Thursday, February 28, 2013

Revised and Expanded Prop 8 Series

Last March, I wrote a series of blog posts about Proposition 8 and the recent debate over marriage.

Today, Real Intent is publishing a revised and expanded version of that series. There are two significant new parts of the discussion--one about the assumptions that inform our views of orientation and identity, another exploring why so many people might have such strong feelings over the definition of a single word.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Thought on Evil and Activism

Just finished a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post at the blog next door about what I see as a witch hunt for Orson Scott Card over his outspoken support for traditional marriage.

There is a certain irony, of course, in seeing people who almost certainly sympathize with Arthur Miller fall into a roll more reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy. And at one time in my life, I would have found such hypocrisy amusing--but now I just find it sad.

It makes me sad because any harmful pattern that both conservatives in the 1950s and gay rights activists in the 2010s can share is probably a part of human nature rather than a symptom of a certain ideology. If I see witch hunts when I look to the right, and witch hunts when I look to the left, I'm probably quite prone to witch hunting myself, should the proper conditions emerge.

If witch-hunting is a common human error, I want to know how to avoid it. When you feel strongly about an issue, how do you keep from unfairly victimizing others in your activism? Or, as Jesus might have asked, how do you maintain empathy for someone who is working against you?

I'm not Jesus. I don't know.

All I can think of today is this: no matter what opponents you face in your battles for a better world, never forget that the most important evil is always the one living within you.

An oil spill is a big threat to the environment, but the most important threat is my own careless use of resources, my own ignorance about the systems of life in my neighborhood.

A changing culture may be undermining marriage through the nation, but the most important threat to marriage is my own selfishness and pride in my relationship with my wife.

A shooting may reveal the problem of violence in my world, but the most important violence for me to stand against is the force of my own voice when I raise it in anger against my eight-year-old.

To fight an oppressor is to do a good deed. But only one who fights against his own wish to oppress is a good man. To recognize an injustice is praiseworthy--but only one who repents of the injustices she commits can truly make the world more pure.

I want to help make the world a better place. But I hope to work with humility so I can face others with charity.  I want my anger at others to be diffused by the realization that I am also part of the underlying problems I may see manifest in them.

Friday, February 22, 2013

On Religious Identity and Partisan Politics

...but first: a fairly simple quiz question. Which two cardinal directions would a bird have to fly on its way from Reno to Los Angelos?

Odds are you know that one of them is south. Most people assume that the other is west--but check a map or Google for longitude and you'll notice that Los Angelos is about 90 miles east of Reno.

Don't feel bad if you got the quiz question wrong--it means your brain is working normally. Our brains organize information hierarchically: if we know California is west of Nevada, we automatically assume any given city in California is also west of any given city in Nevada. That's actually quite clever of us: generalizing to individual cases by broad category is much more efficient than, say, learning the coordinates of every city in every state. And usually, we get by just fine orienting ourselves by broad category rather than specific site.

There are times, though, when it can create an awful lot of confusion.

Party politics are a great example of this. Most members of any given political party have been aligned themselves with that party out of a broad sense of where it stands relative to values they hold dear (just like we may look at a map and observe that broadly speaking, California is west of Nevada). But because our brains are built to generalize a broad belief onto individual cases, party membership can trick us into accepting things we should probably not actually believe (much like we think of Los Angelos as west of Reno).

I find this particularly fascinating among Latter-day Saints. Many American Latter-day Saints shifted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party over a few wedge political and cultural issues in the 1970s. And yet they and their children now believe all kinds of things which have nothing to do with those wedge issues, simply because it's natural human thinking for a Republican to assume that all Republican positions are better than all Democratic positions.

But for Mormons in other countries, party politics unfold in different ways. Most Latter-day Saints in India are members of the center-left Congress Party because the main conservative party in India, the BJP, advocates Hindu nationalism. As a result, they are likely to agree with many other Congress Party positions that have little to do with the tolerance for Christians that initially brought them into the party. That's just how human brains typically work.

I have been thinking about several political issues as my students debate and write about them this semester. I don't give them advice on what positions to take--just about how to make a case for whatever position they happen to choose.

But the advice I might just give all my students on politics is to watch out for the Reno problem. Assumptions that will seem right because they're common in your party don't always hold up under close inspection. And the further advice I'd give to Mormon friends is this: if you want the gospel to shape your attitudes about others, there's a very real danger that messages from your party are going to get in the way.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Jarring View of Jesus

Last week my novel The Five Books of Jesus became a finalist for the Whitney Awards in the historical fiction category. So lately, I've been thinking a little more about why religious readers have and haven't liked the book.

Since readers who like the book are more likely to talk to me about it, I've heard a fair amount about what's working for them. Some have mentioned the prophetic electricity they feel in the book's treatment of John (the Baptist). Some enjoy the flashes of personal insight that come from being invited to look at familiar stories from a slightly different angle. And some relate strongly to the book's focus on what it means to follow Jesus when you know he matters but don't know exactly where he's taking you.

I also know, though, that my book makes some religious readers uncomfortable. And that the discomfort typically centers around the depiction of Jesus himself. But so far, I mostly have to guess at where specifically that discomfort comes from.

I'm pretty sure part of it comes directly from the pre-baptism dialogue between John and Jesus, in which I try to harmonize Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22 with Matthew 3:17 by suggesting that Jesus himself as well as the witnesses needed some reassurance about his divinity and mission. But that's basically one line--what about the rest of the book?

My current theory is that my book emphasizes some aspects of Jesus as depicted in the gospels which seem to be in tension with the aspects of Jesus many Christians emphasize today. It's interesting--I know some people are nervous about Jesus appearing in fiction in general, but our ideas about Jesus may be every bit as much shaped by imagined representations of Jesus in painting and sermons as they are by the gospels themselves. In a sense, we can't escape modern imaginings of Jesus even if we did want to.

And especially when contrasted with popular LDS art,  I think there are three broad patterns to the behaviors/characteristics of my book's Jesus some religious readers may find jarring.

1) My Jesus is cautious and cryptic.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus teaches his apostles to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." But today we tend to associate Jesus more with dove-like innocence than with a snake's calculated evasiveness. A concrete example of this tendency can be seen in Simon Dewey's painting "Abide With Me" and the accompanying artist's statement, which presents a guileless, welcoming Jesus dressed in an idealized dove white. Jesus comes across as an easily approachable presence who communicates in clear, transparent terms.

In my book, though, Jesus is definitely cunning as a snake. Even though his message is good for the world, he realizes that it will be perceived as a threat to certain interests and proceeds cautiously. He hints at many things rather than saying them outright. He keeps secrets. When conflicts seem headed toward a climax, he often just quietly slips away. Even his apostles have to work hard at times to make sense of the veiled things he says, and when they struggle to understand, he often doesn't give them any direct help putting the pieces together. He's still reaching out for us, but in a markedly different way.

A particularly good example of this is in the parables. Today, we often imagine that Jesus used parables primarily to make his teachings easier for people to understand. So my book's Jesus may strike some readers as obtuse and annoying when he uses parables to hide the full impact of his message from casual listeners while hinting at deeper truths to serious seekers (the approach described in Matt 13: 10-13). 

The distant between Dewey's Jesus and mine may seem like a fundamental doctrinal difference, but I don't think it is. I think that sometimes Jesus approaches us in a straightforward, open way. And I think other times, Jesus still communicates with us just as carefully and cryptically as he often did with people in the gospels. 

2) My Jesus gets physically and emotionally drained.

As far as I know, all Christians believe that Jesus suffered terribly in the last week of his life. But for the other difficult times in his life, there seem to be two very different ways to imagine Jesus. One, evident in Greg Olsen's painting "O Jerusalem" and the accompanying artist's statement, is that Jesus typically faced difficult times with a deep serenity drawn from his vast perspective. This view is certainly grounded gospel incidents like the storm on the lake, and has the appeal of showing how turning to Jesus can draw us above our own troubles. 

My book, though, tends to emphasize Jesus' intense physical and emotional engagement in his work and assumes that periodic physical and emotional strain/exhaustion is the natural result. In my book, the constant crowds around Jesus are a significant demand on his energy. When he heals the woman with the issue of blood, it takes something out of him--and when he next raises Jairus's daughter from the dead, he can barely keep walking. His sleep on the boat in the lake is so deep precisely because his work is so draining.

There's also a huge contrast between Olsen's view of Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and mine. While Olsen sees Jesus' prophecy as primarily reflective and tempered by his firm hope in the future, I treat it as absolutely devastating to Jesus that the temple and the holy city are going to be destroyed.

Whose view is better? I don't know--both are grounded in the gospels and express important truths. By giving Jesus serenity in trying times, Olsen invites us to find greater serenity. By letting Jesus fully mourn when there's cause to mourn, I think I give a sense of how close divinity and full humanity really are.

3) My Jesus is challenging and demanding.

We know that Jesus loves us, and so we often emphasize his kindness, patience, acceptance, and mercy as culturally standard manifestations of that love. As an example, consider Del Parson's "The Savior" and the accompanying artist's statement.

But in the gospels, Jesus is not all patience and acceptance. And my book takes seriously his willingness to challenge people and make great demands of them.

One of the talented writers from my old workshop group really struggled with the scene where Jesus dismisses his concerned mother and brothers when they come looking for him. Even though she knew the source story in Mark 3:31-35 and elsewhere, she found it difficult to believe that Jesus ever would have done such a thing.

In my book, though, Jesus doesn't hesitate to push people for more when their spiritual vision falters. He tells his concerned relatives that his true family consists of whoever will hear and do the will of God. He compares Peter to Satan the moment Peter fails to accept what sacrifices will be necessary to finish the work. He doesn't treat people with gentle sweetness when they ask for signs--he calls their fidelity into question and reminds them that Jonah got a sign when he was swallowed by a shark.

My guess is that the Jesus in my book may make some readers uncomfortable for some of the same reasons Jesus made people uncomfortable when he was on the earth. Because he demands more from us than comfort. Because he sometimes challenges us in the very moments when we think we're ready for simple acceptance and affirmation.

There are times when the kind, patient, and accepting aspects of Jesus are what we need to remember. And it's good that many artists use their creativity to help others remember those qualities in him. But there are also times when we can grow only if we allow Jesus to challenge us and make painful demands of us. And I like to think my book helps show how those aspects are also part of who Jesus is and was.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Standing in the center of eternity

I want to tell you a little about what the sealer said at my cousin’s wedding last year.

While my cousin and her fiance sat next to each other on a couch facing the window to the outside, the sealer told them a core Mormon story–about how we existed forever before we came here to earth, and about how our existence here sets our course for a forever yet to come. After that story, he asked them to stand near the altar and look into the series of reflections in the mirrors on the side walls. And as they stood there, he reminded them of another core Mormon story: about their relationship to the countless generations before and after them, about their bonds and obligations to their ancestors and descendants.

You are standing in the center of eternity, he told them.

And then they knelt there at the altar, on two axes of the eternal, and were bound together.


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