A Letter From Boyd K. Packer, Artist

PackerArt 3Besides being a bold firebrand of an apostle, the recently departed Boyd K. Packer was also an accomplished folk artist.

Ten years ago, my family and I toured the Church History and Art Museum in Salt Lake City.  One of the exhibits was of the painting and wood carvings Elder Packer had done throughout his life.  I was struck by how excellent they were, particularly the wood carvings of small animals and birds; clearly the result of careful real-life observation and exquisite technical skill.  (An example of his work is seen to the left.)

Later, I wrote him a letter thanking him for some talks he’d given and complimenting him on his art, especially the wood carvings.

He replied in a letter dated August 17, 2005.  One paragraph reads: “I am glad you enjoyed the museum visit.  That seems like another life as the years have moved on.  Because of causes incident to age, I am not able to do that fine work anymore.”

The pathos of those statements also struck me.  I noted that he didn’t blame his lack of recent art on the demands of his ministry, but only on the realities of advancing age.  (In retrospect, it’s inspiring that despite “causes incident to age,” he still maintained a vigorous and productive global ministry for another decade after writing that letter!)

Clearly, though, he loved those carvings and it hurt to not be able to do them anymore.  At least in his golden years he had all those great achievements to look back on, and the memory of the feeling of creating them in the first place.

Truly, this was a life deeply and well lived.

More examples of his art can be seen here and here.

Leo Tolstoy on Naive Liberals

Today I read chapter 10 in Part V of War and Peace.  Our hero, Pierre, having recently become enlightened, has set out to reform his estates accordingly.  He enacts some progressive ideas and then tours the area to see the results:

 

The southern spring, the comfortable rapid traveling in a Vienna carriage, and the solitude of the road, all had a gladdening effect on Pierre. The estates he had not before visited were each more picturesque than the other; the serfs everywhere seemed thriving and touchingly grateful for the benefits conferred on them. Everywhere were receptions, which though they embarrassed Pierre awakened a joyful feeling in the depth of his heart. In one place the peasants presented him with bread and salt and an icon of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, asking permission, as a mark of their gratitude for the benefits he had conferred on them, to build a new chantry to the church at their own expense in honor of Peter and Paul, his patron saints. In another place the women with infants in arms met him to thank him for releasing them from hard work. On a third estate the priest, bearing a cross, came to meet him surrounded by children whom, by the count’s generosity, he was instructing in reading, writing, and religion. On all his estates Pierre saw with his own eyes brick buildings erected or in course of erection, all on one plan, for hospitals, schools, and almshouses, which were soon to be opened. Everywhere he saw the stewards’ accounts, according to which the serfs’ manorial labor had been diminished, and heard the touching thanks of deputations of serfs in their full-skirted blue coats.

What Pierre did not know was that the place where they presented him with bread and salt and wished to build a chantry in honor of Peter and Paul was a market village where a fair was held on St. Peter’s day, and that the richest peasants (who formed the deputation) had begun the chantry long before, but that nine tenths of the peasants in that villages were in a state of the greatest poverty. He did not know that since the nursing mothers were no longer sent to work on his land, they did still harder work on their own land. He did not know that the priest who met him with the cross oppressed the peasants by his exactions, and that the pupils’ parents wept at having to let him take their children and secured their release by heavy payments. He did not know that the brick buildings, built to plan, were being built by serfs whose manorial labor was thus increased, though lessened on paper. He did not know that where the steward had shown him in the accounts that the serfs’ payments had been diminished by a third, their obligatory manorial work had been increased by a half. And so Pierre was delighted with his visit to his estates and quite recovered the philanthropic mood in which he had left Petersburg, and wrote enthusiastic letters to his “brother-instructor” as he called the Grand Master.

“How easy it is, how little effort it needs, to do so much good,” thought Pierre, “and how little attention we pay to it!”

He was pleased at the gratitude he received, but felt abashed at receiving it. This gratitude reminded him of how much more he might do for these simple, kindly people.

Heh.  And thus we see that human nature will conspire to constipate civic charity.  I also like Tolstoy’s clear message that one of the monkey wrenches in Pierre’s plan is the corruption of bureaucratic middle managers, who exist to perpetuate their own comfort.  It was ever thus, and thus always shall be.

Yet again, the Law of Unintended Consequences in action.  Truly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Hospital Humor

My 86-year-old father has been in the hospital for the last week.  He’s stable and comfortable, but will likely be there for a while.

Spirits are relatively high, though.  When I went in on Saturday, two nurses were changing his linens, meaning his legs were left bare for a bit.  “We’ll cover you back up,” one said.  My dad’s reply was, “Just be sure to cover me with a blanket, not dirt.”

Ladies and gentlemen: my dad.

When I dropped in after work yesterday, he was asleep, so I left a note: I took a bit of toilet paper and the marker from the nurse’s whiteboard in the room, and wrote: “This man needs 50 cc’s of BEER…stat!”  I scribbled on the bottom (because doctors have bad handwriting! Ha ha!) and left it on the whiteboard for him to get a chuckle out of.

A nurse saw it first and took it seriously.  She asked the doctor about it (and here I learned that the random number I’d picked–50 cc’s–is only about two ounces), and the doctor said, “I didn’t write it, but go ahead and let him have some; it won’t hurt.”

But alas, the old guy still hasn’t gotten any.  Sorry, Dad.  I tried.

On a more curious note, is it common for doctors to write emergency prescriptions for beer in blue marker on toilet paper and leave them hanging in patients’ rooms?  I had no idea I was perpetrating such a credible hoax.

One Lesson From South Carolina

This week I’ve read a lot from both sides of the political spectrum about the shooting in South Carolina, and one lesson has become clear: never trust any commentary or report that reduces anything to a single cause, a single effect, or a single meaning.

Life is more complicated than that.  Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to sell you on easy ideology.  If we’re ever serious about some issue, we have to approach it from all the messy angles, even the ones that challenge our worldviews.

Adam and Eve and Evolution: Some Theories

This is a subject of perennial interest and controversy, isn’t it?  Sometimes we even hear of people having trials of faith because of apparent conflicts between scriptural history and scientific knowledge.  I thought I’d share a few of my own ideas on reconciling the two, on the off chance that they may be interesting and helpful to anyone.

Of course, these are only theories.  They’re not necessarily true.  I don’t even necessarily believe them.  I do, however, find comfort in the idea that these ideas exist, and could be true.  Still, if any authorized leader clearly refuted any or all of my ideas here, I’d immediately and gladly give them up.

 

ADAM & EVE & EVOLUTION

I’ve never understood the antipathy some have towards evolution, especially from Latter-day Saints, as a close reading of Abraham 4 practically demands something like evolution.

There’s an old rhetorical question about whether or not Adam had a belly button.  I’d say that he did because, though leaders as recent as Jeffrey R. Holland have affirmed that there was a literal Adam, the scriptural account of him being created from the dust and then having a spirit put into him leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Understanding that all life forms have a spirit in them, I wonder if the following might be accurate.  Here is a chart that crudely illustrates what I think may have happened (red lines indicate marriages, green lines indicate children).  Basically, humans may have evolved to the point where, when the time was right, two were chosen to be the first to have not just any spirit, but spirits that were children of our Heavenly Father.

 

Adam & Eve

 

Those two then married and had children.  Those children likewise, of course, had divine spirits, but they married others who did not.  The children of those unions would have one parent descended from Adam and Eve (their grandparents), and one parent not, but those children could also have inherited divine spirits.

Marriage and breeding proceeded such that, eventually, all humans could count Adam and Eve as their direct ancestors.

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Racism in the Constitution?

The most recent issue of Square Two featured this article, which included this line: “And don’t forget that the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being.”

I wrote them this message:

Re: “the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being.”  This is just false.
Article I, Section 2 is about counting the population to determine how many representatives we get in government, which is why we have the census every ten years. That count was to enumerate “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” meaning slaves. Free blacks were counted as a whole, which you fail to mention, and which counters the racist assertion implied in your piece.
 
That language isn’t meant to demean someone’s worth as a human being, but merely to reduce the total count. The strength of a state’s presence in government, in the House of Representatives, is determined by this count. This is why my state of Nevada has gained a third and then a fourth new representative thanks to the last two census counts.
Northern states didn’t want slaves counted at all—that would keep the South from gaining more of a voice at the federal level; Southern states wanted them counted as a whole. The point of the three-fifths compromise was to reduce the South’s power.
Ironically, for those who see this part of the Constitution as racist, this rule did what it was supposed to do: it contributed to the eventual end of slavery.

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“Primary Education of the Camiroi”

XTRTRRSTRB1988One of my favorite science fiction stories is R.A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi.”  I remember reading it in the Issac Asimov-edited anthology Extraterrestrials at the old Charleston Heights library in the late 1980’s.  I loved how weird and silly it was–I’d never read anything quite like it.

Reading it again now on Google Books, I see it as a pretty biting satire of an American education system that even by the late 60’s, when the story was first published, was already showing cracks.  I especially loved the schema for the alien curriculum near the end, which I’ve copied below.  In fact, I think this story helped influence young me in my decision to become a teacher.

I really think we should consider some of the “modest proposals” in this story.  I would have loved having a class in “laser religion” as a high school freshmen.

My grade for this story now, nearly 30 years after first reading it?

A+

Lafferty 1 Lafferty 2 Lafferty 3 Lafferty 4 Lafferty 5

12 Required Readings For the Human Race

Last month I mentioned on Facebook that I’d feel satisfied with my life if, in the future, there’s a library named after me.  This prompted someone to ask what books would be the first on the shelves, which would be the books I’d recommend reading most.

I’ve been thinking about it: what would the core of that collection be?  Not my own desert island books, necessarily, but the ones I think that all other people would enjoy the most and derive the most value from.

I decided to pick the twelve categories most important to me, and pick one for each.  They are all absolutely wonderful, and I think they would meet that criteria above: they are important, accessible, and worthwhile.  Here they are. in alphabetical order by category:

Children’s: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

A masterful allegory that delights and inspires.  Fun, short, cute, and genuinely powerful.

History: Heroes of History, Will Durant

Durant’s choices for figures to honor is amazing enough, but the way he tells their life stories is one of a kind in its sheer beauty and power.  An amazing classic.

Humor: Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse

There are so many funny books I’d want people to read, but the Jeeves and Wooster stories have a special place, and everyone should try them.  There’s just nothing else out there like these.  Truly, a singular joy.  Really, anything by Wodehouse would be good here.

Literature (classic): Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

And there are so many more classics than humorous titles I’d love to share!  But this one has to take the cake.  From the profoundly brooding tone, which no one else has touched in terms of sheer stark glory, to the generational saga of ruin and redemption, to the narrative ingenuity of it all (at one point, there’s a story within a story within a story, all told in distinct and vividly arresting voices), Wuthering Heights has the best of it all.

I don’t care it if supposedly inspires Twilight.  It’s still awesome, and I still love it.

Literature (contemporary): Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I don’t think any work of the last generation has impressed me or touched me as truly as this one did.  It can only be recommended in breathless tropes: a soaring, searing paen to the human spirit, majestic in its earthy, folk tradition.

Mystery: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

A long, detailed historical murder mystery that deftly weaves fact and fiction.  So mysterious that for much of the time, you don’t even know it’s a mystery, until the threads all start coming together.  One of those very long books that you’ll wish was ten times longer.

Politics: The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet

Mamet’s explication of his political conversion and the subsequent re-evaluation of the various values underpinning our current ideologies is perfect.  Nobody has explained it all better.

Religion (LDS): The Book of Mormon

Nothing better shares the vitality and depth of this faith than its foundational text itself.  Often plain and prosaic on the surface, it nonetheless offers a unique epic narrative, with revolutionary (and surprisingly humanistic) theology.  Its constant, frankly moving calls to charitable reformation are couched in rhetoric that frequently evolves its approach, and thus repeatedly registers deep in the universal psyche.  A journey not to be missed, or taken casually.

Religion (non-LDS): Essential Writings, Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and one of the most wonderful personalities I’ve ever met on paper.  I’ve read plenty of metaphysical shysters, but this man knows it and means it.  His words are soothing and moving in the best and most lovely of ways.  A treat for the soul–pure joy.

Science Fiction/Fantasy: Dune, Frank Herbert

Yes, everyone knows of this one, but I think fewer have actually read it than should.  Its achievement is so different from what we’re already used to just two generations later: a sweeping, immersive creation that never panders to stale conventions.  Indeed, there are no robots or explicit space travel in its hundreds of pages of gorgeously sprawling sci-fi spectacle.  Everybody really should read this.

Self-Improvement: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey

I still read a lot of this genre–I’ve found a lot to like in Laura Vanderkam and Gretchen Rubin in recent years–but just as every action movie in the last quarter century or so seems to be a copy of Die Hard, every self-help manual is derivative of The 7 Habits.  It might be too this or too that, but it does have the virtue of working.  You want to actually live without regrets and do that whole bucket list?  Start here.

Travel: Charles Kurault’s America, Charles Kurault

A homely work by a calm old man, this is still the best thing I’ve read about the people and places all around our amazing land.  Kurault has a gift for taking you with him and making you experience all five senses’ worth of the trip.  I’d love to follow his footsteps on this one someday.

William Faulkner and the Book of Mormon

I recently shared with some classes the acceptance speeches of great American authors who had won the Nobel Prize in literature.  I’m always struck by William Faulkner‘s declaration that:

The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

It reminds me so precisely of this statement from Moroni at the end of the Book of Mormon:

give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

Another reminder that the greatest literary achievements tend to admit the inherent darkness of existence, because only then can we actually rise above it.

An Open Letter To Liberals About Understanding Conservatives

Dear Liberals:

Yesterday I heard someone make some sweeping, derogatory generalizations about conservatives.  These comments received a positive reception from others nearby.  The speaker derided conservatives for “never wanting to innovate or change.”

Basically, the comments were the same stereotypes that conservatives are bludgeoned with every day.

As an educator and a conservative myself, this saddened me. I was reminded of the research that shows that conservatives understand liberal ideas far better than liberals understand conservative ideas.  It’s a natural situation these days that people would find themselves ignorant of political beliefs that disagree with what’s most popular, but I still think it’s a shame and I’d like to help correct it.

I don’t want to discuss our differences in terms of hot-button issues.  Ultimately, our opposing stances on both controversial and mundane topics stem not from some arbitrary decision to take alternate sides, but from the foundational values that animate our respective worldviews.

Policy positions aren’t important.  Permanent principles are.

For a primer on conservative principles, one could do worse than this list by Russell Kirk.  He explains a great set of principles that should be eye opening to anyone.

As a brief introduction, though, just think about the term conservative.  Our highest value is right there: conservation.  “To conserve” means “to save, to protect, or to keep.”  So what are conservatives trying to conserve?

Whatever has been best in the civilizations of history.  Whatever has been proven effective by experience.  Whatever, finally, serves to ennoble and empower life.

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Mothers, Mormons, and Defending the Family

On this Mothers’ Day, I’m reminded of a kerfuffle after the last General Women’s Meeting of the LDS Church, where the leader of our faith’s women around the world urged us to “defend the family.”  This was greeted by some ongoing snarking from the faithless fringe online, who sarcastically queried what exactly is attacking the family in the first place.

Lo and behold, in the last week, a couple of news outlets have caught wind of some teachings by intellectual leaders on the Left which include such gems as these:

“One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.”

         –“Abolish the Family? Or Just Hobble Parents So They Don’t Give Kids ‘Unfair’ Advantages?

“I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”

         –“Inequality warriors vs. the family and the individual

Yes, the hostility towards the family is real.  Yes, it needs to be vocally and actively defended in the public sphere.  Yes, we Latter-day Saints have a direct imperative to be at the forefront of this.

And all of those clichéd feel-good bromides about motherhood that we hear in church about mothers being the “guardians of the hearth,” or their teachings to children having “far reaching affects on politics, history, and society,” or that Satan fears mothers because “those who rock the cradle can rock his earthly empire?”

Those are all true.  Experience shows it.  Faith proves it.  Just watching world events unfold offers abundant testimony that we need strong mothers, strong fathers, and strong homes more than ever.

[On an unrelated note, both of the articles linked above compare the leftist remarks in question to one of my favorite science fiction stories–highly recommended to all who want to better understand the sour spirit of these times.]

Muslims, Mormons, and Freedom of Speech

Muslims reverence and honor Muhammad as God’s most special prophet.  As a Mormon, I understand that.  While I and other Latter-day Saints share their dedication to following a prophet, there is absolutely no amount of obscene libel or slander that could ever justify violence in the defense of that reverence.

I believe in God, and I also believe in the marketplace of ideas.  I believe that to truly serve the first, we must preserve the second.

To put it another way: if there were some cabal of fundamentalist Mormons who started assassinating anyone involved in the Book of Mormon Broadway musical, I would immediately, publicly, and totally take the side of the play.  There would be no hesitation, no caveats, no excuses about how the killers were “provoked,” no aggrieved pleas for any “respect” that would equal censorship.

The old saying of Voltaire’s, the one about not agreeing with what one says, but defending to the death their right to say it, may be apocryphal, but it is nonetheless a cornerstone value of Western civilization.  Anyone outside of that civilization must know that, as one of our primary values, that must be respected, and if our value comes into direct conflict with anyone else’s value, we will fight to defend it.

And those of us who are inside of this civilization must actually be willing to do that.

Otherwise, we will lose that freedom which has served us so well for so long.

An Important Book About the Book of Mormon

downloadI’ve been reading Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon again.  It does the Book of Mormon a great service: it examines that text with an eye towards figuring out how it does what it tries to do.

He analyzes how each of the book’s three main voices–Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni–organize and present their thoughts, with careful conclusions drawn from close study of those evident agendas.

Here is a brief summary of the largest lessons:

Mormon and Moroni are very close in the narrative—father and son—but their editorial approaches are radically different.

Mormon demonstrates the reality of Christian doctrine by presenting a factual, historically sourced record with very light editorial intrusion.

Moroni demonstrates the reality of Christian doctrine by presenting a didactic, spiritually plaintive record with very heavy editorial intrusion.

Nephi, meanwhile, is largely content to preach directly from scripture and base his attendant remarks primarily on those texts.

Indeed, though Hardy never uses these exact formulas, his book suggests that the three narrators’ messages could be summarized as follows:

Nephi: come to Jesus by studying the scriptures

Mormon: come to Jesus by following the prophets

Moroni: come to Jesus by seeking the Spirit

How I Became A Conservative

My journey through college was the opposite of the typical one: I entered as a liberal and left as a conservative.

I started in the fall of 1996, which is when I saw Spike Lee’s movie Get on the Bus on opening night, as well as when I arrived two hours early to a rally so I could be in the front of the audience to see Hillary Clinton campaign for her husband’s reelection.

A lot of big things brought about my evolution: becoming a father, reading more widely and deeply than ever before, getting in the habit of going to church regularly, starting to work with young people as a teacher in training and thereby seeing the world without the one-dimensional rose-colored glasses provided by the youth-oriented media culture that had made me a young liberal in the first place.

But one small incident stands out as maybe more formative than anything else.

In class one day, a discussion went off topic and got into something political.  I wasn’t part of the debate: on one side was a group of several frat guys and on the other was one straight arrow.

The frat guys would usually come into class bragging about their beer-fueled hedonistic adventures, in a cloud of high-fives and braying laughter.  The other guy was a bit of a preppie stiff, I thought, so I tended to sit by the frat boys and hang on their stories.

From random comments here and there, it was clear that the frat boys were on board with all the liberal dogma of the times.  The other guy didn’t get into it much, but he clearly felt differently.

I only remember them having a direct, full exchange of ideas that one time.  Actually, it wasn’t much of an exchange: the frat pack parroted out some blithe liberal cliche or another, directed towards the square who dressed nicely and worked harder, and he responded politely but firmly with ideas and evidence to the contrary.  The frat gang tried to rebut him and save face, but the debate was over almost as soon as it began.  They were soon reduced to smirking, rolling their eyes, and shaking their heads: such was the strength of their argument.

The teacher who had allowed and watched this bit of conversation–I think we’d all seen it coming for a while–thinned out the tension by smiling and saying to the conservative kid, “Wow, you really know your facts.”  His quiet but casual reply: “I have to.”

I saw the truth of what he meant.  There it was, right in front of me: liberal gangs tended to jump on shallow bandwagons and berate those who didn’t conform.  It was the conservative minority who were the real rebels, and who really had the weight of reason on their side.

Nearly two decades of study and experience have borne that observation out.

I never got to know that guy well, and I’ve long since forgotten his name, but he’s one of my heroes: he stood up against bullies and countered their ignorance with brilliance.  I can only hope to someday inspire anyone like he enlightened me.