Change: An Inside Story

Propaganda is bad enough in-and-of itself. But when such philosophies are mingled with divine sentiment, propaganda insidiously masquerades as scripture. By the definition of the pious, it is not propaganda but eternal and unalterable truth. Just a smidgen of propoganda to which my parents and clergy subjected me as a child, teen, and adult included: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Or consider the words of Joseph Smith to other leaders in the church: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

What a waste of time the works of mere mortals like Dumas, Hugo, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Steinbeck would be to read. Reading it for school or work? Okay, then. Just make sure to recalibrate with your eternal touchstone, the best book EVER written, The Book of Mormon. When one is busy with family and work, what little time is left should be spent fortifying one’s spirit and inoculating their mind with the inane words of a tedious plagiarism. Ahh, The Book of Mormon…why should I read anything else?

Like all “apostates” I departed my daily fix of scripture and headed immediately to the profane. Thus, in September, as I browsed the “Christopher Hitchens” subreddit, I saw mention of a memoir to be published by Martin Amis. As an avid fan of Hitch, the name was known to me. In fact, several years ago I borrowed a copy of his novel “Money” from a dusty collection in the condo of an institute I frequent. I am certain it is not and will not be missed since said institute has sold the condos. I was told I could keep it though I don’t know if the authority that said it meant indefinitely.

Though I have barely skimmed the first chapters of “Money,” when I heard that Amis’s new memoir would include new reminiscences of Hitch and insights into his life and work, I wrote its release date on my calendar. At the appointed time, I walked to the Barnes and Noble near my place of work and bought one of the two copies they stocked for opening day. I had some trouble finding it since I believed it to be an autobiography though it was catalogued under fiction. I now understand it to be a novelized autobiography though I don’t know if I fully understand what that means. Regardless, reading Martin Amis’ bio has changed me. 

Prior to my spiritual awakening or spiritual death–depending on who you ask–I would not have known the name Martin Amis nor been interested in his work. And, if by some chance I had picked up the book to read it, I would have given up after the first use of the word fuck which he and his friend Saul Bellow–who dominates a good portion of the early chapters of which I still find myself reading–are not afraid to employ. I shouldn’t say that each page is rife with its use, in fact, it is not frequently encountered. But once is far too often for a good Mormon boy. Joseph Smith would never say it! He would prefer to refer to his dalliances with fourteen-year-olds in the barn as “exchanges.” At least he has his standards.

It did not take long for Amis’s words to affect me in a profound way. I suppose that you need another bit of my biography to understand why it might be that way.

First: My father was a man prone to anger. I know he loved me and my siblings and his parents. I’m not certain about how much he loved his wife–my mother, though I am confident he never cheated on her and they have been together since 1972. He quickly lost his temper when irritated or inconvenienced but never abused any of us physically. (Unless you include spankings which, though I do not subject my own children, I don’t consider it his abuse of me.) 

Second: Facebook is largely a waste of time and energy. Other than maintaining relationships, there is very nearly nothing of value to be found there. However, I remember one instance where I took something of value from a conversation. Not long after my faith transition, someone posted a news article about the U.S. prison system. One of my wife’s cousins who is also a former Mormon, commented that he felt punitive justice did not work and was amoral and he preferred rehabilitative justice. Aside from coming to agree with him over the years, the word “punitive” has stuck in my mind ever since with a very negative, undesirable connotation.

I began reading Martin Amis’s novelized autobiography, “Inside Story,” hoping to hear more about Christopher Hitchens. He doesn’t disappoint though Hitch’s appearances are not preeminent. Luckily for me, the writing is superb and the method of story-telling unique without drawing attention to itself in any cumbersome way. Without breaking the continuity of the telling, he describes his first date with a lovely woman by a third person present, page break, first person commentary, page break, third person present, page break, third person reminiscence the following day, and so on. It was masterfully and beautifully done and added depth to the story in a way I have never experienced as a reader nor could I conjure it as a writer.

Early in the prologue which Amis titled, Preludial, he describes his feeble attempt to show anger toward his daughter after admitting that he almost never experiences the emotion of anger. When his daughter pokes fun at his attempt, Amis says:

“The thing is I just don’t hold with it–anger. The Seven Deadly Sins ought to be revised and updated, but for now we should always remember that Anger rightly belongs in the classic septet. With anger–cui bono? (Translation: who stands to gain from anger?) Pity anger; pity those who radiate it as well as those on the other end of it. Anger: from Old Norse, angre ‘vex’, angr ‘grief’. Yes–grief. Anger is almost as transparently self-punitive as Envy.” 

Amis’ words inspired me but, more importantly and perhaps the reason for their inspiration is that I was motivated and invigorated without experiencing shame. I am a man prone to anger–much like my father. A brooding, distant anger rather than one who lashes out physically as a result. But with Amis’s words and my revulsion to the words punitive, I now see how damaging anger is to me, personally! So, when I read his words, I was able to make a choice to be different. Anger has largely hurt only  myself. And here is the difference between reading good literature free of scriptural injunctions or indoctrination: I focussed on me and not on some invisible, irritated, offended god who now needed  my penitent attention.

What is it with the Christian God? For years I had read about the destruction of individuals and civilizations due to an offense of this petty God. The poor children who teased this God’s prophet were mauled to death by bears! This God is offended when we use an improper name or moniker for his one true church. 

I don’t need more examples of how, in emulating this God, I had become just like him. And it was anger I was trying to leave behind me. God has been a terrible example of avoiding anger. Wrathful and vengeful. When the scriptures inspired me to change it was always associated with guilt and shame toward this abusive Father in Heaven. No matter the sin, repentance was a prerequisite to change. How could I become better and abandon the self-punitive emotion if I was required to apologize to a God who showed me regular employ of these attributes to begin with? A God who rules and reigns by those emotions?  

Reading Amis’s simple observation has done more for me in a week than years of studying the scriptures. I’m not accountable to a fickle God. I’m not a chosen person who may sometimes experience righteous indignation. I’m not a steward of God’s spirit children embodied in my own. I’m not a slave to the “natural man” who needs submission to God to change and improve. I am merely a man in charge of myself and no one else. There is no spiritual foundation to happiness or misery. But there is a reality that anger is self-punitive. Like envy, it torments the one who experiences it and often more than those around them. 

The Christian God has demonstrated and admitted he is jealous and wrathful (just google the terms in the Bible) answering the sins of fathers on the heads of their children for three to four generations. My father was a man of anger and I see it in myself. I see it in some of my children. The cycle perpetuates in the generations but it ends with me. Why? Not from shame or guilt or tearful repentance. It stops with me because I truly found one of the best books and it expected nothing from me. It’s author hoped I would read it but is not so jealous or wrathful as to exact punishment on me should I not. But, it did offer a simple, intimate insight into himself. In doing so, I learned a lesson that I cannot get over. I can’t get over it because of how profoundly it has already helped my life in just a week.

The best books are out there. They are different for everyone. They touch us at moments when we are ready and willing and only when we are reading them. They do not require sorrow or shame to reach our hearts and minds. They don’t claim to be inspiring. They simply claim to be honest. They may claim to be entertaining. But they never rise to the hubristic level of declaring themselves scripture. And I would not label them as such. For to do so would ruin them, undermine their goodness, and taint their simplicity. 

Thank you Mr. Amis, for that which I am confident you did not intend when you wrote those words.

One thought on “Change: An Inside Story

  1. Thank you for this. Describes perfectly and exactly what I felt a few years ago after reading The Power of Now and then later A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I initially felt guilty that I found the book so moving because it was outside the scriptural canon. Yet I couldn’t deny that the way those words touched me and were applicable to every aspect of my life was so much deeper than I had ever felt from thousands of hours of scripture study and conference talks.

    Liked by 1 person

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