Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reply to Professor David F. Holland

The following comment was originally authored to appear in the comments section of Brigham Young University Professor Daniel C. Peterson's blog post entitled Recovering, at long last, from the plague of Mormon exceptionalism.  It was initially held in the "Review Cue," and subsequently rejected for publication.  There is part of me that understands perfectly well why it was rejected.  It is confrontational, at least to a certain degree.  Furthermore, in a private communication to Professor Peterson (while the post was still being held for review), I informed him that, should he opt to reject it, I would understand, and would not be offended at all.  Nor am I offended.  Not only that, but I'm vaguely aware of the fact that (in the immortal words of Ronnie Van Zant) there are things goin' on that you don't know, and therefore there are some boats that it is just better not to rock at this point in time.

In any event, Dan Peterson and I have been acquainted for many years now.  I consider him a friend.  I hope he reciprocates the sentiment.  But after contemplating the question for the past few days, I have decided that I will post my rejected comment here, in a place that is the functional equivalent of a black hole.  It was made in direct reply to an earlier comment by Harvard Divinity School Professor David F. Holland.

David Holland wrote:

“I believe that … a discourse that publicly presses people to make a statement that satisfies our own emotional needs may be precisely what is wrong with much of our conversation.”

This statement—whether he intended this or not, and I assume he did not—comes across as disturbingly condescending.  Indeed, it strikes me as an evasive reflex; almost as it were a talking point drawn from a box labeled: “Things to say to suggest my interlocutors are small-minded, superficial, and inclined to anti-intellectual emotionalism.”

In any case, it could be a valid point, but one that is utterly irrelevant to the actual topic of discussion as established by Dan’s original post. (More on that below.)

His assertion that there is something "wrong with much of our conversation" seems little more than a cursory condemnation writ large; painted with the broad strokes of an annoyed intellectual elitist, and lacking precious little authentic sensitivity to the concerns being voiced by the questioner.  It brings to mind Cotton Mather's supremely self-assured exclamation: "Ah, destructive ignorance, what shall be done to chase thee out of the world!"

It is always easy to find fault where and when we are looking for it, but in this case, it appears to me that the fault is not in our conversation, but in Holland's failure to apprehend the issue as it really is, rather than as he would wrest it to be.

Holland continues:

“I suppose what you're asking about is historicity.”

Holland's supposition appears deliberately calculated to "shrink the space"; the scope; the fundamental parameters of the controversy. In my estimation, it is effectively a caricature of the actual argument, and, as such, it exudes a certain patronizing disrespect towards those who have here (and elsewhere) voiced serious and well-articulated objections to the “new direction” of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

The question is absolutely not whether, generally speaking, LDS scholars writing about Mormonism should be subjected to some sort of "testimony litmus test," or otherwise feel themselves bound to append to everything they write or say an unqualified declaration of allegiances.

The question is, very specifically: As faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what fundamental principles and premises should we reasonably expect to hold sway in relation to the mission and publications of Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship?

Holland continues:

"… I confess to some fear that in responding to your post I am abetting a cultural tendency to shrink the amount of space we afford people to work out their faith and salvation—something  we may do at our peril as a people …"

I have been careful for many years to closely observe those who suffer from this rather common visceral aversion to abetting the cultural tendencies of the Saints.  I confess they have the tendency of arousing my suspicions regarding their true allegiances.  This is not to suggest, by any means, that there is not good reason, in many instances, to find fault with and even work to root out certain “cultural tendencies” that have been proven conclusively deleterious to the progress of the Kingdom.  But when one waxes bold in lamenting the alleged tendency of the Saints “to shrink the amount of space we afford people to work out their faith and salvation,” my internal universal translator always renders the phrase: “We must enlarge the borders of our definition of deviance, and make greater allowances for those whose behavior (no doubt arising from "sincere convictions") inexorably rushes in to fill all the space for deviation our expanded tolerance will allow."

As for whether or not our cultural tendencies pose genuine perils to us as a people, I am reminded of H. L. Mencken's prescient observation concerning politics in general (and, make no mistake, the issue at hand is one of a peculiarly political nature):

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

In the case of the previous regime at the Maxwell Institute, one of the "hobgoblins" employed by their political rivals was the baseless imputation of vicious polemical apologetics.

At any rate, Holland concludes, seemingly without affectation:

"I do stand ready to give everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in me: I believe there were plates. I believe Nephi was a real person. I believe Alma was a real person. I believe Moroni was a real person. I have committed my life to and rested my heavenly hope on this faith. This has served me well; the Book has enlarged my soul, enlightened my understanding, and it is delicious to me."

I consider this an eloquent statement of faith.

I can only hope all the words really mean what I think they mean.


Review Cue

A few days ago, BYU Professor Daniel C. Peterson posted, on his blog, Sic et Non, a comment that ended up being rather controversial, at least in the relatively small sphere of those who pay attention to what is going on in the world of Mormon studies.  The blog post was entitled Recovering, at long last, from the plague of Mormon exceptionalism.  It was a commentary on a book review authored by University of Missouri Professor Benjamin E. Park which was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.  The book review focused on two recently published works: David F. Holland’s Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (Oxford, 2011) and Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale, 2013).  Professor Park is an associate editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, which is published under the auspices of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.

In response to the controversy that erupted in the comments section of Peterson's blog post, one of Park's fellow editors from the Maxwell Institute, Mark Wright (a very personable fellow with whom I am somewhat acquainted), posted a comment in response to some criticisms I had made of the "new" Maxwell Institute.

In reply, I posted the following:

Mark Wright wrote:

"I hope you know that I really do love your soul, Will."

I genuinely appreciate this sentiment, Mark, and I appreciate the general tenor of your post from yesterday from which this quote is drawn. I read your post shortly after it was logged, and have been pondering it since then. It is, therefore, after much serious reflection and deliberation that I now offer to you (and any others who continue to follow this very interesting comment thread) my reply to your comments in said post.

You wrote:

"As for the precarious middle ground I navigate, it stems from my heartfelt desire to actually follow the Savior; to love my neighbor, to be a peacemaker, and to build Zion."

Your statement above appears, from my perspective, to constitute a specimen of non sequitur, in that it seems to draw a logical connection between navigating "precarious middle ground" and a "heartfelt desire to actually follow the Savior, to love [one's] neighbor, to be a peacemaker, and to build Zion." All of these things are certainly commendable desires, but it seems to me that all can be just as easily pursued—and perhaps more optimally—from a more explicit posture of belief vis-à-vis the fundamental truth claims of the Restoration.

It also occurs to me that not all conflicts are amenable to the kind of peace-making you appear to be advocating. And, in any event, I am reminded of the sobering statement of the Savior himself:

"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household."

The specific contexts under which this concept finds applicability are not explicitly stated, but it is clear that the Savior understood that his doctrine could be, in at least some respects, so divisive that it would "set a man at variance against" even members of his own family. So it is also, I am persuaded, when it comes to the doctrine of the Restoration as set forth by the Prophet Joseph Smith and his successors.

"Contention" may be of the devil, but it is clearly not his exclusive province. Even as it warns the Saints against the danger of those who would attempt to destroy the Church from within, the largely neglected Epistle of Jude exhorts its readers to:

"… earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."

With these things in mind, then, I say that I love peace, and I commend the peacemaker. But neither can I neglect to recall from the Book of Mormon the numerous examples contained therein of how the peace of the Saints was destroyed by the systematic distortion of the doctrines of salvation by those who had chosen to see things through a "different lens" and then went about:

"… causing much dissension among the people …"

In your post from yesterday, you continue:

"I love … all those who ardently support the historicity of the scriptures (as do I). But I also genuinely love those who want to use a different lens to look [at] the Book of Mormon, who raise questions or offer interpretations that I had never considered. I may not always agree with their conclusions (and I typically don't), but I love that they are actually reading the book and taking the text seriously (even if they question its origins). Regardless of whether a scholar is out to prove the Book of Mormon true or not, the end result is that they are proving it interesting and worthy of study, and that, to me, is a worthwhile endeavor."

Fair enough. I, too, have made it a point in my life to read many of the things written about the Book of Mormon by people who "question its origins". But I do not believe any such things should be published under the auspices of Brigham Young University, and least of all by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

Those who desire to advocate such interpretations of the Book of Mormon should band together and publish (via Signature Books or any other willing press, of which there are many) New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, Volume 2 (3, 4, 5, etc.).

In any case, understand this: those who are earnestly contending for the faith that was once delivered to the Saints by way of the Maxwell Institute are prompted to do so precisely because of the fact that its original mission has now been corrupted, and to the extent that your statement I have cited above is consistent with the guiding editorial philosophy of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and the Mormon Studies Review, then the Maxwell Institute has become unquestionably complicit in the act of:

"…stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them."

It grieves me deeply that this is so, as it also grieves me to see so many of my fellow Saints so blindly bewitched by the sophistries that, as ever, issue forth from the "Scholars' Suite" of the Great and Spacious Building.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, my reply to Mark Wright got me placed on the "Review Cue" at Sic et Non (meaning that my comments would not appear without the direct permission of the blog owner), and consequently, my subsequent attempts to participate in the conversation were brought to an abrupt end.  As a result, after David Holland weighed in on the topic at hand, my reply to him was denied.  However, I had taken the precaution of saving it, and I will post it in an upcoming entry to Imetatron.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I Lost the Words

I've just come to realize that over two years have passed since my last blog entry.

Funny how the time slips by so swiftly, and before we know it, we are surrounded by the stalking wolves of our own encroaching mortality.

At any rate, I suppose it should be confessed that this period of silence owes itself not only to the universal principle of tempus fugit, but also to a certain slothful malaise; a sort of demoralized disillusionment in which I have alternately wallowed wistfully and thrashed desperately.

Some call it "writer's block."  

Some lose hope and walk away.  

Some finally come to see they simply have nothing to say.

For me, it's been some of all these things, but be that as it may …

I have, over the course of the past three years, along with my wife, become somewhat inexplicably obsessed with the great Italian singer/songwriter Luciano Ligabue.  Indeed, this entirely unprecedented obsession has been such that, over the course of little more than a year, we've traveled twice to Italy to see him live in three packed stadium shows (in Verona, Rome, and Catania), and then, just a few weeks ago, on the occasion of his first ever performances in America, we made a long road trip from Cedar City to Los Angeles to San Francisco, and back, in order to see him in small clubs, where we were still the only "real Americans" in the crowd (virtually everyone else had either come from Italy specifically to see him in a small venue, or were Italians now living or working in America).

Anyway, that is the subject of a much longer story I hope someday to tell in all its fascinating detail.

For now, I merely want to share a single Ligabue song to mark the resumption of my blog posting career.  

It's called Ho Perso Le Parole.  (Link is to a live performance of the song.)  

Here are the lyrics, with my own English translation:

Ho Perso Le Parole
(I Lost the Words)
Luciano Ligabue
(Translation by William Schryver)

Original Italian
English Translation
Ho perso le parole
eppure ce le avevo qua un attimo fa
dovevo dire cose
cose che sai
che ti dovevo
che ti dovrei
Ho perso le parole
può darsi che abbia perso solo le mie bugie
si son nascoste bene
forse però, semplicemente, non eran mie

Credi
credici un po'
metti insieme un cuore e prova a sentire
e dopo, credi
credici un po' di più
di più davvero

Ho perso le parole
vorrei che ti bastasse solo quello che ho
io mi farò capire
anche da te
se ascolti bene, se ascolti un po'
Sei bella che fai male
sei bella che si balla solo come vuoi tu
non servono parole
so che lo sai
le mie parole non servon più


Credi
credici un po'
sei su radiofreccia
guardati in faccia
e dopo, credi
credici un po' di più
di più davvero

Ho perso le parole
oppure sono loro che perdono me
io so che dovrei dire
cose che sai
che ti dovevo
che ti dovrei
Ma ho perso le parole
vorrei che mi bastasse solo quello che ho
mi posso far capire
anche da te
se ascolti bene, se ascolti un po'

Credi
credici un po'
metti insieme un cuore e prova a sentire
e dopo, credi
credici un po' di più
di più davvero
Credi
credici un po'
sei su radiofreccia
guardati in faccia
e dopo, credi
credici un po' di più
di più davvero
I lost the words
Though I had them here a moment ago
I had things to say
Things you know
That I owed you
That I should
I lost the words
Could be I only lost my lies
They're hidden so well
Perhaps they were simply never mine

Believe
Believe a little
Fashion a heart and try to feel
And afterwards, believe
Believe a little more
More truly

I lost the words
Would what I have were enough for you
I will make myself understood
Even by you
If you listen well, if you hear a little
You're beautiful when you hurt
You're beautiful when everything
Is marching to your beat
Words mean nothing
I know you know
My words serve nothing anymore

Believe
Believe a little
You're on a big stage
Look yourself in the face
And afterwards, believe
Believe a little more
More truly

I lost the words
Or they lost me
I know I should say
Things you know
That I owed you
That I should
But I lost the words
Would what I have were enough for me
I can make myself understood
Even by you
If you listen well, if you hear a little

Believe
Believe a little
Fashion a heart and try to feel
And afterwards, believe
Believe a little more
More truly
Believe
Believe a little
You're on a big stage
Look yourself in the face
And afterwards, believe
Believe a little more
More truly


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Maybe the guy's a Republican ...

On the lighter side of things: this is one of my favorite scenes from Kelly's Heroes -- a 1970 film that, if the director had cut out at least 30 minutes of totally unnecessary fat, could have been a real classic rather than merely "pretty good."  Same director of Where Eagles Dare (155 minutes!) which was almost ruined by the same directorial idiocy.

Both Telly Savalas and Don Rickles were great in their day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The "Mormon Effect"


The Bradley effect "is a theory proposed to explain observed discrepancies between voter opinion polls and election outcomes in some United States government elections where a white candidate and a non-white candidate run against each other."

On a possibly related note, Republican voter turnout for the 2012 presidential election was substantially lower than 2008 and 2004.  Given the widespread perception, at least in conservative circles, of the overwhelming significance of the election in terms of the future of the country, many expected (as I did) a record-breaking turnout of the Republican electorate.

But it was not so.

Romney received 2.5 million fewer votes than did McCain in 2008.  This failure of Republicans to turn out in support of their candidate is the reason Barack Hussein Obama will now serve a second term as President of the United States of America -- a prospect that fills me and many others with an unprecedented sense of fear for the future of my country.

As I pondered this seemingly inexplicable statistic emerging from the piles of election polling data, I couldn't help but recall another shocking poll result from this past summer: Gallup poll indicates 18 percent of registered voters surveyed would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. 

I understand that there are many factors to which we could attribute this significantly lower turnout.  For example, I'm certain that the internecine beating to which Romney was subjected in the Republican primaries produced a persistent negative opinion of him that likely resulted in prejudice (and subsequent voter apathy) that could not be overcome, no matter how well he performed in the subsequent general election campaign.

We live in an era where racism is universally condemned, and tolerance is a virtue more highly regarded than chastity.  And yet one particular species of religious bigotry is so pervasive and acceptable that it is awarded the highest honors on Broadway, is a staple of the country's most popular comedians and talk show hosts, and is frequently preached from the pulpits of churches nationwide.  Is it any wonder nearly 1 out of 5 Americans surveyed would not vote for a Mormon for president?

Although I am confident that Romney's candidacy has served to eliminate some of it -- perhaps permanently -- I strongly suspect that this bias factored into the results of the recent presidential election.  I will be surprised if no one makes mention of this in the coming days and weeks as the political punditocracy performs a post-mortem of the 2012 election data.  If and when they do, I propose that the phenomenon receive its own Wikipedia entry: The Mormon Effect.



On the Road to Corregidor


So, all that's left is the hand-wringing and the internecine recriminations.

My friend Dan Peterson offers his lament here, wherein he posits that, had the so-called "mainstream media" held Obama's feet to the fire over the largely suppressed Benghazi affair, things might have turned out differently.

In retrospect, I don't believe media coverage of the Benghazi affair would have made any difference, nor do I believe Romney would have been any better off attempting to make the Benghazi affair a more prominent issue in the campaign. 

We blithely deceived ourselves that the pre-election polls were skewed on account of their assumptions about the composition of the electorate.  The election itself has proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the electorate of the United States is, in fact, permanently altered such that neither Mitt Romney nor any other candidate espousing similar principles could possibly be elected. 

We vainly hoped to persuade the country that we were standing at some portentous fork in the road.  The simple reality -- seen so much more clearly today than yesterday -- is that the fork in question was passed long ago.



Monday, November 5, 2012

The Last Best Hope of Earth


I want to add my voice to that of many others who believe we are at a crucial crossroads in the history of this country, and of the world at large.  Tomorrow, November 6, 2012, the American electorate goes to the polls to choose the next president of the United States of America.

I have been an assiduous student of American history since I was very young.  I was quite likely, as a 9-year-old, the youngest member of the World War II Book Club, and consequently I was the target of some good-natured ribbing by my friends and family.  Even so, I spent a significant portion of my childhood summer vacations reading history books, with a specific focus on American history.

In my adult life, although I have also collected and read a lot of classic literature, my reading and my personal library continues to be very much dominated by works on American history, in particular the period preceding and during the Civil War.  I have been a very serious student of the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  In addition to the magnificent literary corpus of Abraham Lincoln, which I have read it its entirety, I have read the transcripts of the Lincoln/Douglas debates at least a half-dozen times.  I find them absolutely compelling.  In my opinion, we have not had such competent candidates for public office since then.  Along with the majority of scholars, I believe Abraham Lincoln is the greatest president in our history.

It is in this context that I have formed my judgment that the choice we now face is the most significant since the watershed election of 1860.  I believe many in the country share my sense of the importance of this upcoming election, and that this sense of its importance will lead to the largest turnout of the electorate in my lifetime.

I believe that if Barack Obama is granted four more years in office, the United States will never recover from the consequences.  If he is granted a second term unencumbered by the moderating concerns of reelection, and flush with the rather justifiable belief that he has been given a mandate for his effectively socialist agenda, it will result in both the destruction of our economy as well as our capacity to maintain the worldwide Pax Americana that has prevailed since the end of World War II.  Notwithstanding the occasional blunders of American leadership since 1945, the fact remains that the world has experienced an unprecedented period of global peace and prosperity as a direct result of that leadership.  Should the dominant position and leadership capacity of the United States continue to decline in the next four years as it has in the past four, I am personally convinced that the inevitable consequence will be the rupture of the tenuous threads that have held together the fabric of relative world peace that has characterized the era of the American superpower. 

Abraham Lincoln, in his December 1862 report to Congress, wrote:

"The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.

… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."

Since that time, the majority of Americans has consistently manifest a willingness to shoulder the mantle that Lincoln presciently recognized as our national calling.  It is my hope and prayer that this generation of Americans will do likewise.