Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest Discussion: The Defection of Baby Mixo

So...remember when I mentioned that we'd be holding a writing contest for short stories dealing with Mormon experience over four centuries? Well, we picked the finalists and (as of today) have posted 3/4ths of them, with our final century of stories coming by the end of this week. As the stories go up, we've also been wandering from blog to blog to discuss each piece. For today's story, Mark Penny's "The Defection of Baby Mixo," I'll be hosting the discussion. Please take a moment to go read this (very short) story and then come back and join our conversation. 

When my persuasive writing students ask about humor, I tell them to be very careful. Humor can work well to set people at ease, I say, or to shake them up just enough to see a familiar issue in a new way. But it can also be divisive and hurtful and generally unhelpful. So as beginners, I don't advise them to play with it if they want to open conversations up--except maybe for some mild self-deprecating humor to show they're not a threat.

But Mark Penny is no beginner, and his story doesn't limit itself to gentle self-deprecation. This is the kind of satire that seems swing at everything in range.

As an editor, I was sold on this story from the third sentence, when Penny hit my prejudices with a zinger to remember. But as a discussion moderator, I have to admit some trepidation. Will this piece give us a productive way to think about some complicated issues (including this one), or does it cross a line from provocative into offensive?

To phrase this another way: can we talk about this story productively? And if so, what does it seem to be inviting us to consider or talk about?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Describing Mormonism Clearly

Just ran across an article in Christianity Today called "The Real Differences Between Mormons and Orthodox Christians." And it's pretty good!

The main take-home idea is that Mormons and historical Christian denominations don't actually differ that much on questions of faith and works or belief in Jesus. Where Latter-day Saints do differ most from others is in our belief about the divine nature and potential of humans.

So what if we emphasized that belief more when invited to explain our theology?

We believe in God, we believe (in a very radical sense) that we are God's children and can become like Him, and we believe that we need Jesus' help for the divinity within us to grow.

We also believe that we are closest to the divine when we serve in our families, communities, and world. And we believe that God has called forth a prophet-led people in the past and again in our era to protect and transmit a heritage of service and faith.

This is pretty close, I think, to what we tell people now--but wouldn't it be nice to emphasize our most divergent belief from the beginning?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Two Memories of Marlin K. Jensen

This past weekend, Elder Marlin K. Jensen was released and made an Emeritus Seventy after 23 years of service as a General Authority of the Church.

I'm sure he deserves the rest, but I will miss him. I met Elder Jensen during my mission and he said two things which meant a lot to me.


The first was during a missionary training he gave. Elder Jensen had just taught us a new way of quickly introducing future discussions to new contacts so that they would know from the beginning what we hoped to teach them, and I was thinking about how helpful these new instructions would be. Then Elder Jensen turned to us and asked, "Where do you think this idea comes from?"

I can't remember what we said, but most of us surely felt that there was an element of inspiration involved. And Elder Jensen agreed--but emphasized that the initial inspiration had come not to a General Authority, but to a missionary in another area. Just a regular Elder who had been thinking about the problem of expressing to new contacts just what missionaries want.

The role of a General Authority, said Elder Jensen, is not to come up with every piece of guidance independently--in most cases, the General Authority's role is to be guided in recognizing which of other people's inspired innovations should be shared with the larger body of the Church. That is to say: revelation comes in pieces to everyone, and the role of an inspired leader is to gather, organize, and transmit it.

This really changed my thinking about how the Church functions. Since hearing from Elder Jensen, I've had a clearer understanding about how individual revelation and presiding revelation work together. Imagine a body in which every cell was able to consciously change and adapt independently, but with a central nervous system that was able to transmit the best of those changes quickly across a whole system or even across the whole body. As the body of Christ, the Church is supposed to work this way: harnessing both our individual creative energies (to seek after new solutions to problems within our stewardships) and our humility (to allow for effective and organized adoption of new inspiration carried to us from elsewhere in the body).

It's easy, as a missionary, to cling to obedience as a simple way to feel in control of an otherwise-overwhelming calling. So I'm grateful to Elder Jensen for gently helping a few missionaries see how obedience is only one element of our larger obligation to serve in our appointed place. 


After the training, Elder Jensen took some time to interview a few missionaries as a way of getting a feel for the work of the mission. My mission president, Erich Kopischke, had asked me to be one of the missionaries Elder Jensen talked to.

I honestly don't remember a single thing Elder Jensen asked me about our work. All I remember from the interview is that at the very end, Elder Jensen stopped asking me questions and asked if I had any questions for him.

"Yes," I said. "Give me a second to think of one--but if I have the opportunity to ask, I'm not going to pass it up!" And then I thought of a simple question. I asked him if there was a certain scripture that had particular meaning for him personally, or that he often found himself thinking about.

And he told me three scripture from different places which made up one complete thought in his mind, one thought that sustained him through the challenges of his own life and work:

The first scripture was John 16:13:
 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
Elder Jensen said the promise is real, but the scripture as whole is a bit puzzling. If the Holy Ghost "speak[s] not of himself" but rather tells you "whatsoever he shall hear," who is he listening to?

To answer that question, he shared a second scripture--Alma 7: 11-12:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
 Elder Jensen said that when he'd really struggled, he'd also often felt the Holy Ghost's influence on him not just as the warm comforter we often think of, but as a messenger from a Savior who knows our sorrows through his own suffering.

And when he thinks about this knowledge of Christ's, Elder Jensen said, one more scripture--2 Ne 9:41--means a great deal to him:
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.
The same Lord who knows us and sends his comfort to us will also judge us. And no one else can--he may send others to serve us, to warn us, to teach us, but there will be no servant at the gate when we meet him in the end.

And it was that thought which gave Marlin Jensen strength. That combination of the knowledge that Christ had sustained him along his path and would meet him at its end.

I can still remember sitting across from this good and humble man, watching him look past me as he talked about Jesus.

To many casual observers today, our apostles and seventies probably look like old men in dark suits. Like boring business stereotypes, hardly worth our attention.

But for a moment, I got to see one of those men filled with longing. The deep longing of a disciple for his Master, of a saint for his Lord.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Frames

Let's say we encounter a carefully crafted piece of language--whether it's a popular novel or a conference talk--and care enough to keep thinking about it, or maybe even to talk with others.

It seems to me that we have at least two possible ways to frame our thoughts or discussion on the work:

1) We look at the work.

What got me thinking about this topic was a blog post I saw yesterday about Elder Holland's conference talk. The post is pretty simple--it summarizes the talk and then invites readers to share their opinions, which is pretty standard formatting for a discussion blog.

But in this case, that standard format felt a little underwhelming to me. And I think it's because talking about a work often presupposes that we are beyond it--that we look down from our established lives and vast knowledge bases. The very act of asking, "How was it?" puts us in the position of evaluator or critic, prioritizing our tastes and attitudes over the message of the work.

2) We let the work look at us.

As I thought about my disappointment with a "How was it?" discussion of General Conference, it occurred to me that we have another option: instead of framing the work as the object of our evaluation, we can try reframing our lives by the work. Rather than asking "How was the talk?", we can ask "How is my life in light of this talk?"

This type of discussion prioritizes the message of the work over our default tastes, attitudes, and experiences. When we frame a work this way, we lend it authority rather than assuming authority over it. 

Therefore. . .what?

In the case of Elder Holland's general conference talk, I definitely prefer the second way of framing to the first, but I don't want to suggest that the moral of this story is that the second kind of framing is better. In fact, I think the second kind of framing is what makes some media so harmful: it's a disaster when people use Hollywood portrayals of romance, for example, as authorities for evaluating their own lives.

I am grateful for parents who taught me, from a very young age, to use the first approach when I watch a commercial--and who taught me, also at a very young age, to use the second approach when I read the gospels. But since most of what I encounter these days falls into the vast space between a toy ad and Jesus, I'm not sure I have a set reflex for how to frame the messages I encounter. 

Sometimes, I miss out on a great sermon or artwork because I'm too busy deciding what I think of it to let it really change my thinking.

Other times, I lend an article or story too much power by applying it to my life when I should be thinking about whether it's good and reliable first.

I hope, though, that thinking consciously about these two types of frames will help me choose better which way to frame things. And I hope that being aware of this framing choice will help me recognize more clearly how conversations already happening around me are framed, giving me a clearer choice to either accept or reject the frame rather than simply getting pulled into it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Family is the Fundmental Unit of the Revolution

Yup. That's pretty much what I believe.

Some details are sketched out in a guest blog post Jocelyn Christensen invited me to write as part of multi-blog celebration of "The Family: A Proclamation to the World."


Related Posts with Thumbnails