Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gordon B. Hinckley

I used to live a few blocks away from the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Over the years, I made special visits to the graves of a number of prominent Mormons buried there: John Taylor, Elijah Abel, Evan Stephens, Emmeline B. Wells, James E. Talmage, George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, Howard W. Hunter. I’d sit near the grave, talk to the person for a while, then finish with a prayer in which I talked to God about that person. I’ve made similar “visits” to Eliza R. Snow’s grave near Temple Square, B. H. Roberts’s grave in Centerville, and the Wilson Library here at Chapel Hill, where as a grad student, Leonard Arrington had the spiritual experience that convinced him God wanted him to work in Mormon history.

I don’t expect to be back in Salt Lake for a while. But if I were able to visit Gordon B. Hinckley (who I assume will be buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery next to Marjorie), my talk with him would go something like this.


I was a big admirer of yours when I was a missionary. Watching you presiding at General Conference in Benson’s absence, I was impressed by your calm self-assurance, how naturally you took the helm. Even then, I didn’t understand why you and other Church leaders stuck as long as you did to the implausible claim that Benson was still directing the Church through your visits with him at his home, instead of just invoking—as you finally did—the idea of the backup system. It was clear that you were perfectly capable of filling Benson’s shoes. I remember in particular being impressed by the way you had the entire viewing audience at General Conference participate in the Hosanna Anthem on the occasion of the Salt Lake Temple centennial. You had a gift for using ritual and symbol to create a sense of collective experience. You showed that gift later in the televised Hosanna Shout at the Conference Center dedication, or in the story about using your walnut tree for the Conference Center pulpit. In an age of mass media, the ability to use symbols that way is indispensable, and you knew how to do it.

I was a lot less impressed with the way you joked about the September Six at a BYU fireside I attended after my mission—you compared the excommunication of five intellectuals to 500 convert baptisms in Utah alone during the same month, and then said something about 5 versus 500 sounded pretty good to you. I felt like I was the only person in the Marriott Center who didn’t find that funny. Why worry about the one in the wilderness when you’ve still got 99 in the fold, huh?

The real turning point for me, though, was the Mike Wallace interview. Because I’d been so impressed with how you handled yourself on camera during General Conference, I expected to see a similarly impressive performance on 60 Minutes. But that serene confidence evaporated when you had Mike Wallace in front of you instead of a Tabernacle full of admiring faces. When he asked you hard questions (which weren’t all that hard, frankly), you were evasive, defensive, dismissive of issues about which you should have known to at least fake sensitivity: sex abuse, the black priesthood ban. “A blip here, a blip there.” “That’s past, put it behind us, stop talking about it.” I was appalled. I had a similar reaction to the Larry King Christmas show where you shared the time with Desmond Tutu. I’m sorry, I don’t cared how charming Larry King found your grandfatherly folksiness—you were not remotely in the same league with a man who faced down apartheid. And speaking of media appearances: your fudging about the little couplet wasn’t exactly your finest hour. What I’m saying is, you didn’t do media as well as you seemed to think you did, or as well as your adoring faithful thought you did. It was embarrassing--and disillusioning.

I want to try to be fair here. You gave your entire adult life to serving this church. You’re responsible for the creation of the filmed endowment, which attests to your ability to be innovative and creative when it came to using modern media. Then there’s the mini-temples—I’m not sure if they were your idea, but at the very least you promoted them, and that’s been, again, a very important innovation that helps make temple worship more accessible to Latter-day Saints outside the major Mormon population centers. The worldwide training sessions via satellite are another example of how media was used in new ways under your presidency to help foster a sense of community among the Saints. The Conference Center has a similar effect (though I can’t help but see it at some level as a colossal monument to yourself. I’m predicting, actually, that they’ll name it for you now). The Perpetual Education Fund—again, an innovative adaptation of a Mormon tradition, one that represents an attempt to provide material aid to Latter-day Saints in the Third World.

On the other hand, you’re responsible for the Proclamation on the Family, which is going to be a dead weight around the Church’s neck, dragging it down, holding it back, for years to come. I should be grateful that at least you didn’t canonize it. On gay issues: you did finally tell bishops to stop recommending marriage as a solution, which was helpful, albeit a generation late. We could have done without the “so-called gays and lesbians” business, though. It’s an improvement over what others have called us. But how would you feel about being routinely referred to as a “so-called Christian”?

I have to say something about the Iraq war. The talk you gave about that during General Conference was, to your credit, measured in the sense that you tried to avoid people attaching prophetic authority to your pro-war stance (as if that were really possible, though, in that setting). And you said that dissent was permissible, and you acknowledged that Saints in different parts of the world would see this differently. But that speech was a huge problem for those of us who had been speaking out against the war in the name of our Mormon faith. And your faith in George W. Bush was deeply, deeply troubling. Did you remain loyal to that man to the end? Even after they didn’t find the WMDs, even after Abu Ghraib, even after the revelations about how intelligence was manipulated? Do you still think that the U.S. military is in Iraq waging a war of good against evil? The Medal of Freedom Bush gave you is not something of which you should be proud. And the moral support you pledged to him in the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also not something of which you should be proud. I hope that at some point in the future you come to see that.

I guess the last thing I should say to your credit, to try to end on a more positive note, is that your message of optimism is certainly an improvement over the siege mentality that possesses certain of your colleagues (including the man I’d hoped you'd manage to outlive. Oh well. You tried).

Ah—I almost forgot. In several accounts I’ve read about conflicts between intellectuals and the hierarchy, you come off pretty well. Thank you for that. On the other hand, you also seem to have been the mastermind behind the Church’s strategies for campaigning against the ERA, which are now being used to try to make sure that people like my partner and I will never be able to marry in this country. That’s something else I hope you come to regret at some point in the future.

All right, let me say this, too. It’s not the kind of thing I’m naturally inclined to say, but I think the Spirit’s nudging me to be less self-involved here. I’m glad for your sake that you were able to be active to the end. I imagine it would have been unbearably frustrating for you to be invalid. And I hope that you weren’t in pain.


Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother—

Your son Gordon has returned home to you.
I give thanks that he seems to have had a reasonably good death, a reasonably quick and pain-free death.
I give thanks that he can be with Marjorie again. It was obvious that they loved each other.
I give thanks for the good that he did during his years of church service.
You know better than I what that good was.
You know better than I how the initiatives he promoted do or don’t fit into your own plans for the future of the LDS Church.
And you know better than I how he touched other people’s lives.

I pray for the LDS Church as a new president comes to the helm.
I pray that the good Gordon B. Hinckley accomplished during his time on earth will continue to bear fruit.
I pray that those who come after him in Church leadership will not undo the good that he did.
At the same time, I pray that the Church will grow beyond the limitations of Gordon B. Hinckley’s presidency.

In Christ’s name, amen.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Apocalypse of Nephi

This week I read 1 Nephi 11-14, which I think of as the "Apocalypse of Nephi." Reading apocalypses—whether Daniel, Revelation, or D&C 29—tends to put me in a heavy, pessimistic mood. The situation was compounded this week by the fact that I've also been reading a lot of cultural studies and cultural theory in preparation for my doctoral exams, which has aroused my vaguely leftist political inclinations and the guilt I experience periodically about "How can I justify a career in the humanities? Shouldn't I be learning a practical discipline that would prepare me to help fight global poverty?"

So when I read this week about the great and abominable church that sits upon many waters and has dominion over all the earth (14:11), whose desires are gold and silver and silks and precious clothing (13:8), of course I thought: Globalization. Consumer capitalism. Americanization, to bring it that much closer to home. I'm living in Babylon, right here in the heart of the Empire—a fact that depresses me whenever I think about it. I'm one of those 10%, or whatever the figure is, who consume 90% of the world's resources. I enjoy a luxurious, environmentally unsustainable lifestyle that rides on the backs of the working poor—and I'm a poor grad student, mind you. But I live in the global equivalent of a gated community, and the 30-40 extra pounds I keep telling myself I'm going to lose are proof that I'm enjoying the benefits.

I can go on wringing my hands about this until even I'm sick of hearing it. And of course I derive considerable moral satisfaction from wringing my hands about it. ("You see? I'm one of the good guys. I'm fat and privileged—but look how guilty I feel about it.") But what shall we do? I believe—I have to believe—in the promise of a world where there will be no poor, where there will be no -ites, where all things will be held in common and the abundance of creation will be distributed equitably on the basis of need. But how does that world come to be? How do you overcome the impossibly enormous—and complicated—political and economic and social and cultural forces that keep that world from coming into being, that keep people trapped in systems of inequity and exploitation and oppression? There's talk in cultural studies about microresistance, little everyday acts that transgress the dominant order of things and thus affirm agency against powers of domination. I guess that's a place to start—by small and simple things, great things are brought to pass—and there's certainly no end of small things I could do to resist the culture of excess and indifference that I live in. As Nephi sees in his vision, people of covenant can tap into God's power to resist the Empire (14:14).

But I want more than that. And the writers of the apocalypses want more than that. They want to see the Empire overthrown. They want a radical, cataclysmic transformation of the world. The way they envision that happening horrifies me—the fantasies of violence poured out on everyone who doesn't believe the same things you do until finally your people are left alone to inherit the earth; the passivity of just waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things, which can easily become fatalism, as I've seen in conversations among Latter-day Saints about overpopulation and environmental degradation. I try to be empathetic: apocalypses are written by people who feel powerless, who can't imagine any other end to the seemingly unstoppable forces that oppress them except for the warrior God himself to intervene. I'd like to think that in an age of mass democracy, we have new, peaceful possibilities for ending oppression and establishing a reign of justice and equity. On the other hand, I have this nagging feeling that the apocalyptists may be on to something. Nephi has this strangely quasi-Marxist vision in which the evil empire collapses in on itself—falling into the pit of destruction that it itself dug (14:3). I liken that to myself and my generation, and I wonder: Have the systems of exploitation become so powerful that there is no other end possible except environmental, political, economic collapse?

I told you I get heavy and pessimistic when I think about this stuff.

So let me try to turn to a more hopeful vision. Because ultimately, that's what apocalypses are supposed to do: give readers reason to hope for a better future. In chapter 15, Nephi comes down from his vision. He's depressed about the destruction he's foreseen—I can relate. But then as he's talking with his brothers, he introduces an entirely different vision for the future than the vision of wrath and destruction he's just been giving us in the previous chapters. He says that in the last days, God will fulfill the promise he made to Abraham that all the kindreds of the earth will be blessed (15:18). That vision grabs me. A vision of blessing—a blessing for all peoples, all groups. This isn't the apocalyptic vision of God destroying every group except the faithful remnant. This is a vision of God revealing his power to bring about a universal blessing. That's the project I want to sign up for. In D&C 88:79, the Lord tells the Saints they need to prepare themselves for ministry by learning about "things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms." In other words: learn history, social science, political science, current events, all for the purpose of preparing yourselves to contribute to the building up of the kingdom. As an academic, that's a project I'm particularly well-positioned to sign onto. In my field, religious studies, that means engaging more closely and conscientiously with cultural studies: figuring out how religion works to reinforce domination and how it can be used as an effective force of resistance, a force that produces equity, justice, and blessing for all kindreds.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dedicatory prayer

Because I'm consecrating this blog for spiritual purposes, this first post is a dedicatory prayer.


God of light, Spirit of truth:

You have taught me to ponder the scriptures.
You have taught me to liken them to myself.
You have taught me to pray to know if what I read in them is true.
You have taught me to study things out in my mind.
You have taught me the value of keeping a journal.

You have promised that when I read the scriptures, I will hear your voice.
You have promised to speak to my mind and my heart.
You have promised to enlighten my understanding and enlarge my soul.
You have promised that by the power of the Holy Ghost, I may know the truth of all things.
You have promised to give me line on line, precept on precept.
You have promised to reason with me, as people reason with one another.
You have promised to direct me for good.

I dedicate this weblog as an online space for spiritual reflection.
I pray that the journaling I do here will be a channel for personal revelation.
I pray for a spirit of discernment, to distinguish truth from error.
I pray that as I engage with the scriptures, I will be led to productive insights.
I pray that through contact with your word, I will be transformed by your Spirit.
I offer these posts to others as a testimony of how you have worked and are working in my life.
I pray that, if it is your will, these posts might inspire others to engage with the scriptures of the Restoration.
I pray that you will give me, in the very hour, what to say.

In the name of Christ, I ask you to consecrate this performance to me, that it may be for the welfare of my soul and the welfare of those who may encounter it. Amen.