Category Archives: Religion

Once I was a Beehive: Movie Review

Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.

The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.

Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.

Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.

Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.

In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.

And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.

There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.

And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.

I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.

That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.

(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).

There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.

I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.

Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.

Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.

 

Lord Baden-Powell and sexuality

In 1908, General Robert Baden-Powell, later elevated to Lord Baden-Powell, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War, founded an organization he called The Boy Scout Association. That same year, he published Scouting for Boys, a guide to safely camping outdoors, and the first iteration of what would become the Boy Scout Manual. The year previously, Baden-Powell had tried out his ideas for what he hoped would become a national organization to promote wholesome, enjoyable outdoors activities for young men, by taking twenty boys to Brownsea Island and having the first Scout Camp. Two years later, an American businessman named W. D. Boyce discovered the British organization, and decided to start an American version. There’s a lot of mythology regarding the histories of both Baden-Powell and Boyce, but the basic facts are clear enough; Baden-Powell is the founder of Scouting, and Boyce the father of American Scouting.

Baden-Powell was, by all accounts, a charismatic leader, a ripping good storyteller, and a kind-hearted and gentle teacher. It’s quite possible that he was also a closeted homosexual. There have been several biographies of Baden-Powell, most of them hagiographic, intended for boys. Tim Jeal’s 1990 biography, The Boy-Man: The biography of Lord Baden-Powell is superb; meticulously researched, judicious in its conclusions, engagingly written. Jeal concludes that Baden-Powell was also gay. Two earlier biographies had reached similar conclusions. Evidence for this conclusion is entirely circumstantial. Baden-Powell came from a generation where homosexuality was considered a grave moral defect, deeply shameful and immoral. He almost certainly never acted on his feelings.

But consider the evidence, circumstantial though it is. He was a deeply sensitive and artistically talented boy, who played with dolls, but avoided girls at all costs. As an artist, his favorite subjects were attractive young men. In the army, he acted in a number of amateur theatricals, always playing women’s roles. Pretty young women sent him into a state of anxiety, which his friends all teased him for, and his closest emotional attachment was to a young man named Kenneth McLaren, a friendship which nearly ended when McLaren married, and finally did end when Baden-Powell married. In 1912, Baden-Powell, aged 55, met Olave Soames; she was 23. They married, but Baden-Powell was crippled by terrible, psychosomatic headaches every time they went to bed together. Eventually, he had to leave their shared bedroom, and sleep in an army cot elsewhere in their home.

I do not mean to suggest that his marriage with Olave was unhappy, nor was it childless; they had three children, a son and two daughters. Olave was his steadfast companion in running both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, the equivalent girls’ organization he founded in 1912. Nor did he seem to be a particularly unhappy man; Scouting became his life, and he was a beloved figure among British boys.

Jeal’s biography (which I whole-heartedly recommend), also deals judiciously with the one genuinely dark rumor about Baden-Powell; that his politics were essentially fascist, and that he supported the Nazis in the Second World War. What’s true is that Baden-Powell was both conservative and politically naive, and reflexively patriotic, and that he distrusted communism. It’s certainly true that an early Scout badge included a swastika. But that was well before that particular symbol had been appropriated by the Nazis. He was, finally, a former military officer who valued discipline, and wanted his Boy Scouts to conduct themselves in an orderly, restrained manner. The evidence does not, however, suggest that he was a fascist.

And here’s what Jeal concludes about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality; it drove him.  His accomplishments are startling; something drove him to achieve. He was an honorable and brave soldier, a genuine war hero, a man who devoted his life to working with children, and a charming and funny raconteur. Jeal quotes at length Baden-Powell’s final letter to his beloved Scouts; I think it captures him beautifully:

I have had a most happy life, and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and to enjoy life. . . One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong when you are a boy, so that you can be useful and enjoy yourself when you are a man. . . . but the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try to leave this world a little better than how you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy feeling . . . that you have not wasted your time, but have done your best. “Be prepared” to live happy, and to die happy.

So what does any of this mean in relation to the current controversy regarding Scouting and gay leaders? I would say that it doesn’t mean anything. If, as seems likely, the founder of Scouting was gay, it did not impact the importance or value of the organization to any degree whatsoever. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Kenneth McLaren? We don’t know, we will likely never know, and it does not matter.
Lord Baden-Powell was a wonderful man, who devoted his life to improving the lives of boys and girls world-wide. He was also a fine writer and painter, and a genuine war hero. That’s how we should think of him, because it’s the only aspect of his life that matters. And if today, a similarly gentle, decent and talented man, who also happened to be gay, were to be named Scoutmaster of a troop in the Boy Scouts of America (or for that matter, the Boy Scouts Association in England, or any of the Scouting organizations active internationally), the result would be, not just benign, but actively positive. Children would learn valuable skills, and have a lot of fun doing it. Period. And, in time, that someone else could say, like Baden-Powell, ‘I have had a most happy life, and I want you to have a happy life too.’ That’s the good Scouting can do. Irregardless of the orientation of the volunteer leaders that make it great.

 

The Boy Scouts and the Church

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on gay volunteer Scout leaders. The LDS Church, a major Boy Scout sponsor, responded with this statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.

I don’t understand any part of this. First of all, I do not understand the scheduling issue. Granted, Church leaders were on vacation, but surely they could have taken a day or two off to attend a meeting. We’re talking, after all, about the main youth organization for LDS boys living in the States. You couldn’t make a conference phone call; you couldn’t skype?

More to the point, though, what possible objection could there be to having gay Scout leaders? The policy change allows local councils to allow local units to choose its own leaders. If the Church didn’t want any gay Scoutmasters in LDS-sponsored troops, the new policy accommodates that stance.

Let me see if I can unpack it a little. I suppose that there may be some lingering fear over Scout leaders being pedophiles. But gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than left-handed people are likely to commit arson. There simply isn’t any link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This issue has been carefully studied, and the research is clear. The idea that a gay scoutmaster might molest the boys in his troop is a prejudice without foundation.

(Of course, the BSA is quite appropriately concerned about actual instances of pedophilia. That’s why Scouting has instituted policies and protocols to prevent it, as have other youth organizations. Pedophiles are attracted to children–constant vigilance must be exercised. But that’s not relevant to this policy change.)

No, the Church’s concerns have, I believe, two other, very different causes. The first is that having openly gay Scout leaders might create the impression that homosexuality is not morally wrong. The Scout Oath requires Scouts and Scouters to be ‘morally straight.’ The presence of openly gay leaders could presumably complicate that message.

Break that down. I assume that straight, married Scoutmasters are sexually active. As a Boy Scout, that was never something I ever ever thought about. If that notion had popped into my thirteen year-old head, my reaction would have been ‘ewww.’ Straight, unmarried Scoutmasters may well also have been sexually active; if so, it was never any of my business. Married, gay Scoutmasters are likely also sexually active, but they’re not engaged in anything most people would recognize as a sin; they’re married. Unmarried gay Scoutmasters? Absolutely none of mine, or anyone else’s, business.

The difficulty is that the Church does not recognize gay marriage as morally valid, and therefore believes that even married gay people, if they’re sexually active, are doing something morally wrong; violating the law of chastity. The Church does not want to complicate the issue of gay marriage in the minds of teenaged boys. Even if LDS-sponsored troops all have straight, married Scoutmasters, those troops camp with other troops, in various councils and jamborees and camps and activities. I was the Program Director for two Boy Scout camps 30 or so years ago. Let’s suppose that an LDS-sponsored troop camps next to a troop with a gay Scoutmaster. Those kids are going to interact. I think the Church worries about a conversation in which kid A says ‘wow, your Scoutmaster is really cool’ and kid B says ‘yeah. He’s gay, and he’s awesome.’ And kid A suffers some kind of cognitive dissonance. ‘He’s a great Scoutmaster. But, wait, he’s gay? Huh.’

In fact, ‘morally straight’ is something each individual decides for himself. As Program Director, I remember we had a waterfront director named John; can’t remember his last name. He was terrific; a wonderful swimming teacher, a real outdoorsman, great with kids. His girlfriend would drive him to camp each week, and drop him off. Sometimes she would spend the night. It never bothered anyone, nor should it have. This was in the early ’80s, when I suppose someone could have made a big deal about John not being ‘morally straight.’ He was, obviously, cohabitating with his girlfriend. And many of the troops we served at our camp had minister/Scoutmasters. In Southern Indiana. Nobody raised any kind of fuss, ever, at all. John was a brilliant Scout leader, and that was all that mattered.

Still. The Church has its concerns. But I think there’s another factor involved.

The Church has always embraced Scouting. And that’s great; Scouting is a wonderful program. But in fact, Scouting and the Church have always been something of an awkward fit. Scouting is really a program for kids aged 11-16. Sixteen year olds are encouraged to join an Explorer post. Explorer posts are meant to specialize: in Engineering, High Adventure, Law Enforcement, Health Careers. The idea is that 16 year olds are more independent, more mobile, and interested in interacting with other boys with shared interests. When I was 16, the other kids in our ward were all pressured to find a specialty we all were interested in, and form a post together. But the only thing we all liked was playing basketball, and basketball was not one of the possibilities.

The Church mentioned starting their own youth program for boys, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. After all, the Boy Scouts is the youth organization for American LDS kids. Other nations have different programs. It makes sense to take the best ideas from all over the world, and create a uniquely tailored program for our kids. My guess is that plans have been made to do just that.

At the same time, I can’t help it; part of me is filled with dismay. I am an Eagle Scout; worked as a Scout leader, served on the staff of Scout Camps. I loved Scouting. And the reason is simple; Scouting was fun.

Scouting is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. I know that Scouting is supposed to teach values and skills and leadership traits and self-reliance, and I suppose all that does happen, some. But that was never the focus. We had a blast. We built signal towers and cooked on open stoves, and started fires and ran around and got in trouble and played mumblety-peg with knives and hiked hard trails, and played hockey on frozen lakes. I will never forget, until the day I die, a game of Capture the Flag we played, on a four mile course, the flags on two hilltops, a creek demarking the boundary between territories. Summer of 1971. I am old and sick and fat and can’t do most of that anymore, but I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.

I hope my fears are unfounded. Just know that tensions between the Church and the Boy Scouts has been building for years. And I desperately hope the Boy Scouts survive. It’s a terrific organization for kids.

A doctrine Mormons probably still believe in, but we never talk about

You’re a Mormon, right? What’s your tribal affiliation, your lineage? Ephraim, probably, right? It was on your patriarchal blessing? Ephraim?  Me? It’s not on mine. Though I’m probably just Ephraim too.

I served my mission in Norway, and spent most of it way up north. For much of my time there, I was the northernmost missionary in the world, because in our apartment, my bed was north of my companion’s. We were in Tromsó Norway, an island city about the same latitude north as the northernmost tip of Alaska. The gulf stream warms the west coast of Norway, making life there, with cities and seaports and such, plausible. Still, it got cold. We kept our shampoo in the fridge so it wouldn’t freeze. We were north. And I loved it; loved the Northern Lights, loved the northern dialect, loved the one night we had two meters of snowfall.

Inland from Tromsó, which is to say, away from the warming gulf stream, it’s essentially tundra; too horrifically cold really to support human life. Which means, of course, that human beings live there; thrive in that climate, in fact. The people who live up there are the Sami people, the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. You may know them as Lapplanders. They follow the reindeer herds on their snowmobiles, though really their main profession is fishing. I knew some Sami on my mission, and found their culture fascinating.

I had a companion, though, who found the Sami fascinating for an entirely other reason. He thought for sure they were the lost ten tribes. Makes sense, right? The lost ten tribes of Israel, went “north” after the Assyrians deported and scattered them. Okay, 2700 years ago; still, they went somewhere, and occasionally someone will give a talk about it, how they’re still a discrete people, with prophets and scriptures and a culture. In a cave maybe, under the earth’s surface. OR (and this was the possibility that got my companion all fired up) maybe they were an indigenous culture. Up north. Living by themselves. Speaking their own language, following their own customs.

As it happened, our little Tromsó congregation had a Sami member, a young woman in the nursing program at the U of Tromsó (Go Polar Bears!). She hadn’t been a member for very long, and my companion was all on fire for her to get her patriarchal blessing. He was sure her lineage was going to be ‘Naphtali’ or something.  Problem was, ‘getting a patriarchal blessing’ wasn’t easy. The only patriarch in Norway lived in Oslo, a bajillion miles away. She couldn’t afford to fly there, and there wasn’t a bus or train to Tromsó (there is now, but not back then). Sometimes, though, the patriarch would travel north to the city of Trondheim, which had a large and active branch. Northern members could arrange to meet him there. Getting from Tromsó to Trondheim required a two day boat trip, but my companion kept pestering our Sami member, telling her how great a patriarchal blessing was and how she really wouldn’t regret taking a week off work to get one. Finally he convinced her. She took the boat south, and came back to us all enthused. She’d loved her patriarchal blessing. The whole experience was totally worth it. It was a great spiritual blessing for her. She was so grateful.

What tribe was she from, asked my companion, finally. ‘Ephraim,’ she said. Why did he ask? He was crestfallen. She was Ephraim. Not, like, Dan or Asher or. . .  Issachar. Just . . .  Ephraim. Like everyone else.

When we Mormons are baptized into the Church, we’re also adopted into one of the tribes of Israel. That then becomes our lineage, and we become heirs to all the blessings promised to Abraham. So I was told, and so I was taught. But this is a doctrine we essentially never talk about. I suppose there’s the odd Sunday School lesson on the covenant of Abraham that gets into it a bit. But it’s essentially never mentioned from the pulpit. Certainly not in General Conference.

I think we don’t talk about it because it’s sort of a weirdly tribal doctrine anyway, feels anachronistic, has no real impact in our lives. And is maybe sort of borderline racist, or racialist? Doesn’t it feel like God likes some tribes more than others?

More than that, it doesn’t feel true anymore.  I’m not saying it isn’t true, I’m saying it doesn’t feel true. There’s a lot of ‘chosen people’ talk in the Bible, which makes sense. Gods are often worshipped tribally. Yahweh is our God, the God of our tribe, the God that protects us and watches over us and sends us rain allowing for bountiful harvests as long as we obey him. But how much of the Old Testament is about the Children of Israel hedging their bets, offering sacrifices to the Gods (or gods) of other tribal peoples in the region? And that’s a bad thing, and you really really shouldn’t do it, and if you don’t watch out Elijah will ask God, Yahweh, to smite the priests of Baal. Which He will totally do.

That’s not a message we need anymore. I suppose you could say that we worship idols of our own, cars and fancy houses and big bank accounts and stock portfolios and our favorite sports teams. And we shouldn’t and lessons saying so are still apropos. Our needs today, though, are not the needs of a tribal desert people, living hand to mouth, enemies everywhere, desperate to establish an identity, one good drought away from catastrophe. We’re rich. We also have astonishing technological capabilities. The brotherhood of man isn’t just a stirring rhetorical trope; we can instantly see and communicate with people anywhere in the world. We’re drowning in information. We need less tribalism, not more. We need to take care of the poor among us, mostly those in Asia and Africa. It actually makes sense to put everyone in Ephraim; we need to think that way now, as all members of a single race, the human race. Talks about ‘the House of Israel’ or ‘the Abrahamic covenant’ just don’t resonate anymore, nor should they. I’m not saying those are doctrines we should discard. I’m saying those are doctrines we have, de facto, discarded. And I don’t miss them, and think we’re better off without them. Right?

Nearly forty years ago, I got my patriarchal blessing. I loved it. I still reread it from time to time. I still find it inspirational. But it doesn’t mention my lineage. I could get that fixed easily enough, but I’ve never bothered, because I just flat don’t care.  I mean, it’s just Ephraim, right? Like everyone else’s. We’re all brothers and sisters, in other words. Yay for that.

 

Language, liberals and conservatives

This post is, frankly, poorly thought-through. I feel like I’m reaching for something here. But I have been thinking a lot about recent Supreme Court decisions, Obergefell v. Hodges and King v. Burwell, and the vitriolic responses to the two majority decisions. And the re-definition of marriage. And the age of the earth. And language. Please bear with me.

It seems possible to me that one of the differences between liberals and conservatives may have to do with issues of language.  Both sides use the same rhetorical devices; both sides love anecdotal evidence and slippery-slope arguments and straw men, though I do think conservatives like arguments from authority more than liberals do. But it’s more fundamental than that. What is language? How does it function? What do words mean? And so I ask myself this: is it possible that a defining characteristic of conservatism is the idea that there exists a one-to-one correlation between word and meaning, that words are fixed in their meaning, that a word or sentence or phrase means what it means, and not anything else? And that liberals understand language more fluidly?

Follow me here. In King v. Burwell, the plaintiffs insisted that a plain reading of a single sentence in the Affordable Care Act meant something specific. Here’s the ever-invaluable SCOTUSblog on the subject:

Seizing on language buried in the complex formula for calculating the subsidy amount, the plaintiffs argued that subsidies were available only for plans purchased on “an Exchange established by the State.

Justice Scalia’s dissent insisted that the word ‘State’ meant ‘state,’ one of the 50 states in the United States, not anything else. The majority’s interpretation of this passage, which made the the Secretary of Health and Human Services responsible for administering subsidies, led to Justice Scalia retorting “state means state. The Secretary of Heath and Human Services is not a state.” But as Nicholas Bagley of SCOTUSblog put it, the majority’s decision was “an enormous victory for common sense in statutory interpretation.” The point of the law was to make health care more widely available. The means to accomplish that was by using subsidies. So obviously Congress can’t have meant to provide subsidies only for people who purchased health insurance on a state exchange. Congress can’t have intended, for some odd reason, not to make them available to people who were insured through a federal exchange. In context, the phrase ‘established by the state’ has to have meant something other than ‘through a state exchange.’ ‘State’ can, for example, mean ‘nation.’ Justice Roberts’ decision quite properly chided Congress for ‘inartful drafting.’  But context matters. Unpacking the meaning of a phrase has to take into account many factors.

That’s exhibit A. On to marriage equality. One of the main objections to Obergefell by conservatives is that the Court majority (‘five unelected lawyers’) ended up ‘redefining marriage.’ And that’s certainly what it did. What I can’t figure out is why it matters. Marriage has been legally redefined many times, and usually for the better, in the direction of greater equality.

More to the point, though, is this: marriages are defined by married couples. My marriage is defined by many factors. We’ve been together for 34 years; we have long-standing habits and traditions which we rely on. We’re both pretty funny, and humor is an important part of our marriage. I like to cook more than she does. She’s more likely to think of ways to redecorate our home. I can think of a million other compromises that define who we are.

There’s a family down the street where the wife is an accomplished cyclist. They define their marriage, in part, by supporting her cycling career and the various races in which she participates. Another couple who used to live across the street, the husband played golf competitively. So that, in part, defined their marriage. His golfing had no effect whatever on my marriage, nor did it impact the cycling family’s marriage. My son and his wife define their marriage, in part, by trying new things all the time. Like, there was an airshow in their community; they went to see it. They attended a college hockey game. They went to a bluegrass festival. They like that; they enjoy being adventurous. I think that’s awesome. It also doesn’t have any effect on anyone but them.

Reading the ‘redefining marriage’ rhetoric, it sounds as though people believe that the word ‘marriage’ is only defined one way, and that defining it other ways will, I don’t know, open up some massive cosmic rift, destroying our society. Words have meaning, and words have power, but language is much more fluid than we tend to think.

Going on. Why do some Mormons believe that the earth is 6000 years old? Here’s why: Doctrine and Covenants, 77: 6-7:

Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence. Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed? A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.

Joseph Fielding Smith took this to mean that that earth is exactly 6000 years old, and that any understanding to the contrary was apostate. Elder Bruce R. McConkie thought so too. But nobody really thinks that anymore, I don’t think. I mean, even apologetic groups admit that the phrase ‘a thousand years’ could mean exactly 1000 years, or it could, and probably did, mean ‘a really really long time.’ Again, we see a situation where well known conservative advocates insist on a literal understanding of certain words or phrases. And liberals think language is more about context and shifting meanings.

A dictionary is not, you know, prescriptive. It has no force of law. It’s a monument to the state of the language in the era in which it was compiled. And the marvelous flexibility of English can be found in the inventiveness and imagination of its users. Word.

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.