely forgiving and wise, but I also don’t want to be this tiresome person, dull or desperate.

And when my kids are sick, and need a blessing, I lay my hands on their heads and I pray.  And something happens. Something two-way, some genuine communication.  Every time, there’s a feeling or thought or impression or impulse, and it genuinely feels external to myself.  Not something I made up, something Someone’s trying to tell me.

I can count on that.  I can rely on it.  And that’s wonderful.

And that’s why I’m sticking around.




I am a Mormon.  Mormonism is my spiritual home, and I don’t see that changing.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when the mainstream culture of Mormonism (especially as lived in Utah) drives me nuts.  I’m often troubled by a self-righteousness I see too often in Mormon culture.  Lessons attacking the ‘world’ or ‘worldly values’ tend to make me crazy, for example.  They tend to suggest ‘we’re right, they’re wrong,’ on issues that are by no means black and white.  Often such comments strike me as politically tinged–difficult, for a life-long liberal.  And they tend to attack works of art of genuine distinction and merit.  I have a testimony; I also have doubts.  I do my best to live according to my best sense of what’s right; I certainly don’t always succeed.

I taught at BYU for twenty years, and loved the kids I worked with.  But when I re-connect with many of those former students, I’m starting to realize something important.  A great many of them have left the Church, and many others are thinking about it.  There is a crisis of faith among young Mormons.  I talk to them and one subject keeps coming up, over and over.  Doubt.

We’re losing a lot of kids.  People I love, people I care about deeply, are separating themselves from the Church, and for reasons that don’t strike me as wholly unreasonable.  I wonder sometimes if the culture of Mormonism is well-suited to people of a certain personality type, and ill-suited to other sorts of people.  Some people want to know that there are black and white answers to moral questions.  They want to believe that people in authority have the answers, that all they have to do is listen and obey.  And others–and I count myself as one–see the world in shades of gray.  Some of us feel safer when we have space to question and to doubt.  Maybe it’s because I taught in the theatre department, and theatre kids don’t feel particularly comfortable in black and white environments.  We question, we wonder, we doubt. And we’re bothered when we see our good brothers and sisters who seem perfectly content, who don’t seem to doubt at all.  Are they faking it?  Are they completely sincere?  If so, what’s wrong with me?

Asking ourselves these sorts of questions is, of course, a normal thing, and a good thing, and perhaps some of you who read this blog who are not LDS are wondering what the big deal is.  But Mormon culture is not very welcoming to doubt.  There’s tremendous social pressure on all of us to never express doubt, to never reveal it, even perhaps to not feel doubt at all.  And yet, doubt also seems to be increasing.

Right now in Sunday school, we’re embarked on a year’s study of ‘Church history.’  But the history we study in Sunday school is sanitized, faith promoting, edifying, testimony-building.  I can see the reasons for that.  But we’re living today in a world where young people are adept at finding absolutely incredible amounts of information and knowledge.  It’s really extraordinary, what the internet has done.  I love it, I love the era in which we live.  I love navigating Wikipedia, just bouncing from strange subject to strange subject.  Learning, growing.

But on the internet, it’s very easy to access all sorts of factually accurate information about LDS history that calls into question the mainstream narrative we learn in Sunday School, perhaps because they don’t include context.  And when that happens, it can be destructive of innocence, destructive of testimony, and destructive of faith.  And bright, wonderful, LDS young people are leaving the Church because of it.  Or perhaps not leaving the Church, but questioning, doubting.  Not wondering ‘should I stay a Mormon?’ but ‘what kind of Mormon am I becoming?’  And always, this: ‘where do I fit in?’

In a recent General Conference, I remember hearing this: “There is no place in the gospel for doubt.”  I’m not quoting that exactly, nor am I citing who said it; I don’t want this to turn into some personal disagreement.  But, here’s how I see it.  Doubt seems to me much like pain; something unpleasant, but deeply necessary.  Three years ago, I got very sick, and nearly died, and I am in considerable, constant pain ever since.  I don’t like being sick.  I think getting sick really sucks.  But I also recognize that getting sick was in many ways a great personal blessing to me.  I’ve learned a lot from it, and grown closer to my family, and I’m grateful for it.  I would say that pain is certainly part of the gospel.  And by the same token, and in the same sense, doubt can be an essential part of mature Christian reflection.  Not for everyone, maybe, but for some people, for those who need it.

For example, how can I reconcile the idea that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were prophets of God with their practice of something that seems to me as repugnant, with the practice of polygamy?  Why did it take so long for the Church to overcome its legacy of racism?  How can we reconcile varying versions of the First Vision narrative?  Good books have been published putting these issues into context, but questions linger in my mind.  And I benefit from working through them.

I doubt.  Doubting has enhanced my faith.  The experience, for me, of church attendance, of scripture reading and prayer, of trying to find an inner place of faith, is one often leavened by cognitive dissonance.  And that, in turn, leads me to think and query and generally, to grow.  And growth takes place without necessarily resolving difficult questions, or reaching answers, but just by struggling with issues.  Sometimes the struggle itself leads to some kind of resolution.

And this crisis of faith in the Church I describe is a real thing, and something which the Church does seem to be addressing, but with babysteps, incrementally.  One issue, for example, is the role of women in the Church, the degree to which women feel marginalized.  Such websites as Feminist Mormon Housewives and Segullah provide a forum for women to commune together, support each other. Sunstone is, as always, a rock and anchor for liberal Mormons.  So is John Dehlin’s Mormon Matters blog and podcast. All these developments are altogether good, but the Church has also responded, most recently by assigning women to give prayers at General Conference for the first time.  Another issue for young people today is the Church’s position on homosexuality.  Again, the Church has modified its position, especially on the official Church website, but only in small ways.

The biggest issue of them all, in my opinion, is the need for greater transparency when it comes to Church history.  Elder Marlin Jenson has spoken up in recent years on the need for transparency, and the publication, by the Church history department, of a new history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a welcome development, as well as a deeply sobering read.  But there’s much more that needs to be done.

Meanwhile, I intend to continue to do my poor best as well.  Let’s talk together, commune together about why we doubt.  Let’s not leave the kids who doubt with no place to go for answers.  Doubt together, and use the power of cognitive dissonance to work through issues of faith.  I am like the grieving father in Mark 9.  I believe.  Help, thou, mine unbelief.