Thursday, June 14, 2012

Which Superhero was Joseph Smith most like?

A friend of mine once told me about a conversation her son had with a church leader that centered on the question "was Joseph Smith more like Superman or Spiderman?"

It sounds like a pretty interesting conversation to have. I mean, we know that Joseph Smith was a prophet--but we don't know exactly what being a prophet means, or why God chooses the people he does to wear the prophetic mantle.

The Superman or Spiderman debate brings up an interesting issue. Was Joseph Smith a person with unusual potential in various areas, and chosen as a prophet because of that? Or was he more like a dorky teen who is suddenly infused with abilities beyond his natural capacity after a life-changing encounter?

There are plenty of other possibilities, of course. Some secular thinkers who have been fascinated by Joseph Smith seem to see him as most like Batman: an individual whose defining experiences gave him a strong sense of mission and whose genius enabled him to create new equipment to fulfill that mission with. Some critics of Joseph Smith talk about him a bit like Iron Man: as a charismatic, capable individual who had far more power and influence than personal responsibility.

If I had to compare Joseph Smith to a superhero, though, I think I'd choose Wolverine.

There's a strength that's been placed inside of him, but because he's only human, it can cut when it rises to the surface. And his superpower is the ability to keep moving when the pain comes, and to be healed.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Some thoughts on measurement--Lev 19:35

"Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteyard, in weight, or in measure." (Lev 19:35)

There are recurring warnings throughout the Old Testament against cheating in the way you measure. And it's easy to see how, before the rise of routine government oversight, problems with measurement would have been common. The person in control of the scale has a clear motive to understate the weight of the goods he or she buys and to overstate the weight of the goods he or she sells. And a person without a scale is probably poor enough not to have a lot of bargaining room.

The great sin of mis-measurement, I think, was that it held vulnerable people accountable to a distorted version of reality more powerful people established.

In our days, fortunately, fixed scales and fraudulent yardsticks are rare--partly because government inspectors are common.

And yet...are we really living up to the commandment to measure in righteousness?

I saw a news report recently on the crowding Louisiana's prisons. The state has the highest incarceration rate in the world: five times more prisoners per capita than Iran, thirteen times more than China. Why? Primarily because Louisiana pays local sheriffs to run their own prisons. They've chosen to measure success by the number of full prison beds, and the vulnerable are paying the price for that decision.

I talked last week with a reservist who'd been trained as part of a U.S. army civil  affairs unit. In his training, he was taught to consider how a proposed development project might affect the local economy in the short and long term, trained to estimate multiple consequences of the project based on local context. When he arrived in Afghanistan, though, he learned that the area command had been given to Naval officers because they needed a command to qualify for career advancement, while civil affairs officers did not. And he saw the significant problems that had been caused by ill-advised projects during a period when the military used the number of aid dollars spent to measure unit productivity. Commanders with little background in careful project evaluation were expected to go out and act busy and often risked lives on projects without accurately measuring their value first. Soldiers died to protect work that only looked good on a military stats sheet. Once again, the vulnerable paid the price for a bad system of measurement.

Another friend of mine, a wonderful elementary school teacher, left his job at the end of this school year last week. He'd realized he was ready to give up during a training on how to administer a timed reading test to his second graders. "What if they stop reading to ask a question," he'd asked the state trainer, "can we stop the time until they start reading again?"

"No," said the trainer. "They need to learn to stay on task."

My friend didn't press the issue then, but what he told me later was this: "We're going to teach a lot of kids how to read, but we're also going to teach them to hate reading."

We keep inspiring teachers to do one thing, then measuring them based on how well they do something else entirely. We keeping asking children to learn, but measure their ability to shut up and focus rather than their capacity for wonder. Will a whole generation pay the price for the way we now measure?

I don't believe in a hell that lasts forever, but if there's a temporary hell where they ask you the wrong questions, where they claim you're unfit for eternal growth because of the test scores you got or the amount of money you made, because you jaywalked in New Orleans or couldn't fill up a stats sheet right...I tell you, even the thought of a bureaucratic hell like that is enough to scare me straight for the rest of my life.

I won't be perfect, of course, but I promise you all today I'm going to think hard about how I'm measuring. Because Jesus himself warned us that "with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

When I'm about to die, I don't want to see that as a curse. I want to be able to feel like it's a beautiful promise.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Three Irrational Things I Believe In

I love science. Considering that the survival rate for testicular cancer has gone from under 10% in the 1960s to over 95% today, I probably owe my life to scientific ways of thinking. For many problems, the scientific method (creating a clear and precise research question, gathering independently verifiable evidence, and coming to tentative conclusions about cause and effect) is absolutely the best route to useable answers. Scientific rationality deserves our respect for that.

But sometimes we seem to forget that scientific ways of thinking have their limits. As heirs to the Enlightenment, we've come to use the term "rational" as if it meant "good." And we often use the word "irrational" to dismiss an idea...forgetting that our whole lives are built around ideas that are beyond the scope of rationality.

So today, in celebration of just such ideas, I present you three irrational things I believe in deeply.

1) Choice

Science is essentially the study of causes and effects. As such, it assumes that every effect can be traced to a previous cause. When we're reasoning in a scientific way, then, we don't ask whether a person chose to be a certain way or not. Instead, we ask whether a person is a certain way because of his/her genetics or because of his/her environment--the existence of one cause or another is simply assumed.

From a strictly rational perspective, then, all of my apparent choices are actually the product of prior influences, which in turn would have been the product of still earlier influences, and so on all the way back to the Big Bang.

Now, I may feel like I am making choices quite frequently, but feelings and intuition don't count as evidence in a rational frame. From a rational perspective, if I choose not to cheat on a test it's because more factors or experiences have sharpened my desire to be honest than have sharpened my desire to be praised--not because I truly decided in any sort of moral way which value would matter most to me.

The only way I can see to believe in choice is to step outside of the rational frame of cause-and-effect thinking. To simply assert that my subjective experience of moral choice is more real than rationality.

I find that it's easy to describe choice in religious terms: to say that revelation supports the possibility of human agency, or that humans have inherited the divine attribute of being original causes. But I don't know how, in secular and scientific terms, to make a remotely convincing argument that human choice is real. 

Choice is one irrational idea it means everything to me to believe in.

2) Human rights

Most public schools in America teach evolution in their science classrooms and creationism in their history classrooms. Believing in evolution allows us to keep up with new strains of flu that would otherwise devastate our population. Believing that "all men are created equal" lays a foundation for our national social values.

But "all men are created equal" is not good science or universally verifiable reason. What evidence do we have that men were "created"? And in what measurable sense are human beings inherently "equal"? Can we perform experiments to find out which proposed human rights are actually inborn or inalienable?

We could perform experiments, of course, and they would prove that an individual can in fact be violated and deprived and limited in an endless number of ways. We could measure individuals with countless different quantitative metrics and find one where everyone comes out exactly equal.
There is no strictly rational basis I can think of to "prove" the existence of a single human right, however basic, as anything other than a passing social construct.

And yet, I refuse to accept that human rights are only an agreement we make. On an intuitive level (which holds no rational weight), I genuinely feel that certain wrongs go against the order of the universe, that some injustices are an affront to God. I would rather be irrational and believe in our fundamental equality and absolute right to dignity than be rational and accept that people are lumps of matter which can often be pushed around and manipulated without significant consequence. 

 Rational, objectively verifiable arguments for human rights break down quickly under scrutiny--but I'm proud to believe human rights can exist anyway.

3) The Church

I probably don't have to tell you it isn't rational to believe in our religion.

But I'll point out, just in case, that the Biblical account of Abraham includes numerous anachronisms, that there's no conclusive archeological evidence for the Exodus, that miracles can't be consistently reproduced and verified by independent and unbiased laboratories, and that it's outright bizarre to count an uneducated New York farmhand as an expert on diet and health.

So where exactly do I get off acknowledging all that and still saying that I know the Church is true?

Because I don't think the word "know" should be limited to rational kinds of knowing.

I know I'm responsible for the choices I make.

I know there are ways of treating other people which are absolutely and non-negotiably wrong.

And in the same irrational or extra-rational or soul-deep way, I know that God lives and that I've felt him in my faith.

I think rationality is great, and deserves an important place in our society. But I fail to see why I should be ashamed of ways of knowing that are intense, personal, burning, and beyond the scope of the rational.  

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Writing Updates

It's been a surprisingly busy week in my writing life, and I thought I'd share three pieces of news.

1. A James Goldberg play reading will take place this Wednesday:

It's sort of strange...I used to be known in Utah Valley primarily as a playwright. But then I got married, moved to Pleasant Grove, had small children, and decided I needed to take a break from a theatrical schedule of rehearsing during evenings all the time. I think I've only had one ten-minute play produced during the past three years (after having several produced each year in the three years before that).

This Wednesday, though, in the Storytelling Wing of the Orem Public Library, there will be a 7 pm reading (with some minimal props and movement) of my play The Valiant Chattee Maker, which is written for young and old audiences alike. It's one of the few pieces I've written with no theme whatsoever other than fun. And I love it for that--it is a lot of fun.

If any of you, my blog readers, are close to Orem and able to make it to the reading, I would love to meet you there. Please introduce yourselves to me--I currently look like my photo on this blog (minus the hat), so I should be easy to find. You can read a little bit more about the play and/or invite friends to the reading on Orem Library's Valiant Chattee-Maker Facebook event page

2. I am currently leading in an online poetry contest by a margin of three votes. I'm not terribly experienced as a poet, so I don't know whether my current first-place standing has more to do with the quality of my poem or with the quantity of supportive relatives I have. But I do like the poem, which features both my son and the garter snakes who hibernate under our driveway in the winter.
The main character in my poem. Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood.

The contest rules are that you can vote for your favorite three poems. Please consider doing so (at least if you like what I wrote...)

3. My very short story "Rite of Passage" is up this week on Everyday Mormon Writer. The story was indirectly inspired by my good friend Kayela Seegmiller, who encouraged me to think and write about Mormon masculinity, and by the "What did you learn in Mezeritch?" passage from Elie Wiesel's Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of the Hasidic Masters

This story may be too didactic or apologetic for many contemporary readers' tastes, but I feel like we emphasize the role of a writer as a critic of his/her community today so much that we sometimes forget that writers have also long had a function of articulating their communities' values.


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