Friday, December 21, 2012

Merry Christmas, you guys!

You guys!  I love you all!  Thanks for reading this blog!  It's been online for a little over four years now, and it's been a pleasure to write it.

I hope your Christmastimez are so great this year!  Eat some CANDY!

For your gift this year, I offer you a sneak-peek at some posts I plan on writing in the future (some of which I've started, others I'm almost done with, and others still I haven't even touched):

- The problem with Nephi's narrative.
- What is the "face of Mormonism?"
- Online piracy vs. theft.
- Positionality, economic/military escalation, and Batman.
- Zion and Babylon.
- An interview with a gay Mormon at BYU.  [This isn't just idle speculation that one day I'll possibly interview someone - I've actually been contacted by a stranger who wants me to interview him.  He was impressed with how I've touched on the general subject in my posts, specifically in "The sanctity and profanity of marriage."]
- Depression.
- Modesty, gender roles, sexism, and the "stewardship of proximity."

So, um... get excited!  Yes, I know that most of those are Mormon topics, and I'm sorry if you are hoping for this blog to expand its scope a little bit.  I will!  I promise, I will.  But the LDS religion is a central part of who I am, as is looking carefully (even critically, sometimes) at Mormon culture and at the theological implications of what Joseph Smith gave the world from 1820 to 1844.  So, because it's so central to who I am, it is understandably central to how I write, and what I spend my free time thinking and writing about.

[A side note:  as soon as I finally get the ball rolling on that standalone "Zion In Babylon" blog, as discussed in my "Amen" piece, this blog here will of course become significantly less Mormon-y.]

I am a Christian, and I believe that there is Truth to be found via a relationship with God.  I have discovered that relationship - subjectively, personally, and intensely - through the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Anyway, merry Christmas, everyone.  Let us celebrate the gift of God's Son - and all that implies - together, despite our theological/cultural/socioeconomic differences.  I know some of you reading this do not believe in God.  And that's fine.  Let's celebrate together, anyway.  Because, even though we will undoubtedly experience this season in different ways, candy is still delicious, AM I RIGHT?  So let's all agree that the best thing for you to do is this:  go find somebody to keep you warm this holiday season and let them know how important they are to you, as you snuggle up to them eating candy and watching "Die Hard."

Love y'all.  Again, thank you for reading.  Your comments keep me blogging (and my blogging keeps me going).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Humanization of the Other.

[First, apologies to anyone who's using Google Reader.  You may have noticed an incomplete version of this post appeared on accident earlier today.  For some reason I can delete the post on my blog but it is still in your Google Reader.  Here is the finished version!]

Okay, let me start by telling you a story about an old friend of mine named Jesse.  I have known Jesse for about twelve or thirteen years, but we haven't been in contact very much in the past six or seven.

About two or three years ago, Jesse came to town to visit his brother.  He went to my congregation for church and we chatted and caught up a little bit.  At one point during the church meeting, I made some kind of immature disparaging joke about the speaker's voice.  My remark was not too offensive, but it certainly wasn't Christlike.

Jesse shrugged.  "People are people," he said.

My friend Jesse doesn't know it, but that sentence changed my life.  It's become sort of a motto to me.  See, here I was making sarcastic comments about another human being, and why?  Not because I'm a bad person, but because I didn't humanize the Other.  Because when I heard a guy with a funny voice, he became a stock character - a dimensionless, expressionless, emotionless, experienceless being whose existence was defined solely by his entertainment value.  Not a genuinely unique, wholly other creature whose experience of the universe is unlike mine in ways I can barely fathom.  I didn't have empathy for him.

Maybe empathy is the key to virtue.  Maybe the key is to realize, as Jesse pointed out, that "people are people."

If you've been reading my blog for a little while, you may have seen this theme re-emerge over and over again in my musings.  I've written about the dehumanizing effects of technology, about the dehumanizing effects of pornography, about the dehumanizing effects of religious dogmatism, and - most recently - about the dehumanizing effects of political rigidity.  It's probably my biggest pet topic, my soapbox of choice:  we oversimplify the world and its inhabitants, and we need to stop.

This theme keeps coming back to my mind because I believe if we all were to humanize the Other, it would literally change the world.  C. S. Lewis said that if we were to see each other's true, infinite potentials (as eternal beings, we are each destined to become either godlike or devilish), then we'd treat each other differently.  I'd like to adapt that claim and suggest, as Nietzsche perhaps might, that we needn't look to the distant and supernatural future to find existential meaning in our (or in one another's) lives:  we can look to the present!  It certainly requires less imagination.

You see, regardless of the afterlife, we are all important.

My claims rely somewhat on a theological stance I took in an earlier post about God.  I argued that God is not a micro-manager, and that we are legitimately co-actors with Him in this universe.  God cooperates with us to try to make our world the best place possible.  Therefore He isn't omniresponsible for evil things happening, because part of His plan is for each of us to have genuine agency, which means that we make genuine choices given genuine possibilities.

Given this theological assumption, we are not scripted actors on a stage, playing out a predetermined plot, reciting lines that have already been written.  Instead, we are improvisational actors!  God is still the director, but our stories have not been told already.  We are telling them right now.

Why does this matter?  Because it means that everyone that "we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit," everyone we even just see in passing, is writing their story right now.  They are determining their future.  In a sense, they are creating the universe, every day!  They are not stock characters or "extras" in your story.  They are the main characters in their own!

When I walked home from campus the other day, I counted how many people I passed by.  The final number was something like 75.  Think about those 75 people.  You'll probably walk by 75 people sometime soon, too.  Maybe one has fallen in love for the first time; maybe two just found out they're going to be parents; maybe three are about to interview for their dream job.  And on the other hand, maybe one thought about suicide this month; maybe two got in an argument this morning and told each other to go to hell; maybe three are addicted to pornography.

Maybe you walked by someone for whom today is literally the best, the worst, or the last day of their life!  Or maybe you walked by someone who just lost a father, a sister, or a child in a tragic accident.  Maybe you walked by a girl who is so stressed about school that she is going to drop out, and she doesn't know how to tell her parents.  Or a guy who has been struggling with whether or not to "come out" and tell the people he loves that he is homosexual.  Or a couple who are struggling financially.  Or a couple who are going through divorce.

You get the point, right?  Everywhere you go, you are the "extra" in dozens and dozens of private, autobiographical films.  Perhaps there aren't any cameras, but there are narratives nonetheless.  Everyone is telling a unique story, with highs and lows, with inspiring moments and devastating moments, with existential crises and moments of clarity.

Anything we can do to humanize the Other, to bring people to this realization more often and more effectively, will change the world.  I am saying this without hyperbole.  This is what it's all about.  This is what poetry and art are for; this is what postmodern psychology (like Viktor Fankl's "Man's Search for Meaning") is for; this is what novels are for.  I'd even argue that this is what films are for.  That isn't to say that all films accomplish this end.  But the best ones aim to.

Films like "Ray" (about Ray Charles) or "Walk The Line" (about Johnny Cash), for example, take the lives of famous musicians and try to bring them down from the pedestal of celebrity.  They refuse to let us idolize, deify, or demonize famous people, insisting instead that we feel their human sufferings vicariously.  The other day I had a long conversation with some friends about "Ray" and what does or doesn't make it worth watching.  Let's be honest:  it's hard to watch!  It has a lot of heavy subject matter, and it's often unpleasant!  But I believe bio-pics about unpleasant lives like that are worth watching because they force us to recognize people behind tabloid-headline oversimplifications (think of Michael Jackson, and what comes to mind?  The scandal of perverted rumors and lawsuits?  The glory of his iconic "King of Pop" status?  Either way, you don't think of a human being who - just like you or I - tried to get through life as best he could.  That's why we need films like "This Is It")!  But it's not just celebrity bio-pics or documentaries that do this; in essence, this is an inherent function and purpose of storytelling in general.  Part of why we tell stories is to humanize the Other:  to force our audience to recognize that the person they reduce to a caricature is actually a soul - with all the complexities and imperfections that implies.  Francis Ford Coppolla filmed "The Godfather" not to glorify a life of violence and crime, but to show that the people who live those lives, and make those choices, are humans, too - not descriptions or objects, but people!  Remember, the world is not a scripted play with Good Guys and Bad Guys (indeed, there's no such thing as a good guy or a bad guy!). The world is a community of souls.

I've just used up far too much space trying to articulate what my friend Jesse said the last time I saw him, because I have a tendency to over-explain and over-analyze.  It will be easy for you to forget the 1,300 words you just read; I will not blame you if you do.  But please, try to remember at least these three:

"People are people."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The sanctity and profanity of marriage.

Here is a crash course in philosophy of language:  words are crazy!  We've got questions, man.  Questions like, "how can two words mean the same thing," or "how can one word mean two different things?"  These are the questions we ask when analyzing how language actually works, and how people are able to use words (and phrases) to communicate thoughts with one another.

And when we have political controversies to deal with, those questions become particularly pertinent.  Often the problem is that two participants of an argument define a term in different ways, and neither wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other.  Each assumes that the meaning they use is the "right" one, the objectively true meaning.  But what is meaning?  Is it really an objective thing?  How can you have meaning without words, and how can you have words without people?  And how can you have people - people whose observations and experiences vary - without subjectivity?

Of course there is subjectivity in meaning (I am NOT saying that all meaning is subjective!  Complete relativism is silly and self-contradictory!  All I am saying is that there is at least a subjective aspect to meaning).  For example, let's say I encountered you walking down the street and I said, "hey, I got in a fight with John yesterday."  What do I mean by "John"?  Certainly for the ensuing conversation to make sense, we both have to be referring to the same person, named John, in the real world.  But there's more to meaning than mere reference - we may have the same referent but have entirely different relationships with the referring word (or name).  This means that in one sense, we both know who "John" is - in a shared, objective kind of way - but in another sense, "John" is different to me than he is to you.  We define him subjectively.  To me, maybe he's just a neighbor; to you, maybe he's a coworker, or an enemy, or a lover.  If we can't understand each others' interpretations of every word in every sentence, we run the risk of misunderstanding each other.

You see, in this example, we may seem to be on the same page, but we may have entirely different ideas and biases going into the conversation.  And the further that conversation progresses (and the more complicated its assumptions and arguments get), the further we may stray from one another.  Eventually, I might walk away with wholly incorrect interpretations of what you wanted to say, and vice versa.  It's not inevitable, but it's possible.  This happens every day! It is one of the necessary risks of using language to convey ideas (remember, language is just a set of symbols).  We can't get around it.  Until we figure out how to do that Vulcan mind-meld thing, that is.

Okay.  Crash course over.  Let's talk about gay marriage.

Four disclaimers:
  1. This isn't a post about homosexuality in general.
  2. This isn't a post about nature versus nurture, about whether people are born gay or not, or about the nature of agency in the context of sexual orientation.
  3. This isn't a post about the relationship between sexuality and the Gospel.
  4. This isn't a post about the short-term or long-term sociological changes that the gay rights movement are introducing to the world, positive or negative. 
Those are all topics for another day, folks!

All I aim to accomplish with this post is show you how complicated the gay marriage issue is, because I believe it is more complicated than most people on both sides are willing to admit.

I believe that "marriage" is one of those tricky words that can mean different things to different people.  And because we interpret it so variously, we get into fights about it.  Perhaps those fights could be resolved, or at least calmed down, if we tried to look at the word less didactically?  In other words, maybe if "marriage" means one thing to me and another thing to you, neither of us are wrong.

Now we face the question of what marriage means, subjectively and objectively.  What are the aspects of its definition that are flexible, if any? And what are the aspects that are absolute, if any?

To the conservative right, marriage is a religious rite, something sacred that God instituted and defined.  Therefore, it's profane to try to change the definition that God Himself decreed.  To the liberal left, marriage is a secular ceremony, something that belongs to the people, not to God.  Therefore, it's unjust to try to prohibit some citizens from enjoying it while permitting others.

The problem isn't just that these two sides have different definitions of the word.  The problem is that neither wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other.  We have an unfortunate habit in political discourse to demonize each other.  The conservative right wants to say "those liberals are trying to defy my God!"  And the liberal left wants to say "those conservatives are trying to take my rights!"  Both of these accusations are absurd.  I'm sorry.  They're absurd!  No one is as much of a bully as you think they are.  Drop the "us and them" mentality and try to understand your opponent.  This is complicated.

Gay people who want to get married are not trying to defy God.  I can't say this emphatically enough.  There aren't gay people out there who are thinking, "oh man, I can't wait to get married to my same-gender partner so I can bring the wrath of the Almighty upon this nation.  Hellfire and rainbows.  That'll show 'em."  No one is thinking that!  That is not a thing that anyone is thinking.

"So, what do they want?"  You ask.  "Why can't they be happy with just calling it a 'civil union' and leaving our religious word alone?"  And this is where philosophy of language comes in:  because believe it or not, "marriage" isn't just a sacred word to straight people.  It's sacred to gay people, too.  They want to show the world how committed they are to each other.  And they want to do it with the word that we've collectively decided on, as a society.  A word that means commitment.  A word that means union.  A word that means fidelity, loyalty, relationship.  That word is "marriage," and it's very, very important.  How dare you tell people they can't care about that word unless they believe in your God.

On the other hand, to the gay rights activists:  religious people are not trying to take your rights away.  I can't say this emphatically enough, either.  There aren't religious people out there who are thinking, "oh man, I can't wait to run up to a gay person and take away all his rights.  I hate freedom and America.  I want to make this country awful for anyone who's different than me.  Hellfire and rainbows.  That'll show 'em."  No one is thinking that!  That is not a thing that anyone is thinking.

"So, what do they want?"  You ask.  "Why can't they be happy with their own heterosexual marriages and leave my marriage alone?"  And again, this is a problem of language.  For religious people, "marriage" isn't just a socially constructed word:  it's a divinely constructed word.  For them, when you get married you aren't just confessing your union to the world:  you're confessing it to God!  And if God teaches that "marriage" is a special, man-and-woman thing that exalts us and allows us to partake of the miracle of creation, thus becoming - in a microcosmic but holy kind of way - more like the Eternal Creator, then yes, that word is very, very important.  They're defending something that they believe is divinely inspired.  How dare you tell people they can't care about what their God cares about.

All of this ties into the question of what is sacred, and what is profane.  Most of us may be used to using a pretty narrow definition of the word "sacred."  Here are all the definitions listed on dictionary.com:
  1. Devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated.
  2. Entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
  3. Pertaining to or connected with religion.
  4. Reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object.
  5. Regarded with reverence.
Based on definitions #1 and #3 above, the conservative right feels legitimately threatened by gay marriage:  something sacred would be profaned if we were to allow it.  But based on definition #5, the liberal left feels legitimately threatened by a traditionalist, prescriptivist view of marriage:  for them, something sacred is in danger of being profaned by dogmatism.

We keep forgetting that when we look at our opponents, we are looking into a mirror:  in a sense, all of mankind is the same.  We share the same fears, hopes, and concerns:  we just express them differently, or we focus on different particulars.  We are all worried about a future in which our children learn to trample under their feet the things that we hold dear.  We all worry about the things we hold sacred.  And, in a sense, we all think marriage is one of those sacred things (I'm excluding, of course, those who believe marriage is unimportant.  I don't dismiss their view out of disrespect; it just happens to be irrelevant to this issue).  So, let's try to remember that.

The sanctity and profanity of marriage is a complicated issue.  Let's avoid dismissing the other side's position as either blind bigotry or insulting irreverence.  That sort of rhetoric is lazy and condescending, and there is no room for it in discussions of sensitive subjects like these.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Politics and poultry.

Years ago, when I lived in my parents' house, an aunt and uncle were in town visiting us.  As we tried to decide where to go out to dinner, Outback Steakhouse was one of the possibilities discussed.

Apparently, though, Outback had recently been involved in some controversial conservative political activism.  "Oh, no, we don't eat at Outback," my aunt said.  "They're Republican."

"But we're Republican," I said, "and you eat OUR food."

I was a smart aleck as a kid, so sue me.  But, facetiousness aside, what do politics have to do with deliciousness?  Apparently a lot, if you've noticed the recent backlash against Chick-fil-A.  Their Chief Operating Officer, Dan Cathy, has been open about his stance against gay marriage.  When asked about it directly on July 2 (about a month ago), he said "well, guilty as charged."

There have been angry boycotts since then by LGBT groups, and today there is apparently an "anti-boycott," an Appreciation Day of sorts, where people are lining up to show support to Chick-fil-A "standing up for traditional family values."  It's an interesting issue from both sides, I guess, but my question is, why is this an issue at all?

Why do we care what the COO of a fast food company believes about marriage?  Are we paying him to represent us politically?

I don't think it's our responsibility as consumers to worry about where our money ends up after passing through various hands.  The only thing we should care about is what's on the receipt.  Our responsibility as consumers is to support good products, not necessarily good people.  If I buy a CD at Best Buy, am I responsible for how they treat their employees there?  If I buy the 2002 film "The Pianist," am I supporting Roman Polanski's sexual crimes and subsequent fleeing from the law?  If I buy a chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A, am I a bigot?  My answer is a resounding "no," but some people disagree.

One Facebook friend of mine posted the following status:  "for the ignorant, let me break it down for you. You support Chick-fil-A, a company known for giving money to anti homosexual groups. You buy their unhealthy food at a marked up price, which inevitably contributes to their profits. That profit gets turned around and donated to these anti homosexual groups. Congratulations, you support homophobia."

There are several problems with this statement.  First off, homophobia is sort of a strong word to use for groups like the Family Foundation who aim to maintain traditional definitions of marriage.  Saying "I'm not on board with gay marriage" is totally not the same as saying "I hate gays."  You can be against gay marriage without being a homophobe.  If that isn't obvious, take a look at an example:  Josh Weed, who is openly gay, actively Mormon, and happily married to a woman, with whom he's had children.  He's clearly not homophobic.  He's not even uncomfortable about his own homosexuality, to say nothing of anyone else's.  So how can every person who believes in traditional marriage be homophobic?  But, now that we've gotten rid of the straw-man argument, I want to return to my real objection: 

When you buy chicken at a fast food joint, you are paying for the chicken and the chicken only.  If it's good chicken, it's your prerogative to buy it.  Even more:  it's your JOB to buy it, as a responsible consumer.  When we buy good products, we get more good products.  When we buy crappy products (like spending $709.7 million on a movie based on a line of children's toys), we get more crappy products.

Think about it.  Do we really want a country where people won't do commerce with those who have beliefs different than their own?  As one article points out:  "On both sides of our latest culture war divide, we must learn to have level-headed disagreements without resorting to accusations of hate speech and boycotts. As Josh Ozersky argued on TIME Thursday, 'businesses should be judged by their products and their practices, not by their politics.'"

We don't need to give perceived political power to fast food joints.  Their job is to make food.  If they do it well, they deserve business.  If they don't, they don't.  Dan Cathy's opinions on Adam and Steve have nothing to do with that principle, regardless of where he spends his money.  Notice I said "his" money.  As soon as the transaction is over and I'm eating my sandwich, it's not my money anymore.  It's his.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mother's Day story from the Book of Mormon.

Happy Mother's Day, Internet!

I know I have not blogged in a while so today I thought I'd share something that I wrote two years ago.  On Mother's Day 2010, I was asked to speak in Church.  This is what I wrote and shared with the congregation:
I’d like to share with you a story.  This story starts about 2100 years ago, with a man named Ammon, a son of King Mosiah.  My story isn’t centrally about Ammon, but his story is the prologue.  It sort of sets the stage.
Ammon went on a mission after repenting of a severely rebellious childhood.  While Ammon was a missionary, he met a group of people under a king named Lamoni.  These people were Lamanites, enemies to the Nephites:  enemies to Ammon’s people.  But Ammon won King Lamoni’s trust and worked as a servant.  He was humble and diligent and, whenever possible, looked for opportunities to demonstrate the power of God.  King Lamoni was impressed with Ammon, and started to ask him the kind of questions every missionary loves to hear.  Questions like, “is there a God?”
Ammon had all the right answers, because he was led by the Spirit to know what to say.  To make a long prologue short, Ammon was instrumental in the conversion of a large group of people who eventually became known as the Ammonites.  The Ammonites are the main subjects of my story today.
I want us to remember throughout this story that the Ammonites were converts.  They had lived a vicious lifestyle and now thirsted instead for virtue.  The Ammonites had seen death and murder, crime and corruption, but when Ammon came into their land preaching the Gospel of Christ they were “pricked in their heart,” like Peter’s audience on the day of Pentecost, and they wanted nothing more than to follow God the rest of their lives.
Part of the way they showed God their change of lifestyle, their change of heart, was by burying their weapons.  Literally, they buried all their swords and bows and axes deep in the ground, and made an oath with God that they would not use them anymore.  They felt like their hands were stained with the blood of former enemies, and as part of how they showed their discipleship, they vowed to never fight again.
So that’s a portrait, if you will, of who the Ammonites were.
This is when things get difficult.  See, the Ammonites were often under attack by the Lamanites, now their enemies.  But they had no way of defending themselves, because they had promised God they would not fight.  So their new friends the Nephites took them in with welcoming arms and said, “You stay with us.  We have some land for you, and we will protect you.”  The Nephites fought and died protecting and defending the Ammonites.  I want you to put yourself in the shoes of these people, these Ammonite converts:  surely they felt terrible – powerless – and they wanted to defend themselves.  The scriptures record that at one point, they were even ready to pick up their weapons again and break their oath.  Of course that would not have been wise, to break their promise with God, but that is how dire the situation was.
And then something happened.  Their sons, still quite young, volunteered to fight.  These two thousand sons had not taken any oath of pacifism, so they could help with the war.  The scriptures describe these sons in Alma chapter 53 as being young, courageous, strong, and most importantly, “true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted.”  In other words, these young men had unshakable integrity.
This brings me to the topic I was asked to speak about today:  the example of women, especially mothers, in the Gospel.  These two thousand young warriors attributed their spiritual strengths to the teachings of their mothers.  Helaman acknowledges the same debt in describing the soldiers, and later, the historian Mormon makes similar commentary, agreeing that these young men were who they were because of their mothers.  In other words, the two thousand were so legendary and steadfast because of the examples of the righteous Ammonite women who raised them.
Let’s examine one of those strengths, faith, in a little more detail.  In Alma chapter 56, Helaman leads the two thousand young warriors past the city of Antiparah.  Antiparah is holding the Lamanite’s strongest army at this point, and the plan is to march near it, as if to carry supplies to a nearby Nephite city, and lure the Lamanites out.  The Lamanites took the bait, and started chasing down Helaman and the two thousand.  Meanwhile, another Nephite army – led by Antipus – joined the chase from behind.  When the Lamanites saw that they were being chased, they kept pressing forward, intending to wipe out Helaman’s two thousand men before Antipus’ army arrived.  This chase continued for quite a while.  Eventually, though, it seemed as if the Lamanite army was no longer on Helaman’s tail.  So our heroes stopped, and discussed what could be happening.  Helaman described to his men two possibilities:
1.    Antipus caught up with the Lamanites and wiped them out, or,
2.    The Lamanites are setting a trap, stopping to see if we’ll turn around.  When we turn around to see what happened, they’ll wipe us out.
He then asked them, “what say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle?”
The answer is inspiring.  “Our God is with us,” they said, “and he will not suffer that we should fall; [so] let us go forth.”  Helaman records that these young men were not afraid of death, and that “they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.”  Remember, these warriors were still quite inexperienced, and this was to be their first battle.  But instead of fear, their hearts were full of courage and faith.  They knew that what their mothers had taught them was true:  God delivers.
Later, we read that none of the two thousand died in the battle.  Chapter 57 records that “their minds [were] firm, and they [did] put their trust in God continually.”  That sort of faith and trust came from the apparently deep and powerful impressions their mothers left on them.  It wasn’t just that their mothers taught or explained those principles; their mothers lived those principles.  Remember, these mothers are Ammonite women, converts who had listened to the words of Ammon and who had changed their lives to invite Christ into their hearts.  These women knew the power of the Spirit, and strived to keep it every day – and their sons noticed.  This, brothers and sisters, is an exemplary story about how the righteousness of women, especially mothers, can have a profound effect on others.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day, let us ponder in what ways our own mothers were and are like the Ammonites.  We might not feel like we are similar at all to Helaman’s young warriors, but in God’s eyes we are certainly young, and in God’s eyes we are certainly in a war.  As we do spiritual battle every day, let us remember our mothers, and try to make them proud.  Let us remember to always trust God, and he will deliver us.  The sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ has made that deliverance possible.  I know that to be true, and I know my mother knows it to be true.  I am ever grateful for her testimony, which she graciously allowed me to lean on until I gained my own.  I am ever grateful for her loving support as I left to serve a mission.  I am ever grateful that – years ago – my mother, like the Ammonite women, listened to the promptings of the Spirit when missionaries like Ammon shared the Gospel with her.  I know the message that they shared was true:  that, in answer to King Lamoni’s question, there truly is a God.  He lives, and he loves us, and this is his church.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why I didn't say "amen" in church this week.

So, this past Sunday was Stake Conference.

(For my non-Mormon readers:  what this means is that instead of a typical worship service with one congregation, several congregations will meet together in the same building and listen to various sermons, with hymns sung in between.  There are no Sunday School classes; the whole thing is just in that one same room.  Attendance percentages are typically lower than usual - many probably feel like it is a less personal worship experience because it is just so big, and because of the lack of sacramental ritual, or what most churches call "communion" - but there are maybe an average of a thousand people in attendance?  I'm bad with big numbers.  Anyway.  It's large.)

In my opinion, because Stake Conference is so large, it's extra important that the speakers preach true and good things from the pulpit.  Maybe that's the consequentialist in me speaking, but I figure the more people are listening to you, the greater your responsibility to share insights that ring eternally true (on the other hand, the deontological rule at play here is that even if just one person is listening to you, every time you speak in the name of God you had better be speaking as He would speak).

And if you don't teach entirely true principles, then I won't say "amen."  It's a small gesture, and probably doesn't make any difference, but it makes me feel better at least.  One of my many New Year's resolutions was to say "amen" only when I truly and completely agreed with what was said or prayed for.

Now, don't get me wrong:  five days ago when I sat there and listened to the messages that were given, I felt spiritually uplifted most of the time.  And I felt like most of the things said were in accordance with what God would want to have taught in His name.  So I said "amen" to most of the talks... until the very end, that is.

The discourse in question was given by a lovely man whom I won't name here.  And certainly, a lot of what he said rang true.  Then, towards the end of his remarks, he started going off on "the media," and "the world," and all the terrible things "they" want to do to us, all the terrible things they want to teach to our children.  He presented an awfully black-and-white picture of the world, and by so doing unfairly demonized scores of decent human beings, though none by name of course.  His comments reinforced an unhealthy thought process that is prevalent in Mormon culture:  the "us and them" mentality.

I hate the "us and them" mentality so much.  It's a painfully oversimplified way to look at things.

We Mormons think too often that it is us against the world, that everyone else is out to get us.  But that is simply not the case.  Virtually no one actually wants to see family values destroyed, or the Temples burned to the ground, or God dethroned, etc.  We live in a world surrounded by people who, in a lot of ways, are very much like us:  people who want to be happy.

Did anyone watch the 84th Academy Awards show that recently aired?  There was a man who won an award (and I'm embarrassed to admit, I don't remember who he was or what he won - I know, I'm a bad blogger!), and when he got to the stage, he primarily thanked his wife, to whom he'd been married for many years.  Without hearing him mention anything else, the entire audience applauded.  The fact that he loved his wife and stayed with her was reason enough for all those actors and directors and writers to put their hands together and smile.  But why?

My roommate looked at me after that moment and said something like this:  "Sometimes we accuse Hollywood of wanting to 'destroy family values' or whatever, but really these people love family values.  Just because they want gays to have rights doesn't mean that they hate families."

And he's right.  Hollywood isn't full of demons possessed with some malicious plot to drag the rest of us to Hell.  Hollywood is full of human beings (again, just like you and I), who are trying desperately to tell good stories - stories about love and loss and learning.

Furthermore, I'd argue that the best stories, the stories that get the most critical acclaim, actually support eternal truths that you'd find in the scriptures.

For example, what are some "Best Picture" winners?  I haven't seen "The Artist" yet so we'll have to skip a year.  Back in 2010, the award went to "The King's Speech," a beautiful story about faith, friendship, courage, living up to your responsibilities, and the power of communication.  What about the year before that?  The main message of "The Hurt Locker" was that war is a drug, a psychologically and morally damaging disease:  sounds like a topic that the Book of Mormon spends, oh, about 54 chapters dealing with.  The previous year?  We get "Slumdog Millionaire," a story about conquering all obstacles to save someone you love.  And the year before that?  The Coen Brothers' twelfth film, "No Country For Old Men," a beautifully tragic tale about the incomprehensibility of evil.  Tommy Lee Jones' character in that film reminded me of Frances McDormand's character in "Fargo" (also a Coen Brothers' film), who embodied innocence and the sentiment that you don't have to understand evil.  Sometimes it just is, and sometimes it is absurd, but if it is truly incomprehensible, then maybe that says something good about you?  The character's confused innocence in the face of evil reminds me a lot of Nephi, who never really understood his brothers (I have more thoughts on the Nephi narrative to come in a later post).

(A side note:  I know my most recent blog post condemned an award-winning film pretty harshly, even calling it "pornographic," but I was very careful with that review and I watched every frame of the film in question.  I don't think it would be fair for me to say any of what I said without actually seeing the film and judging its objectionable content in its full context.  And even after watching, I had to think long and hard about my reaction.  To dismiss the entire piece of work casually or without thought would be to show great disrespect to the many men and women who, in my opinion, simply failed in their thematic goals when all was said and done.  Saying a film failed in its ideological aspirations is different than saying that the whole media industry is intentionally trying to bring down righteous principles in our society.)

Of course, maybe I'm reading some of those films wrong (especially the Coen Brothers ones - I won't pretend to understand their work completely; all I know is they somehow make great films).  But I don't think the film industry ever really congratulates hidden messages glorifying adultery and murder and blasphemy.  And, though this isn't meant to be as cocky as it sounds, I might understand film a little better than those who stand at a pulpit and condemn all of the media, all at once for allegedly "trying" to preach godlessness.

The speaker on Sunday demonized more than just the film industry:  he demonized any story, in any medium, that "makes you feel bad."  The general thesis of one of his paragraphs was something like, "if it makes you feel good, it's of God, and if it makes you feel bad, it's not."  And I'm hoping that's not really what he meant to say.  But nonetheless, it's what he said.  I won't condemn him for his word choice, but I will correct him on it, because at best it was terribly misleading.

"Shindler's List" is a film that makes me feel bad.  It ought to.  It's about the Holocaust.  And it's horrifying.  But it's also indescribably uplifting and watching it was one of the most spiritually worthwhile couple of hours I've ever spent in my life.

Beyond film, though:  even in the scriptures there are many, many stories that will make you "feel bad" but are nonetheless good, worthwhile, inspiring stories.  We shouldn't condemn the gut-wrenching stories of war or damnation in the Bible or Book of Mormon just because of the way they make us feel.  They make us feel bad for a reason, and it's an edifying reason!  Again, this is probably not what he meant, but it's what he said.

The media isn't out to get us.  And other religions aren't out to get us, either.

It's not us against the world.  It's us and the world, hand in hand, trying to see what we can accomplish together, trying to get back to God together.  What do we have that they don't?  Well, the Priesthood.  The ordinances. In short, the Restoration.  But that doesn't mean that they don't have things we don't.  We're all in this together.  We're all part of the same family, on the same team, and inter-faith dialogue will never be effective until we realize that.

I cannot say "amen" to any talk that teaches, explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or accidentally, that the world is some sort of battleground on which our enemies are our neighbors.  I believe that my neighbor is my neighbor, and that my enemy is in my own heart.  That's what Jesus taught.  He hung out with "publicans and sinners," remember?  And he was criticized for it by devout Pharisees and scribes, the same sort of people who today would want Mormonism to be a microcosmic bubble-society, separated from the rest of the world.

The Church leaders in Salt Lake have tried very hard in recent decades to preach a doctrine of acceptance and worldwide teamwork.  In the mid-nineties, Gordon B. Hinckley taught us to approach missionary work with the invitation:  "bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it."  This is wonderful.  And it directly opposes the attitude of the more rigid, argumentative, and antagonistic rhetoric we heard in the sixties and seventies.  However, we still have a little of that old mentality left over in our culture.  We still want to "Bible-bash."  We still want to argue.

And maybe it's cultural leftover from our persecution in the 1800s.  For whatever reason, we're still on the defensive.  But we don't need to be.

We need to join with others on this Earth and collaboratively try to be edified and exalted together.  Remember what Joseph Smith taught:  "one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may."  So let us receive truth.  Let us vigorously seek it, like the 13th Article of Faith claims we do.

With this goal in mind, I am starting a new blog soon, called "Finding Zion in Babylon."  It will be at zioninbabylon.com, and I will let you know here when it is officially launched.  On that blog, I will focus on combating closed-mindedness, and on championing nuggets of truth that I find outside of Mormonism - in other religions, in psychology, in philosophy, in film, in literature, and elsewhere.  I have a copy of the Koran, and I've recently acquired a copy of the CCC, both of which I intend to dive into for cross-religious research purposes for the new blog.

It will be a grand adventure, and I hope to see you there.

In the mean time, thanks for reading "Food For Thought" (which, by the way, isn't going anywhere, I assure you!  It'll stay, and I'll keep updating it from time to time).  Thanks for being patient with my ramblings.  My writing abilities, like my powers of observation and my reasoning skills, are a work in progress.  And I appreciate your support every step of the way.  Even if you disagree with things I've written (which is likely).

If you do disagree, however, I urge you:  do not say "amen."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The furniture with the dragon tattoo.

Disclaimer:  this post has some pretty heavy subject matter.  You've been warned.

I recently saw the 1973 film "Soylent Green" starring Charlton Heston.  It paints a bleak picture of a distopian society in which the cities are overcrowded and the crowds are starving.  Oh, and rich people own concubine women who are literally referred to as "furniture." At one point, Heston's character tells the female lead, "you're a helluva piece of furniture."  How flattering.

The funny thing is, supposedly "Soylent Green" is set in the year 2022.  That's only a decade from now!  How hilariously inaccurate, just like watching the futuristic scenes in "Back To The Future"... except, similarly to what I've noted about a different film recently, I think the scariest parts of that future have already happened, to some extent.  Sure, we're not starving and we still eat real food from real farms, and the whole women-as-furniture thing is surely inaccurate, isn't it?  We don't objectify women that badly. Do we?

Unfortunately, a quick look at our media says we do.

Take "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" for example.  I just watched David Fincher's American remake the other day.  And it's terrible.  (I'll get this out of the way right now:  I haven't seen the original Swedish film, nor have I read the original novel.  If that makes my opinions invalid, so be it.)

What's terrible about it, you ask?  Certainly not the directing, or the acting, or the set design, or the music.  All of those elements are fantastic.  But a film is more than the sum of its parts.  There has to be something thematically worthwhile underneath it all.  And, despite what may have been the best of intentions, all I could find underneath it all was filth.

Let me explain.  According to Wikipedia, "[Stieg] Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. He never forgave himself for failing to help the girl, whose name was Lisbeth – like the young main character of his books, herself a rape victim, which inspired the theme of sexual violence against women in his books."  So, here we have an author who hates sexual violence and writes a story about a fiercely independent girl who stays emotionally sturdy in the face of unspeakable victimization.  In a lot of ways, she's a great character.  And the film adaptation did a terrific job showing how she is strong and smart and resourceful and has an unyielding sense of justice.  Unfortunately, the film also showed her as a piece of furniture.

It's not just about the nudity.  I understand that sometimes people are naked in films.  People are naked in real life.  It happens.  But when it comes to any explicit content in film (whether that be nudity or violence or profanity), there's a difference between plot-driven necessity and pornographic nonsense.  "Dragon Tattoo" was, for the most part, the latter, disguised as the former.

David Fincher's film has no excuse, really, for showing as much of its protagonist's body as it does.  She bares everything for our other protagonist (played by Daniel Craig) and they become lovers.  However [SPOILER ALERT, I'm about to talk about the ending], they don't even end up together in the end.  What was the point?  Were we supposed to see her vulnerability so that we could applaud her newly found independence as she enters, of her own free will, into a sexually healthy relationship?  Apparently not, because there isn't anything emotionally believable about their relationship while it lasts.  And the ending, where we learn that it didn't even last anyway, is so unbearably bleak and sexually nihilistic.  It seems that it was all for nothing.

In short, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is guilty of the very objectification that it pretends to condemn.  It wastes its title character (played extremely well by Rooney Mara) and treats her essentially, in the end, as an object.

Films are not about events or things; they are about character changes.  The most worthwhile narratives involve characters that change, or at least realize something significant, by the end.  But when the curtain closed and the closing credits for "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" started rolling, I felt nothing.  Neither of the two protagonists had changed or learned anything.  Neither had become either better or worse people, and therefore the audience was not enlightened.  Things just happened, and then stopped.  I expected a lot more insight from a film based on a book by someone who apparently had a very idealistic agenda.  All I got was pulp fiction.

I know I have used a very loaded word in this article ("pornographic") that ought not to be thrown around lightly.  I'm trying very carefully not to call good evil here.  But, the way I see it, there are two main problems with pornography.  The first is a problem for the participants:  pornography creates an extremely unhealthy environment in which young girls become addicted to drugs and ruin their lives trying to live from paycheck to paycheck, meanwhile trying to cope daily with diseases and other dangers.  The second problem is more sociological:  pornography poisons those who view it, and poisons the world itself.  It presents an unrealistic and damaging view of sexuality, a distorted ideology of manhood and womanhood, and it desensitizes its viewers to violent sexuality and the objectification of human beings.  Studies link its consumption with increased aggression, etc.  Basically, it turns our world into a worse place.

Good, professional films, for the most part, are not guilty of the first problem as defined above.  You don't often hear of high-profile actresses grabbing a movie role so they can scrape up the money to pay for their next hit of cocaine, the rent of their crummy apartment, or their doctor bills to try to deal with STDs.  But no matter how well actresses and actors are treated, films can still be guilty of the second problem as defined above:  the problem of what pornographic imagery does to society on a subliminal, psychological level.

I'm not saying "Dragon Tattoo" is the only offender (James Bond films essentially do the same thing, right?).  It's probably just the most explicit offender that I've seen.  And it stands out so harshly in my mind because of the ideological irony:  it tries (or, maybe, just pretends?) to be a film fighting against the objectification of women, but it objectifies its character just as much as its villains do.  Certainly this is a widespread problem in Hollywood, in film in general, and perhaps in every art or media format.  Books, television, and music are not without sin.  I think what this means is that there's a problem with our society in general.

Immanuel Kant once suggested that ethical behavior is based on the maxim that one ought to "treat humanity always as an end in itself, and never merely as a means."  In other words, no one deserves to be treated, or even thought of, as "furniture."

People are not things.  They are people.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A brief thought on agency and captivity.

“Because we can choose our focus, we are ‘free in an originary sense,’ Martin Heidegger writes.  It is this freedom, he says, that makes us different from animals.  We choose to focus on various influences, but animals are ‘taken by’ them, ‘captivated’ by them.  Think of a mailman coming to our door:  we can decide to concentrate on him, but our barking dog is captivated by him; we may focus our attention on him or not, but the dog is riveted.  In other words, we are human because we can freely pick what we let influence us most.”
- Dennis J. Packard

I strongly believe this is true.  We are free agents who can determine not only our actions, but our perceptions and our priorities as well.  We needn't be captive to anything unless we freely choose to let it captivate us.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Let's talk about "Real Steel," okay?

Out of all the films I watch, many of which are super thought-provoking and just a little pretentious, I'd never guess that the Hugh Jackman robot-boxing movie I saw at the dollar theater would be the one to prompt me to write a blog post.  But I CAN'T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT OKAY.

Let's talk about "Real Steel."  It just came out in theaters about three months ago, so, y'know, if you have a dollar theater in town, you should still be able to go see it.  Hugh Jackman plays a terrible, terrible father who road-trips with his son to compete in remote-controlled robot boxing matches; eventually, of course, they form a close father-son bond and win the day against ambiguously evil foreigners.

Other than "this is so ridiculous... but I love it, for some reason," the main thing that kept coming to my mind as I watched "Real Steel" was this:  "I wonder how plausible this sort of distopia really is?"  And the conclusion I kept coming to was, "in principle, it's basically already here."  Let me explain.

The setting of "Real Steel" is a not-too-distant future (2020, I think) in which we don't watch human boxers anymore; we watch robot boxers.  Why?  Well, basically because we can make robots do way more violent things to each other, so we get to see more carnage, more action, more destruction, without feeling bad about watching it:  you don't feel the need to twitch when, for example, a Star Wars Battle Droid gets his head chopped off on the big screen right in front of you, do you?

Think about it.  What happens when a human boxer kills another human boxer?  If Bruce Willis' character from "Pulp Fiction" is a good example to point to, we can safely assume that those sort of situations always end with stolen motorcycles, John Travolta dead on your toilet, and Ving Rhames barely saved (via katana) from unspeakable perversions.  Also there's a very real possibility you might lose your watch, even though Christopher Walken explained in painstaking detail how invaluable it is.  So, boxers, DON'T KILL OTHER BOXERS OKAY.  But if you're a robot, there aren't really rules.  There are no moral or social consequences.  No watches are misplaced, no Ving Rhameses are violated.  Everyone's happy.

And isn't that part of what technology does to society?  Makes us feel emotionally detached from things, so we can justify that which we would otherwise consider monstrous?

Consider for a moment all the gigabytes of copyrighted music or movies you may or may not have pirated (yes, listening to songs on YouTube counts).  What's worse:  think of all the basic rights the government was recently willing to take away from us in order to combat piracy.  The whole SOPA/PIPA thing?  It's blatant censorship.  Why do senators think it's okay?  Well, for the same reason many of us think online piracy is okay.  Because we hide behind the Internet.  Technology provides a filter for our behavior that makes us feel less ethically responsible.

When you talk to someone in person, it usually feels emotionally heavier than it does over the phone.  There's a little barrier between two people over the phone.  Even more so with chatting, texting, emails, Facebook posts, etc.  The list goes on.  The more technology we use, the less connected we feel to the things we're doing.  That's why, when you look at the comments section of a YouTube video, you'll often see the most ignorant, hateful, misogynistic, racist, and homophobic words ever.  Do those people talk like that in "real life?"  Probably not.  But why is there a difference?  Why do we differentiate "real life" from life through technology?  Isn't it all real life?  Shouldn't we just be real, all the time?

Back to "Real Steel."  I cared about the father-son story.  I cared about the characters.  I cared about how they interacted with each other and what they learned.  But, emotionally speaking, I didn't give a crap about the fighting robots, for the same reason that I didn't give a crap about "Transformers."  It's all just eye candy.

And that's the point, isn't it?  In the distopian near-future depicted by the film, we let machines do our fighting for us because then we don't have to feel bad about how gladiatorial it all essentially is.  And, in a way, that's the society we live in now.  We let the Internet spew foul language for us, or at least, we let it take the blame.  We let text messages send our hugs and our affection for us.  We let Wikipedia and Google make our discoveries and reach our epiphanies for us.

We're incubated by our machines and our gadgets and our computers and our social media.

And at the end of the day it leaves us feeling a little dead inside, doesn't it?

(Until, that is, we stumble upon kitten pictures or something.)