09 June 2013
The last decade has been an exciting and really remarkable era within LDS scholarship. Volumes of primary-sourced material has been made available, scholars are writing nuanced and insightful analysis, and--perhaps most importantly--church leadership is actively participating in the process. While the so-called "New Mormon History" movement emerged far earlier with the scholarship of Juanita Brooks and Leonard Arrington, it received far less institutional support or mainstream interest. From my perspective, Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, was the watershed moment that changed the Mormon history paradigm. Bushman's book is written from a perspective of faith and meticulous scholarship, compelling readers to reevaluate the interplay of social, cultural, and supernatural factors within the LDS narrative.
In like manner, Prince and Wright have composed this masterpiece on the David O. McKay era (1951-1970) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps less popular than Bushman's book, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism is no less impressive in its insight, scholarship, and form; indeed, I consider them to be essential companion volumes. Developed over ten years with full access to the prophet's entire paper collection, and supplemented by hundreds of personal interviews, the book is well-researched and well-written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in better understanding the forces that have shaped so much of the modern LDS church.
Like Bushman, Prince and Wright are writing from a position of faith; they are believing members of the church and acknowledge as much from the beginning. Unlike Bushman however, their subject was a contemporary figure who only passed away a short 35 years earlier. To deal with the inherent difficulties of such a contemporary biography, the authors focus on key events during President McKay's leadership of the church; rather than a strict chronology, the book is more thematic and available for reinterpretation when new information arises. While events overlap at times and there are a few redundancies, the structure worked and kept the material very engaging and easily referenced.
Imagine the challenges a rapidly growing international church seeking to uphold its spiritual roots and conservative structure would face during the 20th century, and you might have a pretty good idea of what President McKay encountered in his tenure as President of the church.
First, church growth meant more and more members interacting meaningfully with non-members. During President McKay's leadership, the church moved from being an insular group in the wide, wild West to becoming an American and international church. Establishing more friendly relations with other communities, fostering understanding instead of paranoia was a tremendous undertaking, and President McKay led the way. Despite significant logistical and budgetary challenges, he developed an unparalleled media operation, constructed chapels throughout the world, and built bridges of understanding with other denominations and sympathetic organizations.
Second, an increasingly diverse and dispersed membership required greater organizational and theological coordination. McKay navigated this rather carefully, strengthening the church educational system including its colleges and universities, instituting the correlation program to ensure doctrinal consistency throughout the church curriculum, and elevating the role of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to assist the First Presidency in its increasing duties.
Third, growing membership diversity was also reflected in the highest levels of leadership; while differences of opinions have always existed, the international presence of the church increased the subjects and opportunities for acutely contrarian political, social, and theological perspectives. McKay always sought to find common ground, and when that was not possible, to minimize differences in public. This was a difficult and not always successful mission.
President McKay's tenure is a remarkable period of institutional and spiritual achievements. The contemporary church's financial stature, missionary spirit, and emphasis on the family all have their roots in his leadership and vision. However, many problems outlasted McKay too. Racism remained prevalent and the church's ban on blacks receiving the priesthood would not be lifted until eight years after his death. The correlation program created certain theological rigidities now difficult to reevaluate. President McKay was also unable to fully curtail Elder Ezra Taft Benson's political zeal, leading the church towards an increasingly narrow partisan outlook that has only been exacerbated in recent years. And Bruce R. McConkie's insistence on publishing a rigid and parochial perspective on Mormon doctrine (over President McKay's objections) has continued to haunt the church to this day.
Much of the details in this book were entirely new to me; rarely do we hear of differing opinions within the leadership of the church or contemplate its organizational structure or finances. Lack of transparency on these issues has unfortunately created distorted perceptions from some that the church is a secretive cabal built on a manipulative Ponzi scheme. Others may vacillate to the other extreme, presuming that the silence suggests sacred guidance in all matters and considering any suggestion of mortal influence to be heresy. From my perspective as a believing member, and especially after reading this book, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has divine origins and mortal organs. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland noted recently, "imperfect people are all that the Lord has ever had to work with." Church leaders struggle, just as we all do, to engage life's challenges and seek inspiration and guidance when needed. That is why we sustain leaders; not because they are perfect receptacles of divine insight but because they are inherently fallible.
The authors' dogged insistence that faith and uncomfortable history are not mutually exclusive is a call for church members to learn how to better manage ambiguity within our nominally objective worldview. Some may not want to or feel the need to engage in this nuancing. Some feel it smacks of moral relativism or rationalization. But I sincerely feel we need not shrink from disquieting information but rather use it to better understand ourselves and others in our community. For me the beauty of Mormonism is its message that God calls us to seek truth and love others, and I believe those are mutually reinforcing messages.
05 June 2013
Somehow, despite four years of high school English classes, I missed the great authors from the American renaissance such as Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville. Maybe I was just too focused on British and Russian authors, but I was under the mistaken impression that the United States had no real noteworthy fiction writers. Two years ago, Hawthorne woke me up to the American potential. Reading Melville had a similar effect. Fluid language and such an evocative storyline are powerful enough to overcome the author's insistence that his readers know absolutely everything there is to know about the now arcane industry of whaling. On frequent occasions I was impressed too by his philosophical musings, his veiled humor, and his sense of awed wonder at nature in all her peculiarities. Here is an author who knows his material and something deeper too.
Moby Dick is such a central part of modern American culture that I doubt any plot summary would be either beneficial or needful. A quick Google search of Moby Dick book reports yields a plethora of easily plagiarized material; I think my favorite was this YouTube summary of the book. So even without reading the book in its entirety, most are probably aware of the whale's symbol as fate/nature or the various symbols surrounding death and the evanescence of life.
But reading the entire book provides additional insights for me that go beyond simplistic book report analogies. Moby Dick was a tremendous undertaking, and I sense the amount of effort, thought, and time that Melville put into this. He uses a whale hunt as a canvass for his own internal pondering; sometimes, he seems to burst through with inspiration and insight while along other stretches he works to just record the world around him. While not exactly a stream of consciousness, his writing style feels almost journalistic, as if he is discovering the world for the first time along with the reader. This style lends itself well to a lot of nuance, inside jokes, and hints as to what the author feels about the world around him. It made me feel like I knew Melville far better than I knew Ishmael, Captain Ahab, the whale, or Queequeg.
Let's be clear though. This is a long, mostly boring, read. The beginning is quite captivating, but once on the boat, long sections of monotonous traveling on the open seas are filled with pages of whale anatomy, obscure history, fish tales, and foreboding. I suppose that mirrors life too in a way; unlike modern Hollywood films, the action in life is best understand only when contrasted against long stretches of monotony, confusion, and just living day to day. There, now Melville has me waxing all metaphoric.
02 March 2013
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens. Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012. 148 pp., $19.99.
There is a growing awareness within Mormonism that our position as a relatively isolated marginal community has faded. No longer trapped between mountain ranges in the western United States, the Church is becoming a global organization that has attracted faithful converts, curious spectators, and general confusion. None of this interest is novel, per se, but with U.S. presidential candidates, Broadway shows, Olympic venues, and a burst of social media interactions, the Mormon community is now dabbling on the very margins or mainstream. The "Mormon Moment" was mostly an over-hyped journalistic penchant for alliteration, but it did lead to important discussions within the LDS faith regarding our place within the secular and religious communities of modern society. This conversation is healthy, albeit challenging, for a church that has long emphasized its distinctness based upon restored ecclesiastical authority and theology.
In The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens describe several Mormon theological innovations to a broad audience as part of this dialogue. The book is not a proselytizing text but rather an attempt to introduce the uniqueness of Mormonism without referencing the religion's historical origins or liturgical framework. (Indeed, the word Mormon does not even appear in the book after the subtitle.) Terryl and Fiona Givens are both exceptional scholars and their aim is admirable. But I found the book disappointing and unsatisfying. Lacking a thorough discussion of difficult and remarkable theological ideas, the book focuses instead on a thin veneer of breathless imagery and non-contextualized aphorisms. While I heartily agree with the ideas outlined, the method of presentation comes off as stilted, censored, and somewhat condescending.
The book's overall thesis, as well as the title, comes from Moses 7 wherein the Old Testament prophet Enoch has a conversation with God. The conversation reveals God as a vulnerable, loving character who weeps over the challenges His children face in mortality. God further assures Enoch that eventually wrongs will be made right through Jesus Christ, and the earth will eventually be renewed. It is a powerful narrative, and I would strongly recommend reading the chapter in its entirety. But it is a complex narrative too and requires more context and discussion than this book provides. Vulnerability is a novel characteristic to attribute to God and it deserves a rigorous examination in and of itself.
Using this scripture as a foundation, the Givens outline the Mormon view of God, the purpose of life, and the basis for our faith under five general statements:
1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
2. We lived as spirit beings in the presence of God before we were born into this mortal life.
3. Mortality is an ascent, not a fall, and we carry infinite potential into a world of sin and sorry.
4. God has the desire and power to unite and elevate the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and, except for the most stubbornly unwilling, that will be our destiny.
5. Heaven will consist of those relationships that matter most to us now.Mormons will readily recognize within these concepts the basic foundation for what is termed the plan of salvation--who we are, where we came from, and what happens after we die. Some may be surprised by how inclusive the discussion is framed. And non-Mormons may be surprised by our perspective on fundamental theological issues such as the fall of Adam or the nature of God. In this sense then, the book succeeds insofar as it reaches a broad audience and hints at important theological issues. I only wish that the discussion of these points included more than spliced, rapid quotes from a random assortment of poets, philosophers, and scriptural figures; for me, it feels like a Reader's Digest article replete with witty bylines and no lasting substance.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. It may be that I simply lack the background to truly appreciate the wealth of quotes provided. But the organization of the notes and references by page number and specific phrase makes it almost impossible to properly consider the sources cited or think about pursuing particular sources further. Reading a book that seeks to explain Mormon theology to a national audience without explicit in-text reference to Mormon scripture or history is strange and awkward too. And to do it in under 120 pages no less! But it could be that I am simply not the intended audience and so I found the structure, if not the ideas, unsatisfying.
This book was a missed opportunity in my opinion. Terryl Givens is a first class scholar or Mormonism, and his other books demonstrate his ability to really wrestle with theology, culture, and history within our faith. The God Who Weeps is hampered from the start, however, by its structure, size, and complex subject material. Maybe next time.
16 February 2013
Foundation by Isaac Asimov. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008 [Originally published 1951]. 244 pp., $15.00.
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004 [Originally published 1952]. 282 pp., $7.99.
A trend is emerging in my reading habits: every eight or nine months, I break away from more intensive historical or biographical texts and retreat into the world of science fiction trilogies. Last year, it was The Hunger Games and the year before it was Ender's Games. This trend may reflect attempts to retreat from a stressful work environment, or it may be my effort to create more balance in reading genres. Whatever the case, I do appreciate a good sci-fi series.
Asimov, the true founder of the form, excels like few other authors. As one of his first publications, the Foundation trilogy demonstrated Asimov's ability to integrate history, physics, and sheer creativity into an engaging and enjoyable plot. This trilogy excels at taking what we already know, putting it into a new universe and a different context, and seeing how that provides a new perspective on age-old questions. The speed with which the author writes is astonishing (he essentially wrote ten books a year for fifty years) but evident. Still, the tone is playful and witty enough to capture my interest and keep me turning the pages. For anyone who wants an introduction of what true science fiction looks like, look no further than the Foundation series.
Foundation begins by blatantly plagiarizing Edward Gibbon and sending Ancient Rome to the center of the galaxy. Then Asimov adds a few of his own special ingredients--psychohistory, miniaturized nuclear power, and some other nifty gadgets. The end result is broad overview of the historical forces that cause social decline, rebirth, and renewal. Asimov (and Gibbon) suggests that accidents of geography such as isolation can assist growth and promote cultural resilience even when other resources are lacking, and further outlines perspectives on how religion, entrepreneurialism, and charismatic individuals change the course of history. Scholars of international hegemonic theory would likely nod in assent to most of the underlying assumptions of this series.
The books get better as Asimov moves away from Gibbon and starts asking more provocative questions in Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. What happens when a society believes it is fated to always succeed? How can individuality be preserved in a world of crushing homogeneity? What is the essence of progress: technological advancements, stronger communities, achievement of some perfect society? To which goal are we collectively hurtling towards? I appreciate the broad sweep of time in Asimov's books. He is at his best while discussing histories of hundreds and thousands of years. It helps push aside (some) superficiality and focus on longer-term trends. Of course, it also helps the author avoid pesky details or get weighed down in intensive character development.
As I've said before, science fiction is a fun, enjoyable, and limited writing style. Asimov mastered it better than almost anyone else, and these books are--ahem--the foundation on which other great fiction writers have built. It might be easy to get carried away in dwelling in such constructed universes (there are apparently 21 books and numerous short stories in the Foundation series spanning tens of thousands of years of the fictional galaxy), but I am content with these three originals. Now back to figuring out how the real world works.
20 January 2013
Most Mormons in America are probably more or less aware of who Joanna Brooks is by now. A vocal woman in a culture where women are not often vocal and a liberal in a culture infrequently liberal, Brooks was frequently on television, radio, and the print media as a unique counterpoint to Mitt Romney's Mormonism during the most recent campaign. She also is featured frequently on Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters podcasts and runs a popular blog answering questions about Mormonism. This book--and her subsequent interview with Jon Stewart--was her big breakout moment nationally. Today, it is probably not an overstatement to say that Brooks is the public face of unorthodox, progressive Mormonism. I am sure that is an uncomfortable and daunting role to have, particularly when critics are so direct in their opposition.
Looking from my safe distance afar, I believe Ms. Brooks is doing an admirable and courageous job in seeking to create additional space within Mormonism. This book is short, humorous, and people from all walks of life can relate to her story. She is a very engaging writer (and I think she is even more engaging as a speaker), the stories are crisp, and the transitions are natural. She has a fun time providing an overview of some of the more unique aspects of Mormon culture (stake dances, ward leadership, BYU) and food (green jello, funeral potatoes, anything with lots of sugar), while charting her own path through this world to adulthood and the discovery of complexity. In the end, Ms. Brooks clearly loves her religion, her culture, and her people. But to honestly belong, she feels compelled to acknowledge her own tradition's shortcomings:
We inherit not only the glorious histories of our ancestors, but their human failings too, their kindness, their tenderness, and their satisfaction with easy contradictions; their wisdom as well as their ignorance, arrogance, and presumption, as our own. We inherit all the ways in which our ancestors and parents and teachers were wrong, as well as the ways they were right: their sparkling differences, and their human failings. There is no unmixing the two.I suspect some non-Mormons will ask, "What's the big deal? Of course Mormonism, like any other group, has weird, troubling, and dubious historical and cultural issues it has to grapple with." But Brooks has embarked in what was until very recently forbidden territory within our faith: publicly questioning. She raises the specter of blacks and the priesthood, the church's successful campaign to support Proposition 8 in California, the still-present theological problems with polygamy, the asymmetrical roles of women and men in the church. In general, Mormons do not talk of such things openly. Questioning is allowed when done privately; public admission of questioning is permissible only if the questions have been answered, or at least resolved sufficiently to place on the theological back burner. So yes, it is a big deal when Joanna Brooks has the courage to raise these issues while still embracing the faith.
The book was an enjoyable and playful introduction to these issues, but I am hopeful for a more rigorous examination in the future from Ms. Brooks. She has the academic and literary background to really delve into issues and provide a welcome perspective on our faith. Ambiguity, awkward historical realities, and spiritual uncertainty are here to stay; the internet and expanding community interactions have seen to that. So let's embrace that world in a constructive way and find a way to exert faith in the things that really matter. Kudos to Joanna for moving that conversation forward.
One of the most challenging aspects of history is that it is always written by the victors. That is, the perspective and opinions portrayed in any depiction of the past is colored by those who have the privilege of writing it. So how does one write the history of a people who have been more or less colonized for the past four centuries, who had no written history of their own prior to the arrival of Europeans and Americans? How do you convey a historical narrative that is faithful to a culture when most sources are from external voices?
This textbook is the very first such attempt to write a history for the people of the Marshall Islands from a Marshallese perspective. And despite frequent editorial errors and a rushed final few chapters, the book succeeds admirably. The author, with frequent help from her contributors, pulls from all available sources to portray a history that places Marshallese culture front and center but does so within a broader global context. Having lived in the country for the past two years, I was completely captivated by the narrative because it helps explain so much of contemporary Marshallese culture. The social structures of Irooj (chief) and dry-jerbal/kajoor (workers/commoners) and the role of land ownership are clearly described such that an outsider like myself could understand their historical sources as well as how they have changed when confronted by foreign powers such as Germany, Japan, and the U.S. In that regard, I think the book will challenge some Marshallese who may insist that "real" Marshallese traditions and culture have been untouched by foreign powers. And the textbook also rightly challenges colonial narratives of the civilizing of the Pacific.
I think the most remarkable aspect of this textbook, however, is how it teaches about the study of history itself. It has been over a decade since I last glanced at a high school history textbook, but when I was in school, history was taught as a basic exposition of facts that were uncontroversial and uncontested. There were some grey areas of course (Native American displacement is one I do remember), but the grand arc of history was laid out with a definitive flourish. Not so here, which is refreshing:
It is always important to ask, 'Whose view is represented and whose is left out?' Is on version of history better than another? Which version do we believe? How can we trust that the storyteller is 'right'? The truth is that no version of history, no story, is every completely right. Stories are limited by the teller, by the times in which they are told, and by the prejudices and views that influence which parts of a story are emphasized or ignored. Stories are always interpretations of events, even when they are presented as factual, because every teller is limited by his or her own perspective. So, how then do we learn what 'really happened'? How do we learn history? (p. 5)I loved history in school, but I missed out almost entirely on this nuance until I went to college. I congratulate Dr. Walsh and her contributors on bringing this context to the forefront of the study of history in the Marshall Islands. And I am sure that subsequent editions will correct the numerous errors and flesh out the final chapters, which were clearly written hastily. In the end, these issues do not dramatically detract from the text, and students in the RMI should be grateful to have such a good foundation from which to study their own history.
18 January 2013
The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia by P.F. Kluge. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1991. 244 pp., $21.00.
Having arrived home yesterday from a short vacation/work trip in Pohnpei, I feel particularly motivated to write about Kluge's book. I actually finished this book about a month ago and have been stewing over what to write every since. Less intensive than Father Hezel's comprehensive history, and less playful than Peter Rudiak-Gould's tale of life in the Marshalls, Kluge's commentary--colorful, accurate, and funny--makes for an enjoyable read. His experience in the region over several decades combined with his existing writing abilities is captivating for anyone who has lived in the America-dominated North Pacific.
Having lived here myself for almost two years now, I identify a lot with the author's perspectives. I confess, in fact, that I am somewhat flustered by just how much I recognize the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Kluge wrote this over two decades ago. Since then, the Soviet Union collapsed, the internet was born, there have been dramatic transformations in the global economy, and the U.S. has fought three wars. Out here, almost nothing has changed. Kluge has captured here an improbable story of a region frozen in time, beholden to U.S. foreign assistance, in no hurry to take dramatic steps to grab ahold of "the next best thing," and seemingly content where things stand, to the utter consternation of many who had hoped for something better. The story of the fisherman and the business consultant is all too real here in the Pacific.
Armed with good intentions and faced with a colonial power vacuum at the end of World War II, the United States eagerly stepped into its leadership role in the North Pacific. Following in the footsteps of Spain, then Germany, and then Japan, the United States would become the next bridge between the global community and the far-flung islands of the Marshalls, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap, the Marianas, and Palau. The U.S. first worked to "develop" the islands under the aegis of the UN Trust Territory framework, providing funding for health, education, infrastructure, and economic innovation. The stated goal was eventual sovereignty for the islands. But the islands took their own paths, each according to its own culture, geography, and influential leadership. The result that persists to this day is a confusing mix of countries "in free association," territories, and commonwealths that all remain inextricably tied to the U.S. And the assistance funding programs continue.
The author was first sent to Micronesia as a Peace Corps volunteer and set out, like the U.S. more broadly, to help improve the lives of the local populations. He followed closely the various discussions about independence, and even helped draft the preamble to the Constitution of Micronesia. Kluge was impressed with a cast of local leaders, particularly Lazarus Salii who would go on to become the third president of Republic of Palau. These leaders that came out of the islands in the 1960s and 1970s appeared dedicated to transform the region into a paradise with its own unique style. Yet something happened along the way. The transformation never happened. At least, the change never happened as it was envisioned by U.S. government officials, idealistic Peace Corps volunteers, or according to early rhetorical statements of island leaders.
When the author returns to the islands in the late 1980s, over two decades after he served as a Peace Corps volunteer, he recounts his sense of loss in discovering that hoped-for possibilities never materialized:
A wonderful sense of possibility that deteriorated into opportunity and after that, opportunism. For that is what happened, all across the islands, that is what I've seen, traveling through, from the garbage empire that's a-building in the Marshalls to the garment factories and tourist hotels on Saipan, from the sullen shack settlements of Truk to the vacant green forests of Ponape. The islands could not hold their own, not with America, not with each other, not with themselves.... Islands turned smaller and smaller, sinking under the weight of dreams they could not sustain (pp. 232-233).Dreams they could not sustain: was that because the dreams were not of their own making? That is the question I keep coming back to. The Pacific Islands have been remarkably resilient in the face of continual colonization since the mid-1800s. They have been shaped, to be sure, by global power dynamics and foreign influences--the littered World War II ships, airfields, and unexploded ordnance are a testament to that. But these tiny, diverse, and widely-dispersed populations somehow let the powers pass through without assimilating any more than was absolutely necessary. The Germans wanted hierarchal order and economic productivity, the Japanese wanted discipline and obedience, and the Americans wanted individual initiative and progress. But what did the islands want? More and more I suspect they just wanted to be left alone.