Friday, July 24, 2020

Song of Names Release and Reflections

History is made up of three things:
 -what happened
-what evidence got left
-how we choose to tell the story

 We would love to get at what happened. But the "what got left" step often gets in the way. The records and monuments that are produced and preserved lean heavily toward telling us what people with power thought of things. Everybody else often gets left way out on their peripheral vision: what happened is as often between as in the lines.

 So when we go back to choose how to tell a story, we stand on the shoulders of past bias. It's a lot of extra work to try and tell a story from a different point of view than the ones our records most value. Trust me: I've spent hour after hour just trying to track down the full names of women mentioned in passing, just so that I can write a sentence where they get to be the subject and not just somebody's wife, sister, or ward member.

 In Mormon history, the sources tell us a lot more about leaders and missionaries than members of the Church. Ardis Parshall once looked at the indexes of three Mormon histories, published in 1970, 1992, and 2005, and tallied the percent of people mentioned who are female. She found that we've been getting a little better over time:
1970 index: 7% female
1992 index: 8.7% female
2005 index: 15% female

 This stuff matters. This stuff matter because the stories we tell set our unconscious associations and expectations. And those expectations become the baseline for our plans.If we don't tell stories about a given group of people, no one thinks to take those people into account in their imagination. And we build a world planned for a too-narrow slice of humanity.

 A few years ago, Ardis and I started writing a book together. An ambitious book, that would combine history and poetry to give people a viewed of Mormon history through individual lives as varied as stained glass. We wanted to take the extra research steps and writing steps to get at pieces of the past left out past the edges of our collective memory.

 We wrote a book that focuses more or less equally on men and women. That features people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, making their homes in different places. That honors people who lived with different levels of wealth, with different levels of mental health. We did our best to find and sing forgotten names.

 We're officially releasing Song of Names: A Mormon Mosaic today. We'll have a Zoom party tonight. But last night, Ardis and I agreed that the most important legacy will be if this helps show other people that this can be done. That the barriers of how our stories have been told in the past don't need to forever dictate how we get at what actually happened, and that there is enough material out there for us to choose to remember our history and heritage in different and better ways.


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Why I Hate White Jesus

At the end of last year, I wanted to enter the Eugene England Memorial Personal Essay contest. I had ideas for three different interesting pieces I could write...and then scrapped them all and wrote something more raw instead. 

I don't publish this essay lightly now. I don't want to come across as being needlessly critical. 
In January, though, I shared part of this essay at a reading at Writ & Vision in Provo. People who were there have been reaching out to me periodically since: after the reveal of a new Church logo, after a recent press release announcing that 14 approved paintings depicting Jesus will replace all bulletin boards and other signs of community in meetinghouse foyers. Mine is just one perspective, of course, but I do think that in our rush to emphasize Jesus we may have missed some things. 

Here's the essay: 

Why I Hate White Jesus

I tried to pay attention during General Conference in October. I’d just switched jobs and I was thinking about my life’s path, wondering where I might fit into this great song of a world—and I could’ve used one of those experiences people talk about where a word or phrase jumps out to you and for an instant you feel as if a speaker were inspired specifically for your sake. I couldn’t do it, though. Barely heard half the words at all because of the way my body tensed and my concentration scattered almost every time they put a painting of Jesus up on the screen. I swear they’re doing that more and more lately. Swear they’re trying harder to hold our attention with image after image, all too often of a softly lit Jesus with white skin and light brown shampoo commercial hair and impossibly clean clothes.

I hate him. I hate white Jesus.

I didn’t always. I used to be able to look at those paintings more or less unmoved and shrug white Jesus away. But I couldn’t this October. Couldn’t separate medium from message, couldn’t intellectualize, couldn’t forgive people for depicting the divine without examining their assumptions. And so I sat in my hate, stewed in my hate, stayed stuck in my hate long after the weekend was done.

I have wallowed in my hate now, turning it over in my gut and in the back of my mind, and I am beginning to suspect that the only way out (if there is such a thing) is going to be through. I will not be offended if you turn back now. But if you’d like to wade with me, I plan to count and catalogue and measure my hate on the off chance there is something worth finding on the other side.

#

I have skin in this game.

I am an heir of my grandfathers’ Semitic and Sikh features: deep-set eyes, a signature nose, a cast of melanin in the cells that makes my complexion olive and my hair black. My grandmothers’ ancestry stretches back through ships like the Mayflower to the northwestern European peoples who called themselves white after reaching America, but four centuries later I still get compliments on how well I speak English.

I have skin in this game. And in America, the rules of the game are still so tied up with one’s skin. Not officially. Officially we are all to be treated equally. Officially this is a land of opportunity, where your contributions to the future matter more than whatever connotations of the past may be carved into your phenotype. But however strongly most Americans embrace that ideal, the reality remains that our perceptions frame our actions and those perceptions are deeply inflected by race.

Sorry. I’m slipping into theory. I’m using long Latin-based words to push my thoughts safely up out of my chest and into my brain. I’m just trying to explain what my life feels like.

Let me try again. Think of a movie. In a movie, you’re not watching every event that happens in the story. Like: if someone’s making breakfast, you don’t have to watch them cook in real time. Instead, at any given time, you’re only watching one shot. Maybe a tired face. Then hands breaking an egg into a pan. Then a person sitting down at the table with an omelet. Your mind fills in the rest. 

In the process, your mind also adds meaning to each moment. Imagine a shot that is just an actor’s face, looking blank and expressionless. How is that possibly interesting? Film works, as some brilliant Soviet directors in the 1920s realized, because we see everything through the lens of our memories. Insert the shot of the actor’s blank face into a comedy and it can become a hilarious deadpan reaction. But put it in a drama, put a piece of tragic news right before that very same shot and the blank, expressionless face will feel stunned and overwhelmed. When you’re watching the movie, though—and this is the vital point—it doesn’t feel like you’re cobbling the pieces together detective-style to make meaning. It feels like the face itself is deadpan. Or like the face itself is stunned. Our minds at once do us the favor and play the trick of merging associations and experience together instantly.

We all live, every day, in the middle of other people’s movies. Living in America as a person not perceived as white is difficult because every shot of you is framed by the most emotionally powerful associations people have with bodies like yours. Strangers. Foreigners. Criminals. Rapists. Terrorists. They don’t typically think about that. You probably don’t think about it in the moment either. But it’s there, always, just like the great Soviet directors of the 1920s said it would be.

#

I don’t know how much people’s responses to me are based the color of my skin versus the content of my character. The content of my character is, admittedly, potentially a pain all by itself. I can be open, direct, and passionate in ways that may be discomfiting. I am strong-willed well past the point where that virtue veers off into fault. If I find, as I regularly do, that people perceive me as a threat it is entirely explicable if my brashness is to blame.

But I can’t close race out of the picture, because I’ve been treated as a threat in circumstances where my personality wasn’t involved at all. People didn’t call the police on me the time I was picking up discarded roof shingles from a family friend’s yard because I was brash. They did it because I’m brown. They did it because in their movie, men with my face are bad, scary guys. With that context, any unexplained scene with me is also potentially scary. That’s been true, in my not-so-limited experience with police, whether I was shooting hoops on my own at a park in the summer or walking down the street or, heaven forbid, dropping off a car at the elementary school where my mom worked and walking away.

I don’t mean any specific disrespect for the police who have stopped and questioned and waited around to watch me. As often as not, police have acted because someone called them. And I can guess why people have called them because I know what people have called me. It’s not just the middle school bully who passed out racial slurs like candy. Sometimes it’s the middle school friend’s sister, who told their mom I was a scary drug dealer and got me banned from a house I had never set foot in. Sometimes it’s the well-meaning members of wards where I’m new who ask me for what they assume will be a dramatic and exotic conversion story. One pulse-quickening time it was the missionaries walking back from the Provo temple toward the MTC who saw me passing by and shouted “Hey Osama!” from across the street while I hurried away.

It’s not just police. The same associations that have led to people calling me Osama are the associations that shape their attitudes about when the force of the state should be used. The same perceptions that motivated calls to the police have shaped parents’ attitude toward whether I should be allowed to come over and hang out with their son or how they felt about me hanging around their daughter.

We all live in other people’s movies. Images matter. Associations matter. People are wired by the raw montage of a culture to code assumed meaning onto bodies at a glance. To code certain human bodies as familiar, safe, trustworthy and other human bodies as foreign, dangerous, suspect. You don’t mean to do this, you may not want to do this, but it’s almost impossible not to. You can’t eat a diet of junk food and expect to stay thin. You can’t consume a culture full of racially charged images and expect not to become at least a little bit racist. You can’t expect to fill a nation with 24/7 fear of radical Islamic terrorists and not expect some people to murder American Sikhs.
I understand that. I understand why a person might drive by on September 15, 2001 and a shoot a turbaned gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi. I understand why the soldiers in Salt Lake airport that Thanksgiving, presumably as pre-Olympic security, seemed to watch every step I took until I left the building. I know people make choices. People make choices and will be accountable for their sins. But people are also trapped in frames of reference and associations they do not control.

I understand that even as I resent it. I can observe it and intellectualize it even as I know that I will have to exist in a culture where black-haired, darker-skinned people are plotting against you and attacking your country and taking your jobs and ruining the intangible comfort of homogeneity in your neighborhoods. A world in which I never know whether a person feels like I want to take their job at work because people are naturally territorial or because that instinct is amplified when the perceived intruder codes as aggressively foreign.

When I was in high school, a team of researchers worked with a bunch of 1st century Galilean skulls in an attempt to reconstruct what the average man in Galilee from the time of Jesus looked like. They hired a forensic artistic to create a digital image of a living face, filling in details on things like hair length and skin tone from other evidence from the era and region. The Columbus Dispatch, which we faithfully skimmed in my household, shared the project with some kind of proto-clickbait title about revealing what Jesus actually looked like. My dad loved the picture. He said it looked like me.

An editorial later that week criticized the image. The writer correctly pointed out that a composite of Galilean skulls mixed with an artist’s informed speculation doesn’t give us hard evidence of what Jesus as a historical individual looked like. The writer then asked what possible, probably anti-religious motives there might be in portraying such a revered figure as Jesus as such a brutish Neanderthal.

#

I can still remember the first time I wanted to punch Jesus.

It was in the spring of 2006. I had just moved to Utah. The previous fall, while I was visiting my sister in Provo, a woman in her 70s had approached me in the canned goods aisle of Day’s Market and effused about my striking profile. I was used to my appearance catching American eyes, of course, but not quite in that way. Carma De Jong Anderson was different. She refused to let me buy the black beans in my hand until I had agreed to let her drag me to the LDS Motion Picture Studio. Once I moved to Utah, Carma also shared my contact information with every painter she knew who had done Biblical work.

I felt like I had a certain moral obligation to do modeling work for painters who called me. I hoped that by getting my Semitic-Sikh face into religious art, I might subtly move the needle of white Latter-day Saints’ subconscious associations. Practically, my meager efforts to find my way from appointment to appointment sometimes felt like spitting in the wind but maybe, just maybe, if a missionary saw my face in a temple painting, “Osama” wouldn’t be the first word that sprang to his mind when he walked out and saw me on the street. Failing that, they at least got me a beard card while I waded through the six months of education I would be getting at BYU to finish my undergrad.

One day, I got a call from a painter named Jon McNaughton. At the time, he had a small shop in the mall where he mostly sold landscapes but he liked to do scenes from scripture as well. He wanted me to model as Simon of Cyrene on what happened to be the first day of spring term classes. He would be painting out in one of those bedroom communities on the far side of Utah Lake.

I didn’t have a car at the time, and buses didn’t go to the places where people fled when they thought Provo had a problem with population density. Jon offered me a ride. I worried just a little about being trapped, but he promised he would get me back in time for my religion class. On the drive, he told me he had always wanted to learn to paint like Rembrandt and admitted that he disliked universities like BYU for valuing abstract concept over craft, abstraction over reality. He told me about the great Jesus model he had and how excited he was for this painting.

A little after we got back to Jon’s house, his Jesus model arrived. He had a Norwegian shipbuilder sort of look. The strong build Mormons borrowed sometime after the late 19th century rise of what historians call “muscular Christianity.”  He almost did a double take when he saw me. For some reason, he found me instantly amusing. “Hey Jon,” he said, throwing an arm over my shoulder. “You should just do a portrait of us and call it ‘Jesus and Osama.’”

I know he didn’t know what he was saying. I know he wasn’t haunted, like I am, by the image of red blood against the blue of Balbir Singh Sodhi’s turban. I didn’t hit him. I didn’t lash out verbally because I know I need to be so careful about how I speak and how I present myself because I will be perceived so quickly as not simply annoyed, but aggressive. Threatening at a visceral, reactive level. I weighed the risks of speaking at all: would I be able to help him see something or risk running into more thoughtlessly offensive comments until I got myself into trouble?

I bit my tongue. When Jon McNaughton took us to the room where he’d set up the scene, I knelt to take up the cross. Carrying white Jesus’ burden.

#

How do you forgive people for existing within history?

It is all happening like the prophets said. People look on the outward appearance. Their mouths speak great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage. They despise the stranger and they grind the faces of the poor.

They trust in their flesh. They make themselves images.

How can you let all that go and treat someone as if they are clean from the sins of the generation?

#

Let me pause. Let me be clear. I don’t hate the actual, historical Jesus who walked and talked and dreamed and sweated his way around Galilee and wrestled somehow with the cosmos just before being executed in Jerusalem. I don’t hate the Jesus of the gospels, that figure translated from a mosaic of memories into the powerful stories disciples told and wrote and passed down. I need Jesus. I look to Jesus. I cling to Jesus when I feel as if I will sink and drown in the currents of a broken and racist history or the culture left in its wake.

I’m not even a full-fledged iconoclast who believes that all images of the divine fall so short as to be incompatible with worship.

I don’t mind different depictions of Jesus. The early art that showed Christ in the image of a fish or an anchor. The later art that depicted him through human metaphors: a youthful shepherd tending his flock, a prophet buried in the belly of a whale. I don’t even mind the first paintings that portrayed Christ with long hair and beard that might have been borrowed from depictions of Zeus, or the 10th century paintings of a Chinese Jesus in temples along the Silk Road, or the emaciated Florentine and Flemish and Bavarian figures in those cultures’ paintings during times when European models were all most painters had and Europeans features the only ones they knew.

I wouldn’t mind an occasional white Jesus today if he appeared in my faith alongside images of a black Jesus, a Latin-looking Jesus, perhaps even an occasional Jesus who actually looks like he comes from first-century Galilee despite an discomfort people might feel with a man who looks like Osama bin Laden.

No, I don’t expect or need the Jesus of art to always be based on the patterns of contemporary Galilean skulls or modeled on the famous Fayum portraits. I can accept depictions of Jesus taking many forms. I respect the longing to make the divine familiar. But we cross a line when we imply that the familiar is the only form of the divine.

#

When did Florentine and Flemish and Bavarian become white? The answer, ironically, has something to do with Jesus.

In the early history of the Americas, landholders justified the practice of slavery by appeal to the heathen status of kidnapped Africans. They accepted, back then, that Christians could do better than holding each other in open bondage—but made an exception for infidels.

By the time missionaries began teaching enslaved African men and women, it was far too late economically for the practice of slavery to change. The notion of whiteness began appearing in law codes instead, a new and necessary distinction between enslaved converts and the men of various European backgrounds who called themselves both Christians and masters.

The Jesus I hate is a Jesus made white and kept white long after white stopped being a skin tone and started serving as a legal status.

#

Hate is a strong word. But think of Esau. First born, preferred by the patriarch, strong and athletic. And the Bible says God hated him.

Hate is a strong word. And I need strength. Please.

I need some strength against the whiteness of the world I was born into.

#

I told you I didn’t used to hate white Jesus. I learned to hate him when I realized how much we worship him. How much we honor the impossibly clean clothes, the shampoo commercial hair, the white skin.

I hate him when I watch people bend over backwards to accommodate respectable white men while they criticize every word, action, and decision a brown person makes in this country before he or she is crucified.

Forgive them, Father, Lauryn Hill sings from my phone on repeat, for they know not what they do.  

Friday, April 10, 2020

On the Ministering of Angels

I'm looking out my window on the very quiet streets. It's a Friday. For Jews, the Sabbath is settling over homes celebrating Passover, that ancient time warp of a holiday that places participants back into a tense Egyptian night, awaiting deliverance or destruction. For many Christians, it's Good Friday: a time warp back to the long afternoon when Roman soldiers crucified Jesus on a lonely hill outside the sacred city.

There is a virus circulating the small planet we share now. I'm no expert, so I rely on the simplest of mathematical models to imagine what might happen.  If the new virus turns out to have the same mortality rate as the flu but spreads to 70% of the world population, as is thoroughly possible when no one starts with immunity, 5 million people will die. No one is sure whether the mortality rate is that low.

So we sit, looking at screens or out windows on this time warp of a night. Hoping to do our part so that the virus won't spread too quickly, so that hospitals don't grow too overcrowded, so that the fewest possible number of people in our communities have to get sick and struggle for air. So that the fewest possible number of people have to die without a loved one there whose hand they can hold.

It's that last part that gets to me most. People will always suffer, one way or another. Everyone is going to die. I don't mind that. It seems (most of the time) like a fair price for the privilege of knowing each other, of growing close to each other against the backdrop of this life's struggles. But taking away the comfort of human touch does seem like a high price to pay, even weighed against the clear need to slow viral transmission.

Rosalynde Frandsen Welch wrote last weekend about the particular problem the lack of touch plays in religious communities, including among Latter-day Saints. In times of sickness and sorrow, we long for the familiar warmth and weight of hands on the head in blessing. It's not a small thing to lose that. Going into the hospital is hard. I believe in hospitals, but I've spent enough time in them to have some sense how hard and disorienting it can be.

The loss of comfort and support in the hospital can have real and lasting consequences. Sam Brown, a careful Latter-day Saint thinker who works in hospital ICUs, has written about the psychological and emotional scars the kind of healing he does professionally can leave, and the health consequences that come when people can barely stand to drive in front of a hospital long after physical recovery.

We need to do all that we can do for those in need of comfort. It's our covenant. And it's not a small thing.

Last weekend, as she talked about the problem, Rosalynde wrote about a the story of the centurion and his servant in Luke 7 and Matthew 8, where the centurion says Jesus doesn't need to come to perform a healing because leaders can act by giving commands. In response, an artist named Daniel Bartholomew speculated about whether unseen spirits might have carried out the command.

As a young man, I was taught from the Doctrine & Covenants about how the Aaronic Priesthood holds the key of the ministering of angels. It's a huge statement, but not one we really did anything with. The notion of ministering angels appear all over the Book of Mormon, though. Even Book of Omni, probably written on plates that were running out of space, takes time to tell us to believe in the ministering of angels. And when it comes to taking care of the world of the dead, we do. We tell all kinds of stories about ancestors searching for us, helping us find names.

Right now, though, we also need them to care for the needs of the living. We need to pray for them to be sent to bless the patients in hospitals--and the people getting lost in their own anxiety and despair as they sit at home. We need young men to think about how to turn the key and call them down to bless and protect their elders in this hour of need.

We need angels from the heavenly host to attend every quiet graveside service attended only by immediate family members, robbed even of the chance to safely embrace each other. We need the angels to speak their Holy Ghost tongue and whisper a mourners' prayer.

About two thousand years and perhaps a night ago, Jesus left after his Passover meal and went out into a garden. He felt very heavy, a weight of bewildering pain and sorrow crashing down on him, crushing against him. He didn't want to be alone. He didn't want to be alone, but though the closest disciples were willing, their flesh was weak. Flesh has always been so weak.

So an angel came, strengthening him.

May they come, in an hour of need, to us all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Big News

It's been a wild month for me and today feels like a very big day.

Let me back up. About six months ago, I took a job managing the editorial department at an educational publisher focused. They were interested in my mix of experience in writing and history, as well as my multicultural sensibilities. I was excited about the opportunity to help children get a more complete and nuanced picture of social studies.

I got to really like the members of my department and others at the company as we worked toward that vision and got some cool things accomplished, though. As the current pandemic really hit the US, though, they decided to reorganize my department into another. I was out of a job.

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about what might come next. While I'm still looking for a regular job, Nicole and I also did some math about what we need and have felt like maybe it's time now to see if my long-term dream (which has always felt kind of impossible) could actually happen.

For 14 years, my driving passion has been to write challenging, sophisticated literature that speaks deeply to my religious community. I've gotten really good at it as a playwright, poet, essayist, blogger, novelist, history writer, screenwriter, literary translator, and creative midwife for others. As readers of this blog have noticed, though, it's gotten tough to squeeze in as much writing as I'd like between so many other obligations.

My books have sold quite well by the standards of niche-work-about-a-small-minority-community-rarely-covered-on-college-syllabi. The odds of selling enough books to literary-minded Latter-day Saints to survive off royalties, though, are extremely low.

Losing my job made me take a serious look at another model. On the website Patreon, people make monthly pledges to support artists they appreciate, subscribing to their work. I decided to create a Patreon page for my own work.

It feels like a good model for someone whose work means a lot to a relatively small audience. Support from as many patrons as they are people in a ward would be enough (with Nicole's income from teaching and a little side work from me), I could focus most of my time on creative writing.

That's a big deal. In two centuries, one of the main barriers to Latter-day Saints having "Shakespeares of our own" like Orson F. Whitney longed for way back in 1888 is that we're not organized well to economically support them.

It's outside my comfort zone to try and organize funding, but I feel like this is the right moment in my life to at least try. If you're appreciated my work (and are fortunate enough to have some stable income yourself), I hope you'll consider pledging.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Reading at Writ & Vision Thursday

I'm going to be doing a reading at Writ & Vision in downtown Provo at 7 pm this Thursday.

I'm excited: I love to read my work, but I don't actually do so very often. And I have never before attempted to do a retrospective covering all five of my books plus work from four more that are currently in various states of production.

It's going to be a wild ride.

I'm still messing around with different structures for linking the different pieces I'll read together. I've played with a chronological approach, reflecting on 14 years as a very Mormon writer. I've played with a thematic approach, going through different things I think literature can do and giving examples. I tried one system my brother called "group therapy for our colonized self-shame." I've thought about just lining up the books like a buffet and doing a taste of the recently published, the "classics," and then closing with the sneak peaks.

As I was driving him home tonight, my brother suggested maybe taking passages from "Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenberg" (my short story in the forms of fictional folktales which is also sort of a speculative, fantastical autobiography) and then reading other works that expand on the themes. That would be a trip. I think I might do it.

Anyway, I hope you can come and I promise I'll do my best to help somebody laugh (in case they need to laugh) and somebody cry (in case they need to cry) and leave everybody seeing the world just a little bit differently because that's one thing I'm quite sure we all could use some literature to do.

-James

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On the Church's Investment Accounts

The Washington Post recently broke a story that a Church holding company, Ensign Peak Advisors, is allegedly holding more than twice as many assets as Harvard University's endowment fund. The story broke because there may be tax implications: there is mixed historical precedent over whether an organization such as Ensign Peak can qualify for its tax exemption by virtue of its alignment with the Church, which has a religious purpose granted special status under US tax law. There may be a related arcane legal debate: can saving for a future theological vision constitute a religious purpose on its own?

These questions, however, are not the reason anyone outside of tax law is interested in the story. People are interested in the story because wealth is fascinating and fraught. It is doubly fascinating and fraught when mixed with religion, and triply so when a concentration of wealth comes in a group outside the cultural mainstream. The Church's finances, made all the more alluring by the shroud of secrecy around them, make juicy gossip. Mix that basic instinct with the respectability that comes with philosophizing or moralizing about what should or should not be and it will be very hard for many people--myself apparently included--to resist the temptation to say something.

And so say something I shall. Maybe three things. What I think as a tithe-payer, what I think as an armchair philosopher, and what I think as a person with a deeply Mormon imagination.

My View as a Tithe-Payer

One angle on this story is to ask what a person who contributes 10% of their income to the Church might think about the Church's financial practices. I've seen people ask: if you were a stockholder in a company with reserves of that size, how would you react? If you had sent money to a charity only to learn it already had such a large reserve, how would you react?

I've paid tithing faithfully all my life. I can't answer those last two questions, though, because neither applies to tithing as I have always understood it. I don't see myself as a stockholder in the corporation of the Church. I don't see myself as a donor to a charity. I mean, I get that the money goes somewhere, but for me, the existence of any Church-related corporate structures has essentially nothing to do with tithing.

I don't pay tithing for the Church. I pay tithing, like Jacob in Genesis 28, as a spiritual practice. I pay because I believe it's good for me to mark my relationship with God by giving away a tenth of all I'm given. A symbolic returning. A confession.

If the Church disappeared tomorrow, I would still believe in giving up a tenth. And I don't mean just as a target contribution to society. If it came to it, I believe it would have spiritual value--and yes, I've thought about this before--to pile one tenth of my income on a stone altar and burn it.

I would watch the smoke rise heavenward. And it would be worth every dollar to be reminded that money creates only an illusion of control. To enact my understanding of our fundamental vulnerability to the universe. To embody my trust in a God behind it all.

Look: I'm not saying I want Church leaders to act like Samuel's corrupt sons in the Bible or anything. But even if they did: that's on them. I wouldn't feel like they'd conned me by telling me the stories of the long-ago nomads who had visions and started this whole thing. My tithing is not about the conduct of bureaucrats in suits. It's an old secret between me and Jacob's God.

My View as An Armchair Philosopher

It's not just the mystic in me who is drawn to the hypothetical image of burning dollar bills. The armchair philosopher, who runs a bit revolutionary, is intrigued by the idea too. Money as we know it is, after all, some strange sociology. What makes these scraps of paper in the pocket, or a certain pattern of ones and zeros in a screen, so horrifically potent anyway? Maybe the occasional cash fire would do us some good. Put things in perspective.

No, the armchair philosopher in me is more interested in the grey area between sacrifice and barbecue. What made the ancient Israelites decide that some of their sacrifices should go up entirely in flames, while some sacrificial meat was set aside for priests and some shared among the people?

On a practical level, I totally get it. If you're going to sacrifice animals, you might as well cook them sometimes. It can feel nice to eat with the group. Hungry bellies can be filled. And even having priests fed by the sacrificial meat and not by raising all their own food frees them up to do priestly things. Surely the value of shared meals and a specialized civic class offset the risks of gluttony or corruption.

And yet....what if the barbecue ends up messing up the sacrifice? After all, once it's a barbecue you'll always have to wonder whether it's God who wants the fire or if a priest is just hungry. And once you're counting priests or parishioners, there will be the risk that you start to feel like it's the size of the sacrifice not the fact of the sacrifice that matters. That throwing a bigger barbecue is the real point.

It sure feels like a point. To see you're bringing people together. To fill grumbling bellies. Why shouldn't you count them? It sure feels like a point.

You are a provider. That's your job. And it's the job of the priests, or else of the community at large, to ensure that the barbecue is well-organized with no cutting in line and feeding people with maximum efficiency.

What's vulnerability got to do with it?

My View from a Mormon Imagination

What does vulnerability have to do with it?

If as a tithe-payer, I focus on my own fundamental vulnerability, my own absolute decision to place myself under the mercy and the majesty of the nomads' God, as a Mormon I can't help but wonder how that plays out at the level of the kingdom.

My tithing may not be my money anymore once it's left my hands, but I still kind wonder what the Church--not as corporation, but as kingdom of the Prince-in-exile, does with it. Some of those questions are evergreen: when does not expense fall under the same ritual category as Christ's funeral ointment and when should it be saved for the poor? Like: are the pews I sit on, or the weird carpet on the walls, a justified expense? Or are those things just the cultural reflex of a people without greater openness to light and knowledge?

Some of the question saved tithing funds raise for me, though, are quite historically and eschatologically specific. I'll be honest: when I hear about the Church's assets, I kinda wonder if that money means the fulness of the Gentiles has come. That is: I wonder if God wants money gathered from the more affluent northern nations of the world like the Egyptians' jewelry, transferred over to the remnant of Jacob as the global Church shifts its gradely steadily (perhaps prophetically!) south.

And that's just one sign of what will come before the end. We can measure the changing seasons but we don't see the signs of the times. Is this endowment intended for us to grapple with the growing consequences of climate change for vulnerable members in the years to come? Has anything in our historical experience prepared us to calculate what we'll need in a future where human excess has caused the elements to melt with fervent heat?

Look. Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe Ensign Peak Advisors is just a bunch of middle-class Americans in ties. Or, more charitably, a bunch of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who saw the Church pressed to its financial limits by events ranging from its postwar expansion to the pressures of the Raid and US government seizure of assets.

And yet: I can't help but wonder if there's more going on with the corporate entities associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because I have more than a corporate imagination. More on my mind than the relative sizes of Harvard and the Church's reserves and outlays, the tax traditions of how one might measure a year's balance sheet against a broad scope of mission.

Maybe the Church is holding onto too much money out of corruption or out of past conditioning. Or maybe the Church is holding onto a thoroughly reasonable amount of money relative to the tasks it will undertake in the next generation and only the shortness of American accounting gives us pause.

I don't know. It's not money, even though a bit of it was once my tithing.

Left to my own devices, I might've burned through it years ago.















Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter reflections

Three people in my tiny sphere of experience died unexpectedly this last week. 

The first was my grandfather-in-law, McCoy Christensen. He died Sunday, a day after having a stroke while walking laps in the Orem Rec Center pool, where he was a regular. At age 94, his passing maybe shouldn't have surprised us. But it did. Partly because he was in such great physical and mental condition. Partly because he was still making so plans for future: trips to go on, books to read, stories to record. But mostly, I think because he'd been such a steady and steadying presence in so many of our lives. A few days after he died, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who said it's still hard to imagine birthdays and holidays and other family gatherings without him.

Grandpa Christensen was a WWII veteran, so when we buried him yesterday, a group of veterans and soldiers came to give him a final farewell with military honors. They fired off a salute, played a mournful rendition of "Taps," folded the flag on his casket and presented it to Grandma Christensen with a solemn thanks for his service.

The second was my "uncle" (actually my mom's cousin's husband,) Will Smith. He was 53 when he died of a heart attack on Monday. On Facebook for the past while, I've been watching Uncle Will, a former coach, cheer his son through his college baseball career. My mind, though, has never caught up to the Will Smith with adult kids, since the cool young uncle he was when I was a kid still looms so large in my mind.

I remember, on one trip to Bakersfield to visit family, we went to this big maze. The details are hazy: I remember towers you could climb to get a sense of where to go, which was hard to track once you got down into the tall wooden walls that blocked your view of everything--except, in a genius design element, just enough of a gap at that bottom to let you see the feet of people walking by you on the other side. 

My brother and I begged to be on a team with Will when we split into teams. He let us lead the way enough, though, that we rushed ourselves lost again and again. I remember once, when we'd gotten ourselves stuck in yet another dead end, he just laughed and had us all slip under the bottom of the wall to get through to the other side. Maybe that was cheating, or maybe it was just another way of solving the problem. To my childhood self, it felt a little like magic.

The third was a co-worker, Pradeep Beryl. We didn't work closely together, but would pass each other in the halls, chat quickly in the break room. He had an easy smile. People who worked with him more closely likely his combination of approachability and efficiency.

He was the only other Indian in the Department: from Bangalore, a member of the Solomon family my grandpa knew well. I'd met different members of the family when they passed through town and stopped in to visit. He was 35--same age as me.

Early last week, he went down to visit Zion's National Park. He'd gone on the hike up Angel's Landing. I've been up before myself--it's a beautiful, breathtaking hike with no shortage of scary parts with steep drop-offs. Pradeep must've slipped and fallen. We got word a few days later they'd found his body.

I know people have been living and dying for millions of years, but it still feels so strange to have people there, and there, and then gone. Sometimes after a long life, sometimes in what feels like it should be life's middle, and sometimes still so early, with so much assumption of a future here on earth before them.

It's Easter today. I can't see it now, can't prove it now, but I'm trying to hold on to the promise of this day. That the strangeness of death isn't the end of our stories together. That death is a wall the spirit finds a way to slip under--and that maybe just beyond, there are angels to catch us, a familiar face to thank us for our service, and so many people to see once again. 

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