Category Archives: Religion

A reaction to Elder Packer’s death

Elder Boyd K. Packer of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve passed away on Friday. He was a man greatly revered by many many Mormons, not just because they were uplifted and inspired by his apostolic message, but because of acts of personal kindness he performed. I never met the man personally, but I have many friends who did, and they recall him with tremendous affection.

It’s important to remember that. Because Elder Packer was also one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Mormonism. He was certainly beloved, but it would be stretching the truth to say that he was universally beloved. I remember many years ago, my dear Grandmother, a lifelong, deeply faithful member of the Church, told me that if Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Twelve ever became President of the Church, that she would leave, she so detested him. In time, he did, and she didn’t, though sustaining him was teeth-grindingly difficult for her. By the same token, I know people who told me that their future membership in the Church depended on President Monson outliving Elder Packer. Since that has now happened, I suppose it means that I have friends who won’t be subjected to that particular trial of their faith. So that’s a relief.

What I want to do, and I hope it’s not too inappropriate, is to pass on some observations about Elder Packer that I’ve heard from friends over the years, neutral stories, to present, perhaps, a more nuanced view of the man. He was, I think it’s safe to say, neither hero nor villain. He was a staunch Mormon conservative; I am an equally committed Mormon liberal. I tried not to overreact to his, ahem, less temperate remarks, but I do admit to feeling wounded by him, at times.

But he was also a painter, an avid if somewhat untrained landscape artist. I have a friend, a very celebrated LDS painter, who painted with him. Elder Packer didn’t have any illusions about the quality of his work; he painted for his own pleasure. But, by golly, when he painted a horse, it darn well looked like a horse, and when he painted a tree, it looked like a tree. And his best work attempted to honor ordinary people who gave their lives to service; a laudable subject for any artist.

Elder Packer also loved to work in wood. He carved birds and other animals, then painted them; they looked amazingly lifelike. He carved a wooden Noah’s ark, full of carved miniature animals, mostly for his grandchildren. Here’s a link to some images of his work. I’ve seen the ark; a friend got permission to bring it to a gathering of Mormon artists. It’s beautifully done.

In one of his most famous (or notorious) talks, he addressed the subject of the Arts and the Spirit of the Lord. It’s not a talk I’m fond of, and that’s a shame, because I am an LDS artist, and I know the talk was intended to be inspirational. I regret that I didn’t find it so, and that’s not uniformly the case for talks by General Authorities on the subject of art; President Kimball’s talk A Gospel Vision for the Arts changed my life. I’m not, I hope, immune to being inspired.

Elder Packer’s talk, however, came at least from an informed perspective. He was an artist; he knew the struggles and difficulties we all face in trying to make art. My difficulty, however, was with the way his remarks insufficiently appreciated the subjective nature of art, the way in which different audiences respond to different works of art. I’ve seen works of LDS art that some of the audience found tremendously inspiring and that other members of the same audience disliked intensely, or even found offensive. It simply isn’t true that art is either ‘spiritual’ or ‘wordly.’ And I think it can be damaging to insist on that particular dualism.

But let that go. In this talk, Elder Packer talks about the work of a painter named C.C.A. Christensen. Here’s what he said:

I do not think Brother Christensen was a great painter, some would say not even a good one. I think his paintings are masterful. Why? Because the simple, reverent feeling he had for his spiritual heritage is captured in them.

I have since seen the Christensen paintings, and I agree with Elder Packer. There is a reverence to them, despite how ineptly they are, at times, drawn. In fact, my reaction to the exhibit of Christensen works was, if this is possible, a reverent giggle. I mean, some of the human figures were ill-proportioned, with one arm much longer than the other, and all the figures strike awkward poses, and in the Hill Cumorah painting, Joseph holds his arms close to his body, like a rabbit. But I also responded to the open sincerity of Christensen’s work. So Elder Packer and I had that in common.

Elder Packer was also an avid birder. I don’t know why people who follow that particular hobby call it ‘birding’ instead of ‘bird-watching,’ but they do, and Elder Packer was fond of it, and good at it. I’ve never birded, and have no interest in beginning that hobby, but I can certainly respect those who do. Birds are extraordinary creatures, and to want to follow them around, listen to their birdsong, haunt their habitats, strikes me as a worthy and fascinating pastime.

In short, Elder Packer was a nature lover, and I am not one; he was a fly fisher, and I have never once fly fished; he was a painter, and I can’t draw a stick figure that doesn’t look ridiculous; he was a work carver, something I’ve never once even tried, for fear of lopping off a finger. He served in the military, and I did not, he understood some scriptures literally which I understand metaphorically. And so on. But he was also a teacher, and so was I. He was an active and faithful Latter-day Saint, and so am I, I hope and believe. He was a conservative. I am a liberal. There were times his words inspired me, and I’m grateful for that. There were other times when his words infuriated me, and I’m grateful for that as well, as they helped me sharpen and clarify my thinking.

I’m amazed at how much I’m going to miss him. I’m also grateful that President Monson remains the President of the Church. Rest in eternal peace, Boyd Kenneth Packer. And thanks for your ministry.

 

The ancient law of hospitality, the Odyssey, and Sodom

With the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision, a lot of people on the internet have waxed apocalyptic, suggesting that the decision was morally catastrophic and predicting a bad end to American society. And where in scripture might one find support for the idea that homosexuality equals catastrophe? Where else, but in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom equals sodomy equals sinfulness equals destruction; that’s how the story goes. The problem is, if we read the actual scriptural account of Sodom, it turns out that Sodom’s destruction had essentially nothing to do with homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was to violate the ancient law of hospitality.

Say what? The difficulty is that word, ‘hospitality,’ with its Martha Stewart-ish overtones, and general sense of using-the-wrong-fork-at-dinner or mussing-up-the-guest-towels. To say ‘Sodom was inhospitable’ seems like pretty weak tea, acting as gay apologists, minimizing Sodom’s sin. In fact, the ancient law of hospitality was a very serious thing indeed, the defining characteristic of civilized society. Ancient Troy was destroyed because hospitality was violated. It’s mostly what The Odyssey was about. It was incredibly important.

The law of hospitality is best described as a whole system of rights and reciprocal obligations, without which civilization could not exist. If a stranger showed up at your city gates, you had two choices. You could bash his head in. Or you could invite him in, feed him, shelter him, and send him on his way with gifts. If you did the former, word got around, you were understood not to be a civilized society, and nobody would trade with you. If you did the latter, word got around, you were understood to be civilized, and trade flourished. As a guest, he had obligations as well; to not abscond with the silverware or the king’s daughter. Or your host’s wife.

Which brings us to Paris, and to Menelaus. When Paris ran off with Helen, he committed the most egregious possible violation of a guest’s obligations, the most despicable possible transgression of civilized values. Menelaus was absolutely justified in asking Agamemnon to join him an in attempt to seek redress, and Priam, though a good and honorable man in most respects, ought to have given Paris and Helen up. Instead, we had the spectacle of the Trojan war. Homer does not defend all Greek conduct in the war, nor does he condemn Priam and Hector and other decent Trojans. The tragedy of Troy was the inevitability of the Greek response to Troy’s breach of the hospitality code.

The Odyssey takes this all a step further. Odysseus is driven off his course, visiting island after island, city after city. The Odyssey can be seen as a primer on hospitality, a series of case studies on how it works, and what’s supposed to happen. Some people–Nausicaa’s people, for example–serve as good examples. Others–Polyphemus–are the worst possible subjects for study, absolutely defining barbarism. Meanwhile, back home in Ithaca, Penelope’s suitors–who have, in the beginning, a potentially legitimate reason to visit–become, over time, intolerable. They are initially guests, but by never leaving, they grow intolerable.

Hospitality was the key to civilization, and it makes sense that the most important work of Greek scripture would be an in-depth study of the hospitality code. And the longest section of the book deals with the most complex case; the suitors. We read it (or hear it), and learn;  yes, it’s possible to start off legitimate, and over time, become barbaric. And, in the end, of course, Odysseus and Telemachus set the course of civilized behavior back on track, by wiping the suitors off the map. The cost is high, but Athena sets matters right in the end, blessing Odysseus’ actions.

How does this relate to Sodom? Well, it’s another case study in hospitality. My friend Bill Davis explains:

Sodom and Gomorrah: What the Bible really says. The issue: didn’t God destroy S&G for homosexuality? Let’s go back and take a look. Remember the story? Two angels show up at Sodom and meet Lot at the front gate. In accordance with the law of hospitality, Lot invites them home. Next thing ya know, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring the angels out to them. Why? To gang rape them.

Gang rape? Why? Well, in this period and location, one of the strategies certain cultures used to demonstrate their power and superiority over foreigners was to rape them. It’s not about loving relationships. In fact, it’s not even about sex. It’s about power and humiliation. The goal is to humiliate your enemies. Lot brought some strangers into town, and now the Sodomites are going to aggressively humiliate them to show them who’s boss. And this aggressive humiliation went directly counter to the very important, sacred laws of hospitality.

In other words, Genesis provides us with another hospitality case study. And anyone in the ancient world would have been appalled. There’s nothing bad that could happen subsequently to Sodom that wouldn’t have seemed entirely justified. It turns out, there’s an equally appalling story found in Judges 19. I don’t want to explore it in depth, but it’s about the same dynamic; a city refusing hospitality, and rape as a instrument of power. The difference is, in Judges, the rape is heterosexual. As Bill Davis points out: “if we claim that the story in Genesis 19 is a condemnation of the loving intimacy between homosexuals, then Judges 19 is also a condemnation of loving intimacy between heterosexuals.” Or, as Bible scholar Jay Michaelson puts it, “reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe.”

It’s also complicated by other scriptural accounts. The prophet Ezekial, for example, wrote this:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  Ezekial 16: 48-50

Can we tie these two ideas together? Absolutely. One of the difficulties of the law of hospitality is that the people who showed up at your gate weren’t necessarily rich or powerful or important. It’s easy to treat people well if you think you can immediately profit by it; harder to just help people in need. Again, in the Odyssey, the one people that provide us the most unequivocal good example of hospitality were the Phaeacians–the people of Princess Nausicaa. When she and her handmaidens come across Odysseus, he’s naked, shipwrecked, and injured. There’s no obvious or immediate advantage to helping him. And he doesn’t initially even tell them his name. But Nausicaa’s parents, Arete and Alcinous, treat him with kindness and generosity nonetheless. Their story ties together those virtues of what we would call Christian charity to hospitality, precisely the virtues that Ezekial tells us Sodom most conspicuously lacked.

I know that in common parlance, Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, and sodomy a synonym for gay sex. Justification for this perspective can be found in that strangest and shortest of New Testament works, the book of Jude:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

I suppose you could argue that ‘going after strange flesh’ is a reference to homosexuality, or possibly bestiality. But the ‘lack of charity’ angle later becomes part of the equation; the people Jude condemns are ‘spots on your feasts of charity.’

There are, of course, other Bible scriptures that condemn homosexual relations. Most of them are part of the Law of Moses, which also condemns playing football (with a pigskin), or wearing cotton/poly blend shirts. Still, there’s the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, I Timothy 1: 8-11). Of course, Paul had nothing to say about gay marriage, because such a concept could not possibly have ever occurred to him. But the narrative that really does not have any scriptural support at all is the one in which the destruction of Sodom is used to demonstrate what God’s wrath will do to America if we embrace marriage equality. The story of Sodom is about arrogance, violence and a lack of charity. It’s about what happens when a society rejects the law of hospitality.  And that’s actually a warning with some teeth.

 

 

The Cokeville Miracle: movie review

The Cokeville Miracle is unquestionably a powerful and affecting film about a terrible, traumatic event. It was ably filmed and directed by T. C. Christensen, nicely edited by Tanner Christensen, features a lovely musical score by Christian Davis and Rob Gardner, and was beautifully acted by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about faith, the efficacy of prayer, and, as the title suggests, about the possibility of miracles. I saw it on a weekday, a late morning screening, and was surprised to see the theater half full. Listening to the comments of the rest of the audience as they left, they clearly found the film inspiring and testimony-affirming. In most respects, it has to be seen as one of the strongest LDS films since God’s Army in 1999.

And yet, and yet, and yet . . . . But give me a moment to think it through.

In 1986, in the small ranching community of Cokeville, Wyoming, children at the town’s elementary school were taken hostage by a heavily armed, bomb wielding fanatic named David Young (Nathan Stevens), and by his wife, Doris Young (Kym Mellon). The film tells us that there were 99 child hostages–other sources say it was 136 children, and 18 adults. (I don’t know what purpose was served by changing the number of hostages). After a standoff lasting two and a half hours, the bomb detonated. Both Youngs died, and the explosion injured, but did not kill, the children or their teachers. The scenes involving the capture of the school, the taking of hostages, and David Young’s gradual mental breakdown, were as riveting as you might imagine. All the child actors were excellent in those scenes, as were the actors playing the teachers.

After the crisis was over, some of the children began to claim that they had seen personages dressed in white protecting them. Many of the children identified the angels from old family photos as deceased family members. A sheriff’s deputy, Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade), charged with investigating the event, becomes the lens through which we see its aftermath, as he puts together the various angel stories, and also the forensic analysis of Young’s bomb, and why it was so much less destructive than it ought to have been. Hartley, who seems to be suffering from some kind of job-related PTSD, is going through a crisis of faith, which the testimony of his children (both of whom were in the school), help him resolve.

And it’s at that point, in the film’s depiction of Hartley’s difficulties with his testimony, that I began to feel uneasy. First of all, it seems strange to me that the screenplay would make Hartley its protagonist, when he had essentially nothing to do with the event. He was out of town when the Youngs showed up at the school, and didn’t arrive on the scene until after the bomb exploded. Wade gives a fine performance, but it seems like an odd choice. What it suggests is that the main purpose of the film is not actually to tell the story of this terrible event, but to guide and direct our response to it. No, not guide and direct: mandate. It’s a film about a miracle, period. There are no ambiguities here, no other permissible reactions. Angels saved those kids. End of story.

But human nature, cross-grained and rebellious, recoils from this narrative approach. It brought out my inner cynic, not my inner believer. And so, I dig in my heels. I thought the film was very powerful, right up to the third act. It was nicely made up to that point. But the film’s Mormon-centric didacticism amplified more contrary responses.

Like this, from Wikipedia:

After a two-and-a-half hour standoff, the children were becoming restless, so the teachers led them in prayer. The praying appeared to make David Young agitated and he decided to leave the room. Before leaving the room, David Young attached the bomb’s detonation device to his wife’s wrist. When the children became increasingly loud, Doris Young began begging the teachers to settle the group down. At one point she lifted her arm sharply and the bomb went off prematurely.

In the film, the children decide to pray on their own, unprompted by their teachers. In the film, the teachers also pray, but quietly, to themselves. In the film, David doesn’t become agitated by their prayers; he becomes agitated, frankly, because, as portrayed by Stevens, he was bughouse nuts. And there’s not much doubt that David Young was crazy. But the actual guy was Unabomber-style-crazy; he showed up at the school with a long, rambling manifesto. In the film, he mentions ‘Brave New World.’ One of the teachers tells us it’s a reference to reincarnation. Uh, not the Aldous Huxley novel everyone had to read in high school? Reincarnation? In fact, though, the teacher wouldn’t have known that, but authorities did; it was the central idea in his manifesto. He thought he would rule the dead children after they died and were reincarnated. But if the Wikipedia account of the event is true (and I tend to believe it, because of other corroborating details from other sources), then the children’s prayer was an act of aggressive resistance. Good for them, too. But perhaps not quite as . . .pious.

And, in its best moments, the film went there too; depicted little kid brattiness. And I loved it for that. One obnoxious little girl, for example, kept correcting Doris Young’s syntax, pretty much every time she spoke. I adored that little girl. When one teacher created a ‘magic box’ around David Young, a taped-off space kids were not supposed to enter, we see two little boys doing exactly what little boys have done from time immemorial–crossed the line, broke the rule, pushed the boundaries. I loved those little boys. I loved it when the film got the human stuff right.

Other difficulties: the film says only 2 of the bomb’s blasting caps went off, because the leads to the other 14 had been severed. Who severed the leads? We’re meant to conclude that angels did it. But most other sources say there only 5 blasting caps, 4 of them with severed leads. (A minor detail, but details are what convince us). So did angels sever 4 leads? Isn’t it more likely that Doris Young (who was surely deluded and abused and not all there, but who was at least more humane and well-intentioned than her husband) did the other ones? As portrayed in the film by Mellon, Doris is far and away the most interesting character in the film, and far more sympathetic than her husband, but that also fits other accounts of her. In fact, the bomb didn’t even kill her–David Young shot her after it exploded, before ending his own life. Did she sabotage it? Isn’t that at least a possibility? In fact, was she busy cutting wires when the children’s loud prayers distracted her? Wo, could the kids’ praying have been a proximate cause for the explosion? How much more intriguing would the film have been if it had gone there?

Also, the blast was ineffectually defuse, in part because the teachers had opened the windows in the classroom, giving the fireball a path out. So here’s my question: if the children were spared at least in part due to specific actions, specific, human, non-divine choices made by the teachers and by Doris Young, shouldn’t that possibility have been presented in the film? And wouldn’t that alternate explanation also be faith-affirming, but just in a different way?

Because for me, cynical secular humanist that I undoubtedly am, the film was genuinely inspiring, and became increasingly less so the harder it worked, in the end, to force me down one specific understanding of the event. What I found inspiring were those teachers. One teacher (and I’m sorry that I didn’t catch the character’s name, but she was played by Barta Heiner), was the last person out of the room. She stayed behind to get the last child out, despite bullets flying, from cartridges Young placed in the bomb. Earlier, she volunteered, to Young, to give up her life for the lives of the children, and she lived up to that same principle after the bomb exploded. And I totally believe it. Teachers would. In that situation, with a few teachers and 136 children, teachers would do whatever it took to save them. And we see those teachers, in that classroom behave heroically.

My gosh, that’s inspiring. At Sandy Hook, Sandy Hochsprung and Mary Shurloch were the first two victims in the school. Both teachers. A third teacher, Natalie Hammond, was badly wounded, but survived. Another teacher, Lauren Rousseau, was killed trying to keep the killer out of her classroom, as was Rachel D’Avino, a behavioral therapist. A school custodian was also shot, but survived. These teachers were, absolutely and unequivocally, heroes. But any other teacher, in any other school in America, would do what they did. And that’s what inspires me.

I don’t know whether real angels really intervened in Cokeville, Wyoming. Some children said they saw angels; most did not. Adults did not. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women charged with the education of the children at that school were heroes. Could angels have been there? Sure. And I think it would be swell if angels intervened in school shootings. I wish Heavenly Father tasked them to do just that; sent angels to Nigeria to protect the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, for example, sent heavenly beings to Sandy Hook and to Columbine and to Utóya Island in Norway. I believe in God, and I humble myself before Him, and the infinite mystery of why and where He chooses to intervene, when evil encroaches.

But I do believe this; that on those blessedly rare occasions when some deranged individual chooses a school to act out some fantasy of absolute evil, our response should be national, legal, and political, aimed at doing whatever we can to not let deranged individuals have access to weaponry. And the Second Amendment be hanged–it’s about militias, not individuals, and who cares anyway. Let bad guys have as much access to non-rifled muzzle-loading muskets as they want. But that’s a subject for another day, and another soapbox.

Anyway, in many respects, this is an awfully good film. I wish it were a better one. If it had preached a bit less zealously, it might have been exceptional. As it was, the best I can say is that it was ultimately unconvincing. Tell the story; let us figure it out. Don’t force a response. As Sgt. Friday was fond of saying, ‘just the facts.’

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A biography, a review.

Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.

But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?

I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.

So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’

Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.

And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?

These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.

One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.

Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.

A response to Ralph Hancock

The opinion page of the Deseret News has published a number of op-ed pieces lately opposing same sex marriage. The most recent was by Ralph Hancock, a very respected conservative scholar, a professor at BYU, with a degree in political science from Harvard and a distinguished publication record. I thought, with some trepidation, that I would write a piece disagreeing with his article. I certainly don’t have credentials to match his; as I’ve said many times on this blog, I’m basically a playwright with wifi. But I do have a PhD, and I thought someone ought to respond. I suggest you read Hancock’s article first: here’s the link.

Hancock begins rather oddly, with the Enlightenment:

When the aggressively secular philosophers of the 18th century realized that simple logic could not actually refute traditional ideas of God or of a Higher Good, they settled on a strategy that did not depend too much on reason: the public would have to be moved by passions and appetites to reject traditional authority, and the rational appeal of transcendent goods would have to be neutralized by a relentless campaign of ridicule conducted by a unified army of prominent writers. Haughty contempt, aided by wit and literary talent, would suffice to intimidate traditionalists and thus supply the defect of truly conclusive reasoning.

Apparently, Hancock thinks the Enlightenment philosophers were all in on the plan, including the deliberate use of satire. Well, Voltaire wrote satire; so did Jonathan Swift. And it’s certainly true that the writers of the Enlightenment used a variety of approaches; journalism, poetry, drama, essays, novels. But mostly, they wrote long, dense books of moral and political philosophy, in which they disagreed with each other all the time. You can see what Hancock’s doing here; he’s suggesting that those attacking ‘traditional authority’ realized that the tools of philosophy and reason weren’t sufficient to get the job done. They resorted to snark and sentimentality, because they knew how weak their case was. But that’s just nonsense. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz were perfectly confident in their ability to reason their way to truth, and did precisely that, book after book. There’s a reason they won.

But, hang on. Did you see what he’s doing? He’s choosing sides, and placing himself on the side of ‘traditional authority,’ and ‘traditional ideas of God or a Higher Good,’ against the Enlightenment. And among the major Enlightenment figures he opposes would surely have to be Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Thomas Paine. And let’s face it, he has to do this; if there’s one thing the Founders had in common, it was an opposition to traditional authorities. That was the point of the Revolution, to reject the authority of King and Crown. (And wouldn’t we add Joseph Smith to the list of prominent thinkers who rejected ‘traditional ideas of God?’)

But of course Hancock pretty much has to do this–take sides against the Founders. After our central founding document included the phrase “all men are created equal,” our subsequent history unfolded uneasily around that idea, of equality. Well, his article is in opposition to marriage equality. Equality, therefore, becomes the main idea against which he’s forced to argue. And Jefferson’s phrase planted a seed, leading eventually to abolitionism and Lincoln’s election and a horrific Civil War, and to three Constitutional amendments, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth. The most important of them, it turns out, was the fourteenth. That amendment, and the subsequent history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights movement, all centered on something as simple as the redefinition of a word: Negro. Was a Negro a man “with no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as the Dred Scott decision put it, or was he a citizen of the United States, with all the privileges and responsibilities of any other citizen? Over a hundred years of tortured history later, that word, ‘equality,’ prevailed. The word Negro was redefined, and although we still have a long way to go, the fundamental humanity and, legally, the full citizenship of black Americans is today affirmed.

The case currently before the Supreme Court, Obergefell v. Hodges, is a Fourteenth Amendment case. It’s an equality case. Opposing it, therefore, either means opposing the Fourteenth Amendment, or it means opposing the application of that amendment to the current controversy. Hancock, oddly, chooses a third route. He focuses on the issue of dignity, and the supposed desire of people to have their sexual preferences accorded dignity and respect, and he accuses those who support same sex marriage of, essentially, sentimentalizing the issue. That’s his perception; it’s not mine, and it seems irrelevant to the actual issues addressed in the case itself. By choosing to ally himself with tradition, with traditional formulations of marriage, Hancock, in this article, comes across a bit like Tevye, stomping the ground and shouting about Tradition, while his uppity, independent (and beloved) daughters each insist on their right to marry who they choose, not the guy Papa picks. And tradition itself is like someone trying to stand on a roof and play the fiddle. It’s precarious up there, and unsteady. Hancock might respond that Tevye’s daughters sentimentally want their personal romantic preferences accorded dignity, a trivial consideration. But they know their own hearts best. Tradition is what’s failing them.

Although he doesn’t use this phrase, Hancock wants to argue for ‘traditional marriage,’ for marriage based on a ‘shared moral understanding.’ But that’s an ever-shifting foundation. Traditionally, marriage wasn’t really between a man and a woman, but between a citizen and his female property. If we define ‘woman’ as an ‘autonomous equal to men,’ as a fully participating citizen–as equal–then marriage as we understand it is a relatively new invention. But one that recognized that the ‘shared moral understanding’ of what constituted women’s rights and roles had shifted, evolved. And a good thing too.

But there’s another sense in which the phrase ‘the traditional definition of marriage’ is inadequate. There really isn’t ‘the’ definition of marriage, but as many definitions as there are marriage partners. Abigail Adams may not have been her husband’s legal equal, but their letters have survived, and it’s clear that she carved out a space in her society for every bit as much equality as she could possibly achieve. Nor was Dolley Madison any kind of shrinking violet. They may have represented something close to one extreme of 18th century female equality, one towards which society was slowly shifting. The other extreme of inequality was quite probably represented by the odd and creepy relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman with no rights her white master was bound to respect.

So marriage has constantly been redefined, as other related words have been; ‘woman’, ‘black,’ ‘wife,’ ‘servant,’ ‘citizen.’ And individual marriages are under a constant process of negotiation and redefinition. And the whole process has always been informed by society’s ever evolving understanding of Jefferson’s phrase, of what ‘created equal’ means. And even that ancient racist obsession, over miscegenation, became, in Loving v. Virginia, redefined as, well, just ‘marriage.’ Two citizens exercising the fundamental human right to choose to commit their lives together, something normal and good. And our societal understanding of ‘equality’ evolved yet again.

And so the latest word to be productively redefined is before us: ‘homosexual.’ And, of course, traditionally, homosexual meant citizenship and equality only as far as it was kept strictly closeted. Otherwise, homosexual meant an outcast, a pervert, a degenerate, a deviant. And it was legal to fire gay men and women, legal to arrest people for the crime of displaying public affection, legal to deny housing or access to public facilities.

Hancock does not really clarify his main argument against gay marriage. Here’s his best attempt:

At its core is another understanding of human dignity, one that embeds individual dignity within shared communal goods and responsibilities. It is this more traditional understanding of dignity, and not an absolute power of human self-definition, that still resonates in the idea of liberty under “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

Honestly, this describes pretty well exactly what our gay brothers and sisters want; to exercise their rights and obligations as citizens, to join in ‘shared communal goods and responsibilities.’ And human dignity thrives under the presumption of equality.

The key, I think, to understanding Hancock’s argument is the phrase he cribbed from, again, Jefferson: ‘laws of nature and nature’s God.’ He seems to be arguing that the lifestyle of gay people so offends the laws of nature and of God that it disqualifies them from full participation in civil society. And he seems to regard this as a widely shared understanding. Or, I suppose, as what would be a widely shared understanding if people could just reason more clearly. But he’s savvy enough to know that he can’t quite put it that way, lest he prove that he’s driven by enmity to gay people. But it does appear that he wants to retain the traditional definition of ‘homosexual.’ And thereby deny gay people equality. If you’re gay, Hancock suggests, you’re not actually created equal. You’re created: Other. But that’s my reading of a confused mess of a paragraph.

There is another approach he might have taken, the preferred tactic of the Obergefell respondents. Essentially it’s this; to demonstrate through the social sciences that children do better if they’re raised by two straight parents. To essentially ask gay people to take one for the team, to stop arguing for marriage for the greater good of children in society. The Obergefell respondents found themselves arguing that a preferred outcome might be to say that marriage is about child-rearing, and gay couples aren’t as good at it as straight couples are, so what if we just let straight couples raise all the kids. In fact, the best evidence suggests no such idea; kids do best with two committed parents, no matter their orientation, according to the various studies cited by the plaintiffs in the case. (The respondents cited no competing studies). And current marriage laws don’t require that prospective couples demonstrate the ability to procreate, rendering reproductive viability moot. Professor Hancock deserves credit for not wandering down that thorny path.

What Hancock does address is, essentially, a side issue; the question of dignity, the question of how people feel, and how nice people are to them. That’s not relevant. Obergefell is a case about equality before the law. Either gay people are citizens or they’re not. Issues of religion, or of dignity, or the Higher Good are not really relevant. For those who want to argue against the full equality and citizenship of our gay brothers and sisters, then let me suggest that they’ll need a stronger argument than the ones that have so far been advanced, including Hancock’s.

The most important doctrine in Mormonism, which everyone believes, and which is found nowhere in scripture

There’s a doctrine in Mormonism that I have heard invoked on multiple occasions in conversations and lessons and on-line discussions, but never once from the pulpit. It’s not found anywhere in scripture, nor in any presumed-authoritative book by a Church authority. And yet it’s immensely comforting and hopeful, and I have never once met any active member of the Church who doesn’t believe it.

It’s the doctrine of ‘God will sort all that out someday.’

One of the central doctrines of Mormonism is that of eternal families. We believe that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there,” in the afterlife. That suggests friendships, kinships, associations, organizations. We’ll all hang out together. And we’ll sing in choirs and debate issues and do good theatre, one presumes. (We’d better, or I’m gone.)

But to make it to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, you need to be sealed to someone. Married. And for some people, that’s all perfectly straightforward. My parents have been married for sixty years. They’ll stay married. Eternally. I’ll be sealed to them, as will my brothers. What ‘sealed to them’ means, I haven’t the vaguest notion. We’ll particularly  get to hang out? Eternity listening to my brother’s puns? Arguing politics with my Dad? We’ll see. But they’ll be together, and we’ll be with them. Somehow. That’s enough for us to get our heads around.

But so okay. Here’s a scenario: you’ve got a young woman, who is married in the temple to a serviceman just before he ships out. And six weeks later, he’s killed in combat. Seven months after that, she gives birth. The war ends, she meets a guy, and marries again. And her second husband raises her son, and is married to her for fifty-plus years. And he’s a good man, gentle and kind, a wonderful father, the only father her son has ever known. According to official Mormon doctrine, she’s still sealed to her first husband, and so is her born-in-the-covenant son. A father he never knew, a husband she barely remembers. That’s who she’s with, forever. The second husband, meanwhile, isn’t sealed to anyone. Officially, he’s a ‘ministering angel,’ whatever that means. Does that seem fair? Or just? Or what about the first husband, killed in battle before he had a chance to really experience much of his marriage. If she’s not sealed to him, does that seem fair, or right?

And whenever a story like that is told, the answer is the same. God will sort it all out. Don’t worry. God is infinitely merciful and infinitely just. When we know all the circumstances, we’ll realize that there is a solution that we hadn’t even considered, and it’ll all be fine.

That’s what we believe. That’s the doctrine we need. In situations that strike us as tremendously unfair, we think there’s another answer. God will figure something out.

It’s an essential doctrine, I think, because theology is very neat, and life is very messy. When we read about eternal marriage, we describe it as a kind of ideal. Ideally, a married couple will love each other all their days, live out their earthly probation in compassion and kindness, quickly repenting of all their (minor) sins and peccadillos, and happily pass on to a just reward, together. But that rarely happens in real life. People get divorced. People remarry. People fight, and bicker, and sin. Ooo, and even, sometimes, murder. (They always look at the spouse, first.)

Sometimes men marry (and are sealed to) several women. The Church today is strictly opposed to polygamy, but eternally speaking, we still practice it. A man can be sealed to multiple women, if a first wife passes away. And that really ticks some people off, and should. What does it mean when we say ‘we don’t practice plural marriage anymore’ (good!), except for temple sealings, where we kind of do?  And we recoil from plural marriage, most of us do, everything about it feels, well, icky and gross and weird and wrong. Utterly wrong. Completely wrong.

And what about marriages that don’t end, but sour over time. I know those situations as well, married couples who have stayed together out of habit, but who really can’t stand each other anymore. Also, you know, a sizeable percentage of temple marriages end in divorce, or, sorry, cancellation of temple sealings. Doesn’t that complicate all that eternal record-keeping?

We don’t worry about it. We figure God will come up with answers. And that we’ll find those answers satisfying.

And what about being sealed to our children? What if some of our children end up leaving the Church? What then? Are they still ‘sealed to us,’ whatever that means? I think that having celestial parents who pop down to the telestial kingdom to tell their kids how disappointed in them they are would be a special kind of hell.

So life is complicated. The gospel, on the other hand, is expressed in terms that make it sound pretty straightforward. So we need anwers, and the answer we come up with is ‘don’t worry about it. God will figure it out.

Except it also ties into a doctrine we do believe in and preach, the most powerful and profound doctrine in all of Christianity.  What bridges that gap, the chasm between who we are and who we wish we could be, the devastating void between our highest aspirations and our lowest failings? Grace. God’s grace, freely given. I want to be good. I want to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, forgive, and always, eternally, love everyone. I want to treat my brothers and sisters with love. I fall so short so much of the time. But God loves me. His grace enfolds me. It’s all going to be fair, and it’s going to be fine.

So finally, that’s the answer to our perplexing questions about the afterlife, about families and marriages and the terrible ways we make a mess of things, way too often. God will sort it all out. God’s grace, finally, will save us.

Freetown: Movie Review

Freetown is the latest missionary-oriented Mormon movie to come from director Garrett Batty, following his Saratov Approach two years ago. Like Saratov, Freetown is well acted, photographed, edited; it’s professionally done in every sense. The screenplay is credited to Batty and Melissa Leilani Larson; an amazing writer. I wish I could report that I liked this movie as much as I liked Saratov. I didn’t. I didn’t like it at all, for what are almost certainly completely idiosyncratic reasons of my own.

But first, the story. Freetown is set in Liberia, in 1989, right at the beginning of their first 7-year tribal and civil war. There was an LDS mission there, but the movie shows how the (white) mission leadership decamped to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to wait out the violence. They left behind the native Liberian missionaries. Among other dangers, rebels targeted a small ethnic tribal minority, the Krahn, the ruling tribe of Liberian President Samuel Doe. One missionary was Krahn. So six missionaries were transported across the country to Freetown, crammed into a tiny car and driven to safety by an LDS church member, Brother Abubakar (Henry Adofo), who had been left in charge of the mission office after the President’s departure.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, we see Abubakar sitting in his little car (which has Mark 9:24 on the back windshield), stuck in a mud puddle. He’s about to get out of the car, when he sees a small rebel patrol. They’re a dangerous looking bunch, very young, variously armed, and they do African rebel-y things like fire their AKs into the air. (Why do they do that? A bullet, fired directly upwards, will eventually fall back down to earth. It could hit someone. How many innocent folks are killed annually by falling bullets idiotically fired into the sky?). The rebels approach him, clearly suspicious. He doesn’t seem too bothered by them, though, just opens the car trunk, gets out some water, offers them a cup to drink. This apparently mollifies them. He then reaches to the roof of his car, gets out some planks of wood, which he uses to give his tires some traction, and off he drives. The rebels watch him go. So, heavily armed, deeply irresponsible teenage rebels are an ordinary fact of life for this guy. But Brother Abubakar knows how to deal with them. And so the main dynamic of the movie is established; this movie is set in a world that’s actually quite mundane and ordinary, and also dangerous and violent beyond belief.

Ordinary and also insane. Quotidian and surreal. That’s the whole movie. We see these six missionaries, and they’re normal Mormon guy missionaries; zealous, enthusiastic, hardworking. They street-contact, they hand out pamphlets, they share their testimonies with anyone who will listen. And also, there are these insanely violent murdering rebel gangs all over the place. And they’re simultaneously a disciplined military force, and also out of control violent and drunken and arbitrary. Freetown explores a world where ordinary people, on the street, minding their own business, can just get shot in the head, randomly. And also a world of normal daily routines. We see a group of saints chattering happily on their way to a baptism. But one of them is carrying a machete and an AK, and stands guard while they celebrate. It’s a movie where a branch member drives the missionaries around in his car. And crams six of them in this teensy crappy little car. And they drive hundreds of miles on these dirt roads, while rebels stop them every few miles to harass them.

And in time, it becomes the cognitive dissonance movie of the year. There’s one scene in which this is expressly spelled out. One of the missionaries, Elder Menti (Michael Attram) talks to Abubakar about how, after he’d joined the Church, he learned of the policy of priesthood exclusion, and it really bothered him, learning about the racist past of the Church he’d just joined. It led, he says, to cognitive dissonance. I’m glad that scene was in there, because, to me, the entire movie was a cog-diss exercise.

It’s a movie about this one Church member, and these six missionaries, and their journey through fearsomely dangerous Liberia to the comparative safety of Sierra Leone. And along the way, they are rely on a series of miracles. Like, there are almost no places for them to buy gasoline, but the car never runs out of gas until they’re out of money, at which point they find one station willing to give them enough to get them to safety. And when they get to the border, the bridge to Sierra Leone is out, but Brother Abubakar has a revelation about a ferry they can take instead. So they’re all these little but real miracles. God loves His missionaries. God loves these specific missionaries enough to help save them. That’s the message we’re meant to take away.

But it really doesn’t register much, because it takes place in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. Which we see enough of to be horrified by. A closing credit tells us that the missionaries, and Brother Abubakar, spent the next seven years in Sierra Leone, in safety. But what about their families? What about Brother Abubakar’s wife and children?  How are we to take this? That God loves these six missionaries enough to intervene, to save them, but doesn’t love everyone else in Liberia about to be butchered?  Cognitive dissonance indeed.

I know this is an idiosyncratic issue I have. Like, in Church, you’ll hear people bear their testimony about how they know God loves them, because there was this time that they needed to get to a Church meeting, but couldn’t find their car keys, so they prayed and, lo!, there were the keys. And I’m thinking, ‘yes, and what about Sister so-and-so in the ward, dying of liver cancer.’ Or Asian children forced into human trafficking, or starving kids in Darfur or the violence in the Congo. Does God really love Mormons enough to help us with reasonably trivial problems, but He doesn’t love other people (non-Mormons?) enough to intervene in some of the real horror shows in the world? Before Freetown aired, I saw a preview for a new Christian movie about a school shooting in which none of the kids died, because, the kids say, angels intervened. And I thought, ‘great. Good for you. Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often.’

Also, I wish there weren’t just that teensy bit of vestigial colonialism in there. Like, the white mission President getting out just ahead of the violence, someone clearly having decided that his safety was essential, and the safety of his Liberian missionaries maybe kind of less so. And the super nice mission home in Sierra Leone reserved for the President. Except that was probably true, so including it is at least honest, revealing just that small sense of possible priorities back in ’89.

Could this have been fixed? Garrett Batty is a smart guy, a good director; Melissa Larson’s a terrific writer. I don’t think they intended to make the Cognitive Dissonance Plus Philosophical Problem of Evil movie of the year 2015. It’s the juxtapositioning of quiet little miracles for Mormon guys and the Horrors of African Civil Wars for everyone else that made this such a disquieting (and not in good ways) viewing experience.

First, the movie’s awfully coy about violence, and in this case, I think it was a mistake. We’re not really forced to confront it. We see a guy being led off to be shot, and then the camera pans away, and we hear the shot; we don’t see him killed. I think we need to really face up to the reality of rebel civil war.

But simultaneously, we need to see some larger purpose to saving these missionaries. Michael Attram, the actor who played one missionary, looks a lot like Malcolm X, for example. Well, these six guys come across really well; they seem like really good guys. What if the movie suggested that they’re the solution? Frankly, a screwed-up poor country like Liberia could really use some smart, decent natural leaders. What if one of the missionaries (Menti, probably) were individualized just a bit more, made to seem like a genuine future statesman? What if the movie just hinted that God needed to save these six guys to give Liberia some kind of future, some hope, some desperately needed moral leadership?

And maybe that’s all subtly suggested, and I just missed it. I have cognitive dissonance issues of my own, after all. I’m not saying don’t see it. Just be aware; I found it a very strange movie, and nowhere near as inspirational as I think it was intended to be.

 

 

Pilot Program: Theatre Review

Melissa Leilani Larson’s Pilot Program, which closed this last weekend at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake, is a lovely play, especially in this beautifully acted, directed, and designed production. I say works like ‘beautifully’ and ‘lovely’ despite the fact that the play made me terrifically uncomfortable, and that at dinner afterwards, with my wife, my nephew and his husband and my son, the only two things we could talk about were what a beautiful play it was, and also how uncomfortable it made us.

I love that. I love how a piece of theatre can affect us like that. Ibsen’s A Doll House does that for me, leads to uncomfortable conversations about awkward subjects. A good play should burrow under our skin. It should itch and burn. It should raise more issues than it solves, it should force us to rethink previously held convictions. It should not let go of us afterwards. It’s been four days since I saw Pilot Program. I should have reviewed it earlier, but illness intervened. But I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Three characters, then. We start with Abby and Jake; a nice Mormon married couple. She’s an academic, he works in public relations. They have a good life together, a good marriage. Jake’s a good guy, kind and gentle, nonjudgmental, a supportive and loving spouse. (They were played by April and Mark Fossen, who are, as their last names suggest, likewise married). In addition to teaching and publishing, Abby blogs, and is our window into the world of the play. She addresses the audience directly–she blogs the play for us–and her insights are crucial.

And Abby and Jake have also found themselves unable to have children. And infertility haunts their marriage. Abby tells us that they’ve tried everything–in vitro, adoption–without success.

So: the set, a nice living room in a comfortable and nice-looking home. Abby addresses us; introduces the couple, as wives always do when a couple is asked to speak in Church. A light shift: time passing. And then Jake enters; in his suit; they’ve been somewhere, an event, an appointment. And they can’t even speak. The silence stretched forever: Abby holds herself like she’s been punched, bent over. He appears incapable of speech. Finally, the conversation begins. They’ve been to a meeting, with not just their Stake President, but with an Area Authority. They’ve been asked–called–to participate in a pilot program. They’ve been asked to add another wife to their marriage.

And so, I thought, he’ll be the one to decide, he’ll talk her into it, reluctantly, but in his capacity as patriarch, he’ll make the call. Accept the calling for both of them. And you think, all right, polygamy is certainly about patriarchy, male privilege; that’s where this play is going. And then it doesn’t go there. She’s had a feeling, a warmth, a whispering of the spirit. His inclination is to say ‘no.’ She says ‘yes.’ That was the first time tears came to my eyes, sitting quietly in the darkness.

But she wants to have a say in who the new wife will be, and as it happens, she knows who she wants. Her all-time favorite student, Heather (Susanna Florence Risser), now graduated and a close friend. She loves Heather; thinks of her as a sister, almost. And Heather is still active in the Church, younger than Abby, in her early thirties, a successful professional woman in her own right. One small problem: Heather lives in California, and they live in Salt Lake City. They’re going to have to ask her to move, to uproot her entire life. She’s going to have to ‘move to Utah,’ with everything that implies.

And they invite Heather to visit, and they have this amazingly awkward conversation with her, and Melissa Larson’s gift for comic dialogue gives the scene some lightness. And when finally they get around to it, Heather thinks they’re asking her to be a surrogate mother. And she’s totally fine with it. But that’s not what they’re asking. And of course, when they ask–when they propose–Heather’s reactions are initially what we might expect. She’s appalled, offended, angry. And then a change, and she shocks us, alone in the dark. ‘What if I were to say ‘yes,’ she says. She’s felt something too; she’s felt the Spirit, she thinks. That was the second time I cried.

I cried, because I could see how the rest of the play would unfold. Heather and Jake fall in love. Well, of course they do; they’re married. They work out a ‘marital schedule,’ as I suspect would be needed. He moves out of the bedroom he’s shared with Abby, into his own room, so that each wife can have her own space, her own privacy. And Heather becomes pregnant, and has a baby boy.

And Abby gets to be a child-caring sister-wife (a label she loathes). She gets to be Aunt Abby. And she . . . loses. Loses herself, her identity, Jake’s wife and life-partner, loses that essential intimate exclusivity. And Jake still loves her, still treats her with his usual kindness and attentiveness; of course he does. He’s a good man, a kind man, a good husband. To both his wives.

But we can see it, can’t we. See Abby fold inside herself. See Abby’s distanced misery take her over. We can, not just see her pain, but feel it, ache with her. We’re not remotely distanced, because she’s already allowed us inside her mind and soul; her blog. And there are no good answers for her, not because of the cruelty of the two people who love her most–they love her, both of them do, of course they do, and wouldn’t dream of being cruel. But little Thomas is Heather’s baby. And that changes things.

I don’t think the play has any kind of agenda. Like Larson’s best work, it’s a play about people, about human beings and their lives and choices and deeply rooted private pain. It’s a play that defies easy answers. It’s also, I think, the most stunningly powerful anti-polygamy play I’ve certainly ever seen. It’s a play that says polygamy equals Abby’s pain. And Abby will continue to retreat inside herself, inside her misery. Eventually, she will stop blogging. Because her blog equals life.

So what about the spirit? Both women, in this play, believe themselves to have received a spiritual confirmation of the rightness of this, after all. What did they feel? I don’t know. Part of me thinks that they haven’t actually felt the Spirit, but the stirrings of a essential biological imperative. But I can make just as good a case for the Spirit. I don’t know. I’m just as happy not knowing. That’s the place where the play bothers me the most, and that’s entirely a good thing.

One last thing: I consider Mark Fossen a good friend, and thought his performance was tremendous. What a challenge, playing a decent, ordinary, spiritual man. He was masterful in the role. I also consider Susanna Florence Risser a good friend; one of my favorite actresses, and a student I was proud to teach. Her performance was likewise terrific. But April Fossen was remarkable. Again, a friend, but being friends with her is a bit like being friends with Meryl Streep.

My goodness. What a play, what a production, what a searing examination of a part of Mormon history that most of us would really rather never think about. If you haven’t seen it, buy it; an ebook has been published. It’s just extraordinary.

 

 

 

Imagining a progressive Mormonism

I attended a terrific lecture last night. It was the Eugene England annual lecture, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at UVU. The speaker was Robert Rees, who teaches religious studies at Berkeley. I’ve admired his writing for years, and we became acquainted at Sunstone recently. Anyway, his talk will surely be available on-line soon, and I’ll link to it when it appears. Meanwhile, I don’t want to paraphrase, and did not, in any event, take notes.

To briefly summarize, though, he spoke of Latter-day Saints imagining a future in which our culture and our community is more open to progressive ideas, and he suggested a few ways in which that could happen. Mormons, for example, join other Christian communities in our belief that we humans have an important stewardship over the earth. Politically, climate change is a divisive issue, a partisan issue. But if we discuss the issue in terms of stewardship and not ‘environmentalism’ (a dirty word in some quarters), perhaps we can find common ground, especially as the frightening reality of climate change becomes increasingly apparent. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Latter-day Saints unite around stewardship and conservation efforts, and join with both political and Christian evangelical environmentalists in seeking solutions. When we read in the 10th Article of Faith that ‘We believe . . . that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory,’ it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s something we’re supposed to make happen, not just something we wait for.

I found myself moved and inspired by Rees’ great lecture and his vision. Again, I don’t particularly want to paraphrase his remarks. But I do want to join him in imagining, to the extent that we can imagine it, a future progressive Mormonism.

I imagine a world in which we stop paying lip service to female equality, and actually take concrete steps to make it happen. I imagine a world in which we reject, as unworthy, a vestigial sexual double standard. I imagine a world in which we embrace a non-judgmental model for modesty, one related to self-respect and self-confidence, and not shame or finger-pointing. I imagine a world in which our language about gender no longer reflects unreflective patriarchy. I imagine a world in which we embrace Mormonism’s unique theological stance with both genders represented as Deities.

I imagine a world in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are genuinely embraced, in Christian fellowship, and in which the standard of sexual morality required of straight Latter-day Saints applies equally to our gay family members.

I imagine a world in which income inequality is decried from the pulpit as unworthy the Body of Christ. I imagine a world in which all Latter-day Saints lift each other, in which poverty is seen as the human tragedy it genuinely is all over the world. I imagine a world in which no child goes to bed hungry. I imagine a world in which all children are safe from violence, despair, squalor and hatred, and in which all children, and all adults, have access to state-of-the-art health care.

I imagine a world in which the artificial construct we call racial difference no longer divides us, no longer holds some of us back, no longer turns our discourse harsh and ugly and violent.

I imagine a world full of laughter. I imagine a world in which teasing is allowed. I imagine a world which embraces the preposterous absurdity of human ambition, human pretension, human arrogance and human self-absorption, and finds joy in our unique apprehension of foolishness.

I imagine a world in which we Latter-day Saints continue to confront, honestly and openly, the most troubling aspects of our history, in a spirit of forgiveness and Christian charity. I imagine a world in which our fondest hope for those of our faith who leave us is that they find peace and acceptance within some other faith community, while we continue to offer them fellowship and love, kindly and without judgment.

I imagine a world in which we are, all of us, free. Free to reason, to search for truth, to , to disagree civilly, to discover and grow and learn. I imagine a world in which knowledge and truth and reason replace prejudice and acrimony.

And I don’t imagine a world in which lions lie down with lambs of their own accord, in which peace reigns only because Jesus has returned, in which cataclysm leads to spectacle, leading to millennium. I imagine a world in which we make peace happen. I imagine a world in which we forgive and love and care and rejoice together because we decided to embrace that paradisiacal future, together, willingly and joyfully.

That’s the world I imagine. I don’t expect I’ll live to see it. I won’t mind, if I can see the rawest beginnings of it starting to take shape.

We look around us and we see progressive accomplishment and regressive backlash, over and over, in a pattern described in the Book of Mormon. That tale ended tragically. Ours doesn’t need to. Let’s embrace a better future, together, as brothers and sisters should. Let’s make it happen. Let’s build our own cities of Enoch, in our homes, in our wards, in our communities.

Let the great work commence.

 

 

Emperor and Galilean

Last Friday, I was invited to Hillcrest High School, in Draper, to see the North American premiere of Ben Power’s translation/version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I had a terrific time, and thought the production was imaginatively staged and beautifully realized.

Emperor and Galilean is surely the most obscure and seldom staged of Ibsen’s plays, even more infrequently performed even than his early Viking melodramas, like The Warrior’s Barrow or The Vikings at Helgeland, which are fun enough that Norwegian theatres still produce them from time to time. As it happens, though, I have seen a previous production of E and G, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, in 1989. That production was nine and a half hours long (not seven and a half, as I may have told people mistakenly), which points to the main reason that the play isn’t done very often–it’s very very long–ten acts altogether. Actually, it’s two five-act plays; Julian the Apostate, and The Emperor Julian, but I can’t imagine anyone doing either play alone. They tell one continuous story, and neither play would be thematically or narratively satisfying separately.

E and G tells the story of Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor of Rome for just two years, otherwise known as Julian the Apostate, because of his attempt to reject Christianity as the state religion, and return Roman worship to neo-Platonist paganism. In a battle against the Persian empire at Samara, Julian was killed; according to one source, by a Christian soldier in his own army. Ibsen has him killed by Agathon, Julian’s best friend from his early years as a Christian.

I had to read the play in grad school, and ended up falling in love with it. The usual reading of the play is that Ibsen, following Nietzsche, was arguing for a synthesis between the sensuousness of paganism and the spirituality of Christianity. If that’s indeed the point of the play, I have to say that that synthesis certainly doesn’t work very well–Julian’s attempt to create it lead to civil war, and to his own destruction. Plus, there’s no evidence that Ibsen even read, let alone cared about Nietzsche. Plus, I couldn’t possibly care less about a synthesis between pagan sensuousness and Christian spirituality. If those are indeed the main philosophical concerns of the play, then I wouldn’t be alone in considering it a play that has well deserved its obscurity.

I don’t think that’s what it’s about, though, and I don’t think those themes were given much expression in production. As the play continuously reminds us, it’s a play about the choice between Emperor and Galilean, about balancing the needs of the state and the demands of leading a Christ-like life. And it’s a play that shows, unmistakably, how state power corrupts and corrodes religion. As one parent said at the talk-back session following the play, ‘it’s a play about the First Amendment. It’s showing how badly we need it.’ Amen, brother.

When we see the play today, in 2015, we see a fanatical megomaniac who causes untold destruction by his vicious insistence on his own personal ideology. We’ve had our fill of those characters in my lifetime, have we not? I see the imposition of a state religion, any state religion, Christian or pagan, leading to war and violence and death. I see a huge, unnecessary, religious war fought in southern Iraq, by an army also intent of destroying the religious center of Persia/Iran. We see a play about issues that still resonate. We see, in Julian, a figure that we know all too well, and we see how damaging his charismatic fanaticism can become.

Ibsen builds the play around Julian and his three best friends–Agathon, Peter and Gregory, plus his pagan mystic guru Maximus. As the play begins, Agathon is proud of the fact that he has managed to lead a pogrom against local pagans, killing a whole lot of them. His fanaticism remains unabated, and eventually, he kills his apostate friend. Peter’s Christianity finds expression in fellowship and loyalty–he’s the one friend to stick with Julian no matter what, even after he grows appalled by Julian’s excesses. Gregory leaves Constantinople and founds his own religious community, which is eventually destroyed by Julian’s men. Gregory is really the one genuine Christian we meet in the play, and he is martyred for his devotion. Maximus, meanwhile, is about four/fifths a flattering fraud, but he does seem to have real visions, and those visions have consequences. Julian is told that he will complete the work of two great World Spirits; men who changed the world, advancing civilization. The first two are Cain and Judas Iscariot. I’m not sure that’s a parade I want to head up, but Julian eats it up. And that vision devours everyone else, in time.

Ibsen loved guys like Maximus; he loved creating fatuous blustering pompous jerks–Torvald, in A Doll House, Manders in Ghosts. We often take Ibsen too seriously–there’s a savage satirical wit in Ibsen that it can be easy to miss, especially in British English translations of his works. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to play Maximus as comic relief. It would certainly fit nicely with the rest of the Ibsen oeuvre.

Anyway, Hillcrest’s production was imaginative, energetic, lively and theatrically spectacular, with lots of smoke effects and projections and timely-falling set pieces. David Chamberlain was terrific in the huge role of Julian, and I also loved Carter Walker, Steven Hooley and Russell Carpenter as Gregory, Agathon and Peter, respectively. Of all the other supporting characters, I was particularly taken with Skyler Harmon, who played the conniving Ursulus, the Emperor Constantius’ fixer and right hand woman.

Above all, kudos of Joshua Long, the director of the production. Long has clearly created a tremendous high school drama program there at Hillcrest, with massive parental support. Watching the show, I estimated a cast size of around 90, but counting the names in the program, there were closer to 120. That’s a lot of costumes to build; how many moms were enlisted in that effort? Refreshments were sold during the show’s two intermissions, and again I saw supportive parents working for the success of the show. Long told me afterwards that he had tremendous support as well from his principal and administration; good for everyone involved. Those kids, in that cast, will never forget this experience as long as they live. They were involved in a fantastic undertaking, a very much neglected masterpiece given new life on stage. I can’t imagine anything cooler.