Friday, September 28, 2012

A thought on happiness

Today I feel kinda sick and completely drained.

Once upon a time, I thought this is what happens to everyone if they don't sleep enough. Then a few years ago, in the follow up a while after a completely successful cancer surgery, doctors noticed that I have persistently low white blood cell counts. Since it was cancer doctors who noticed this, they were a little alarmed: did I somehow get cancer in my bones? They did a marrow biopsy and found out that no, I didn't have more cancer. Just a freakishly high percentage of fat instead of marrow in my bones, probably since birth.

"Do you get sick a lot?" asked my doctor.

"I don't think so," I said--and then realized I might not be qualified to identify "a lot," since I have sort of a skewed sense of what constitutes normal.

I am rarely too sick to function, but often mildly sick. If I rest, I get better soon. If I don't rest, I get more and more tired until I'm ready to fall asleep on any available floor space. Home or office. Usually a few steps from the door.

Today should be an exciting day. A production of one of my plays is opening. I have my first post up on a cool new group blog. My book is not only out, but also selling far more quickly than I'd expected. And the entries for the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest are looking awesome so far.

But the day is not exciting. Because I'm feeling too drained to be very excited or have much fun in the standard sense.

Here's the thing, though--I'm pretty sure I'm still happy. I don't necessarily feel it, but I don't think happiness has to be a joyous feeling. What if it's just a quiet confidence, in the back of your mind, that you're doing your best to live in harmony with God and your fellow men? What if it's the subtle peace just under your skin that says your deepest commitments matter?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Now Available--The Five Books of Jesus

I'd always thought of the Jordan River as straight.

It's not, of course, as you can see in the cover image. Rivers only run straight in our minds. Between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, the Jordan twists and turns time and time again. It's wider at some points and narrower at others, sometimes deep and slow, others shallow and swift.

When I was young, I thought I knew the story of Jesus. But just like with the Jordan River, it's easy to overlook the twists and turns when you know where a story ends. 

The core plot of my book is probably the best known story in the world--a story whose influence reaches far beyond the bounds of religious Christianity. But from the very first chapters of The Five Books of Jesus, I can promise I'll give you that story in a way that feels new, that invites you to notice its forgotten twists and turns. 

 How to start the journey

The book is available in both print and ebook formats. The print version, which is prettier, normally sells at $12.95 plus shipping. The ebook, which delivers faster, sells for $2.99.

To get a print copy, you have three options:

Amazon: USA, UK, Germany
-If you order enough to get free shipping and live away from Utah Valley, I recommend ordering the book on Amazon.

Amazon Create Space
-This is a store to buy directly from Create Space. They don't give free shipping, but they do allow me to create coupon codes. So if you're ordering just this book and paying shipping anyway, enter the code HXT5UDZL to get 10% off the book price.

Pre-order from me
-I get a low rate when I purchase directly, so I can offer $10 copies to anyone who's able to drop by my BYU office to say hello and pick theirs up. Just email james dot goldberg at gmail dot com to preorder as many copies as you would like, and I'll email back to let you know when they come in.

To order an ebook copy, you have two options (with more on the way):

Kindle Store: USA, UK, Germany
-The cover and "look inside" features are up already in the Kindle Store, so this is a good place to go even if you don't have a Kindle to get a feel for the book. If you have a Kindle, ordering from the Kindle store is the easiest way to start reading right away.

-If you read ebooks on a device other than a Kindle, or if you think Amazon is a dangerous 800-pound gorilla and wish to avoid patronizing them, you can buy the book in various formats--including ePub-- through Smashwords.

In the future, the ebook should also be available through the Barnes & Noble online ebook store and through Apple's online store. If you use a Nook or Apple device, you can get a Smashwords ePub file now or wait a week or two for the book to become available in those sales channels.

Sharing your progress and spreading the word

If you like what you read, I hope you'll let people know what you think, and help spread the word about this book's existence.

I've set up a Facebook Discussion group for anyone who'd like to discuss the book as they read--or who'd like to discuss the book chapter-by-chapter after they finish. In addition to giving you a chance to talk about the book, the discussion group will give your Facebook friends a chance to glance over your shoulder, as it were, to see what you're reading.

There's also a Goodreads page for the book--if you use Goodreads, I hope you'll mark when you start and when you finish, and take time to leave a review when you do.

And of course, it would be wonderful if you could leave a customer review on the Amazon page, and if you'd tell your friends what you thought of the book--good or bad, I'll be happy just to know my work is being talked about.

Thank you all for your interest in this project--and to so many of you for your support through the process. I hope you enjoy the Five Books of Jesus, and I hope that someday we get a chance to talk about it!

-James Goldberg
25 September 2012


Saturday, our ward and the next ward over were assigned to clean our building in preparation for the broadcast of the Brigham City Temple dedication yesterday. 

Ordinarily, a few families go in on Saturday to tidy up a bit, but since our meetinghouse was going to serve as an extension of the Temple for a few hours, the bishop asked everyone in the ward who could make it on Saturday morning to come.

We started with breakfast: the bishop heated tortillas for us and his counselor offered grilled potatoes and peppers, eggs, cheese, and salsa to fill them. We got time to talk and enjoy the food while our leaders literally served us, blessed to be able to take for granted that aspect of Jesus' teachings.

After breakfast, we went in to the building. The Relief Society president had drawn up lists of tasks to be done, and people fell into place working. Because of my height, my job was to take down light covers in the hall. I would then hand them to my friends' four-year-old daughter, Mary, who would carry them out the doors so the young women (with help from my eight-year-old daughter) could clean them out without dropping dust or dead bugs on the church carpet in the process.

As we worked, Mary and I would sometimes pause to help out with another task. We helped the Relief Society president bring some things to a closet and stayed to pack them in, so that she could go back to answering people's questions. ("I feel like all I'm doing to help is talking," she told me. "Your brain makes it easier  for everyone else to work," I said.) We helped the Executive Secretary get the covers off the lights in the Clerk's office. And then we'd always go back to getting light covers off through the long hallways and in the classrooms, walking past people happily at work on our right and on our left. 

After maybe an hour of work, we passed Mary's mom, who was cleaning with some other ward members in the Elders' Quorum room.

"Your daughter's a really hard worker," I said.

"She's having an easier time here than at home," she said back. 

"I guess that's the Beehive effect," I joked. "Work is better when we're all together."

But here's the thing: it really was. I spent my whole morning with my arms above my head, taking off plastic light covers until I wore away the outside layer of the skin on my thumbs and scraped up all my knuckles on the ceiling, and it felt so good. I mean: how can you not feel good when a four-year-old girl is working steadily alongside you, feeling strong and important as she carries pieces of plastic up and down the hall? How can you not feel good when you see your daughter working next to young women and the women who guide them, wrapped in their sense of belonging and purpose? How can you not feel good when everywhere you look there are people who believe that this work means something, who see their simple labors as part service and part worship?

Last week, I wrote a post about how organized religion can be useful. Today I want to say that it's also beautiful to me, that there's something hard-wired into my biology and inherent in my immortal soul which can't help but find such harmony stirring.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A thought on organized religion

I want to talk about the increasing American antipathy for organized religion. But I think I'll talk about hurricanes first. 

On the way home from work today, I listened to an interview with Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist who has studied natural disaster response. His main point (which he also argues in a short NYT article) is that in a disaster situation, deep social connections and shared trust matter more than money, education, or numerous other factors.

This is, of course, no surprise to Latter-day Saints--though the details are interesting. Aldrich mentions, for example, that you are far more likely to be successfully dug out of rubble after an earthquake if a neighbor knows where in the house you sleep. (Suggested Sunday school question: "If your home or visiting teachees were buried in a pile of rubble tomorrow, would you know where to dig?") In so many small ways, we are prepared to bless each other in hard times as we come to know and trust each other in easy ones. What we earn through countless minor acts of service and interaction is a gradual strengthening of our shared social capital.

But if neighbors are more likely to save our lives than money is, why aren't more people investing in their local social capital supplies?

Probably because it's a long, potentially boring process where most of the payout is delayed. Sort of like saving for retirement later instead of going out to eat now. Or working on a long-term relationship instead of looking for another new romance.

Most people in any culture would prefer to do what's interesting now rather than what pays off in the future. And Americans are particularly prone to this, because we value freedom and we value being current and we value having stuff we can touch. So having to give up your own freedom to spend regular time with neighbors can feel stifling, neighborhood values can seem old-fashioned or lame, and spending time with people can feel unproductive if there's no acquisition of objects involved. 

This is where organized religion comes in. Organized religions often facilitate organic, local growth of shared social capital by making demands of us: we have to gather together to worship, and we have to do small acts of kindness for each other, and we have to sit and talk--and even listen to the people around us. We are expected to do these things even when we could be doing things that are more interesting or timely or short-term "productive." Religion calls on us, reminds us, to do things we might easily neglect without its voice.

Can a person be spiritual without being religious? Yes. Can love your fellow men without organizing with any of them around shared beliefs? Absolutely.  Can choose your own path in life without dealing with the pressures of an Institution? Sure. 

But I'm thankful for a religion with organized demands. Because, speaking from both personal experience and statistical evidence, it's my religion as much as my spirituality that has led me to invest in others, day by day, in ways that will prepare us to endure difficult times--however they may come.

It's my religion that will call to me the moment after the storm comes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Two Good Men

I just ran across a two-week old interview in Time Magazine in which Barack Obama was asked to list a few things he admires about his opponent. Here's what he said:
He strikes me as somebody who is very disciplined. And I think that that is a quality that obviously contributed to his success as a private-equity guy. I think he takes his faith very seriously. And as somebody who takes my Christian faith seriously, I appreciate that he seems to walk the walk and not just be talking the talk when it comes to his participation in his church.
For all the clamor and contention of politics, I am certainly grateful to have two candidates to choose from who value both hard work and humility. And I'm touched to think that both Presidential candidates seem to have strong faith rooted in their personal experiences seeing Christian service in action and not out of any desire for political gain--in a way, it's strangely comforting to see this level of success for two faithful followers of Jesus who so many Americans are unwilling to accept as "Christian."

Personally, I prefer Obama's policies to Romney's. I admired his determination to expand Americans' access to health care and  would love to see him defend it (even if his program turns out not to work, I have a soft spot for noble failure). I thought he did an excellent behind-the-scenes job finding the right level of response to the Libyan crisis and would love to have him serve for another four years as the face of American government to countries around the world.

That said, I respect Romney's strong personal commitment to service and community. In the long term, I think volunteer service is better than bureaucracy, and if more people freely gave as much of their time, energy, and resources to others as he has, his running mate's debt-slashing policies would probably work just fine. Since most Americans don't live in service-driven communities, I'm skeptical--but I think Romney's failure would be every bit as noble as Obama's.

Their hearts are good--even if contemporary campaign culture often makes them pettier than they need to be. They both seem to be trying hard to do what's right and what they think is best for the country--even if they turn out to be wrong.

So can we give them some credit for that? We have to choose which candidate to vote for, but most of us don't have a professional or personal obligation to despise the other.

Can we judge these men, perhaps, as we might want to be judged? 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

FAQ: Do Mormons Really Believe They Can Become Gods?

Short answer: 


Unpacking the question: 

This question has been coming up lately from two groups who might be surprised how much they have in common with each other. Religious conservatives often bring up the belief to show that Mormons are unorthodox and blasphemous and shouldn't be listened to.  Secular cultural liberals don't see "unorthodox" or "blasphemous" as negative labels, so they bring up the belief to cast Mormons as weird (secular for "unorthodox") and arrogant (secular for "blasphemous") and not worth listening to (no translation necessary).

Now, someone who is trying to say Latter-day Saints aren't worth listening to is probably not going to listen to an answer to this question. Which is too bad, because it's actually a question that gets at some of our most fundamental beliefs.

And while I will freely admit that this particular LDS belief is far outside the cultural mainstream, I think it is a greater influence for good on us than most observers realize. 

Long answer:

Most Western religions teach that we are primarily God's creations: beings he made (in his image, no less!) to find joy and to help complete the beauty of the universe. Most Eastern religions teach that we are actually a part of God: that a portion of him is manifest in every being and that we will eventually merge back into God as a drop returns to the sea.

Latter-day Saints join Western religions in treating humans as beings who exist separate from God, but join Eastern religions in interpreting our true natures as radically divine. In our view, the soul is the seed that contains the tree. Or the tiny atom whose mass quietly contains incredible quantities of energy. God, as a distinct and separate individual, is with us, watching over us, and communicating with us--but his full Divinity is also in us, waiting to be allowed to unfold.

This view is not an obscure Mormon teaching--it's a basic assumption for many Latter-day Saints. And it informs the way we look at several issues. For example:

Parenting. One reason family matters so much to Latter-day Saints is that we believe so fully in parent-child relationships as a manifestation of the divine. We believe our souls are still children even as our bodies become parents, but that in earthly parenting we can experience a portion of God's identity and unlock our own divinity in the process. Learning to be a good parent is, in Mormon terms, the most direct route toward learning to be like God.

Facing Adversity. For most Western religions, God created the universe. For most Eastern religions, God is the universe. And either of those views raises a significant question: if God is good, why do bad things happen? In a Latter-day Saint view, the cores of our souls (called "intelligences") are eternal in both directions: they have always existed and will always exist. God didn't create himself and he didn't create the innermost core of us--he is a God partly because he so fully understands us and processes by which we can grow into our divinity. And so for Latter-day Saints, adversity is not a flaw in the universe so much as an opportunity for growth. Our reputation for rising to face difficulty comes in part from the example of our history, but also from our beliefs about the nature of our own souls.

Sin. There are numerous reasons to believe sin is bad. There may be consequences. It's against the rules. It will disappoint someone you care about. It can hurt people. But our belief in the endless potential within every human being allows us to focus on another reason sin is bad: sin damages us, it dams our eternal progression. And so after we sin, we don't just seek forgiveness--we are looking for healing, asking Christ to help mend and nourish our damaged divinity. And when we live good lives, we can feel how much more they're in harmony with the impulse of growth within us.

So do Mormons believe we can become Gods in the afterlife? Absolutely. But it's not like we sit around all day and dream about that future in cartoon terms. For most Latter-day Saints, our divine potential matters now: as we watch our children grow, when we face trials and adversity, when we seek healing through Jesus Christ's Atonement.

And if anything, I wish we would talk about this controversial part of our doctrine a little bit more. One thing I think Latter-day Saints have to offer to our neighbors and friends of other faiths is just a little sense of wonder about whether our most sacred humans traits--our interest in creating and organizing, our capacity for empathy and imagination, our longing to nurture and to serve, our innate abhorrence for cruelty and evil--are really signs of a radical godliness that is already part of every human soul.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Judging my book by its cover

After two summers of obsessive, consuming work, Nicole and I finished revising my book last night. It may still be a few weeks until it's publicly available--my copy editor is waiting with a list of missing and misplaced s's to correct, and I'll want to go carefully through the first printed proof before launching--but the book is essentially ready now.

I'm biased, of course, but I think it's really beautiful.

Which is why I'm so glad I commissioned Nick Stephens, an artist whose work I've admired, to create the cover: 

I love the way he's blended the two simple images of the Jordan river and the dove with the geometric texture of the background.

I hope my book has achieved something similar: to tell an important story simply, but with a texture based in underlying patterns that give meaning to the most mundane of moments--a bird swooping down over the water, a man breaking bread with his friends.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Five Books of Jesus Excerpt: Story of a Vineyard

            The next day is the Sabbath, and Jesus is invited to preach in the congregation of a village that stands at the base of the mountain, built on the ruins of what was once an important city. He takes the scroll gently in his hands, opens it slowly, and reads:
I will sing to my Beloved a song of his vineyard. My Love had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
He plowed the land and cleared it, and planted good vines;
he built a tower and a winepress for the harvest that would come.
But when he gathered the grapes, they weren’t sweet but sour.
Though he’d tended the vines well, they bore wild fruit.
Judge, men of Israel, between my Love and his vineyard!
What more could the Keeper of the Vineyard have done?
            “I knew a man once,” says Jesus after he rolls up the scroll and sits down, “who tended a fig tree for his father. For three years, the father waited to taste the tree’s fruit, but for three years it produced nothing. ‘Why are we still waiting?’ said the father of the man I knew, ‘The soil is good: if this tree gives us nothing, why don’t we cut it down?’ But the man asked his father for one more year. ‘Let me care for it a little longer,’ he said. ‘If it bears fruit, we’ll rejoice together. If not, we’ll cut it down.’”
            Jesus stops there and closes his eyes. It’s silent in the assembly for a moment.
            “What happened to the tree?” says someone from the back. 
            Jesus opens his eyes. “I don’t know,” he says. “Before the year was up, some of the father’s servants killed his son.”


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