Monday, January 31, 2011

Self-Definition and Love

In sociology, we are discussing and critiquing modern society. One particular statement concerning identity construction stands out to me: We are, we define ourselves, by what we consume. Not only are we what we eat, but also what we buy, what we wear, what we choose to pay to experience.

Although the Gospel does instruct us to be "neat and comely" - to look good and to take care of our appearance - that is far more open-ended than is found in most of our cultures. I am as guilty as almost anyone; I make snap judgments about people by the clothes they wear, by the music they listen to, by the television they watch. The latter two are probably more defensible than the first; books and movies/television are essentially available for free, to almost anyone, in my community; websites like Hulu and Netflix, along with the public libraries, mean that selection of written and visual media is more a matter of choice than of social constraint. I ought to judge someone based on their choices (judge: evaluate, consider, weigh, orient myself in a particular way towards, NOT condemn) rather than their wealth.

However, what I or others choose to consume, especially in media, has an immense impact on the type of person I become. If I continually watch crude, raw, or vulgar material, I will eventually become raw, crude and vulgar, by sheer force of association if by nothing else. Unfortunately, most of what we define as normal in society is codified and learned through material that is coarse, crude, vulgar, and raw. Consider the relationships depicted on television: does anyone actually want to live in a soap opera? Does anyone actually want to live like Edward Cullen and whatever-her-name-is, forever staring into each others' eyes in a lifeless relationship of lust? Art and entertainment take extreme, even ridiculous positions to capture our attention (South Park and Family Guy, for example) and hold our interest, but as we are socialized into the entertainment culture, entertainment has to take ever more extreme positions to remain provocative. The pornography industry offers an example in microcosm: people begin by looking at pornography and often acclimatize, and so seek more and more intense visual (or written!) stimulation. Similarly, once you have seen Iron Man, or movies like it (Transporter, for example) enough times, three explosions are no longer exciting. Five are necessary, or ten, etc. The second Transformers film, I am told, is an example.

Either way, if entertainment and social norms lead us to withhold love from others based on their refusal to participate in cultural events, alternative selections of entertainment, differing interests, etc., then following Christ requires being socially unusual (for Christ's sake, and not for it's own. Kierkegaard has a wonderful critique of people who are weird to get attention, as does the Savior: those who are strange to be seen of men have their reward already, and miss the Heavenly rewards for those who just follow the Savior without thinking about how other people will react to it, and without trying to create a stir.) Additionally, where social norms of humor, for example, require putting down other people, Christ requires us to be more like the people we otherwise wouldn't associate with, "dorks" who don't "take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for [their] neighbor;" and so forth (2 Nephi 28:8).

The Savior seemed to make it a point to seek out the weary, the downtrodden, the rejected, and the unpopular; or rather, as the parable describes, He seeks all, and is accepted by those who are humble enough to heed. Consider the parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, "Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage." But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. - Matt 22:2-10.

Especially thinking of heaven as a state of mind - a divine harmony of the thoughts and soul with the will and love of God - rejecting others is excluding ourselves from the blessings of Heaven.

The difficult option is to evaluate someone based on their choices and behavior, rather than on their social skill or lack thereof. The quality of someone's laugh, or a particularly quirky sense of humor, even somewhat obnoxious conversation, is still the expression of a divine daughter or son of God. Bearing that in mind, I find no justification for my own exclusionary behaviors based on ascriptive traits. In other words, if it's outside of someone's control, how can I judge (condemn) them for it? With what right do I have to withhold love or service from someone?

More than that, even if it's something in their control: what right do I have to withhold love for that? I must act wisely, as the Lord directs - I am not suggesting opening savings accounts with known bank robbers, for example - but where is the justification for a lack of love?

I have at various points in my life been considered popular and considered a loser, and most of the spectrum in between. I feel somewhere on the lower end of that spectrum now; I suspect that I am not highly thought of. Fortunately, the requirement to love extends even to those who treat us poorly or with apathy or disrespect; I say fortunately: how many people have I treated poorly or with disrespect? How often has that same condescension, which I loathe crept into my own voice? How often have I deified humor at the expense of a human heart?

As a result, I cannot complain; justice craves that I reap what I sow, and I have sown the east wind and justifiably can reap the whirlwind. The Atonement provides redemption and forgiveness, and God and my Savior provide comfort and strength, but I have no right to claim love from others. I have no right to demand or expect it.

Returning to sociology, the alternative to defining ourselves by what we consume is to define ourselves by our relationships with others; I am who I am because of how I interact with those around me. In terms of self worth, I think that quickly becomes, "I am valuable because others love me." However, as discussed previously, that human love is imperfect, fallible, and cannot be craved. This is perhaps my biggest contention with "Through a Glass Darkly" - faith in the possibility of "mänsklig kärlek" (human love) is not a sufficient "anchor to the souls of men." Human love is beautiful and inconstant.

So I critique that sociological perspective. Relying on human relationships is like trying to find footing in quicksand; when the rains descend, and floods come, and the winds beat upon that person, they are swept away (Matt 7:26, 3. Nephi 14:26) Even reliance upon the self (a la Descartes* - see footnote) is uncertain - again, based on my own behavior, what claim can I make to love? Or what claim can I make to compel myself to love myself?

As far as I can tell, the only solid piece of anything to which one can attach is the choice to believe that God loves us. If we start there, and receive confirmation of that love, and feel it, and grow in it, and share it, and express it to others, we can have a firm foundation. The ultimate expression of that love is the Savior's Atonement; that's also the ultimate foundation for the soul.

With that unshaken and un-shakeable foundation of God's love, we have a reason to love ourselves. God loves us, we want to be like God (because we enjoy His love, because we feel it, because we want to emulate it, feel more of it, be a part of it) - so we love ourselves. We love others, even those we otherwise shouldn't or wouldn't. (Again, I am not speaking of love as permissive behavior here- I am speaking of the emotion and motivating power of love).

A great theological debate continues over whether or not God's love for us is unconditional; I will not take a position on that here. I can say this: I know that God wants what's best for each and every one of us, from the vilest sinner to the purest saint to the purest saint who has become the vilest sinner. That is an unchanging source of His motivation; even Hell is a merciful alternative to dwelling in the physical presence of God while one's mind is racked with guilt. He wants us to succeed, to be happy. He loves us.

Why? I don't know. I just know He does. I feel it. I choose to believe in it.

That is what has to be the basis of my self-definition. God loves me. I recognize that in these ways. This is who I am.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ordet vs. Through a Glass Darkly

I've spent a few days this week watching Scandinavian films for a class, two in particular: Dreyer's Ordet (The Word) and Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly. Ordet takes it's theme from Kierkegaard, one of my favorite authors; Through a Glass Darkly references one of my favorite verses from the New Testament.

I ought to warn potential viewers: The Bergman film does include references to incest; nothing is shown, but the subject matter may be objectionable. I found it disconcerting, perhaps because I knew it was coming; the foreshadowing filled me with dread.

That aside, Ordet discusses the quest for God through the metaphors of physicality, life, death, insanity, and faith; Through a Glass Darkly explores the search for God through insanity, physicality, and love. As I'm currently writing a kind of sermon-essay on physicality, I found both films eerily appropriate, though Ordet takes a position on faith with which I much more definitely agree.

I won't ruin either film for those who have not yet watched them, so to discuss the issue, I'll reference Bergman's Wild Strawberries. The seeker in the film quotes a famous Swedish poem: "Var är den vän som överallt jag söker?"

I'll provide a bit of translation here, alongside the original Swedish text. For my Swedish readers, I welcome commentary and suggestions on the translation. "Var är Den Vän som överallt jag söker?" av Josef Olaf Wallin.

Var är den vän som överallt jag söker?
När dagen gryr, min längtan blott sig öker;
När dagen flyr, jag än ej honom finner,
Fast hjärtat brinner.

Where is that friend, whom everywhere I seek?
When the day dawns, my longing only grows;
When the day flees, I still cannot find Him
Though my heart burns.

Jag ser hans spår, varhelst en kraft sig röjer,
En blomma doftar och ett ax sig böjer.
Uti den suck jag drar, den luft jag andas,
Hans kärlek blandas.

I see his traces, wherever power moves,
a flower blooms, or a leaf bends.
In the breath I draw, the air I breathe
His love is mixed.

Jag hör hans röst, där sommarvinden susar,
Där lunden sjunger och där floden brusar;
Jag hör den ljuvast i mitt hjärta tala
Och mig hugsvala.

I hear his voice, where summer winds whisper,
where groves sing and where rivers roar
I hear it best in my heart speaking,
and me keeping.


Ack, när så mycket skönt i varje åder
Av skapelsen och livet sig förråder,
Hur skön då måste själva källan vara,
Den evigt klara!

O! When so much beauty in every vein
of Creation and life fail,
How beautiful must the source be,
The eternally True!

I've tried to stay with the literal translation here, though I admit some artistic licenses.

This is one of my favorite poems in Swedish, and if you read the whole thing, it's fairly inspiring; comfort and evidence of God's hand, and reason for hope, in the world around us. Bergman doesn't quite get so far as hope in God, though, I think: in Through A Glass Darkly at least, the title character only gets so far as the possibility of goodness. Granted, the goodness he finds as comfort, both for him and for his son (that his daughter rejects in favor of a more... tangible? God) does provide some measure of hope.

That's a far cry, though, from Ordet's reassurance of a living, active, human God. That, I think, is one of the most comforting aspects of Christianity - not just that God exists, not just that there's the possibility of redemption, but that there are living, thinking, loving Beings who WANT us to succeed. It's the difference between an indifferent universe and a friendly one; between mortality that is only dreary and bitter and mortality with meaning; between a long, mechanical grind through life and a joyous journey of development and understanding.

So, of course I prefer Ordet. I ordered it online, actually, the night I saw it. I've never done that with a film before. If you haven't taken the time to see it yet, check it out.

Through a Glass Darkly is something I'll recommend if you choose not to believe in God. It provides a perspective on God that perhaps is easier to swallow. In my experience, though, what Through A Glass Darkly offers is not enough of a support in my journey through mortality; Ordet describes something that is.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Travel to Europe

A post for my international audience especially. I hope to travel to Europe this summer. Which places would you recommend? Which countries? Let's assume I'll be within striking distance of anywhere on the continent.

Thanks in advance!


Everybody plays the fool, sometimes
No exception to the rule:
Everybody plays the fool.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


And I was accepted to go to Cambridge this summer! What an amazing twenty-four hours!!!!!!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teacher's reply

Since my research is taking an eternity to compute (ahh, statistical software) I thought I'd post a follow-up to my email to my professor.
My professor was quite considerate, and addressed my concerns; he actually summed up my worry as a concern about priestcraft, which I thought was an interesting take. He reassured me that my grades would NOT be based on coerced risk, and also conducted a class discussion on the topic. As it turns out, what I was worried about is not only unethical, it is also entirely illegal. Anyway, I was more than satisfied - impressed, even - with my teacher's response, and am enjoying the class.

On a side note, I have submitted a poem to a BYU creative writing journal, and will this evening submit the same poem to "Third Coast" creative writing journal. The poem is rather edgy; I intentionally used some imagery that some find offensive or disgusting. I think the overall effect can be uplifting, however, and that was the point.

I think it fits on the last part of this post, by Cassandra Barney, on art (specifically, her quote that one must expose something vulnerable for art to happen). Like her painting, my poem is a little edgy for an overall benefit; though I must admit this type of art (both her painting and my poem) pose something of a problem for me. I had a long discussion with a friend about the poem; she called it "harsh art." My question is this: is there a place for a painting of a naked woman in modern LDS art? I think so, but the tougher question then becomes: where is the line between nude art, or harsh art, and pornography?

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Having received more response to my blog post and email than I expected, I thought I'd write a brief follow up.

Several people have been surprised by my characterization of learning as repentance; some of these responses have been more coherent than others; I will respond to general thoughts, and let other arguments stand, or fall, as they may.

The Bible Dictionary in the LDS edition of the scriptures defines repentance as:

"Repentance. The Greek word of which this is the translation denotes a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Since we are born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined. Without this there can be no progress in the things of the soul’s salvation, for all accountable persons are stained by sin, and must be cleansed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Repentance is not optional for salvation; it is a commandment of God" (

Forming a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world is exactly what learning is. As someone studies chemistry, they form a fresh view of the world; as someone does math problems, as one of my detractors used as an example, one forms a fresh view of logic, or math, which is part of the world. In other words, any real learning is a portion of repentance. LDS doctrine teaches that God is the source of all truth. Thus, learning any truth is a means of coming closer to God. Joseph Smith taught that members of the Church should accept and act on all truth, from whatever source they could find it.

I suppose that one could learn something that is not true, and thus be deceived and not come closer to God; learning falsehood is not repentance. But with the positive connotations associated with learning, I believe that I can successfully call learning "discovering truth." If learning is a positive thing, it is repentance. Every good thing comes from God, from Christ.

One of the least coherent critiques I've received is the remark made by a commenter accusing me of not thinking of this is as a religious issue. On the contrary - my point is that EVERY instant of life is a religious issue, especially learning.

An important note here - some learning is more important, and brings us closer to God more powerfully, than others. A knowledge of the reality of the Atonement of Christ is necessary for our salvation and exaltation; a knowledge of particle physics is not. Or rather, is not initially; if we are to become like our Heavenly Father, a being who knows EVERYTHING, then yes, we do "come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) by virtue of our ignorance. This is a possible explanation for Joseph Smith's statement: "No man may be saved in ignorance." Similarly, the scripture in Ephesians 4:18: "Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart".

Fortunately, we don't have to learn everything in mortality; since we are "born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of the sin to which we are naturally inclined" (Bible Dictionary). This repentance is not optional.

In direct response to a previous commenter, yes - we all do sin, and so yes, we all do need to repent. And until we are like our Heavenly Father, we need to turn to Him - through "religious" repentance, and by "seek[ing] learning by study, and also by faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Original sin has nothing to do with it, nor do sins of omission. A failure to learn is an example of a sin of omission. We entered mortality, partly, because we didn't know everything our Heavenly Father did and we wanted to learn. The requirement to learn, and therefore, repent, does not only apply to errors we have made and want to correct. Repentance is much larger than that.

In my professor's response, he questioned whether running a mile and breaking down muscles so that they can be built up again could be classified as repentance. From either view of repentance, they can be. If one is living for God and striving to serve Him with all their might, mind, and strength, how can exercise not be part of learning to be like God? How can improving physically NOT be a part of His work? If one is exercising for selfish reasons or without an eye single to the glory of God, then yes, one is not repenting. But one also does not learn. If a person is not moving towards God, they are not discovering truth. Again, God is the source of all truth (interestingly, the devil the father of all lies or falsehoods); moving away from God is not learning.

From the perspective that any (true) learning is repentance, running also qualifies; I believe in an embodied, and perfectly embodied, God; physical learning brings my perspective closer to his in the same way that intellectual learning does - again, as long as I am uncovering truth.

Turning the heart and will to God is far more than simply saying one is sorry for every bad thing one does or has ever done. It is changing everything about ourselves to be more like our Heavenly Father. Hence, the enabling power of the Atonement: not only do we need the Christ's forgiveness and mediation, we also need His help to do anything. We need His help to improve. As Ammon stated, "Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things" (Alma 26:12).

One word in a comment stands out to me: sadistic. Someone called me sadistic for wanting to beat myself up about learning. Apart from the misuse of the word (masochistic would be more appropriate if I were beating myself up), and the misunderstanding concerning my intention (I was not beating myself up in the post at all, but objecting to institutionalized coercion), the emotional charge is clear and appropriate. I am preaching hard doctrine. Everything you do either brings you closer to God or takes you away from Him. There are decisions that we make upon which the Lord doesn't see fit to give us guidance: He doesn't direct me to buy a particular can of tuna, and most or all of the cans of tuna at store are probably acceptable choices. But I am accountable to Him even for that decision.

Nothing in life is free or unconnected to our spiritual growth. Not work, not recreation, not relaxation, not renewal, not sleep, not eating, not sex, not love. Not learning.

Luckily, just because things are connected to our relationship with God doesn't make them unpleasant. Generally speaking, quite the contrary. But that is another topic entirely.

As a side note, although I strongly disagreed with one of the responses I received, I am slightly surprised and rather pleased to find that I have a broader American audience. I knew that I had a few readers in Germany, Russia, Brussels, Israel, and other places around the world (thank you all, by the way); I didn't know the extent of the American response. It makes me glad to write - even if I disagree with someone, we can both learn ( :-) ) something from the exchange.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

First emotions

Anger. Inexplicably, as my outdoor experience teacher was describing effective learning, all I felt was a rising displeasure. The man was dead-on in what he was describing. "Learning is meaningful if there is personal risk involved which puts us outside of our comfort zone, breaks down some of the lesser things about us, and allows us to rebuild ourselves in a better way." My professor was echoing a sentiment I've held for a long time - learning is repentance. Incidentally, I saw a video clip in a class the following day in which Hugh Nibley says almost exactly the same thing: to learn is to repent over and over again. I wasn't angry about someone sharing my opinion, or apparently having claimed it first.

The smile slid from my face, my posture straightened, and my brow went taut. Real education is repentance, that is true; but why was my professor claiming that as a goal of the course? Or as a particular insight of writing or outdoor survival?

True, writing and outdoor activities both push one outside of their comfort zone; true, both activities encourage an individual to reflect on their experiences and come to greater internal understanding. But repentance is between man and God; except in cases of specific need, no other individual should be involved. The effects of repentance ripple outward through social networks, but there is a reason prayer is usually private. Even in cases of excommunication, members of the Church are not required to describe their expulsion in gratuitous detail; an adulterer simply explains that he committed adultery, gives details necessary to gain help in the repentance process, and moves onward. The repentant sinner does not write a romance novel about their affair.

Again, back to my anger. Repentance certainly ought to be a goal of the course; it should be the goal of every teacher and student, in everything they learn and teach. But I do not trust my professor to provide me a repentance-environment, or to grade the risks I take in my writing. Creating a repentance environment sounds, to me, sadistic: mortality is our risk environment, and the only reason it works is that God is perfectly loving and does not inflict an iota upon us more than we have to go through or than we are able to bear. My professors are not as capable. Will I earn a better grade if I risk a limb? Or my life? Or my sanity?

Similarly, in writing: a professor may grade my ability to communicate, but not the degree to which I am willing to take risks. Whatever "risks" I take that are, truly, risks are the ones that either bring me closer to God or take me away from Him. The bleeding edge of my character construction ought to be revealed to God alone. Why should a professor expect to see my heart? Or, on the negative side: Why should a professor expect me to confess to him my sins? Anything less is not really a risk; rehashing principles already learned and appropriated hardly shakes my perspective.

Perhaps this is hypocritical of me - I certainly have shared attempts at repentance on this blog, along with some rather personal insights. I have used writing as a means to come to terms with some of the personal demons I face. I have been criticized, in the past, for sharing too much with my digital audience. The difference, however, lies in the fact that I have chosen what to share, without penalty. Sometimes, I have chosen to reveal myself for the benefit of my audience. Other times, I have not. As I understand this course, now I will be pressured, through grades, to do so regardless of my feelings on the matter.

I felt similarly pressured in my South Africa Prep course; written "sensitivity training" is just as abusive and loathsome as that practiced by fraternities. I do not care to what institution someone belongs: if they attempt to coerce me to divulge the things of my soul, I will respond to their assault on my individuality with every means at my disposal. In practice, my deepest loathings - which have required the most difficult repentance -have been reserved for people and organizations that make the attempt. I cannot imagine a more effective means of earning my steadfast enmity.

So of course I was angry. My professor described an institutionalized attempt to gain access to my sanctum sanctorum without earning the right to be there.

I could simply leave the class. But I agree that learning requires risk, so here is the risk I am going to take: I will send this post to my professor. I will challenge the notion that degree of risk-taking in writing, that repentance in writing, is something that ought to be graded. I will give the professor the opportunity to respond. There is little risk to my character; I risk only my participation in the class. As a result, I learn only a few things about myself- namely, that I won't stand for this kind of nonsense again. But I will learn, and give the professor the opportunity to learn, how he will respond to my concerns.

A note of caution - I had to leave the essay writing half of the class a few minutes early, and perhaps I have misunderstood the purpose of the course. Perhaps risk taking in writing is only encouraged, not required. If so, then I will again look forward to the experience. This class is one of the first two I picked out of the catalog when I came to BYU; the course description influenced my decision to join the Honors program, and I've been working for three years to get into it. Even so, my privacy is worth more than my pleasure. If I have to drop the class...
So be it.