There are several reasons that I am an attorney instead of an English professor (my original plan). A relatively minor reason that I don’t usually mention is the dominance of multiculturalism in the academy as a lens for talking about and judging literature and culture generally.
What I mean by “multiculturalism” is a particular kind of intense focus on race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality, and other categories that might make a person a minority, and the ways in which cultures construct and deploy these categories (generally in ways that disadvantage the minority). Anyone who has studied English literature at today’s universities should understand what I mean. But so should anybody familiar with the rhetoric of certain liberal politicians, some of whom (for instance) have recently assumed it unnecessary to make any substantial explanation of why they deem it deeply wrong for Joe Biden to have had collegial relationships with segregationist senators. Continue reading →
You have expressed, by your words and/or your actions, that you feel no need to go to church. You don’t see how it would benefit you and your family (as I believe it would). I appreciate the frankness with which you shared how you feel, and I will also be frank even though that will entail explaining why I think you should feel differently than you do. In explaining this, I want to be clear that I don’t think you are a bad person for thinking as you do. But I do think you are mistaken on this point, and I consider it a point of sufficient importance that I want to explain why I think so.
On my mission in Taiwan and since then, I have met many people who have said they don’t see the need for church even though they believe in God. Many of these have told me something to the effect of “I’m happy with where my relationship with God is right now.” And if this is what they sincerely think, rather than glibly saying it to brush aside the matter, then I think it is their first and greatest error. Continue reading →
To many modern minds, including the minds of most people my age (thirties) in the Western world, it is practically inconceivable that there might be any legitimate rationale for inculcating a preference for heterosexual marriage over any other expression of sexuality, including homosexual marriage. This preference is the historical status quo, but it has been so dramatically rejected in the last 75 years (and especially the last 15) that, for many today, the whole business of disapproving sex for any reason other than nonconsent is wholly alien, bizarre, and even evil–a thing to be dismissed with a word: “Victorian,” “repressive,” “culturally insensitive,” etc. But can it be so easily dismissed? Where did the tradition of disapproving expressions of homosexuality come from?
Is it, as many moderns imagine, entirely irrational, evil, and indefensible? Continue reading →
It is debatable whether more ink or blood has been spilled throughout history over disagreements about the nature of scripture. The greatest expenditure occurred during the Reformation, but the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also resulted in a substantial outflowing. And yet the issue has never been settled, either amongst the denominations or within any single church. In addressing this subject in our age, I need not fear violence, but I fear I may not hope for many readers either.
There is much to love about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the least of which is its unique take on scripture. We believe the scriptures to be the word of God in a sense not entirely pinned down, but we do not believe in scriptural infallibility. From this perspective, church members should be free to appreciate the scriptures in a relatively free and broad-minded manner. Yet we tend to slip into the habit of reading our scriptures as if the main point was simply to set forth true doctrine (i.e., “Mormon doctrine”–what we already believe and understand)–as if the scriptures reached no higher and probed no deeper than the Gospel Principles manual. Without denigrating the eternally important purpose of teaching true doctrine, I hope to set forth other aspects of scripture to encourage a less dogmatic approach that is both richer and truer to the text. Stay tuned over the next week or two for a series of posts highlighting what scripture is besides doctrinal instruction, starting with art.
Scripture as Art: A God Who Puns
Among scholars of scripture, the claim that scripture is art must be one of the few uncontroversial claims. Whatever else it is, whatever more than art, it is certainly not less than art. The canonical words of the Bible and Book of Mormon come down to us in the particular art forms and genres that developed in the ancient Hebrew culture; the great sections of the Doctrine and Covenants are stamped with a wonderful conglomerate style that mingles two of the literary high points of English prose–King James’s reign and the mid-19th century.
Part of the reason we tend to miss the artistic aspect of scripture is that some of it is lost in translation. “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” The Greek word “petros” (rock) made this statement a pun. This is one of the better known instances, but punning and word play is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Few of them translate into English. Nor would any use of meter, consonance, assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.
But though we lack direct access to the original sounds that the original authors used to aesthetic advantage, we are still without excuse if we fail to recognize scripture as art. Many of Jesus’s parables are perfectly constructed gems from a purely aesthetic perspective, leaving aside their truth and moral power. Much of the prophetic writing in the Old Testament is in verse (though the King James translation fails to capture this fact). And while much of the aesthetic flourishes of scripture do not translate, some do. When Jesus told Peter, “I say unto you, not until seven times, but until seventy times seven,” the wordplay here translates pretty well. The word “times” in English evidently corresponds with the original language’s word. Both carry the related meanings of “instances” and “multiplied by.” Both cultures used a base-10 system of counting so that “seven” correlates with “seventy.”
Note that if Jesus had intended merely to express clearly and unambiguously the actual doctrine, he would have simply said, “always forgive” or some such statement. His use of aesthetic flourishes actually risks obscuring his meaning for a people who seemed to take everything he said literally. So why did he not adapt himself to their weakness and speak in plain, unmistakeable prose? There are no doubt many good answers to this question, but my main point here is not to address the why of it, but just the fact itself: the scriptures bespeak a God who is alive to the richness and play of language, and who sometimes prefers a good pun or an ambiguous story, that he may express his meaning (or meanings) in a manner pleasing to the sense, tractable to the memory, and demanding of the intellect. Because of this, scripture requires, even more than most texts, an interpretive act whereby we put something of ourselves into the text.
Next: Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again
Americans often look down on other cultures, such as middle-eastern cultures that force women to wear something over their hair and/or face while in public. We think it is demeaning to women. It certainly seems a little demeaning to me. I couldn’t dream of that being enforced as a law in America. But have you ever wondered, what American’s do that other cultures think is just wrong? What about us makes them cringe?
During my time in Taiwan I taught regular English classes. Once when I was teaching English class, we were discussing Chinese and American culture. I learned that to the Taiwanese, one of the most abhorrent things we accept in our culture is the prevalence of nursing homes. It makes them sick to think about it. You may think this funny, but listen to my limited understanding of their reasoning. Your parents gave you life, they feed you for years and gave the best of themselves to you. When they get old, how could you in return, send them away from their home, away from friends, and away from you, to a place where those who take care of them don’t do it for love, but for money? In Confucian influenced cultures there is a deep belief in filial piety, meaning respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. Due to this belief, grandparents often live in their children’s homes and are taken care of by their own children as they age. So that is the norm in China. Continue reading →
Modesty, like reverence, is becoming a forgotten virtue. Calls for modesty in dress in ultra-orthodox jewish neighborhoods are perceived by some as a violation of human rights. Others, less extreme, view codes of modest dress as stifling individual expression or as shifting responsibility for men’s sexuality from the men themselves to women. Now, it may or may not be a good idea to post signs in the hasidic neighborhoods. And codes of modest dress may indeed be misinterpreted by men as absolving them of responsibility for their own sexual behavior. But regardless, modesty is still a virtue–and one that deserves to be encouraged and inculcated.
We use the term “modesty” in the context of dress and in the context of personal achievement, but the core of the idea is the same Continue reading →