Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Eve Tradition

In his first message for the new year, Pres. Uchtdorf reminds us that the Roman god Janus--the god of beginnings--had two faces. One, of course, looked toward the future. But another was always fixed on the past. 

When a new year comes, says Pres. Uchtdorf, we often try to move forward by making resolutions or setting goals. But it can be difficult to keep those resolutions if our energy is still tied up in regrets, old worries, or emotional wounds. The weight of those old troubles can fall on us as soon as we make the first mistake in keeping our new goal, and it's all too easy to fall back into stagnation. 

At the new year, he suggests, we need cleansing and healing as surely as we need hope. To reach our ambitions, we also need atonement. 

That seems to me like a wise way to approach a new year. And it reminds me of a tradition a wise family I knew in Ohio keeps. 

Every New Year's Eve, the Disons hold a big party and build a big bonfire. They play games and swap stories through the first few hours of the night, but as midnight approaches they pass out little pieces of paper and pens and invite everyone to write down something from the old year: some worry, some pain, some spiritual scab they're ready to stop picking at. And then all the guests fold their pieces of paper into airplanes or cranes or else just crumple them into a tight little ball and they all throw them into the fire. 

It feels good to do that. To give the backward-glancing face of Janus a reason to smile. 

It's been a long year. A heavy, hanging year. I don't know if I have the energy left to make a bonfire for my little family tonight, but I think I'll light a candle in a quiet echo of what the Disons do. 

Think we'll dedicate a moment to relief before we move on to resolutions. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Three Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage in Utah

Since last week, I have been trying to sort out my thoughts on the beginnings of same-sex marriage in Utah--and at about 10 pm on Friday 27 December, I sat down to write them. It is now 5:06 am and I have just finished my first draft. Which I have decided to publish as is, with apologies for any typographical errors, incoherent passages, and missing hyperlinks to studies I meant to go find. Apologies also for my failure to condense my thoughts down under 3,000 words: 


 Last Friday, a federal court decision by district judge Robert Shelby made Utah the 18th state to recognize committed same-sex relationships as marriages. By now, you have probably either read—or carefully ignored—a wide variety of reactions to that news.

 Because I have deep-running feelings about the issue, I have tried to keep some track of what the ruling has meant to individual people. I've been hoping to sense the threads in the rope of this debate, you could say. I’m trying to have eyes to see how the noble sentiments on each side are intertwined with the ugly, the insightful bound together into one taut cord with the shallow and the smug.

The practical joy I've seen so many express over relationships solemnized is tied together with the arrogance of those who hold the ruling over the heads of social and political opponents. The honest concerns about the ruling I've seen and share lie side by side with raw expressions of alienating anger.

Maybe there’s no other way this could go. The debate over same-sex marriage is a debate over the nature of family, and for many of us, families are more important than the governments they interact with. If you hold a more traditional view of marriage, you probably feel like your voice has been shoved out of the conversation over a part of the social contract you take more seriously than the Constitution itself. If you hold the emerging dominant view of marriage, you probably feel sick to the stomach of people who balk at giving legal recognition to committed love as the most basic bond human relationships are woven from.

I would describe myself as a marriage traditionalist. If you would describe yourself as an advocate of marriage equality, you may have already put that last word in scare quotes—“traditionalist.” You may feel, as someone recently told me on Facebook, that traditionalists like me “need to be rejected, and quickly, before their tired worldviews do any more damage than they already have.” Your metaphors for me may be drawn from a long list of historical bad guys: Nazis, segregationists, religious extremists. Or you may just think of me as an everyday, run-of-the-mill self-righteous jerk.

I do not, of course, see myself in those terms. I see myself as a fairly sincere and honest person with a long term concern for the place of family in our culture and law. I see myself as an heir to a long legacy of Abrahamic values, and I believe those values have blessed the world far more than they have harmed it. I see myself as someone willing to stand up for difficult truths about what is sustainable and what is not.

Maybe I’m wrong about marriage. Maybe my values and I really can be trampled over with no social cost. 

Or maybe I’m wrong about myself. Maybe I defend traditional marriage primarily to feel holier-than-my-generation, or because I’m lacking in basic empathy, or because I got started by my mother and then became more interested in defending my position than in doing good.

God alone knows the truth about the world and our hearts. If I am wrong with good intentions, may God forgive my wrong conclusions. And if I am right but with wrong intentions, may God save me from my pride. 



Judge Shelby’s ruling is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court. There is a fairly high chance the Supreme Court will hear the appeal, and a pretty low chance they will overturn his decision—especially with so many marriage licenses already issued. I’m fairly convinced that same-sex marriage is in Utah to stay, and the arguments I have against Shelby’s legal reasoning aren't going to change that. But I’m going to try to lay out where I stand through dialog with his ruling anyway.

I believe that a culture of marriage ought to be built around customs of procreation and child-rearing within the relationship between husband and wife.

In his ruling, Judge Shelby dispatches this notion by pointing out that we don’t give people fertility tests before we allow them to marry. If I really believed marriage was about procreation, he says, I wouldn't want the state to recognize old women’s relationships as marriages. And since I have not objected to postmenopausal marriages, he says, it’s clear that I actually share his view— that marriage is simply a loving, intimate relationship two people form and society has a fundamental obligation to recognize.

If I could respond, I might point out that not all couples start their marriages with love. So by his own reasoning, love is not an essential characteristic of marriage. And that we allow people like prisoners to marry without any immediate hope of practical intimacy. So intimacy must not be important either. I might go on to use counter-examples to show that every definition of marriage falls apart once you try to whittle down the definition of marriage through counter-examples. And I might point out that rational judges in the past, recognizing that marriage is more a set of valuable cultural norms than an algebraic legal formula, have ruled that marriage can have procreative norms without demanding fertility from every participant.

If I could respond to Judge Shelby, I might go on to point out that one difference between same-sex couples and infertile couples is that the members of most same-sex couples are individually fertile. While a postmenopausal women is unable to fulfill my stated central goal for marriage by conceiving and bearing a child within a marriage relationship, she is equally unable to undermine my stated goal by conceiving a child outside of it. But the experience of some of the first same-sex couples to win marriage recognition suggests that marriage actually makes them more likely to produce biological children outside of their marriage.

 Take the example of Andrew Solomon. He and his husband, John, are not able to have biological children together because they are both men, but each is biologically capable of procreating with a woman. The recognition of their relationship as a marriage seems to have heightened their interest in procreation, possibly because the culture of marriage still has strong procreative norms, and they have now both fathered children. John has been a sperm donor twice: once for each partner in a lesbian couple he knew through work. Andrew has fathered two children he also has the legal rights of fatherhood for. His biological daughter was conceived when he gave sperm to a divorced female friend who wanted a child. That daughter lives with her mother and her mother’s new husband, but Andrew takes an active parental role in decision-making in her early life. Andrew’s biological son was conceived with a donated egg which was then implanted and carried in the womb of one of the women who had used John’s sperm to produce her own child. The son lives with Andrew and John, who share custody of him. Together, Andrew Solomon refers to this as his “extended nuclear family” of five adults and four children in three states. (The math is a bit tricky, though: if you were to count Andrew’s daughter’s mother’s new husband it’s six adults and if you were to count the egg donor, it’s seven adults and possibly four states.)

Now, I am not saying a state government couldn't choose to encourage the formation of such “extended nuclear families.” But it seems clear to me that Judge Shelby’s assertion that same-sex marriage will not affect the culture of marriage and procreation in any way is naïve even in light of the limited data sets we have for same-sex marriages so far. Same-sex marriages are not interchangeable with post-menopausal marriages. The biological realities and their long term cultural implications are fundamentally different.

How did Judge Shelby miss that possibility? Probably because he has thought a lot more about law in and of itself than about culture—and the complex relationships between law and culture.

As it happens, many of the very people whose positions Judge Shelby ruled as having no rational basis have spent significantly more time thinking about the culture of marriage than he has. Recent Pew Research indicates that Latter-day Saints are far more likely than average Americans to rank marriage and parenthood as top life priorities. Utah’s population, as it happens, is heavily influenced by people with a strong culture (by American standards) of marriage and procreation within marriage.

In fact, if we were to assume that there is no God, Latter-day Saint leaders are people who on their own and without any divine help guide a community of fifteen million people with a strong culture of marriage and procreation within marriage. From a secular standpoint, LDS Church leaders ought to be considered among the world’s top authorities on how to maintain such a culture and ought to have a respected voice in the public sphere on issues involving family and procreation.

That is assuming, of course, that government has anything to do with family and procreation in the first place. Is maintaining a culture of procreation within marriage really a rationally legitimate government purpose?

If I were able to sit down with Judge Shelby, I would go over studies that identify family stability as a central predictor of income mobility and family instability as a central predictor of poverty. If there is a legitimate government interest in alleviating poverty, I would argue, measures that nudge people toward procreation within marriage and family stability ought to be on the table.

I don’t wish to embrace any overnight apocalyptic tone toward same-sex marriage, of course. I hardly except Americans to descend into poverty all at once because we shift slowly toward what Andrew Solomon calls "reproductive libertarianism" But I do think Judge Shelby is premature in saying that my concerns have no rational basis.

And it would be nice, as conversations over our culture move forward, if at least three or four Supreme Court justices take advantage of an opportunity to officially agree with me. If just a few people could say in an official capacity that giving people the space to pursue same-sex relationships and merging the norms of those relationships with the norms of traditional marriages are two very different things, and that the people of a given state do have some right to think about how they want to legally recognize different types of relationships.



I don’t really hope for more than three or four, though. I imagine that five justices have already decided where they stand on the Utah case and may well be mentally preparing their legal rationales for overturning all state laws designed to clarify the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

 Where does that leave someone with my views? Should I protest the legal changes to marriage? Should I riot in the streets over the issue? Should I campaign vigorously for the deeply problematic and demographically decaying Republican Party?

 No, thank you.

This particular political and legal struggle is all but over. As a person who cares about the future of marriage, I feel that my energy will be far better used preparing for the next major cultural or legal struggle, which may or may not directly involve same-sex marriage.

I cannot allow my perspective to be reduced to opposition to same-sex marriage. I need to show proactively what my core underlying interests and guiding principles are, and I need to help them become a part of current cultural conversations in a way that will shape the next unforeseen debate.

Of course, I can’t know what that debate will be. But I have a feeling that the following three principles will be continue to be challenged in different ways and that affirming them will continue to have utility:

Principle #1. Biological parents will be accountable to their children; children have a right to responsible biological parents.

The day I adopted my oldest daughter, who is now nine, was one of the best days of my life. But the relationship we share doesn’t relieve her of the emotions she will have to work through or with over the biological father, still living, who hasn’t seen her since she was three.

I believe strongly that children have a right to their biological parents and that biological parents are accountable to their children. In some cases, such as abandonment or serious parental unpreparedness, it is far better for children to be raised by loving and stable adoptive parents than by their biological parents. But it is better still when children are born to parents who are solidly committed to each other and to them. Children deserve that.

There are many ways, of course, to deprive children of stable biological parents. The oldest and most common is for individuals to have children outside of committed relationships. But recent technologies have provided several other options.

I once knew a single woman with serious depression problems who decided to undergo artificial insemination in order to have a child. There was a lot in that woman I admired, but that particular decision of hers devastated me. I have serious reservations about women undergoing artificial insemination out of wedlock.

When I had testicular cancer (shortly after I met the woman who later became my wife), doctors advised me to bank some of my sperm in case treatments affected my fertility. In the process, I had to sign documents giving the sperm bank permission to destroy my sperm in the event of my death—or else to fill out alternate documents providing a beneficiary.

It took a moment for the implications to sink in for me. We have the technology now for posthumous conception. It is entirely possible to imagine some near-future society in which a male celebrity’s sperm is sold for private use after his death. How would we respond if the posthumous use of sperm became a major cultural or legal issue? I hope we would follow the principle that children have a right, whenever possible, to be conceived and raised by committed biological parents.

Principle #2. Fatherhood and Motherhood still matter as distinct roles. Communities succeed when they find the proper balance of guidance and flexibility in preparing the young for these vital roles. 

I believe that Fatherhood and Motherhood matter in two distinct senses. First, I believe there are underlying differences between the ways most men and most women process reality and that each approach lends fathers and mothers a special niche in childrearing. Second, I believe that communities serve the needs of tomorrow’s children best when they prepare today’s children for parenthood and that some flexible form of gender role is a valuable cultural technology in helping pass on essential training to children.

 Around the time the Proposition 8 case reached the Supreme Court, I was privileged to have a detailed exchange of views with an old friend of mine in Ohio who believes strongly that committed same-sex relationships should be recognized as marriages. I had no desire to change his mind on the same-sex marriage issue given his broader view of marriage (which was consistent with the emerging dominant romantic/companionate view), but I did want him to understand how my community values and fundamental understanding of marriage differed from his.

 Naturally, we ended up spending a significant amount of time on the idea of gender roles. He and I turned out to agree that some degree of specialization is positive in a partnership or marriage, and both of us agreed that individual couples needed flexibility to find the right division of responsibilities for their relationship, but we had an important disagreement about how to reach that flexibility. My friend felt strongly that partners should begin to determine their roles after becoming a couple. As a parent, I told him I felt strongly that children should be raised with some gender-based specific preparation and expectations as a baseline for marital negotiations.

That is to say: I am raising my daughter with a clear sense that focusing on nurturing her children is a worthy and important goal, and will likely be a defining responsibility in her life. I am raising my sons with the skills to nurture children but also with an expectation that they will likely be responsible for providing economically for their families.

As I raise my children, I feel there’s a delicate balance to be achieved. What if the basic roles I am teaching them turn out to be poor fits for their life situations? I need to teach them the flexibility to adjust as needed. A relative of mine, for example, found that his specific anxiety condition made it difficult to work outside the home. He and his wife do far better by having him use his talents in the somewhat more contained sphere of nurturing their children during working hours, while her training has been sufficient to provide for their family financially. But there’s a difference between teaching flexibility and teaching procrastination. Assuming adults will successfully choose their own roles without any modelling or preparation strikes me as naïve.

Just as individual parents can strive to find the right balance of preparation, accountability, and flexibility, I think communities succeed when some sort of broad positive roles are available for modeling and adaptation.

Gender roles are under fire, but I’m not prepared to give up on them. Fathers and mothers matter, and they aren’t made starting from the wedding day.

Principle #3. The link between sexuality and procreation is not incidental.

Over the past sixty years, our ideas about procreation and our ideas about sex have been drifting apart. It is now quite possible to have babies without sex, and simpler than ever for a fertile person to consistently have sex without babies. It is easier than ever to use sex for power, for pleasure, to override unwanted emotions, to negotiate identity or to pursue goals of self-discovery without thinking about the creative potential of intercourse.

And yet what have we gained from wide-ranging sexual freedom? It seems to me that anxiety and isolation are the two most common fruits of our prevailing sexual culture.

I believe that human sexuality serves two main purposes: it enables procreation, and it builds and nourishes powerful bonds of trust. Those chemically-fortified bonds strike me as an ideal asset for raising children. Why not restore and strengthen customs that connect the two?

It seems to me that treating sex as primarily about pleasure rather than about bonding creates all kinds of dysfunction. It’s quite common for young couples to prioritize the physical pleasure of sex, which is easier to recognize at first than the trust/bonding chemical effect sexual relations produce. But failing to take the bonding function of sex seriously complicates numerous relationships: in cohabitation situations, for example, the lack of firm commitment coupled with the bonding impulses of sex often seem to create major relationship anxieties that drive partners apart.

It’s also worth noting that the sheer intensity of sexual arousal combined with the wide availability of pornography has made sexual arousal a common form of attempted self-medication for young people with emotional difficulties. In the same way that veterans have often used the physical and chemical intensity of a bar fight to distract them from feeling of anxiety, depression, or loss of control, many people seem to be turning to pornography to override uncomfortable feelings they don’t know how to confront. Like most systems of self-medication, though, pornography typically only delays the emotional problem and creates an addictive pattern in the process. It’s becoming a major health issue.

 All of which is to say bringing the procreative and bonding functions of sexuality back to the forefront of conversation about sexuality strikes me as an important cultural contribution of people with my views on marriage. Rather than focusing on a single issue like same-sex marriage—which appears to be completely out of our influence and control—traditionalists might benefit from stepping back to articulate their underlying values.

We need to watch the culture and do what we can to be involved early in the next major conversations to arise.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Poem for Christmas Eve

There's a dark line, by December, running
down from Mary's diaphragm and across her
navel, a dark line
on one of the darkest
days of the year
by which time she's
been carrying him
for nine long months

Her feet ache
and her breasts ache
and her hands can barely grip anymore
any minute the reins will slip through her thick fingers
and maybe she'll fall down off the donkey
and cry for a good long while
on the side of this dusty
distant, cramped
Judean road.

Joseph says this whole town is full to bursting,
and she just says, "I know."
He's trying to ask her opinion,
wants her to tell him what to do, she
supposes, or maybe just to give him her
permission to do
whatever must be done.

But Mary's brain has been flooded,
washed clean out,
by the work of tending her inside:
a secret place,
where her son can rest his head
immersed in her water,
nourished by her blood.

If she can carry him
another mile
another hour
That great and terrible moment will come
when he bursts forth into this world

to teach us all
how to be born.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Unity and Worldview -- 1 Corinthians 12: 14-19

"For the body is not one member, but many.
If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
And if they were all one member, where were the body?" (1 Cor 12: 14-19)

 In a lesson on unity yesterday in elders' quorum, we talked about this passage. The high council member who was teaching used it to make a good point: being unified does not mean we need to be the same. Different people contribute to the work of God in different ways. And we should respect that.

I completely agree with him, but I'm not sure our discussion did justice to just how difficult it is to respect a different member of the body of Christ. Our whole ideas about discipleship are so shaped by our own talents and roles it's difficult sometimes to realize that other people's very different attitudes and behaviors might also have an equal place in the kingdom. 

Let's talk first about a foot. What role does a foot play in the body? It helps it move from one place to another. What makes a foot good at its role? It should be reliable, strong, and consistent. It should take direction well. A good foot makes subtle modifications to maintain balance, but largely stays the course once in motion.

Let's talk next about an ear. What role does an ear play in the body? It helps gather and process certain types of information from the outside world so the body can remain oriented within its surroundings. What makes an ear good at its role? It should be open and attentive to many different sources. It should be able to pass on what it gathers. A good ear should be patient and non-judgmental. 

Odds are, good feet and good ears drive each other crazy.

From the perspective and values of a foot in the body of Christ, an ear must seem so lazy and distracted. "Why can't you be more focused?" the foot might say, "Why can't you just do what you're told like a good Latter-day Saint?"

But the foot seems just as crazy to the ear. "Can't you sit still even for a moment?" the ear might say. "Can't you be more flexible--even the hand is flexible!"

And so it is that the ear offends the foot and the foot offends the ear. And perhaps, through their mutual offense, both foot and ear become disaffected with the body as a whole.

"The body of Christ is basically a cult," the ear might say. "Just a bunch of feet obsessed with obedience."

"I don't see much point in going to church," the foot might say, "all they do is talk and talk--what's the point?"

We can be unified across our differences. But in order to do so, we need to work hard to appreciate people on their own terms. We need to understand that some of their most frustrating behaviors may be closely intertwined with their greatest strengths. And we need to stop expecting others to speak the language of values we know best, or taking offense when their advice reflects their perspective rather than ours.

I like to think about things a lot, but I owe a lot to people who act more quickly than I do. I enjoy nuance, but I owe a lot to people who can bring out a little more of the black and white in some of my favorite shades of grey.

May God bless me to stay grounded in my gratitude for such people. May God bless the earth through the gifts he gave them and not me. And may God give them the grace to let me do work their virtues cannot qualify them for, to reach people they might never reach. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

August Insanity--Kira's Bracket

On the Mormon Lit Blitz Facebook group, we're currently running a bracket challenge called "August Insanity." Basically, we've pitted sixteen works of Mormon Lit against each other in a fight for glory, which I've described here. (Sidenote: I swear it is pure coincidence that both urls I've linked to so far end in 666.)

Anyway, I just gave my nine-year-old daughter brief plot synopses of each work and she just filled out her bracket:

For the first round, I also wrote down her justifications for each first round choice:

Folk of the Fringe is one of my favorite books, but Tennis Shoes wins easily for Kira “because it’s my cousin’s book, and he’s one of my favorite cousins.”

A brief plot synopsis of Bound on Earth impresses Kira “because I think you can, like, learn lessons from there.”

She has a tougher time with the next match but chooses Hooligan over Charly: “I like the idea of Charly, but she dies.”

Though she's intrigued by Jesus appearing to someone in the form of a cowboy, she chooses Byuck “because Byuck has one of my favorite college schools because my parents teach there.”

When I mistakenly tell her that Death of a Disco Dancer is about a boy whose grandmother's ghost comes to visit him, she leans toward it. But when we look up a synopsis and discover the grandmother is (disappointingly) still alive, she switches sides and chooses Saturday’s Warrior “because it’s like an eternal family. And I like eternal families.”

She goes for Added Upon “because the other one sounds kind of spooky.” Sorry, Luisa!

And then comes the bombshell. Her initial enthusiasm at seeing my book on the list is quickly dwarfed by the excitement of finding out its opponent is by Mel Larson! After a plot synopsis of
Martyrs’ Crossing, I have to come to terms with elimination in the first round on my own daughter's bracket. Why? Why Martyrs' Crossing?  “Because it’s by one of my daddy’s favorite friends and it sounds interesting because they are spirits and stuff," she says. "And I like the other one my dad wrote, too.” Thanks, Kira.

In another surprise, she chooses A Short Stay in Hell over her ancestor's classic dialogue, “because it has a library and I like to read.”

After the first round, she doesn't seem to do much head-to-head comparison of the books. Her cousin's coolness outweighs learning lessons in the second round and her parents' workplace in the semi-final.

But even the aura of coolness around Tennis Shoes leave it short of victory. Kira picks A Short Stay in Hell to win it all "'cause the guy is stuck in a library!"

Guess I can't be too upset about my own book going down in the first round when her bracket ends with such a lovely justification.

Good luck to all the competitors in the real tournament--and congratulations to Steven Peck for making it to the top of my daughter's bracket. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot" and "The Five Books of Jesus"

It was the Fox News interview that drew my attention to Reza Aslan's new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

"You're a Muslim," asks Lauren Greene as she opens the interview, "so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

Now: if Aslan had been writing from a religious Muslim perspective, he might have said, "Because Jesus is also a sacred figure in Islam," or "Because I think my Islamic values help me see some things in  the gospels many modern Christians miss."

But Aslan did not write the book from a religious Muslim perspective. Aslan wrote unabashedly as a modern academic in the humanities, which means that his assumptions owe more to Marx than Muhammad.  "My book [contradicts] pretty much everything Islam believes about Jesus as well,"he tells Greene.

But Greene still can't get over the Muslim thing. She has to know why Reza wants to write about a major historical figure. "I'm a scholar," Aslan explains to Lauren Greene, "I get paid for this." And then he explains it again, more slowly. And then again, because she's been checking instant messages about what a dangerous crypto-Muslim he is instead of listening.

Now, just because Aslan is a scholar doesn't mean he's right. Though he goes on at some length about the number of sources he's consulted, Aslan still emphasizes that historical scholarship consists mostly of debates between well-read people over ancient events and figures. Jesus scholarship, in particular, involves a lot of conjecture and debate.

I haven't finished Zealot yet, but having read the beginning and several literary reviews that sum up its main arguments, and having researched and written my own Jesus novel, I want weigh in on four points Aslan seems to be making in his #1 Amazon bestseller.

Zealot Point #1: Jesus lived in a turbulent world

In Aslan's description of Jesus' world, brutality is common enough to feel almost banal. Judea and Galilee are awash in apocalyptic thought and deep-rooted, burning resentment of the Romans. Divisions run deep between ethnic, religious, and political groups.

This is not your typical Jesus and lamb painting. In this world, the shepherd boys travel armed and shoot first if you get too close.  In this world, people who want to live watch their tongues.

Both Aslan and I agree on these essentials of the regional background. Jesus lived in the sort of times that produce the men who become legendary freedom fighters or hated terrorists (largely depending on whether they win or lose). Jesus walked down roads where dirt regularly mixed with blood. 

Zealot Point #2: We can know the historical Jesus by considering what would have been typical in his world.

Starting from this setting, Reza Aslan borrows an old distinction between Jesus of Nazareth (the historical figure) and Jesus the Christ (the religious figure). Like German researchers in the 19th century, he wants to strip the Christ of faith from the gospels to find Jesus the man. And he believes that studying typical Jewish life in Jesus' time and place will help him know who Jesus really was.

I'm not sure I buy that basic assumption. For one thing, Aslan may be overestimating how much we can say about Jesus' time and place--one review points out he uses a source from the 180s CE as if it were contemporary with Jesus. For all the Roman documents and archeological digs that have been done, our sense of everyday life way back then isn't all that precise.

More importantly, though, I'm not convinced that studying a cultural pattern can really help us pinpoint an individual person. Would we reject 1890s Mormon sources on Joseph Smith whenever they don't match the broad patterns of a Second Great Awakening preacher or visionary? I hope not. Because we'd end up with a view of Joseph Smith that does nothing to explain Mormonism's difference from other movements. And yet Aslan seems prepared to throw out any parts of the gospels that suggest Jesus was different than any other murdered Messianic revolutionary in his century. He tries to project that broad pattern onto the individual person.

Which is a little bit, come to think of it, like Lauren Greene trying to discover the real, concealed Reza Aslan based on what she knows about tensions between America and radical Islam in the 21st century. If we are willing to say that Jesus was a typical apocalyptic revolutionary because he came from a violent time in Galilean history, why not say that Reza Aslan is a fierce anti-American because he was born in a turbulent Iran?

I guess my approach to Aslan is to focus on how his thought plays out in his books rather than to analyze him primarily through the lens of broad trends in his place and time. Even today, the tools of history can't necessarily tell us what a person was really thinking. But they can help us understand what they wrote.

A fundamental difference between Zealot and The Five Books of Jesus is that Aslan tries to use historical tools to find the historical truths the gospels hide, whereas I try to use historical tools to understand what the gospels were saying to people in a culture we've largely forgotten. While Aslan looks primarily for a Jesus who was a typical Jewish revolutionary of the era (with missing archetype DNA borrowed from revolutionaries of subsequent eras), I look for what made the Jesus Christ of the gospels (whether or not he's also the Jesus of History) so much more compelling to people of the time than all the other prophets, mystics, and miracle workers they had stories of.

In the end, the difference may be in which part of Jesus we think is missing. Both Aslan and I want to look beyond the Christ of contemporary faith--but I think the Jesus Christ of the gospels is even more surprising and unexpected than any historical image of Jesus a scholar can construct.

Zealot Point #3: Pilate was a jerk. And the gospels soft-pedal that. 

Speaking about endless pages of footnotes and the Romans' penchant for record-keeping might give the false impression  that we can look up detailed information on Pilate in an old government file. So far as I know, what we know about Pilate outside the gospels is that the Roman-employed Jewish historian Josephus and the Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo didn't care for him. Both cited his cruelty and incompetence in explanations of later Jewish revolutionary violence. 

In other words, there's tension between the softer Pilate of the gospel accounts and the brutal, arrogant Pilate of Jewish accounts. Both have ulterior motives: the Jewish historians are looking for low-ranking fall guys to blame the Jewish revolt on so authorities won't blame the entire Jewish community. The gospels are trying to communicate a radical message about God's order without getting mistaken for run-of-the-mill revolutionary propaganda.

Whose version of Pilate do you believe?

Both Aslan and I opt for the "Pilate was a jerk" view of classical Jewish writers. Aslan does so not because it's proven, but because it sounds more natural in a volatile province to punish first and ask questions later than to agonize over a fairly routine execution. The Five Books of Jesus features a cruel Pilate because I think that view helps a modern reader see in the gospels what a contemporary listener or reader likely knew without being told: that rulers are not tame. And that trials come down to the whim of a hostile stranger (rather than the procedural protections we might imagine reading from America's twenty-first century). 

Zealot Point #4: The gospels feature a thoroughly Romanized faith at odds with Jesus' Jewish teachings.

Aslan seems to believe that the likely soft-pedaling on Pilate is evidence of a larger pattern: that the gospels were written for assimilated Roman citizens largely at peace with the Empire.

As someone who has studied the allusions and rhetorical strategies of the gospels, it's hard for me to agree. If the gospels were written to serve happily assimilated Romans, they did a pretty bad job. 

The gospels, especially the synoptic gospels, rely on readers' knowledge of Jewish prophecy and precedent to deliver their core messages. They constantly allude to the Hebrew Bible's motif of the kingdom of God ultimately smashing the kingdoms of the earth to pieces. They leave out the cosmopolitan cities of Galilee--places like Sepphoris and Tiberias--which would have been the perfect locations for pro-Roman scenes, and focus on traditional Jewish farming and fishing villages instead.

If they were so focused on helping Gentiles and assimilated Jews feel good about themselves and the Empire, why did they leave so much kingdom theology in their accounts?

The Christian community that developed after Jesus certainly differed from the Kingdom of God movement he developed in his lifetime, but I think scholars like Aslan underestimate the overlap between the two. Paul's thought is apocalyptic just as surely as Jesus' is--and for all his outreach to Gentiles, it matters a great deal to him to see converts as transformed into descendants of Abraham. The gospel writers still seem to be waiting for a day when the apostles rule over a restored House of Israel. And the gospels' view of Atonement owes far more to Yom Kippur imagery and psalms in their narratives of Jesus' death than they do to pagan views of the relationship between men and the gods.

What a modern scholar or reader needs to understand that, though, is not just historical research into the political and economic conditions of Jesus' time. It's textual research into how the story-world of the gospels built on the story-world Jesus came from.

And though my book may never find nearly as many readers as Aslan's, that's exactly what The Five Books of Jesus delivers and Zealot seems to lack.

If you want a sociologist's conjectures about the typical sort of figure 1st century Galilee might have produced, with some added thoughts on the religion some Romans might have made out of him, read Zealot. But if you want to understand what the gospels might have meant to people with an intense longing for another way of living and with "ears to hear" a message which remains revolutionary, make the time for a good, careful read of The Five Books of Jesus. 

-James Goldberg

Note: The Five Books of Jesus is available in print or eBook forms through Amazon. To celebrate the recent surge of interest in Jesus and history around Zealot, I'll be setting the eBook price to free this Thursday through Saturday.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DOMA and Prop 8 Rulings: Initial Reactions

I have not read the full rulings for either of the cases the Supreme Court ruled on today, but since people are talking about them now, I want to weigh in quickly.

Thoughts on the role of the Supreme Court

Sometimes we want the Supreme Court to play Solomon, resolving difficult cases between people by looking for the best solution. But the Supreme Court is not actually supposed to care about the solution nearly so much as about the procedure. They are supposed to be umpires, not arbitrators.

And umpires are not supposed to pick who wins the game. They are just supposed to see whether rules are being followed.

Rather than reacting to these decisions, then, as for or against one side of the immediate issue, can we talk about their impact on the rules of the lawmaking process?

What the decisions were

What did the majority in each case actually decide about rules?

The DOMA ruling seems to be that the Federal Government cannot reject a given state's definition of marriage. In this case, that means that a same-sex couple with a marriage license must be considered married under federal law. The ruling did not, however, insist that states accept each others' marriage certificates with equal impartiality. And it didn't weigh in on what the definition of marriage is beyond "whatever individual states say it is." 

The Prop 8 ruling was even more technical. It is that if a state law is challenged in court, only official representatives of the state have the right to defend that law. Which in this case means that all legal actions over Prop 8 since Vaughan Walker's August 2010 District Court ruling don't count. 

Prop 8 Analysis

While one side-effect of the Prop 8 case decision is that same-sex marriages will likely resume in California, the actual issue in the Supreme Court case is really about who can defend a law. I don't want to say here whether the Court was right or wrong, because it's fairly complicated. But I do think it's clear that there's a procedural problem here that needs to be fixed.

The problem I see with the court's Proposition 8 ruling is that it throws a wrench into California's system for balancing the authority of state government with the direct authority of the people.

Some background to make this clear. In the summer of 2008, California's state supreme court struck down all language in the state law code specifying genders in reference to marriage. Many Californians celebrated the ruling and the same-sex marriage rights it opened up, but others objected to having such a fundamental change come from a few justices.

And California had a system for dealing with disagreements with its high court or other top state authorities. When they were strongly at odds with their state government, California allowed its voters to change the state constitution through a fairly laborious and expensive process of setting up and passing a voter initiative. In other words, you could check the top of the state appeals system by going straight back to the roots of power. It's sort of a check-and-balance circle instead of pyramid.

Proposition 8 advocates managed to get the old definition of marriage onto a voter initiative and narrowly passed it. But opponents, now finding themselves at odds with the process, looked for the next method of appeal--which was leaving the state system for the federal system.

Under the federal system, of course, anyone can challenge a law they feel harmed by. But not anyone can defend a law: in most cases, only the government which passed the law can defend it. And California's administration--which hadn't actually passed the law in the first place--wasn't really interested.

This difference between the federal system and the California system creates a dilemma. California allows voter groups to check the state government--but those same voter groups rely on the state government for protection in federal appeals. Should the federal court system honor the spirit of California's voter initiative system--or should they stick to their own standard of who can defend a law?

I can't say that I blame the Supreme Court for sticking to federal precedent, but I think the Prop 8 decision leaves California with some thinking to do about its process of voter initiatives. If California still wants voter initiatives to be a meaningful check on the state government's power, they should find a way to give initiative backers standing--maybe by having each initiative name a special representative who would be empowered within the state attorney's office to defend that initiative.

Or California could give up on the voter initiative system altogether. It just seems strange to me to hold out the promise to citizen groups that they can check the state bureaucracy and then let the state bureaucracy's disinterest be the deciding factor in the federal system of courts.

The DOMA case 

The central rules issue here seems to be: who defines marriage? And the answer seems to be twofold: 1) the states do and 2) the federal government causes harm to individuals when its definition conflicts with the state laws they've built their lives around.

As a Solomon-esque answer to the debate over same-sex marriage, that has a certain appeal. Let New York have the final say on New York. Let Utah have the final say on Utah. Keep the federal government out of the debate so that no one ends up married on one form and not another.

Unless, of course, a married couple from New York moves to Ohio. In that case, they should be married on New York forms, unmarried on Ohio forms, and, um...married on federal forms but only if they attach a notarized copy of their New York marriage license? Or unmarried on federal forms until they move back to New York? Or something?

I'm curious to see how that part will work out and about how we'll reconcile the idea that DOMA caused active harm by creating a conflict between marriage laws with the idea that each state can be allowed to define marriage for itself. If federal-state conflicts on such an emotional issue are unconstitutionally harmful, I'm not sure how state-state conflicts are going to stay somehow okay. 

Which leads me to another question about the idea that states have the right to define marriage: will the same rules hold if a state changes the definition of marriage again?

Imagine, for example, that New York decides to stop associating marriage so closely with sexual relationships and issues marriage licenses to any two adults interested in keeping a household together long-term. These living arrangements are common, of course: why should two people with a sexual relationship and no intention of having kids get benefits which are withheld from, say, two divorced sisters now raising their children together?

The logic of the DOMA ruling seems to be that New York has the right to redefine marriage to include these people. After all, marriage is what states make it.  The DOMA ruling allows suggests that if taxpayers and voters in other states object and try to restrict benefits at a federal level, they are causing an unconstitutional level of harm to the citizens of New York.

But would the court be willing to uphold the same logic here? Would they balk if the extension to siblings also resulted in large numbers of close friends deciding to share mortgages and tax privileges despite their disinterest in sharing a bed?

I'm wandering a bit, but I think the question I'm asking is whether the court really believes that states define marriage, or whether it's still relying on a cultural understanding of marriage not rooted in law so much as in media. Right now, our stories associate marriage primarily with committed romantic love and intimacy, and the court seems to want to limit the rights of the federal government to go against that culture. It has done so, in the DOMA decision, by saying that states choose their own marriage laws and the government has to accept them, but I'm not sure that's a standard we'll follow for long.

If a state were to reverse its recognition of same-sex marriage, would the Supreme Court stick to its states' rights position? I don't know. I sort of doubt it, based on Kennedy's assessment of the human damage of federal restrictions. 

If a state were to extend the definition of marriage further, would the Supreme Court still bar the federal government from distinguishing between marriage types? I don't know. It might depend on how big the change felt to the justices.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Recent Writings and Guilt vs. Repentance

At Real Intent, I was asked to write a post last week related to the upcoming Father's Day Sunday. After reading someone's offhand comment in a Facebook group about how difficult Father's Day is for her (and having put a lot of thought to paternal disappearing acts thanks to my wife's first husband), I decided to write something about fathers who leave. Partly, I just wanted to say something about how disappointing I find it when men are unprepared or unwilling to live up to the demands of fatherhood. Partly, I wanted to explore some of the tensions that millions of fathers might be running from. 

This week, it was my turn to write on the Association for Mormon Letters blog. I've been reading a lot of Young Adult novels recently, and wanted to talk about their depictions of sexuality in a way that focused less on the question of detail and more on the question of framing and context. Partly, I wanted to complain about the way sexual operates in our cultural story-world. Partly, I wanted to think about what other pressures might be leading writers to treat sexuality in a certain way.

Thinking about both those blog posts, I am now thinking about the relationship between guilt and repentance. It's interesting to me that in both cases, the obvious problem (leaving a family or having an irresponsible attitude toward sex) likely comes from a less obvious root problem (such as difficulty dealing with pressure or a lack of clear rites of passage).

Since feelings of guilt typically come from a sense of accountability, I'm OK with guilt. It's uncomfortable, sure, but it's better than being a sociopath. I think repentance, though, often involves backing up a few steps from the thing we feel guilty about to understand what subtle problem in our attitudes or behaviors might be making us so susceptible to the more obvious sin in the first place.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Three Degrees of Motivation?

Most children who grow up in the church are probably four years old or so the first time someone teaches them about the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial degrees of glory. Those are awfully big words for a four-year-old, but we teach them anyway because they're an important part of our core story about what life is about. It's not just about getting things wrong or right, we're saying. Life is about choosing the kind of being you want to be and then letting God shape you into it.

A four-year-old will not, of course, understand much of this. But we plant the story early, so they can process it as they grow.

It's been a long time since some wise woman drew circles on a chalkboard and told me about eternity. It's been a long time since I was taught that decency isn't the same as valiance and that Christ can heal us from our sins, but can't force us to change the fundamental carelessness that causes most of them. I've known about the three degrees of glory for a long time, but I'm still trying to process what this story of three means.

Three degrees of glory, we say. Like there's a light in you and you're choosing how much to let through. (And how much of the consequences of your actions are you really willing to see?)

Three kingdoms of glory, we say other times. Like there are three visions for how people can live together. (And which are you willing to step up and help build?)

And then sometimes we drop the glory and just call them laws. Telestial law, terrestrial law, celestial law. Like they are ways of being inscribed into the universe like grooves and you are still vacillating above, choosing one to settle into.

I've been wondering lately if it also makes sense to talk about telestial, terrestrial, and celestial parts of the human brain.

A deep part of your brain, after all, is genuinely focused on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Which seem to be the dominant characteristics of telestial motivation. Another part seems to be concerned with group belonging and basic relational dynamics. Which seems to be central to terrestrial motivations. And as I understand it, only the most recent, outermost layers of the brain enable us to think ahead, to keep promises even when there are social costs, and so on. Are those parts of our brain necessary for celestial motivation?

According to my brief internet research, a "triune brain" model entered neuroscience in the 1960s and had become quite popular among laypeople for its simplicity, especially if you talk about the three layers as reptilian, mammalian, and human. That oversimplified version understates the complexity of many reptiles, exaggerates the uniqueness of humans, and fails to account for the complex interactions between layers, but still seems to articulate the important truth that different layers of motivation compete within us.

What do you think? Is it helpful to think of three degrees of motivation competing in our brains?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Mormon Lit Blitz Voting Results

With the month of May over in every timezone and all votes counted, readers' four favorite pieces in the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz are:

#4: "Actionable Intelligence" by Jonathon Penny

#3: "When I Rise" by Kimberly Hartvigsen

#2: "In Which Eve Names Everything Else" by Katherine Cowley

and our Grand Prize Winner:

#1: "Birthright" by Emily Harris Adams

Congratulations to all the finalists!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mormon Lit Blitz Round-Up Discussion

Jeanna Mason Stay--author of 2012 Lit Blitz finalist "No Substitute for Chocolate"--requested that we put up a post for discussing the Lit Blitz as a whole. So after you've read the eleven finalists and thought about who to vote for, we'll hope you put in your proverbial two cents one last time.

We're not necessarily interested in hearing you campaign for a favorite piece (your facebook page is a far more effective place to do that), but would love to hear your thoughts and reactions to the Lit Blitz as a whole.

What has made the event worth your attention?

What will stick with you from this year's pieces and comments?

Which pieces have you shared and/or talked about with friends?

What would you like to see more of in Mormon Lit?

Monday, May 27, 2013

2013 Mormon Lit Blitz Voting Instructions

We have enjoyed the work of all eleven finalists. But we only have one Grand Prize. Help us decide which piece wins this year's Lit Blitz by emailing a ranking of your four favorite pieces to everydaymormonwriter@gmail.com by the end of the day on Friday, May 31.

The contestants are as follows:

"Actionable Intelligence" by Jonathon Penny

"Regimen" by Scott Hales

"Celestial Terms" by Sarah Dunster

"The Accidental Jaywalker" by Ben Crowder

"Dumb Idols" by Hillary Stirling

"Sister" by Merrijane Rice

"Kayden Abernathy's Journal Page 35-37, Partially Recovered from the House Fire 6/21/2013" by Steven Peck

"Natural Coloring" by Marianne Hales Harding

"Birthright" by Emily Harris Adams

"In Which Eve Names Everything Else" by Katherine Cowley

"When I Rise" by Kimberly Hartvigsen

Again: by the end of the day on May 31st, we would love to get an email with your ranking of your four favorite pieces. Please send to everydaymormonwriter@gmail.com

Saturday, May 25, 2013

When I Rise

As I gaze in the mirror,
the stretch marks and scars
of my life before me,
a silent presentation
of my love and work remains.

How will I look when I am perfected?

"When I Rise" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:

Friday, May 24, 2013

In Which Eve Names Everything Else

Eve: What’s that?
Adam: A dove.
Eve: And that?
Adam: A squirrel.
Eve: That squirrel looks different than that one. Are you sure they’re the same thing?
Adam: That one’s a squirrel, and that one’s a chipmunk.
Eve: You really did name everything.
Adam: God told me about lots of things, like the trees and the flowers. Then He told me to name all the animals.
Eve: Did you name yourself?
Adam: No, God named me.
Eve: Adam, if we ever find something that doesn’t have a name, can I name it?
Adam: We’re not going to find anything else, Eve.
Eve:      But if we ever do find something, can I name it?
Adam:  Sure.

"In Which Eve Names Everything Else" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Little reflections of all the good that came before you
flitter across your newly-minted self.
You are a pinkened version of your grandfather,
and father, and me.

"Birthright" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Natural Coloring

When you dress conservatively and your hair is blue, people look at you.
Timid (but cool) people tell you they envy you.
Children on the playground believe you when you tell them you ate too many blue Jolly Ranchers.
Your mother, bless her, is scandalized.

"Natural Coloring" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Kayden Abernathy's Journal Pages 35-37 Partially Recovered from the House Fire 6/21/2013

refuses to come over. I know what I know. The woman is a witch. She even looks like one. Seriously. She's got wild tangley hair and a hooked nose like something out of a fairytale and she is mean but it's not those things that makes me know she is a witch it is her eyes. They are full of evil. It's like the devil looking at you.

"Kayden Abernathy's Journal" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:  

Monday, May 20, 2013


You swallow sorrow
like knives slicing
down to your heart.

I want to gather you,
press the pieces together,
stanch the bleeding—

but I fear you like
a wounded animal.
Will you whimper or snarl,
snap or cower,
cringe at my touch?

I circle,
reach out,
offer my crumbs,

try to slip in
and shift the burden

Author Bio
Merrijane earned a B.A. in English at BYU. She then served for 18 months in the Washington, D.C. North mission at the LDS Temple Visitors' Center. After returning, she married Jason Rice, and together they are raising a family of four boys in Kaysville. Currently, she works for Deseret Mutual in the Media Development department as a technical writer and editor. Her poetry has been published in the Ensign, New Era, Segullah, and Panorama (an annual publication of the Utah State Poetry Society). 

Join us for a discussion of "Sister" here.  

"Sister" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dumb Idols

Frankincense and tobacco – a sweet scent and a bitter fume – the mingled offerings of earthen gods. Baal. Dagon. Isis. Athena. They all had their images, idols to remind us mere mortals of their presence. But the Living God, we are told, made living images - male and female - as vessels of the breath of heaven on Earth. It is part of human nature, part of the mud we’re made of, to honor and love the living images, reflections of Deity. I was born to worship my archetypal idols of Mother and Father, and from infancy I revered them, too innocent to know my error.

"Dumb Idols" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:  

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Accidental Jaywalker

I accidentally jaywalked today
I didn’t mean to
I was thinking about tithing
Okay, I wasn’t thinking about tithing
There was a girl
A nice-looking girl
Down the way
She crossed the street

"The Accidental Jaywalker" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Celestial Terms

You love me in algebra—
D + d = L to the Nth degree,
and I love you in quarter notes—
a fierce appoggiatura and a soft, high C.
We loved each other then in
a jumble of chords using mostly black keys,
in square roots, and Pi with ice cream,
and the straining of infinity.

"Celestial Terms" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Two weeks before the pool party, Wyler began a strength training regimen. For fifteen minutes every other day, he did twenty-five stomach crunches and two reps of ten push-ups with the intent of adding more crunches and reps once he built up his muscle. After the first week, his shoulders burned incessantly, but he thought he could feel real muscle beginning to form. Every night before climbing into bed, Wyler would take off his shirt and look at himself in the mirror.  

"Regimen" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Actionable Intelligence

You revolve around the sun, and not the other way around.
Stoves are often hot. Knives are often sharp.
Animals have teeth and claws, even the ones we keep as pets.
Cars are not toys, unless they are toys.
Spouses are to be loved and cherished, as are children, though differently.
Children have to be raised. Spouses need to be uplifted.

"Actionable Intelligence" Discussion

It's fine to talk about what you think of the piece, but we'd like to focus on what the piece makes you think about. Some questions to start:  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Creative Writing and Hearing the Word of the Lord

"Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?" (Mark 8:18)

There have been moments in my life when I swear I've felt the gospel resonating in my soul. There have been times when I know who I am and what I owe to God and what God wants for me. There have been nights when I've cried out and been filled with the stillness of His peace and mornings when His wisdom has distilled on me like dew.

And then there's the rest of my life. When I'm just trying to get by--and the very problems the gospel could help me solve keep me too busy to really listen to the Lord.

I know Jesus loves me, but sometimes I'm sure I exasperate him. Because my ears, as Isaiah says, grow heavy and my eyes slide shut.

When God's truth is all around us, why is it so hard to take it in?

Of all the reasons for being slow to listen, I think two are most common among Latter-day Saints.

Sometimes it's difficult for us to listen to the Lord because we've already heard so much. Repetition can help us internalize gospels principles, but it can also make it easy for us to tune out. My mind wanders when I drive along a familiar route; sometimes it also wanders during sacrament meeting.
Habit can undermine hearing, and if we do OK cruising through life on moral momentum it's easy to forget that we're supposed to be active navigators.

That said, few people can cruise all the way through life on the momentum of righteous past choices. Most of us, at one time or another, discover the insufficiency of what we thought we knew. Trouble comes, and our go-to answers and actions aren't enough. Prophecies fail. Our gospel language rings hollow. Because of the distance between what-we-expected and what-we-experienced, it's easy to feel like listening is pointless. Disappointment and the accompanying dissonance make it hard to let the Lord help us rebuild.

I care so much about creative writing because at its best, it can help us cut through habit and dissonance alike. Good writing can make old truths surprising. It can show us the space between the ideal and the real and help us find fresh ways to live with both. Stories and essays and poems and plays that demand our attention and imagination often grant us greater thoughtfulness and openness to inspiration in return.

From today through May 25th , this blog will be taken over by the eleven finalists in the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Some are serious and some are silly: all reach in some small way toward the sacred. I hope you join us in reading, discussing, and sharing these works and I hope that in their many perspectives, you find new ways to look at or for the word of the Lord.

Orem Library Reading

This Wednesday at 7 pm, Steven Peck and I will be reading at the Orem Public Library.

Peck will be reading from The Scholar of Moab, which won the 2011 Association for Mormon Letters Novel Award (and possibly from A Short Stay in Hell, if we ask him nicely).

 I will be reading from The Five Books of Jesus, which won the 2012 Association for Mormon Letters Novel Award.
They even made a nifty poster for us, including a picture of me which they found online. In that picture, I am twenty-two years old and wearing my cousin's glasses. It's a good look, although I must say I've gotten significantly better looking in the meantime, thanks to eight additional years of practice looking at myself in the mirror.

Hope to see some of you, dear readers, there.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Quote about abuse

I just finished reading Slumming by Kristen D. Randle--it's a really great novel. At some point, I will try to explain in detail what I like so much about it and why it gives me so much hope for Mormon writers. 

For now, though, I just want to share a quote which comes as a character is trying to come to grips with something terrible which is happening to someone else: 
I am not asking myself why God lets there things happen. I think I understand the answer to that. The way I see it, God puts us here so we can make our own choices. He can't keep things like this from happening unless he takes the right to choose away.
No, the question in my mind right now is how does God, who loves us, watch all of these terrible things and not die? Not just die of sorrow?
I believe we have parents in heaven. I believe they love us. And I believe that when they say we need a broken heart and a contrite spirit, they know what they're asking for. They know.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Hobby

It started with a conversation with my friend Jen. We told her about a review that had criticized my novel The Five Books of Jesus over its portrayal of women: the reviewer was upset that they always seemed to be doing some kind of domestic work. Jen laughed, and told us that on her mission in Ecuador she used to ask women what their hobbies were. They'd think about it, she said, and then say things like "I really like sweeping" or "Washing dishes is my favorite."

A few days later, while rocking our baby to sleep, I was flipping through Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who's spent most of his life as an exile from Vietnam. By chance, I ended up in a passage that talked about washing dishes. On the level of physical sensation, says Nhat Hanh, doing the dishes is actually fairly pleasant. The warm water can feel good on your hands. The rhythmic motions of cleaning can be soothing and relaxing. We don't hate dishwashing, he says, because it's inherently unpleasant. We hate it because we're always in a hurry to get to something else. It's our sense of what's important that makes dishwashing an interruption, and therefore a frustration. We rob ourselves of joy by unnecessary rush.

I had always hated doing the dishes, but the conversation with Jen and the reading from Thich Nhat Hanh convinced me to give them another chance. And it worked. I still don't like dry skin, but doing dishes got a lot more fun when I a) reminded myself it can be nice and b) gave myself permission to treat dishes as a worthwhile experience, and not just a chore standing in the way of something else.

Since phase one of the experiment had worked, I decided to launch phase two: I told Nicole that my new hobby was changing stinky diapers.

Unlike dishes, there is nothing to enjoy about changing dirty diapers on a sensory level. But I suspected that my main objection to changing diapers was not the smell, but the interruption. I didn't like to be dragged away from important activities (like keeping my computer company?) to unimportant activities (like taking care of my kids?). In any case, I wondered whether calling diaper-changing my hobby would help change my attitude about what was interrupting what.

That was at least six weeks ago. I am writing this blog post because I just got back from changing a very dirty diaper and I felt wonderful about it.

Why did phase two work? Partly because I am a total ham with a strong sense for the absurd: I think it's hilarious to have diaper-changing as a hobby, and so I now associate changing diapers with feeling funny and clever. Partly because instead of treating diaper changes as a necessary drudgery, my whole family now gets excited: having an ecstatic two-year-old run up to say "Daddy, it's time for your hobby!" when the sixth-month old is stinky is a lot more fun than taking a hit for the team in the old "Whose turn is it?" game. And partly the "hobby" thing has worked because it's helped me to appreciate that even though poo will never be pleasant, seeing my son smile with relief as a dirty diaper comes off is quite nice.

A reasonably happy, reasonably clean baby.

I don't change all the stinky diapers. Nicole will still sometimes say, "I don't want to cut into your hobby time, but I can change this if you're busy" and sometimes I will say, "Thank you--that would be lovely." Other times, though, I say: "Are you kidding? I live for this!" And I fulfill an important part of the measure of my creation.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cleaning the Temple

Last Monday I spent my morning at the Temple, helping clean.

When all the volunteers arrived, they said: you can't get by whispering today because the machines make too much noise. But don't worry--you can be reverent without being quiet.

They also said: in the four hours you spend cleaning, you may not find a single thing that looks dirty to you. But we don't just clean here to get rid of messes. We clean to keep the Temple from getting dirty.

After the general group training, they assigned me to a carpet-cleaning group. We used various machines to go over the areas where people walk the most to get rid of the little bits of accumulated dirt. And if you looked carefully, you actually could see how the carpet looked ever so slightly different around corners at the base of staircases and at the entrances to rooms. You could follow the men's trail and the women's trail if you focused enough on the floor. 

And even without having to look carefully, you could see the water in the cleaning machines darken as they work got done. We were really cleaning.

When we got to the locker rooms, our supervisor told us which areas to focus on. "Be sure to get the path to the initiatory desk," she said, "plenty of people walk through there." Then she moved to a place in the front of the room. "Be sure to clean carefully here near the prayer roll," she said. "A lot of people spend extra time on this carpet."

So I went. And as machines hummed and people asked each other which circuit to plug into, I cleaned the well-used carpet next to the prayer roll box. Carpet hundreds of people had stopped to stand on while they wrote their loved ones' names.

And I understood what they'd meant about being reverent without quiet.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alternative titles for the first four books in the Book of Mormon

A good friend recently got me thinking about Book of Mormon summaries. Most summaries of the Book of Mormon focus on what happens in the book, just like summaries of novels focus on the plot. But because the Book of Mormon isn't a novel, the "plot" is both a) hopelessly complicated and b) periodically abandoned for sections of the book where nothing really happens.

So how might a person usefully describe the shapes of the Nephites' books? I've given it a shot for the first four by coming up with alternate titles:

1 Nephi: The Book of the Visionary

1 Nephi is a book with plenty of events to describe. But if you describe them according to modern sensibilities, you'll probably focus on the journeys rather than on the visions.

But the book isn't a travelogue or a simple diary. It's structured according to the visions Lehi and Nephi receive--and especially on the aftermath of each vision. Again and again, the pattern is vision, action, obstacle, action, expanded vision. It's best to read the book not as a report on how Lehi's family got to the ocean, but rather as a sort of handbook on being a visionary. A systematic record of the joy, burdens, and techniques that come with following a revelatory God.

2 Nephi: The Book of Deathbed Blessings

Most plot summaries of the Book of Mormon are 50% made out of summarized events from 1st Nephi, usually followed by a sentence or two on the war cycles of Alma-Mormon and a sentence or two on the appearance of Jesus in 3rd Nephi. Even though it's longer than 1st Nephi, 2nd Nephi doesn't contribute much because very little happens: it's a book where four prophets (Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah) just talk.

That may explain why so many people struggle to get through 2nd Nephi--if you're reading for plot, it's pretty boring.

But if you look carefully, it seems clear to me that 2nd Nephi has just as clear a structure and purpose as 1st Nephi. After the book of visions, we have a book of blessings--the blessing of two dying patriarchs.

Most people recognize Lehi's blessings and warnings easily since they only take up a few chapters and are so clearly reminiscent of Genesis 49. But it may be harder to notice that from chapter 6 on, Nephi is probably dying. And so he gives the people a new prophet (ch. 6-11), an old prophet (ch. 12-24), and his own personal blessings and warnings to conclude the book.  

Jacob: The Book of the Exile

There are far more tragic events in the Book of Mormon than the handful of incidents mentioned in Jacob, but not many sadder narrators. At the end of his book (7:26), Jacob talks directly about his feelings of exile and alienation, but indirect evidence of those feelings permeates the whole text. Jacob doesn't just write down whatever happens: his book is built around the tensions of emigration. There's evidence in the book of a significant generation gap between Jacob himself and his new-world-raised relatives, who have their own values and priorities. There's a large passage devoted to the allegory of the olive tree, which describes the quiet background relationship between Jacob's descendents and the land/people they came from. It's a book, in the end, about exile and the long (but confident) wait for redemption.

Enos: Prayer of the Native Son

Part of the structure of Enos is obvious to most readers: it's a book about a prayer. What may not be as obvious is that it's also the first book about someone who grew up in the Americas. If you look carefully at Enos, I think you'll see how that shift is also an important part of the book.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Two Weeks Left for Mormon Lit Blitz Submissions

Writers have two weeks left to submit poems, comics, very short stories or essays, or other short writing for the 2nd Annual Mormon Lit Blitz. Basically, we want works under 1,000 words and of specific interest to Mormon readers to be emailed to everydaymormonwriter@gmail.com by April 27th. We will then choose six to twelve finalists to compete for the Grand Prize of a Kindle and a small library of Mormon literary eBooks. Read the complete Call for Submissions for more details.

Unfortunately, the Everyday Mormon Writer website, where we'd planned to post the finalists, has been infected with a difficult-to-root-out virus. In the event that we're unable to resolve the website's issues by the start of the Lit Blitz on May 13th, we'll publish the finalists on this blog instead.

Please help us spread the word about the contest. The gospel is great no matter what we do, but Mormon culture is only as good as we make it. Take the time to develop and share your talents and invite friends to do the same.

Happy writing and good luck!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Book of Mormon Girl and Robert Bly's The Sibling Society

You can now listen to an audio file of my AML Conference presentation on "Jesus in Joanna Brooks's Book of Mormon Girl." I'm ashamed to say I went two minutes over my time limit, so it's a full 17 minute commitment to hear what I have to say. (Also: I've only listened to about the first thirty seconds of the recording, so I can't make any promises about sound quality throughout. Let me know if there are any problems.)

While 17 minutes of amateur recording of a scholarly conference presentation is not exactly most people's idea of fun, I think this presentation may be worth your time because in thinking about Book of Mormon Girl, I realized that Robert Bly's commentary on a "sibling society" cultural shift in America might help explain the fuel behind many of the debates Mormons have today about the church. That is to say: the ideas in my presentation don't just apply to one book. The patterns and absences I noticed in the book are probably instances of a larger cultural rift.

If you do listen, you'll hear me reference a handout a few times during my presentation. I am including the text below, with one slight addition: after giving the presentation, it occurred to me to look up the frequency of references to Marie Osmond.

Word search:

Instances of Mormon: 100
Instances of Marie (Osmond): 72
Instances of California: 52
Instances of Orange: 43
Instances of Jesus: 29
Instances of Christ: 9
Instances of Savior: 1
Messiah: 0
Atonement: 0
Salvation: 7

Breakdown of 29 references to Jesus:
First vision: 1
Name of the church: 4
Communist fears and related apocalyptic hopes: 5
Mormon racism: 1
Excuses the Three Nephites and Bigfoot/Cain from death: 1
Mormon fixation with Marie Osmond/perfection*: 1
Rivalry with born-agains*: 10
Rejection of intellectuals*: 1
Rejected-feeling Joanna admires an Episcopal crucifix*: 2
Prop 8 overshadows Jesus: 3

*Excluding church name, 14/25 references clearly deal with rejection/acceptance dynamics

Breakdown of 9 references to Christ:

Name of church: 4
Apocalypse: 3
Rivalry with born-agains: 1
Rejection of intellectuals: 1

Breakdown of 7 references to Salvation:

Chapter name: 2
Excerpt about belonging: 2
Rivalry with born-agains: 1
Rejection of intellectuals: 1
Tempting nostalgia of childhood simplicity: 1

Brooks on Belonging/Affirmation as Salvation (p. 10):

"What was there to compare to this feeling, of belonging to one another, [...] safe from the mocking and fashionable faceless crowds, safe where no one would say your books of scripture are all made up, or the sacred undergarments you promised to wear every day are funny, or your afghan is too ugly, or old woman there is nothing in you the world loves anymore."

Brooks on Keeping Score (p. 187)

"I try to distract myself by checking my text messages, then I start keeping score. Fifteen minutes into the lesson: Stories relating to Proposition 8 or anti-Mormon sentiment resulting from Proposition 8, 5; stories relating to Jesus, 0."

Robert Bly in The Sibling Society (pp. xi-xii):

"It is hard to be as popular as we are supposed to be. The superego or interior judge has altered its requirements [...] For one who fails to become successful and well-loved, punishment is swift and thorough. Self-esteem receives a battering from the inside, everyone feels insignificant and unseen until, in desperation, we finally agree to go on a talk show and tell it all. Once that moment is over, and universal love has not poured over our heads following the program, we fall still farther."

In any case, I hope the presentation gives you something valuable to think about. I'm happy to hear your thoughts, questions, and constructive criticism (especially since I'm supposed to write a paper based on this for publication)--but please only if you listened to the whole presentation.

Thank you.  

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Passover Poem

The Passover story has numerous points of crisis and decision where people have to take significant risks to side with the Lord. There were Shiprah and Puah, who quietly disobeyed the Pharaoh. Moses' mother and his sister Miryam who took great risks to keep him alive and keep involved in his life.

Moses himself, of course, had plenty of chances to live comfortably in Egypt. And the people didn't have to accept him as a prophet when he returned from the desert--they knew full well there was a significant risk involved and went back and forth for years on whether it had been a good idea to trust him.

My aunt once pointed out that if the children of Israel had put blood on their doors and not been delivered, an Egyptian mob wouldn't have had any trouble going from home to home against them. And there are great stories about the parting of the sea--like a tradition that the waters didn't part until the first Jews to walk forward on Moses' counsel were chin-deep in them.

I wrote a poem for Passover this year with a related question: what might a person have thought while walking through the bottom of the sea? It was a miracle, yes, but wouldn't the awe of the event have been mixed with some degree of awareness that walls of water which rise up can also come back down? Wouldn't there have been a few people who wondered whether they'd really live to see the other shore?

Prayer on the Red Sea Shore

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,
let me drown with Moses.

And let me praise you with my final breath
for lending me his mad, prophetic dream
for letting me wander out past the edge of this world
beside a man who could see all the glory of Egypt
and still say that it wasn't enough

If these walls of water fall, O Lord,
let me drown with Moses.
Yes, let me die with the same fire in my eyes
Moses saw in a desert bush.

Friday, March 29, 2013

AML Conference Tomorrow

The Association for Mormon Letters Conference will take place at the UVU library tomorrow. A few cool things for anyone interested in dropping by during the free event:

1) There will be two scholarly presentations about my novel The Five Books of Jesus (which is free today through Friday on the Kindle) during the 11:30 session.

One, by teacher and poet Jonathon Penny, will also talk about paintings by J. Kirk Richards and may take a detour into how Richards and I are using familiar genres in unfamiliar ways in ways that remind Penny of what Donne and Milton did with form and content in their time. The other, by my brother Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood, will talk about the role of the Old Testament in my text, not only in direct quotations of scripture but also in the way the narrative itself is told.

2) Erin Jackson, Emily Harris Adams and I will be reading depictions of Jesus in our own works in a panel at 4 pm at the conference.

Erin Jackson has a short story about a shark and Jesus which I found both quite funny and extremely thought-provoking. I understand that a comic story about a shark and Jesus doesn't fit into everyone's sensibilities, but if you're up to it there are some valuable questions about agency and maybe even what it means to deny the Holy Ghost. Erin is a smart, engaging writer and it's a great piece.

Emily Harris Adams is one of my favorite young Mormon writers. She'll be sharing three poems which deal with Jesus in different ways. She's really a master of indirect portrayals of the Savior, showing in verse how traces of him appear at times in unexpected places. Also: Thomas S. Monson has quoted her poetry in Conference before. Pretty awesome.

3) During the same 11:30 a.m. session as my brother's presentation on my book, I will be presenting on "Jesus in Joanna Brooks' Book of Mormon Girl."

I got the idea for my presentation when a friend who knew I had Book of Mormon Girl on my Kindle asked me to look up references to Jesus for some informal research she was doing. I was immediately struck by the results: the handful of passages with references to Jesus were almost all stories of conflict--between children and parents, Mormons and Evangelicals, the "institutional church" and independent thinkers, Prop 8 supporters and opponents--in which Jesus was used as a weapon between sides to indict each other.

And yet there was very little detail as to what exactly Jesus meant to Brooks. It's possible, of course, that this is simply a narrative omission: Brooks didn't want to go into detail about her view of Jesus because it's tangential to the book's rhetorical purpose. On the other hand, I wonder what Jesus would look like set against the sorts of questions, assumptions, and values that permeate Book of Mormon Girl. How might a person reconcile the gospels' Jesus with the book's distaste for apocalyptic thinking, move from a sin/repentance model for wrong and right in favor of an injustice/activism model, and skepticism about the church's authority to call people to discipleship?

In any case--sorry for the late notice, but be sure to say hi if you come to the AML Conference tomorrow. Sorry also for not blogging here much lately (though many of my readers here might be interested in the "Toward Marriage Clarity" post on my other blog).

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mormon Lit Blitz Call for Submissions

Now announcing the Second Annual Mormon Lit Blitz Writing Contest. Send up to three submissions by 27 April 2013 to everydaymormonwriter@gmail.com for a chance to win a Kindle and more.

What we want:
Short work for Mormons to be published and read online.

The details:
“Short” means under 1,000 words.
“Work” means creative writing in any genre, from literary realism to far future science fiction, and in any form: fiction, essay, poetry, comics, playlet, etc. Give us a tiny, polished gem we can show off to people who love Mormonism and love great writing but “know not where to find” a place where the two meet.
“For Mormons” means for committed Latter-day Saints. Yes, that’s an extremely diverse audience (see the “I’m a Mormon” campaign—and your ward members), but it’s also an audience with distinctive shared values and history that don’t often get attention in creative work. We want you to write something that will appeal to us as people who believe in the sacred, who have ridiculous numbers of brothers and sisters we see every week, who worry about being good and faithful servants no matter what our day jobs are and wonder what it will be like to meet our grandparents’ grandparents in heaven. We don’t need your pieces to preach to us. We do need them to combine your creativity and religious commitment in a way that excites us and gives us something cool to talk about with our Mormon friends.
“To be published and read online” means we’re going to post six to twelve finalists’ pieces on Everyday Mormon Writer (everydaymormonwriter.com) and then ask readers to vote on their favorites. [Update 4/13: we've been having problems with the Everyday Mormon Writer website and so will post finalists here if we're unable to fix it.]
One catch: since even 1,000 words can be intimidating on a screen, your piece needs a strong hook of no more than 120 words (or eight lines for poetry) to be visible on the main blog page. Mark the end of your hook with [MORE]. Even our editors will only read further if you’ve piqued their interest.

Submission Guidelines:
Submissions must have fewer than 1,000 words (or 30 lines for poetry) with a hook no longer than 120 words (or eight lines for poetry). Submissions must be engaging to Latter-day Saints and engage with their Mormon identity in some way.
Authors may submit up to three works. Each submission must be attached to an email as a .doc or .pdf file. The selection process is blind, so the author’s name should not appear on the document.
Email any questions and your submissions to everydaymormonwriter@gmail.com. Submission emails should contain the author’s name, the titles of each submission, and contact information (telephone number or email address).
By submitting, authors give us the one-time rights to publish their work electronically. Previously published work is OK if you still have the rights to the piece and if it meets the above contest requirements (don’t forget to add a [MORE] tag to the end of your hook).

The prize:
The contest editors will select six to twelve finalists. All finalists will have their short works published online in May 2013 and actively promoted across the LDS blogosphere by the Mormon Lit Blitz team.
After all pieces have been published, readers will vote on a single Grand Prize Winner, who will receive a Kindle and a small library with LDS literary works in eBook format, including Parley P. Pratt’s classic short “A Dialogue Between Joseph Smith and the Devil,” Peculiar Pages’ recent Monsters & Mormons anthology, Zarahemla Books’ Dispensation: Latter-day Fictions, the poetry anthology Fire in the Pasture, and James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus.


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