Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Naming the Eras in Church History

As part of my preparation as an editor for the "Four Centuries of Mormon Stories" contest, I've been thinking a lot about how different moments in Mormon history might have felt at the time, and about what sorts of broad patterns we might see in the next two hundred years of Mormonism's future.

As part of my research, I ran across an old blog post by Dave Banack, in which he first tried to identify the main themes we use to describe 19th century Mormon history, and then asked whether we even have a way to talk about any big patterns in 20th century Mormon history.

In the spirit of Banack's project, and as a possible brainstorming aid for contest writers, I've tried to put together my own list of possible large pattern "grand narratives" for the Mormon past and future. I've decided to post them here because I think we can all learn about the gospel by thinking about what it might have meant to different people at different times.

The big stories I see:

Early 19th Century: Becoming Saints

Banack calls this "The Restoration of the Gospel," and I agree with him that it's the main theme of early Mormon history. But if we're trying to get at what the history felt like at the time (which Banack, by the way, isn't concerned with), I prefer the phrase "Becoming Saints."

Here's why. During graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for the Joseph  Smith Papers Project and spent a lot of time poring over the minutes to early church meetings and councils, trying to figure out how different early practices evolved. And in the process, I developed a deep admiration for people who committed their lives to the idea of being Latter-day Saints without having a clear idea what such saints would look like yet. For the first generation of Mormons, I think the story of their faith was a story of feeling around and finding out what the faith would look like. They faced dilemmas and held councils to seek revelation--then had to live with the revelations, or gradually grow alienated with the movement. They made bold plans and watched some succeed and others seem to fail, yielding experience it sometimes took them years more to find a use for. And line upon line, precept upon precept, they learned what it might mean to be Latter-day Saints.

The story, of course, isn't exclusive to this period. My own aunt grew up Mormon in India at a time when the church was very young and small there, and didn't find out until she was fourteen that tea was against the Word of Wisdom. So although she already was a Latter-day Saint, the expansion of the church in her area gave her a similar experience to the first generation of Latter-day Saints. But it was the dominant story of the early period--finding out where Mormonism was headed was a central part of what Mormons did.

Late 19th Century:Building the Kingdom

Banack calls the next big story in church history "pioneers moving West," but because that tends to evoke historically narrow images of oxen teams and handcarts crossing the plains in the 1850s, I prefer "building the kingdom."

By this I mean that most Latter-day Saints in the late 1800s saw themselves as literally building up the Kingdom of God in geographical space. For most, this did involve physical movement and labor building up physical communities. Many Mormons moved west to Utah during this period. Many also moved north and south out of Utah to develop settlements from Mexico to Canada. And many who went to serve missions to gather Israel also saw themselves as gathering good ideas to help build a new culture and nation.

Salt Lake City in this period seems to have seen itself as an innovative cultural center. Though people there lived primarily by farming, they emphasized education. My great-great grandmother, Bertha Wilcken, remembers the enthusiasm for learning Spanish in Salt Lake at the time despite traditional education's emphasis on Greek and Latin. She herself later lived in Mexico and by the end of her life was splitting time between descendants in Utah, Colonia Dublan in northern Mexico, and Mexico city. We tend to remember this period as very insular, but Mormons were possibly better connected with each other in this period than at any other time.

One more family story from this period particularly interests me. My great-great-grandfather Helaman Pratt was engaged as a young man to a Miss Parks in Salt Lake who presumably knew he was likely to end up with multiple wives and had chosen to marry him anyway. But when he was called on a mission to help settle a barren part of Nevada (called, of all things, "the Muddy"), his fiance broke off the engagement. I can't really blame her--Nevada is bleak enough in our age of freeways and air conditioning. I love the story because it suggests how intimidating the land and work of civilization building could be in those days.

20th century: Leavening

Maybe it was government pressure against polygamy. Maybe it was just the growth of the railroad and the de facto shrinking of distance it brought. Or maybe we'd just learned enough from the literal building period and were ready to move on. But it does seem to me that the early twentieth century brought an end to the LDS emphasis on literally building up the kingdom of God in the American Great Basin and a shift of that pioneering energy gradually into a project I call "leavening," in which Latter-day Saints spread out into mainstream society and tried to establish the kingdom of God more in wards, branches, and families than settlements and regions.

For the first half of the leavening century, Latter-day Saints primarily moved into U.S. society, often gaining conventional respectability in business or as educated professionals (though rarely as intellectual elites). Our movement out into the country both physically and culturally was met with some caution on both sides--were we assimilating into or infiltrating the larger society?Were we blessing America or being corrupted by it?

During the second half of the leavening century, Latter-day Saints expanded throughout the world, with growth concentrated in the Americas. Our emphasis to members outside the Great Basin in the 19th century had been on coming to build up the kingdom of God as an alternative to their struggling societies, but our emphasis through the 20th century has been on becoming the responsible, giving sort of people who can contribute to and elevate the societies we already live in.

This is pretty much the church as we know it. But how many of our assumptions about the church are actually based in this century's experience? Take growth, for example. The church has always believed in sharing the gospel, but we seem to identify ourselves in this century as a rapidly-growing, emerging faith. What happens if church growth slows? If our only story for the work of the church is leavening, then we've failed.

Or take the nuclear family. It's always been important in our church, but it used to be balanced more with emphasis on extended family and community. As we've moved in small family units out of settlements and across the world, that focus has been good. But will extended family and community someday be emphasized more again?

21st century: Three Possibilities

Because we're only twelve years into the 21st century, it's highly unlikely that any of my speculations will turn out to be correct. But I'll identify three possible "grand narratives" for 21st century Mormonism anyway because I think the exercise of wondering where history might take us helps us consider what Mormonism is really about.

Mormon Renaissance
In the nineteenth century, LDS leaders were very invested in the idea of developing a Mormon culture of beauty and learning. "Let Zion put on her beautiful garments" meant more than morality then, it meant that even poor farmers would be able to take part in a vibrant aesthetic life in communities organized according to divine principles. We would learn and discover and create. We would read and sing and wonder.

But while education has remained a priority throughout LDS history, an emphasis on the practical benefits of education seems to have grown dominant through the leavening period. It's been a long time since anyone was sent on a mission specifically to study art. (Part of this may come from our anxieties about whether we really are leavening society or being assimilated by society. Is artistic training today a route to expression of our Latter-day Saint values, or a route to assimilation into incompatible priorities and perspectives?)

That said, the economic success of the last century's Latter-day Saints and the creative technologies available to this generation's Saints may put us at a turning point today. There are a lot of very good writers and artists now in our church. An increasing number of them seem interested in expressing the value of our ways of seeing and thinking. Wouldn't it be cool if we could look back on this century as one where the vision of the gospel was articulated in ways that are beautiful as well as practical? Wouldn't it be cool if people could be drawn to the beauty as well as to the virtue of our lives?

Fullness of the Gentiles
The Mormon Renaissance vision is certainly rosy, so I'll counter it with a somewhat more sobering vision of our immediate future which I call "the Fullness of the Gentiles."

This future extrapolates the marked trend since 2005 of young Americans leaving organized religions (including Mormonism) into the next several decades or even through the century. What happens to a faith with lots of U.S. American history and population if the U.S. turns as secular as Europe has, or more so?

The Book of Mormon suggests that at some point, this sort of thing is bound to happen. The "Western" cultures will become wealthy and proud, and the bulk of church membership will shift into Latin American populations, which will eventually come into conflict with and defeat their longtime visitors. Some Gentiles, who are bonded with descendants of Lehi through the gospel, will prosper. Others will struggle.

I don't imagine that we'll live to see that whole Book of Mormon arc fulfilled, but I do think it's possible that future generations of Saints will look back on the 21st century as the beginning of this process. And already, the preparations seem to be under way. The church is saving and investing money carefully to help the transition from the cash-rich north into the faith-rich south. The Perpetual Education fund is helping strengthen families who may form the core of a future geographic and cultural heart of the church.

Digital Transition
A third possibility is that the late 21st century world won't have strong separate regional cultures at all so much as different preferences in online communities and media streams. While the strength of the church has always been in building physical relationships in physical space, we may look back on the 21st century as a time when we learned to function equally well as a digital tribe.

Maybe Mormon.org and indexing service aren't just tangential church initiatives, but the beginning of new modes of connection and worship. I very much doubt the heart of our church experience will move away from the physical sacrament service, but it may well be that much of our work becomes centered on the internet (or whatever we call the successors to today's primitive digital experience).

22nd century: Three Possibilites

Again, the point here is not to accurately predict what will happen, but to think about the gospel more deeply but considering what might happen to the church.

World Crisis, Church Emergence
It is no news that the current course of the world doesn't look sustainable spiritually, socially, or environmentally. But I'm not predicting an immediate collapse. In a hundred years, though? It seems plausible--and even probable-to me that we won't change our current culture quickly enough and will end up with a period of chaos rather than a smooth transition into another way of living.

In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark suggests that it was during times of crisis, whether from plagues or other instability, that the communal and service-oriented values of early Christians were most attractive to their pagan contemporaries. Difficult times compelled many to search for a more sustainable truth.

I certainly don't hope for the day when the world is compelled to be humbler. And LDS life after a collapse of the current world system would be demanding and difficult. But I do wonder whether our current membership growth will prove minimal compared to the growth of a strong, well-organized communal faith during a time of deep struggle and instability. Right now, people can value personal freedom and choose to eat, drink, and be merry. Cultural values may shift when a good job is feeding pigs slop.

The true emergence of the church as a major world religion may only come after significant world crises leads people to reconsider the role of a church in their lives and their societies.

Second Gathering
In the 20th century, the earlier project of literal gathering was put on hold to give the gospel another chance to bless the whole earth. But is a second gathering coming a few centuries from now? Where would it be to and what would it look like? What would get it started and once gathered, what sort of cities would we build?

I'm intrigued by the idea that we might turn to a literal project of Zion again, because thinking about the possibility requires me to speculate about what that project would entail, and what a saint might have to sacrifice or struggle with in the process. 

Assimilation and Amnesia
I like to think, of course, that if the call to gather again came today, many Latter-day Saints would listen. I like to think that if hard times hit the world, our traditions of communal interdependence would lay a foundation for enough organized cooperation to carry us through the crises.

But sometimes, I have my doubts. Are we in the church still humble enough to accept the revealed gospel? Or have we become too absorbed into an individualistic, consumer-driven culture to sustain the cooperative culture of the church through the generations to come?

When I hear people take it for granted that they're smarter and better than our forebears and our leaders, I wonder. When I hear people lose patience with the roots and trunk of our faith's tree, I worry.

I saw an interview recently with the legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela. He called on Africans to do some "heritage preservation," to gather and share the stories of their forbears rather than looking only to the latest trends from the wealthiest countries. He said that if African artists don't do something to preserve and transmit their heritage, the day may come when their descendants say, "you know, they say we used to be Africans once."

I have seen enough strong, solid Saints to believe we'll be around long into the future. But that thought from Hugh Masekela still struck a chord with me. What if we do keep assimilating?  What if we spend more time wishing that church culture were like some more sophisticated alternative than delving into the richness of what we have?

Will the day come when many of our descendants are saying, "they say we used to be Mormons once"?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Critical Thinking vs. Thorough Thinking

Most schools and universities in the Western world today seem to emphasize critical thinking. I'm pretty sure it's on the list of skills I'm supposed to help students develop by the end of the semester.

So hopefully it won't endanger my employment when I admit that I'm not 100% sure what critical thinking is.

Partly, I think it means this: by default, people tend to let messages wash over them in the hopes that they'll absorb something useful in the process. Critical thinking is a term we invented to say: pay attention and evaluate a message before you swallow it!

If this is what critical thinking means, my parents taught it to me out of necessity to counteract TV advertisements. I can certainly see why it would be a particularly useful skill in the information age. And even the scriptures place a high value on the gift of discernment, which is the ability to tell truth from error and wrong from right. Is that the same as critical thinking?

I suspect that when we say we'll teach critical thinking, we do mean we'll help strengthen students' gift of discernment. But I worry that instead of discernment, they're mostly learning dismissiveness.

After all, we teachers of critical thinking tend to place a high value on students' ability to see through or reject a bad argument. So is it any surprise when students rush to reject things? When they take pride in their ability to scorn?

And maybe we're not as vigilant as we should be in pointing out that just because one person made a bad argument for something doesn't mean the principle itself is bad. So should we be surprised that students often use their critical thinking skills to find some dirt in the bathwater and promptly throw out the baby?

Liberals like to blame conservatives for our polarized political discourse today. Conservatives prefer to blame liberals. But what if the fault lies with English teachers like me, who taught people to feel intelligent when they point out the weakness in the other side?

One strength of critical thinking when we are awash with information is that its emphasis on deciding which claims to accept and which to reject can help cut down on our mental clutter. But that de-cluttering can become a problem when we achieve it by cutting down and dismissing the perspectives of friends and neighbors, of God's children and sometimes even of God's servants.

I worry, in brief, that our emphasis on critical thinking is making us unproductively critical.

So what if we emphasized thorough and charitable thinking instead? What if instead of focusing on the accept-or-reject outcome of a reasoning process, we focused on helping students understand the arguments on both sides of issues?

Imagine how the world might be different if we required students to offer compelling pro and con lists for multiple sides of an issue rather than arguing one side, if we graded them less on their ability to support their own viewpoint well and more on their ability to understand an issue from many different sides.

Maybe another way of saying this is that true discernment requires empathy. And that the intellectual pride that often comes with our emphasis on critical thinking works against the attitude of charity we need to develop empathy.

Obviously, not everyone is right. There are ideas we ought to reject. But I think we are better off if we can understand them first, if we can have a realistic understanding for why others are drawn to them.

The scriptures tell us that the wisdom of the wise will perish and that even prophecies will fail, but that "charity never faileth."

We usually think of charity as a physical action, but can it sometimes also be a thorough way of thinking that takes seriously the perspectives of others?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Five Books of Jesus Excerpt: The Parable of the Talents

            At the end of the story of grain, Martha starts bringing plates with bread and lentils to the gathered men. She looks to Mary for help, but her sister is too busy listening to Jesus’ next story to notice.
            This one is about a talented merchant who’s already made more money than an ordinary man can earn in five lifetimes. One day, with very little warning, the merchant is called away to a far country and doesn’t know when he’ll be able to come back. He calls three of his most devoted servants together and entrusts them with most of his wealth: the first servant is given twice his own weight in silver, the second his weight in silver, and the third half his weight in silver. He gives them use of his name and house in his absence, and he tells them to remember him and to prepare for his return.
             The first and second servants immediately go to work, investing in this and that, trading on their master’s behalf here and there. As time passes, they throw themselves into their labors with a growing abandon—after all, each new contract is another chance to hear people speak their absent master’s name. Some of their ventures fail, and it devastates them. Most succeed, and the value and scale of their operations grow.
            Though the third servant has been no less devoted to the master, he’s more cautious than the other two. He worries that if he invests in a certain kind of good, its price may fall before he can sell it. He worries that if he buys a farm, there won’t be enough rain, and that if he buys a fishing boat, it might sink in a storm. He doesn’t want to disappoint his master, or for men to speak ill of his master on his account, so he stops speaking of, or acting for, his master at all. Before long, he begins to worry that thieves might come for the money—so one night, when he’s sure no one is watching, he buries it deep in the ground.
            Having buried the treasure, he returns to his life’s routine struggles. He cleans the master’s house, though it’s used so little these days there’s not much to worry about. He cooks meals, though often only for himself since the master, and usually also his fellow-servants, are gone. Still, the rhythms comfort him. Gradually, they surpass his memory of devotion and he stops thinking of his master’s eventual return. It proves more enticing just to survive than to wait, and his memory begins to blur until it seems as if at any moment he may forget the man he once waited for.
            Trees the first servant planted mature; grapes the second servant trampled develop into old wine. Then one spring, while the breeze pours color into the waiting blossoms, their master returns.
            Only the truly faithful, says Jesus, will ever be able to understand how the first two servants felt when they again saw their master’s face. Only the truly faithful will understand how their hearts beat as they ran to greet him, how right the tears of long-delayed reunion felt on their cheeks.
            And only the truly faithful will be ready for the question their master asked: what have you done in my name?
            The first two show him their ledgers, explain how they’ve each doubled what they were given, and now it’s their master who cries tears of joy. “Well done, my servants!” he says, and then he tells them of his own incredible success, beyond anything they could have imagined. The three of them laugh together, and the master says, “I left you with a few things; I’ve returned with many things. Then you were my servants; be rulers now in the house of your lord!”
            In the next room, the third servant waits. The voice he once knew so well now sounds rough and weathered to him. When the master comes looking for him, his face seems like a stranger’s.
            What about you? says the master. What have you done in my name?
            I knew you were strict, says the third servant. I knew you reap rewards of work that wasn’t your own, and I was afraid you’d expect more from me than I can give. So I buried the silver in the ground. I’ll go dig it up for you now and return it: to tell the truth, it will be a great relief to have it out of my hands.
            “Well said,” says the master, “your hands are worthless! If you felt I was too strict, why did you accept the silver when I left? If you knew I reap the rewards of work that wasn’t my own, why didn’t you take the money to lenders at a bank for interest?”
            The servant doesn’t answer. He’s forgotten the devotion that once made him afraid to disappoint his master.
            And in his silence, the master can tell his servant’s devotion is gone. “I don’t want to reap the rewards of others’ work,” says the master, “but I thought you were my own. If you no longer are, leave the silver and take your freedom. You no longer belong to my house.”
            So the servant leaves a free man, released from the ties that once brought him great joy. That very night, he walks out of the master’s house into the darkness, and he never comes back.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Five Books of Jesus Excerpt: First Missions of the Apostles

            Only two pairs of apostles go straight to new towns: at Thomas’s suggestion, the other four pairs start in towns where Jesus has already been. Their plan is this: go find people who embraced Jesus’ teachings, ask them if they have relatives in other towns, and preach over kinship lines so they can spend more time teaching and less time looking for people to teach.
            But things don’t always go according to plan.
            Matthew and Thomas make a stop at a roadside village not far from Capernaum where Jesus was received well on his last visit, but find themselves greeted with suspicion.  Old friends of Thomas’s have been here in the meantime: friends who followed Jesus, then left him. Memory is a strange thing, thinks Thomas: the people in this village have talked with Jesus, but the words they claim to have heard from his mouth sound more like the words his detractors would have left. How could they have forgotten the teachings that so recently moved them? Though their eyes remember, it’s as if their ears never really heard Jesus at all.
            Judas and Simon travel farther before the rocky hillsides cut at their feet through sandals that have worn thin as they’ve walked with their Master. Luckily, they too are near a village that had gladly listened to Jesus just a few months ago. They can still remember the dance the villagers held the night before they left, still remember the toasts to new teachings, the promises people made to change.
            But no one is celebrating in the village on the day Judas and Simon return. The mood is somber, and the people walk around half-slumped down as they labor in the heat. Judas and Simon try to start conversations, but no one seems interested. Finally a tired-looking woman asks them, “What use are your teachings? John is dead, and your Master has abandoned us.” And that’s when Judas and Simon begin to understand what happened, begin to see how hopelessness has hardened into resentment here. They try to plead with people, try to revive their crushed young faith again—but it’s hard, thankless work and they decide before long to move on.
            Peter and Andrew come to the village Jesus’ brothers tried to take him home from, and everyone’s happy to see them again. They’re immediately invited back to the wine house, but there’s space today to serve real wine and they’re offered cup after cup after cup as aging men tell them how their farms are doing, and young men tell them about the thorny paths they’re taking in love. Peter and Andrew listen politely, then try to teach—but whenever the brothers stop talking the village men bring up the same things: farms and girls, girls and farms. And it’s clear that though they’ve nodded and made polite sounds, they haven’t been listening to the brothers at all. And though it seems each of the men invites Peter and Andrew to stay in his home that night, the brothers announce they have to move on. So late? say the men. “You remember how our Master worked,” says Peter. And then they leave and Andrew shudders at the way men can fail to realize what they have forgotten. 
            Thomas and Matthew, Judas and Simon, Peter and Andrew—each pair will go on to find people who are looking for truth. They’ll find places where they can do miracles and have their teachings understood, which is perhaps the greatest miracle of all. But they’ll also remember these first villages and know that no progress is immune to time. That if people stop searching for truth, they often lose even the truth they once had.
            But Philip and Nathanael will have to learn those lessons from the others, because Thomas’s system works better for them than they could have imagined. At the farming village where they stop, even people who missed Jesus when he came can still recite the story of his teachings and give the names of the villagers he healed. The old women who cook for Philip and Nathanael have more questions to ask, and the old men listen with them to the apostles’ answers. When the apostles ask who’d be ready to follow Jesus if he needed them, it seems the whole town is prepared to give up crops and take only livestock, pitching tents like the children of Israel as they followed Moses and Joshua. And before Philip and Nathanael can ask about relatives in other towns, the villagers ask them to go and see their family members here and there, say they’ve sent word in advance that disciples of Jesus will be coming, and offer to send a young kinsman or two with them to witness that what they have to say is true.
            How many people will hear about Jesus through each person in this village, Philip wonders. Thirty? Sixty? A hundred?

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Five Books of Jesus Excerpt: The Woman with the Issue of Blood

            A girl is dying, but there’s a crowd to be reckoned with. Into the streets Jesus’ opponents pour to shout abuse, into the streets Jesus’ supporters stream to shout encouragement. Young men join the throng hoping things turn ugly, the way Roman soldiers who miss the adrenaline of the Coliseum sometimes bet on fights between stray dogs. Old men pour into the street to ask themselves what happened, how the spell of quiet that once hung over their lakeside town has been broken. Young girls slip out of their homes to see if Jesus can rescue the council chief’s daughter; their mothers follow them into the fray, hoping to find them and bring them home again. Thieves join the crowd looking for loose money; drunkards join the crowd in the hopes a celebration erupts; the crowd grows tight around Jesus until his apostles start to worry about how his ribs will fare in the press.
             There’s a woman in the crowd who’s been bleeding since the dying girl was born. She doesn’t want to be here—for twelve years she’s been unclean from her constant menstruation and so she’s not used to being around people other than doctors at all, let alone a whole town at once. She knows she’s polluting everyone she touches, but she can’t keep from touching them as she pushes and shoves her way forward. This is not what she imagined. She didn’t even want to touch him, didn’t need to look at him: if she could just reach the hem of his robe, she’d told herself, it would be enough. Because she believes he can heal her. Though she’s believed in doctors before and saints before until it seemed all the wealth, hope, and energy were drained out of her bleeding body forever, the first time she heard a story about him, she knew she had to come. And she knows now that although she’s exhausted, she needs to make it just a few more steps, just reach her arm out a few inches farther, and it will all be worthwhile. She’ll be healed, and no one will ever have to know what sort of woman they touched. Just a few more steps, just a little longer reach, and twelve years of pain will melt and this pounding in her temples will stop and she can go home and maybe finally feel at home in her own skin.
            She falls, strangers’ knees battering her as she lands on her own, but she can see it right ahead, and just another half inch, so she throws herself forward with everything she has left. Maybe she’ll be trampled to death now, in the middle of a faraway town’s road, but she can feel the threads against her fingers and she knows that at least she’ll die clean: she can tell at once she isn’t bleeding from the inside anymore.
            “Stop!” says Jesus, and his voice is so firm that the hecklers stop shouting abuse, the young men stop egging them on. Mothers stop calling out their daughters’ names, old men stop shaking their heads, even thieves let the coins they’ve just lifted fall to the ground in their surprise. The feet around the woman don’t come down on her back or shoulders, the shins around her don’t slam into her head.
            “Who touched me?” Jesus says, as she pulls herself up, as she whispers a prayer thanking God for life and health. His disciples laugh.
            “Look around you!” they say. “Who here hasn’t touched you?”
            “No, someone touched me,” Jesus says. “I felt some of my virtue go out.”
            That’s when the woman starts to shake. When her relief turns to fear. Has she polluted him after all? Has the long impurity of her body somehow wounded this saint?
            “Who touched me?” Jesus says, and she starts to cry.
            Now everyone is watching her and so she has to tell the whole story: who she is, why she shouldn’t have been here with them, why she wanted so badly to touch him and how she risked their well-being to do it. No one seems to know how to look at her. “But I’m healed now,” she says through her tears, “I’m sorry I touched you all, but now I’m clean.”
            “Don’t worry,” says Jesus. “Your faith healed you. It’s all right.”
            But in Jairus’s house, it is not all right. In Jairus’s house, a girl whose face is pale as death when she sleeps has stopped taking in fresh breaths.

Monday, August 6, 2012


This is the beginning of the hymn my great-grandmother would chant every morning, hours before the sun came up:

One God
Whose Name is Truth
One Creator
Without Fear
Without Hate
Whose Presence Transcends Time

Before there was a Sikh history or a long list of Sikh martyrs, there was this verse. And there were people from all walks of life who would rise early and recite it to fill themselves with thoughts of God.

This is the seed that grew into Sikhism.

I doubt the man who shot six in Wisconsin knew anything about Sikh faith. The man who shot Balbir Singh Sodhi certainly didn't.

But because they chose hate and longed to be feared, they became trapped in the paranoia of their time.

What an awful place to be trapped.

What a tragic waste of human potential it is whenever we insist on seeing narrowly and spitefully instead of with the generous eternal vision of the divinity within us.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Five Books of Jesus Excerpt: the Beginning of the Gospel

            It starts in the desert.
            In the beginning of the world, says Genesis, the whole earth was a void and the spirit of God swept over it. This desert out on the banks of the Jordan is no void—even in the night the camels moan and the crickets chirp—but when it does get quiet some say you can still feel  the spirit of God sweep by, breathe it deep down into your chest.
            A long time ago, the prophet Amos looked out past his orchards and his flocks west of the river to the desert in the east and said There are days coming—yes, the vision must have fallen on him the way the sunset can make the desert suddenly cold—There are days coming says the Lord God when I’ll send a famine in the land.  Not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for words of the Lord. And the ground itself will grow parched and cracked with your deafness and my absence.
            There are days coming said the prophet when men will wander from sea to sea, from the north to the east, they’ll run back and forth, looking for a word from me.
            But they won’t find it.
            It’ll be too dry, he said.
            So John doesn’t wander from sea to sea. John doesn’t run this way or that. He walks straight into the river until it covers his head then out the other side where the dust gets mixed in his beard. He listens to the camels moan and the crickets chirp, and then to the silence.
            The dead prophet Amos smiles. It starts to rain.

The Five Books of Jesus: Preview

In October 2010, my bishop and one of his counselors pulled me out of Sunday school and told me they'd felt inspired to ask me to prepare a fifth Sunday lesson about the life of Christ.

Teaching and speaking come easily to me, and so I usually only feel intimidated by a church assignment if it involves paperwork. But I was a little intimidated by that assignment, because I knew the bishopric felt I had something specific to contribute and I felt an obligation to figure out what that something specific was.

As I prepared the lesson, I realized I couldn't possibly cover the life of Christ meaningfully in an hour. So after corresponding with the bishopric, I decided to focus instead on how to study the gospels more fully using our imaginative power as we read. 

The handout I prepared for that lesson included four steps to richer reading:

Try to imagine the story from the participants’ perspective. 
Example: Matt. 12: 46-50 [what did this look like to his family?]

Rediscover the surprise.
Example: Luke 4: 16-21 [who does that?]

Don’t read too fast—learn to feel the questions before you rush after the answer. 
Example: Mark 10: 26, 26-30 [who then shall be saved?]

It’s OK to wonder. 
Example: Luke 2: 50-51 [did Luke interview Mary?]

My handout also included a sort of sample "topical guide" that grouped passages by emotional dynamic rather than by doctrine. Like this:

Times when Jesus frightened people:
Luke 2: 41-45, 48-49 [lost in the temple]; Mark 10: 23-26 [Jesus shocks the apostles]; Matt. 8: 32-34 [locals ask Jesus to leave]; Matt. 14: 23-26 [mistaken for a ghost]; Mark 5: 30-33 [issue of blood], Mark 11: 15-18 [cleansing the temple]

Things Jesus said or did which people didn’t get at the time:
Luke 2: 50-51 [Father’s business?], John 12: 14-16 [disciples saw prophecy later], Mark 9: 30-32 [When Jesus talks predicts his death, the disciples are afraid to ask questions] Luke 24: 12 [Peter sees the empty burial linens and wonders]

Times when people got a glimpse into Jesus’ loneliness: 
Maybes: Luke 9: 57-58 [foxes], John 6: 67 [will ye also go away?] More clear: Matt. 26: 37-40 [three fall asleep], Mark 15: 34 and Ps. 22 [what Jesus starts to quote from the cross]

Times when Jesus made people around him look deeply into themselves: 
Mark 10: 26-30 [Peter wonders if he’s good enough], John 8: 2-9 [casting the first stone], Luke 24: 30-32 [road to Emmaus]

The handout suggested you could make countless lists like these, including times when the crowds around Jesus were overwhelming, times when Jesus made people happy, times when people surprised Jesus, times when Jesus walked out of verbal or physical traps, times when Jesus got unusually upset or stern, times Jesus talked with women.

At the end of the lesson, I suggested that, in addition to generating more usable insights, one benefit of building a more detailed human picture of the gospels would be that you'd have an easier time telling compelling stories about Jesus to your children. I shared how my daughter loved the story of Jesus and John kicking in their mothers' bellies, and told about how deeply she seemed to connect even at age five to Jesus' desire not to be alone on the Mount of Olives.

That fifth Sunday lesson, as I recall, went quite well. I had, I thought, fulfilled my assignment honorably.

Only--even after the lesson, the assignment kept lingering with me.

Usually, when I get an idea for a story or a novel, I tell my wife right away. More often than not, telling her is enough to relieve my initial fascination with the idea and I no longer feel the obligation to actually write the story down, which saves me a lot of work.

But when I decided I wanted to extend my imaginative engagement with the gospels into a novel-length retelling, I didn't dare risk losing steam by letting anyone know. So I wrote the opening sequences slowly, carefully, and in secret, and only showed them to her once I knew I was hooked on the project.

I spent most of last summer creating the first draft of the novel. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I almost cried again when I started the revision process and realized how much more work I had left to do.

Through the fall and winter, I decided to let the manuscript sit. This summer, I promised myself to finish the revision. I plan to release the book in August.

I'm 64% of the way through the text now. Last week, I decided to pick up the pace so I can meet my end of August goal, and I haven't blogged since.

But I feel sort of like I owe all of you readers something, so I've decided to post a short excerpt once or twice a week until the revision is done. I'll post the opening sequence simultaneously with this post, and be back next week with another scene that can stand fairly well on its own.

Hope you enjoy them.


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