Category Archives: Culture

Illusions of Happiness

I’m no longer content with being happy, but I have learned to be happy with being content. Perhaps I should say, that I have found happiness is not consistently satisfactory, even the pursuit of it which, in the United States, I have as a recognized, natural right. It would be safer and more honest to say that I do, now, find satisfaction in choosing contentment over happiness as a preferred state of being.

I wasn’t born this way, and I didn’t wake up on morning after reading philosophy the night before, suddenly enlightened and enlivened. I still struggle to be content though the struggle does not feel so strenuous as it once did. It required a great deal of heartbreak, a total and utter destruction of the world paradigm that had been inculcated in my mind and heart from my first human interactions. For me, the loss of faith was a necessary though not sufficient waypoint in finding contentment preferable to happiness. I am a mere human primate that still craves monoliths, icons, and ideals that might be considered unchanging or everlasting. That was partly due to the religious conditioning to which I was subjected and that I perpetuated by writ and by rite into adulthood. I also believe such a yearning for the absolute it is part of our nature. When that all collapsed around me, I quite naturally sought out new guru’s and scriptures to rebuild a foundation for my morality and for how I perceived and interacted with the world and its inhabitants. Curiously, my morality didn’t crumble into degeneracy and debauchery and dishonesty. I simply felt compelled to excuse or give basis for my morals. While I owe something to my faith tradition, I found morals went deeper than that. And my reasons became human solidarity where, once, the adolescent, “my dad/God told me so,” had been my natural, scoffing reply.

After six years, two episodes of significant depression exacerbated by personal and professional challenges, I feel I have come out the other side better-off than I had been early in my faith transition. Unlike early Mormon malcontents and apostates–the Thomas Marsh’s and Martin Harris’s–I have better explanations for misery and for the natural world. Even during my extended moments of unhappiness, I knew that I could no longer be happy as a Mormon. I am confident I would have been more miserable had I returned to activity after breaking away. In the first two years after reasoning myself in atheism, I did try going back. I tried believing. I accepted callings within the church including being twice a bishop’s councilor—the first being when I became an atheist and remained covertly. When I was to be released, the next bishop asked me to remain in the position despite me revealing my mental and spiritual state to him. I accepted the call. I tried without lying to anyone. I felt more lost. The misery of trying to reconcile what I knew with what Mormonism required me to believe and claim as knowledge had no balm to soothe and no tincture to cure. Those were not the extent of callings I accepted as an atheist. None offered comfort and certainly not happiness. How could one be content living a lie when you were aware of the facts?

Confession: yes, Mom; yes, Bishop; yes, President (insert name of geriatric, white male and don’t forget the middle initial!)—I am NOT happier since I left the Mormon church. You may also be right in your solipsistic accusation that, when I experience happiness, I “only think I’m happy.” And this is a big part of the problem and part of why I, and many others, experience such heartbreak in leaving Mormonism. Aside from the loss of friends, the alienation of and by family, the infantile position you feel yourself in when the meaning for life crumbles into ruins around you, the accompanying social and professional suicide, and the strain on marriages and parent-child relationships each apostate must prepare for a confrontation with happiness itself. 

There exists a familiar pressure from the ex-Mormon community to feel happier than I did when I was an active Mormon. Unlike the days when I followed the prophet, it’s a passive pressure. Reading or hearing fellow ex-Mormons describe how much happier they are rings with a similar tone for me as hearing active members describe how happy they are. I don’t doubt that many or all of them are. Maybe I’m supposed to be happier and, if I’m not, I must be ex-Mormoning incorrectly. (I’ve experienced this, too. “You’re not praying intently.” “You’re not reading the scriptures with an open heart.” You’re not Mormoning correctly or you’d call it Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Sainting“) I will say that I find a greater degree of validation for experiencing melancholy or despair from the ex-Mormon community than I did from Mormons. I’m not inundated with encouragement that makes not attempt at empathy. No one tells me to count my blessings or reminds me of how happy they remember me being. They demonstrate understanding and support without expectation.

The other aspect of needing to feel happier post-Mormonism is to show my family that they were wrong. I am happier! I’ll show Mom and Dad and everyone else that I’m happier! Sob, sob. Sniff, sniff. Can’t you see how Happy I AM! Luckily, I’ve already disappointed them severely enough simply in rejecting their mythology that I’ve grown quite comfortable with being a disappointment in this matter. And I’ve developed–not necessarily a thick-skin–but a healthier perspective on happiness since leaving the faith. It doesn’t make me happier, but now I no longer expect it to and I feel no guilt or shame, I don’t feel compelled to say or show happy expressions, when I’m genuinely feeling down or even outright miserable.

The words originally performed by Jimmy Ruffin and made popular to my generation by Paul Young have become suddenly salient and profound: “As I walk this land with broken dreams, / I have visions of many things. / But happiness is just an illusion / Filled with sadness and confusion.

I’ve been to the top of the mountain. I’ve seen behind the veil. I’ve participated in the rites and unquestioningly paid ten percent of my annual, gross income. There is not happiness there, either. I used to tell people there was. With conviction, even tears–those learned expressions all Mormon’s know–I testified of happiness that comes from obedience. It takes a vulnerable person to bring the honesty out of others willing to, as Orwell said, face unpleasant facts. No one wants to admit that altruism is less a motivation to them than money or prestige or relaxation. In fact, we all feel guilty when we don’t put altruism or charity on a list of our fundamental motivations. Like happiness, we feel compelled to claim it for ourselves even when we don’t feel it. Then, living in our contradictions, as everyone does, we claim happiness or altruism when, in practice, we hoard billions for a rainy day.

In his Rubaiyat , 11th-12th century Persian polymath and poet Omar Khayyam, expressed his doubt openly and beautifully. I encountered the Rubaiyat early in my journey out of Mormonism. And I have found it immensely reassuring. Khayyam said:

“Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane, / This playful wisdom growing out of pain; / How many midnights whitened into morn / Before the seeker knew he sought in vain. / You want to know the Secret—so did I, / Low in the dust I sought it, and on high / Sought it in awful flight from star to star, / … My soul went knocking at each starry door, / Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair, / Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more. / Of all my seeking this is all my gain: / No agony of any mortal brain / Shall wrest the secret of the life of man; / The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.”

Most ex-Mormons I know were not idle in their devotion. As Kayyam said later in Rubaiyat, “The unbeliever knows his Koran best.” To understand the mysteries of God, we were told to prepare for and participate in the silly rites of the Mormon temple. Many of us stood at the “silly top of heaven’s stair” in great and spacious Mormon temples, seeking knowledge from “on high.” Once through the confusion and the communal and familial pressure; once honest enough with ourselves; in the “wisdom” that grew from our pain; beyond the “agony” of our “mortal brains” and hearts–we finally understood the secret. Searching for happiness or knowledge “taught [us] that the Search is vain.”

Not only is the search “in vain” it is itself “vain.” Consider Kayyam’s most famous line from Rubaiyat: “And do you think that unto such as you, / A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew, / God gave the Secret, and denied it me?— / Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.” The vanity of those who think their form of happiness or their Search is superior? Perhaps it’s simply an error of translation. What matters it! The search is not only “in vain” it is propped up by tithing-hungry old men who claim humility as they vainly declare their spiritual and philosophical superiority. The vain flock to this and join the Search.

Happiness is an illusion propped up every day by imposed facades on the faces of normal people. We hide our pain from one another. Social media personas typically present curated lifestyles, even of those close to us, and rarely do they air dirty laundry. While we are painstakingly aware of our own misery, we are deprived of seeing it in others. The oasis of happiness seems a pleasant destination in the midst of the desert. It is not that happiness is fleeting, it is a mirage. It is not to be found as a destination but, as Orwell suggests in Can Socialists be Happy?, “Happiness” is not a goal to be achieved but a “by-product” of striving for worthy goals–human brotherhood, social and political justice, and economic equality, just to name a grand-eyed sample.

On a personal level–one cannot base their happiness on things like familial harmony or professional success where the choices of others can so dramatically challenge it. We cannot count on validation from other people or entities because, as Jerry Seinfeld once said of people, “they’re the worst!” The acquisition of wealth or health can be problematic as markets out of our control and nature itself may seem to conspire against us. I may take heart in the words of Paul, who suggested that, despite his life nearing its end at the hands of executioners, he had “fought the good fight,” he had “finished [his] course.” It is in striving toward worthy goals that we find contentment. Happiness may come at moments and ought to be basked in when it does–it certainly should never be spurned as undesirable. One can be content while melancholy or disappointed. Depression poses a real challenge to contentment. But, in my experience, happiness is not the answer to depression.

Neuro-philosopher (I made that up) Sam Harris observed, “Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life.” Not your happiness, mind you. Suicide rates are highest in countries with the highest levels of social, religious, and personal freedom. They have the highest standards of living yet they find living has lost its allure. It’s not about convincing yourself that you are in the midst of bliss but, to me, accepting that life is filled with just as much doubt, depression, and disappointment as it is with bliss, elation, and excitement. Likely, it is subject to far more of the undesirable emotions. 

I did search for what I could raise in my life as scripture and began collecting icons. Many came from the world of literature and philosophy. I remember what I felt and thought the first moment I read the work of David Foster Wallace. Oddly, the man has amassed something of a cult following of people who dissect his fiction with the fervor of monotheistic apologists. Unlike L. Ron Hubbard, he didn’t seem to have any desire to lead an actual cult. A friend an I (Hi, friend!) have, on occasion, discussed what books we have adopted with a scriptural deference. Neither of us sees any literary work as infallible, but we do find some books worth re-reading. In my own process of collecting insights, David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” (May 2005) is at the top.

Originally given as a university graduation speech, the oratory was soon transcribed and published. Both the audible and written versions are worthwhile. Wallace was particularly concerned with the detrimental effects of ubiquitous, easily accessible entertainment on mankind.  He struggled with drug addiction and depression throughout his life. He spent time in drug and alcohol rehab as well as multiple stays in psychiatric hospitals. He may have seen entertainment as another potential addiction and a fix worth avoiding and chose not to have a television in his own home. None of this diminishes his contributions to the world, in my estimation. He never claimed to be more than a man and certainly didn’t proclaim divine inspiration for his work. He struggled to find meaning and insight in the post-modern world that valued irony without insight into improvement. It seems obvious he craved some kind of spirituality but, perhaps, couldn’t bring himself to adhere to any religion for long. Several snippets rom “This Is Water”:

An outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough.

Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

“Yeah, but Mr. Byrd, all of this is in the Bible and The Book of Mormon. No wonder you’re not as happy. You went searching for what you already had.” Well and good for you, dear reader. For me, anything that I must adhere to by divine injunction, no matter how I feel about it, when it outrages reason and when facts fly in the face of its purported truth, is a challenge to contentment and happiness. It requires me to lie to others and, most of all, to myself. This is tried-and-true prescription for misery.

For me, the insights of This Is Water proved even more profound when I found out, after reading it for the first time, that David Foster Wallace died by suicide in 2008. Just three years after expressing insights that may have prevented some from choosing suicide, myself included, the speaker succumbed to his own depression.

Just before I read This Is Water and listened to the speech, I had become enamored with Christopher Hitchens. I recall that on multiple occasions, Hitchens would be asked by an interviewer if he counted Orwell or Jefferson or any other of the many literary and historical individuals he would routinely quote as a hero. Hitchens would nearly, invariably respond that he rejected the idea of heroes and the collection thereof. He simply admired men for their contributions but never raised a mere human above the message.

Recently, I attended a continuing education course in my profession. Two fellow participants and I seemed to share a lot in common other than our careers. We spent one evening speaking about subjects that went far deeper than our shared career. Late into the night we discussed religion, philosophy, relationships, and politics. After I shared some insight or another, one young man asked where I learned all of the things I was sharing? He could not believe that an atheist had stumbled on these things without God or a really good life coach. It also seemed to matter to him I was not a Trump supporter as he was. I expressed my concern for people voting for a man who, in no way, represented the ideals that they had espoused for decades. The man was being placed ahead of ideals, that is a massive danger to free society. He pressed for my reasons for thinking this way. I shared my perceptions on totalitarian rulers and the methods they use to come into and maintain power. But the idea of putting a man ahead of an ideal brought us to David Foster Wallace. I shared with the young questioner that when we live our lives in fear of losing something—beauty, reputation, power, sexual allure—we cannot be content and any happiness is quick to abate. We find our lives continually and chronically unfulfilling. Our happiness becomes dependent upon external validation of these things. And what if our idol or hero turns out to fail in living up to the message that they have so powerfully communicated to us? What happens when a man who’s words saved your life, takes his own? Positive progress gives way to backsliding; happiness seems not only elusive but futile.

Perhaps this is why some Mormon men run to their bishop to confess sins as simple and as common and as victimless as masturbation. They become dependent on their Bishop declaring them worthy. They stake their happiness on that interaction and the declaration of a person in authority telling them they are worthy. It becomes as much an addiction as the sin they confess. It may even drive the behavior for the chance at feeling forgiven and reconciled.

I am content and, I would even venture to declare myself happy to say that I can and do appreciate David Foster Wallace’s insights into living a peaceful and meaningful life despite his tragic end. Among the other insights he shares during the short and profound speech, Wallace also says of the things we worship: “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.”

Already alluded to, a phrase bidding to be one of the best known in world history states that governments are and ought to be formed to ensure that humans need not fear their “self-evident,” “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are abridged. Mormon founder Joseph Smith took the right to pursue happiness further in stating, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.” He gave this bit of advice and counsel and, in his self-proclaimed station as THE divinely anointed prophet of God, revelation, in an essay written in the wake of his wife finding out he was practicing polygamy, sorry plural marriage, behind her back. Consider, with a spouse angry of and unsupportive of the polygamy he already practiced with many other women, that in the same essay, Joseph said, “[God] never has—He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness.” (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume 5, pg134-35).

Honey, you may not support me having clandestine wives (Emma was still woefully ignorant of the extent of Joesph’s plural marriages) but you won’t be happy if you don’t support me because God said so. I know. I’ve been lying to you even though the Book of Mormon says that ‘the liar shall be thrust down to hell.’ I know that it also says that ‘many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord1…Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.’ I know I’ve told you I wasn’t doing this, but there was this angel with a flaming sword that threatened to kill me if I didn’t do it. I know you saw my ‘exchange’ with little Fanny Alger between the slats in the barn. But now you know that you can’t be happy if you don’t accept it and let me do it and support me?

In the same essay, he would go on to say,  

Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God; but we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know, unless we comply with or keep those we have already received! That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time he said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted, by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the Kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added.

This is precisely how authoritarians operate. Joseph Smith gave his followers a recipe that would enable his soft, theocratic tyranny to continue in a coarser, crueler form under Brigham Young.

Joseph, er, God, would go on to back up the essay’s sophistry with a real threat, not of unhappiness, but of actual destruction and loss of salvation. In the section of the church’s Doctrine and Covenants that authorizes and outlines how polygamy is to work, he tells those like Joseph’s wife, Emma:

Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.

For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.

For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from before the foundation of the world.

And as pertaining to the new and an everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fulness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fulness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.

(Doctrine and Covenants 132:3-6, emphasis added)

I think it was important that you understand the circumstances under which–or into which–the aforementioned essay referencing happiness came about. Happiness is mandated! Along with telling Emma and other doubtful saints made uneasy by their sick feeling of disgust and betrayal, they are told in the same essay: 

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another…Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is…Everything that God gives us is lawful and right…if we should seize upon those same blessings and enjoyments without law, without revelation, without commandment, those blessings and enjoyments would prove cursings and vexations in the end, and we should have to lie down in sorrow and wailings of everlasting regret. But in obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed; and as God has designed our happiness—and the happiness of all His creatures, he never has—He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed…

And we atheists and agnostics are the one’s being told that our morals are situational or, at least, that they lack the credibility of being absolute. Those more clever apologists have abandoned the word absolute for objective. “What can a person not justify without God?” they cry out! I reply, “What evil cannot be justified, indeed, what wickedness has not already been justified in the name of God?”

As for happiness, many are raised to think that happiness is the natural and inevitable result of obedience to God’s every command. We begin to find our happiness is conditional and that unhappiness is our fault in every instance. After all, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.” The striving for perfection while holding up a Savior or a man or a church as the perfect embodiment of divinity is a poisoned chalice. Orwell further said, in Can Socialists Be Happy?, “Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” The perfection-mongers can’t be happy until you’re either conscripted or converted among them or until you are safely secured in the bowels of Hell for your well-deserved, eternal punishment. The attitude Christopher Hitchens described as, “Created sick and commanded, under pain of eternal torture, to be well again,” is the “essence of sadomasochism.” A “creepy and sinister impulse” in the religious who, having been told they are incomplete, spend the rest of their lives being reminded that “without God, they are nothing.” Their inculcated emptiness begs for them to find icons of perfection, which they are reminded they will never, ever attain in this life, and to base their happiness and confidence in the virtues of that individual–usually a male. Thus, they can never see nor will they admit any wrong-doing by their prophet or Savior since their entire hope in life, their happiness, comes from having a lamb without blemish. A willing scapegoat upon which to heap their pretended sins. Posed an imaginary problem and offered a pretended solution.

You’re right, Believer. I do not feel as much happiness since I left the Mormon church. What I have come to realize is that, since I’ve left, I no longer have to convince myself that I have to be happy all day, every day. Felling melancholy, low, or even despondent, is not a punishment— organized as a natural consequence or directly imposed by divinity. Being unhappy is a natural part of life as a still-evolving primate with a large prefrontal cortex capable of over-thinking its circumstances when a disproportionately large adrenal gland and overactive limbic system respond to all manner of stimuli. 

Mormonism is just one of many religions that hijack people’s emotions, convincing them that physical experiences like frisson or elevation emotion are the result of God speaking to them. Mormon’s simply plagiarize from the New Testament fruits of the spirit. But if you feel any unease, depression, even sorrow–nature’s way of warning you that something isn’t right–there exists a milieu of shame. Lack of happiness equals a lack of the Spirit as a result of sin or simply doubt. If I wasn’t happy, I was made to feel I had failed. I must have been sinning or not reading scriptures or praying often or intently enough. I should be spending more time at the temple. (Oh, god…please not the Temple again…) There existed, in every instance of less-than-happy emotion, a reason to blame myself. Happiness was the object of my existence. It was right there in the Book of Mormon—the most correct of any book!—“men are that they might have joy.”2 Geez! “Wickedness never was happiness.”3 If I’m not happy, I must be wicked. That big, bad guy, Satan, works so “that all men might be miserable like unto himself.”4

I will give some credit to the Mormon religion. For as puritanical as their religion is in practice, at least in theory they expect happiness to be a part of their life–and if that fails, a definite guarantee to the faithful after death. For many, they can endure decades of misery just for the hope of bliss when they die. H.L. Menken once said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Mormons don’t entirely subscribe to misery and the purifying power of both spiritual and temporal poverty though that is one way of encouraging the weary. Despite being told I cannot possibly be happy out the church, I also get to hear that, if I do experience good feelings about life, “I just think I’m happy.” To them, in reality, what I feel is a counterfeit. From the outside looking in, I feel that I can say with confidence, that when you continually tell someone that they have the truth and tell them how happy they are, they do a good job of equating what they feel to happiness and then giving all the credit to the church for it. My happiness is Mormonism was a choice despite my feelings. Outside of it, my melancholy is an admission and acceptance of how I really feel. I have license to feel down from time to time. And I experience no happy-facade-inducing-shame to convince others and myself that I’m worthy, righteous and, therefore, happy.

For me, it’s no longer changing what you think about that matters, it is changing how I think. I don’t need to pretend I’m happy or ignore undesirable, horrific, or mournful aspects of life. I can acknowledge my unhappiness, recognize and own it, then focus on striving for contentment in the areas of my life over which I have some influence. Focus on being responsible for what I can be. A close family member, still active in Mormonism, seemed eager to tell me that all I had to do was “change what I chose to feel.” They were asking me to think positively and ignore negativity. That doesn’t work for me. It’s self-deceiving and self-defeating. Again, it means that if I’m not happy it’s my fault for how I look at it. Member-in-good-standing or degenerate apostate, happiness is an illusion. In both cases, it is something that happens to me. I can choose it but when I fail, there is guilt in the failing. I’d rather let myself be unhappy if that’s how I feel, and acknowledge contentment despite disappointment.

Those in religion are also taught the value of contentment but it is used as a means to trap them. When confronted with questions to which there is no answer, they are taught to be content to get an answer after they die–refer the question upward and give God the credit and the blame for their ignorance. The religious are taught to be expected to be content with bad explanations based on bad evidence or none at all. They are assured and content that feelings confirm not only truth but, indeed, even fact. Of course, this only applies to their faith or the many conspiracy theories to which the faithful seem prone to participate. In almost every other area–including the veracity of faith’s not their own–they would never accept such poor explanations.

Literature has been paramount in my transition to finding peace after Mormonism. Most ex-Mormons are familiar with the wise insight of the manservant, Lee, from John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” That is how leaving religion felt. Learning what that means entails intense and prolonged moments of unhappiness. But, no matter how depressed I became, I never felt that returning to church would actually help. There is no cure for deceit in a church that, by apostolic decree, doesn’t seek apologies nor does it give them. In addition, if perfection meant being happy, that pressure was also, largely alleviated, with respect to the sinful nature of unhappiness. The pressure was not divinely appointed even if I felt some expectation from fellow ex-Mo’s or to show my family I was what they said I could not possibly be.

Consider the novel and story of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Years after leaving his asceticism, Siddhartha was challenged by close friend who remained that, had he stayed and continued to learn from the Shramanas, Siddhartha would have learned how to walk on water. Alas, by leaving his faith, he had missed out on this spiritual power. Siddhartha replied, “I do not wish to know how to walk on water.” With, perhaps a bit of contempt he adds, “May old shramanas content themselves with such wiles!” I see in Siddhartha, a man who did not find any more happiness outside of his religion. He may have found less contentment. But what contentment he did find was not in believing the unbelievable or striving for the unattainable. Abandoning the “vain search” offered something “the stilly top of heaven’s stair” could not–contentment without convincing one’s self that they can walk on water. What good is walking on water as an old man if it means giving up your youth to pursue it? Shunning all the real, tangible wonders and woundings of life to do something that will die with you. Even in an age of credulity, Siddhartha learned to value the tangible and find unaffected contentment therein.

Why hold out for eternal bliss in a heaven no one has ever experienced and certainly never demonstrated including the men who claim divine authority to reveal it to you? No less than the first prophet of God to have his word’s are recorded in the “most correct” book on the Earth, teaches his sons, that “no man can return”5 from the “cold and silent grave.” Lehi teaches6 just a few verses later of the resurrection—a doctrine no other Old Testament writer seemed inspired to clearly teach let alone define. The fact is that everyone who speaks of what Heaven or Hell have no more experience with it than you or I.

Jesus started off well by instructing his followers that “in this world” they would “have tribulation.” He then gave them the injunction to “be of good cheer” because of his alleged triumph over said world.7 It would almost make allowing yourself to feel despair or unhappiness into a sin itself. 

I much prefer the insight from The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. Regarding the titular hero of the Greek myth, Camus says in the closing paragraphs of his analysis:

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

I see no call to cheerfulness. No injunction to be happy and no declaration that happiness is the point of existence or ought to be the condition of it. Victory comes, for Sisyphus, not in the choice of how to feel, but in how to act despite how he feels. Perhaps he knows some sense of satisfaction that would draw a smile on his beleaguered face. I do not suspect that he has any sense he will earn reprieve from the eternal, mundane task laid before him. He is conscious of his fate and the seemingly pointless labor eternity demands of him. Yet, the victory comes, not in carrying the rock to the top. No! Victory is in the moment when he turns back, having watched the stone tumble to the base of the slope for the most recent of a countless number. He will not let his fate overwhelm him. He may not be happy, but he is content to endure without pretending to be happy.

For a time I found myself feeling as Dickens’ heroic Sydney Carton except, I identified with a rather pathetic, early version of the man. It was said of Carton in the early chapters of A Tale of Two Cities: “Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

In the process of confronting his misery, he found friends in Charles Darnay, his wife, Lucie, and their children. An entirely platonic friend, beloved by this family, Carton found contentment, if not happiness, with them. He could not make Lucie, whom he love, love him romantically in return. He would tell her, as she struggled to reject his advances while remaining friends, “…Your unselfishness cannot entirely comprehend how much my mind has gone on this; but, only ask yourself, how could my happiness be perfect while yours was incomplete?” Carton would go on to trade places with Lucie’s condemned husband who was found awaiting the guillotine because he refused to let an innocent man suffer for his sake. Mr. Darnay would live and Carton would go on, in contentment, to sacrifice his life to ensure the happiness of Lucie.

Comparative happiness or, happiness made apparent by contrast, may have some merit. As I mentioned previously, George Orwell, in the essay Can Socialists Be Happy?, suggests that happiness ought not to be a pursuit but a by-product of worthwhile pursuits. He observes of Dickens’ impoverished Cratchit family, “their happiness derives mainly from contrast…The Cratchits are able to enjoy their Christmas precisely because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.” No prosperity gospel thinking here. Simply the rule and role of opposites offering contrast. The bitter makes the sweet all-the-sweeter in comparison. Can we truly understand happiness when we think we must experience it perpetually and feel it as the natural course? Of course. But any interruption to the expected feeling is an indictment of you for some sin our doubt. Is an eternity of bliss truly desirable?

Is the Heaven offered by monotheism truly worth dying for? Many people heard the apocryphal teaching of Joseph Smith that, in essence taught, that the lowest degree of heavenly glory awaiting mankind after judgment was so grand that, if he could see it, he would cut his own throat to get there. This teaching may have taken root in Mormon lore from a speech by then church Patriarch, Eldred G. Smith. “The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there (BYU Speeches, March 10, 1964, p. 4).

Scholars have been unable to find an original statement made or attributed to Joseph Smith by any contemporary observer. I understand that Mormon philosopher and historian, Truman Madsen, spent a good deal of effort trying to track down this teaching attributed to both Smith and one of his proclaimed successors, Brigham Young. At best, he found a statement attributed to Wilford Woodruff—a contemporary of both Smith and Young—but reported in the journal of another contemporary, Charles C. Walker in August of 1837. Walker reports that Woodruff reported Smith saying: “Elder Woodruff said the Prophet taught this, roughly: that if we could see what is beyond the veil we couldn’t stand to stay here in mortality for five minutes. And I suggest from the context that he was not talking about the telestial kingdom. He was talking about what it was like to be in the presence of God and the family” (Truman Madsen, The Radiant Life, p. 91).

Notice the vagueness of the statements. The assurance of some unspeakable glory and bliss that would be so preferable to the knowable now as to compel one to suicide. Hiding behind weakness of imagination or language, they simply assure a person of how amazing it will be.

Orwell, in Can Socialists Be Happy?, offers a criticism of any utopia from the Stalinist attempt to fictional imaginings including those created by religion. If we consider their banal musings on Heaven, with its green fields and harp music or prolonged family reunions, this quip is all-the-more amusing: “All ‘favorable’ utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” Stalin, at least according to Martin Amis in his memoir, Inside Story, and confirmed by nearly any account you read of Soviet indoctrination8, not only postulated perfection, he demanded happiness until people credited him with it. “Stalin had become a Tsar: children now chanted, ‘Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!’” Indeed, Amis also notes that “A happy child is no better than a gerbil or a goldfish when it comes to counting its blessings…” Indoctrination doesn’t care. For the devout, teaching children how to think is less important than what to think. They truly believe that if they “train up [their] child in the way he should go…when he is old he will not depart from it.”9 Children who do not understand happiness any better than a goldfish, children who still find great happiness in the myth of Santa Claus, are then inculcated with visions of utopia and promised they’ll get it when they die if they don’t sin. Presents at Christmas for good behavior.

Who can deny that a child behaves, often, just as they are raised up? But I prefer to temper my enthusiasm with the idea of William Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” as I raise my children. I’d raise them up to think freely and to approach information fearlessly. Let them make their own choices for happiness without fearing how my happiness may be affected simply for what books they like or what political party they align themselves.

What all of this hearsay, conjecture, and perpetuation of apocryphal ideas demonstrates is the fervor and yearning of people to find happiness where they can. Even Mormons who are outwardly very happy, genuine or affected, cannot shake the craving for assurance that there is even more happiness to come. That the misery they endure now, including the prospect of suicide, will be worthwhile to make it to heaven and its attendant bliss.

I have never experienced the soul-stifling misery or known the perpetually uncertain hunger that Dostoevsky’s characters often do. The bright student, Raskolnikov, in the misery he made for himself, continually sought to justify the murder he had committed. In contrast to Sydney Carton, Raskolnikov finds that happiness, for himself, is the only reason to live. “No, life is only given to me once and I shall never have it again; I don’t want to wait for ‘universal happiness.’ I want to live myself, or else better not live at all.”

In his poem, September 1, 1939, W.H. Auden said it a different way with similar words. On the heels of the Great Depression and the long slog of World War I, events in Germany and Poland ensured the reality of a second World War. Sitting in a “dive”, soaking up the quiet tension of the people around him, he mused upon the faces of the people at the bar who “cling[ed] to their average day” expecting that the lights and music would simply stay on as convention, or that to which they were accustomed–even promised by experience. Everyone lived in a sort of dull, eyes-wide-shut reality that didn’t want to see what was really happening. They didn’t want to confront, honestly, the fact that to do so would require us to “see where we are, / Lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good.” He then expresses that the wasted, spoken air of Important Persons cannot match the coarseness of the average man at the bar. In each human an “error” is “bred in the bone” that “craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.” 

Both Dostoevsky and Auden seem to hint at what Thomas Jefferson expressed in a letter he wrote to his would-be lover, Maria Cosway. Titled My Head and My Heart, Jefferson demonstrates the tug-of-war between one’s reason and one’s emotion. His head tells his heart, “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which he is beset.” 

It is obvious Jefferson, perhaps in the attempt at romantic sentiment, is attempting to imply that the head ought to subject itself to the teaching and superiority of the heart. The Heart replies, in part:

Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science…I know indeed that you pretend authority to the sovereign control of our conduct in all its parts.

If acquiring happiness is the emotion that drives us, I think we are bound to be unhappy. Like David Foster Wallace alluded, it can become what we worship. Losing it can be traumatizing. Judging others for what we see as the loss of it, can become the emotional, head versus heart game we play to soothe our own insecurity. Consider the words of Albert Ian Gray’s, The Common Denominator of Success. He admits to failings of imagination and intellect but hints at one of its strengths that we might do well to grant greater attention. He says, “There’s no inspiration in logic. There’s no courage. There’s not even happiness in logic. There’s only satisfaction.”

There is no happiness in logic, but there is a great deal of potential misery in faith. A misery that many are forced to confront with by submitting and deferring to a redemptive perspective of a heretofore only postulated, glorious Heaven. How many LDS parents have found their happiness compromised when a child decides to leave the church? Mine expressed that they were “disappointed.” They’d placed their happiness in the idea of their family being “together forever” based upon the promises of men who cannot possibly know what awaits them beyond the veil of death. Not only that, they placed their happiness upon the words, previously expressed, that happiness comes from obedience and damnation from spurning the free gift of salvation. Words first said by a man who’s lies had been revealed and who needed to have his dalliances excused to his own wife.

Happiness is easily found in escape. Mental escape is easy to be had in the on demand unending availability of streaming video. Autoplay movies and television and streaming games offer a never-ending escape from real life for those who desire it. On par with drugs, alcohol, sugar, and any other substance that can disengage our minds and emotions from interacting with reality, entertainment is a better servant than a master. Phone in hand, the younger generations may now even disengage from the old escape, church. Where else could you dream of and, for an hour or three on Sunday, engage with a fantasy world that is so real to you, you prefer it to the capricious and inexplicable world outside the sanctum? David Foster Wallace, in his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, took a direct shot at American’s and what he percieved as a critical component of the prevailing culture. The monstrous book described drug and alcohol addiction and rehab hand-in-hand with entertainment addiction, and was published in the years when dial-up internet still prevented anything on-demand beyond text and grainy photos. In one description of the main character, we read, “Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.”

I think it’s fair to say that I knew so much more about Mormonism, scripture, and things said by prophets than I did about how and why I felt the way I did about them. At the time it was difficult for me to comprehend the total influence of upbringing and geography on my religious affiliation. I’d been conditioned to notice good feelings and attribute them to the Spirit of God and never think about my feelings beyond that. Thus, the fact that I felt was the extent of my understanding of feeling. I knew bad feelings meant I was sinning or out of tune with God. I didn’t really know why and didn’t think I should ask. God works in mysterious ways, after all…best to leave it a mystery. I hadn’t learned a bit about individual or group psychology or physiology and had been inculcated with a skeptical relationship toward them anyway. I thought I was free to choose—the right was scriptural! In the same verses that declared that men are supposed to have joy, I learned that I was free to choose liberty with God or captivity and death at the hands of the devil. 

Orwell’s Principles of Newspeak placed at the end of 1984 offer some insight into the manner in which thought is controlled by oppressive regimes, be they secular or theocratic. 

The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

We don’t talk about Bruno, no, No. NO! Topics that might challenge the founding myths of Mormonism, the current theocratic oligarchy, or might place something rational and empirical on an even footing with the reality faith demanded were diminished and discouraged. I was taught to feel uneasy—unhappy—when my faith was challenged. I was convinced that this was God telling me something was not okay. Thus, so many trusting kids are taken advantage of by adults they are assured are spiritual leaders worthy of their trust. What of the adults scammed of their hard-earned wealth by friends, neighbors, and priesthood leaders? People are not taught how to evaluate a claim to truth or authority. Conspiracy theories are presented the same way their ultimate truth is presented to them in church. And they are happy to believe in nonsensical theories posited by obscure, faceless, nameless anons. And they stare down their “vain” noses at people like me and pat themselves on the back as they repeat in their minds the affirmation: “I’m so happy! They only thinks they’re happy.”

In or around 1780, in a letter to his mentor and fellow Founding Father, George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson said, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people…No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” Education and freely accessible knowledge are not sufficient guarantees of happiness, though they may be necessary for a democratic, pluralistic society. And Jefferson was not deluded enough to think that the Constitution was a perfect, divinely appointed dispensation of knowledge or practice. Speaking of his misgivings of the Constitution he was not present to sign, “…we must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step.” Whether or not he was happy with it, he stated his contentment in a letter to Reverend Charles Clay, “The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches…we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get.”

I’m no longer convinced that the hamster wheel of obedience and sacrifice to deity can offer true and lasting happiness. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, sounding a bit like Samuel to Saul, said:

Ablutions were good, but they were water, they did not wash away sin, they did not quench spiritual thirst, they did not dissolve fear in the heart. Sacrificing to the gods and invoking them was excellent—but was this all? Did sacrifices bring happiness?

A Mormon leader in my former congregation once told a judgmental story about a work associate. Clearly, this man only thought he was happy. The leader told us how fleeting the man’s happiness was. Apparently he sought fulfillment in worldly things including a daily cup of morning coffee. Akin to those who eat bread or drink water that will surely hunger or thirst again, the leader assured us that those who take of the Living Water or eat of the Bread of Life will never thirst nor hunger again. Even in my most strident days as a believing Mormon, this bothered me. I even challenged him that even he, satisfied as he was with the bread of life and the living water of Jesus, also taught us that we needed to read scriptures and pray every day as well as return to church weekly for the sacrament—communion—in order to remain faithful in such a fallen world. Turns out, for mere mortals, the effects of the atonement of Jesus wear out in about a week. Remember the compulsion for validation of worthiness so many young men crave, returning to their clergyman often to confess just for a taste of forgiveness? So much for not thirsting again. 

I realize I’m being trite, but the fact remains that the faithful don’t get a simple one-and-done baptism. They must refresh their faith from day to day. They ought not to bemoan or decry the man who drinks a cup of coffee every day or the woman who exposes her shoulders and treat them like some degenerate addict or would-be prostitute. I’m sorry to say that this is a very real thing.

Paragon of virtue, far apart from what the religious establishment of the time espoused, Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, became a thorn in the side of the church-anointed king Henry VIII, for his stridency in points of doctrine regarding divorce and remarriage. The King and his councillors are desperate for More’s support in the matter. He is a man content with his convictions and under no delusions of happiness. He declared: 

If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all…why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.

I advocate for choosing to be human and to striving for excellence while not pretending to some enlightenment or purity or happiness we may not know or feel. Shame breeds discontentment and depression in the well-meaning. Because of my community expectations, shame makes me unhappy and that makes me ashamed.

In Auden’s aforementioned, ominous poem, September 1, 1939, he leaves us with encouragement. I find no happiness in the sentiment but I do see that contentment under even the threat of war, is achievable. Like him, “All I have is a voice /
To undo the folded lie…the lie of Authority / no one exists alone; / We must love one another or die…May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.”

That is, to me, the essence of contentment. “An affirming flame” from the those “beleaguered by…negation and despair.” No, I’m not as happy as I thought I used to be. But I have earned the affirming flame despite feeling beleaguered, disappointed, and even stuck in a life I may have chosen otherwise had I felt the freedom to do so. I am free, now. Free to move forward. Free of the pressure to feel happy. Free to bask in contentment.

It’s a beautiful and wonderful and mysterious world. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t expect to walk on water or defeat death. And I’m okay with that. It’s pretty amazing.

__________________________________

1 This is from the Book of Mormon, Jacob chapter 2. The Book of Mormon, according to Joseph, was and is the most correct of any book on the Earth. The quotation I used is in reference to David and Solomon having many wives and concubines. Clearly, the most correct book on Earth considers their polygamy to be an abomination. The chapter does go on to state that if God wants to build up a people to himself, he may command such a practice despite his blanket statement of it being an abomination. But in the Doctrine and Covenants—further, canonized revelations to Joseph—God proceeds to “justif[y] [His] servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines” (D&C 132: 1). Why should we be surprised at a religion wanting to have it both ways in regard to sexuality? They even rename it plural marriage and claim it is different than polygamy. Newspeak anyone?

2 2 Nephi 2:25

3 Alma 41:10

4 2 Nephi 2:27

5 2 Nephi 1:14, The Book of Mormon

6 2 Nephi 2:8

7 John 16:33

8 I highly suggest you read Katya Soldak’s insightful essay on her upbringing in the Soviet Union. Try to read it without thinking of how religions indoctrinate their children. 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/katyasoldak/2017/12/20/this-is-how-propaganda-works-a-look-inside-a-soviet-childhood/?sh=248c2bf73566

9 Proverbs 22:6

The Standard of Goodness

Early in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens introduces us to Sydney Carton. Initially, amongst the other characters, he is forgettable, pathetic, and even loathsome. Perhaps that is a hallmark of great literature. It can produce contemptible, disgusting characters like Sydney Carton in whom a man like me may see our own character reflected. I speak only of the Mr. Carton found in the first quarter of the book. Of this character, Dickens writes:

Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

What I write today is quite personal. Essayists I admire like Orwell and Hitchens, Wilde and Wallace, to name a few, managed to write very personally while maintaining a distant objectivity. They made themselves the subject of their writing without making themselves the object as well. As comedian Ricky Gervais has often pointed out, they were the subject without being the target. This is admirable and the product of a strong moral ideal, unapologetic self-confidence, and most of all, a willingness to air their own dirty laundry without compliment-seeking or compassion-sowing.

My community just watched as mother nature rendered thousands among us homeless in the space a just a few hours. Heavy winds, downed power lines and perilously dry conditions fed raging fires that consumed hundreds of homes and businesses from the blinkable space spanning from brunch to dinner. The ominous smoke was visible on weather satellites; the haunting flames were visible from my home. The apocalyptic sensation, well-fed by Hollywood over the years, felt proportionate to the scene and the sensate experience. Checking upon a close friend, she indicated that her house was not affected though she was still unable to return home even twenty-four hours after her hometown evacuated. Her comment to me after acknowledging the tremendous loss her neighbors suffered is that she “feels so blessed” to still have her home intact.

I’ve considered this answer with what I consider a fair amount of self-awareness and irony. I can’t bring myself to think of being blessed under the circumstance. Perhaps the only appropriate word I can adopt to describe how I feel is “lucky.” Luck doesn’t imply a directing hand but the indifferent providence of chance. Those who’s homes were destroyed were ridiculously unlucky. But they were no more punished than another was blessed. Darker would be the thought of divine passivity that allowed such a thing to happen, closing its ears, heart, and mind to the cries of the doomed when it certainly lies within the being’s power to intervene.

I want to say: the close friend I mention is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know. And, while she might indeed feel “blessed,” I believe her use of the word shows the sinister nature of religious conditioning. The word has become so ubiquitous in our culture that we start to say it and, perhaps, eventually believe it. Looking for blessings and pitying those whom God did not see fit to equally bless.

Yet, there are many who will extol “answered prayers” when their home is untouched while their neighbors has been rendered little more than smoldering ash. No doubt we’ll hear “God spoke here today” and that we humans should listen. When the first unburnt Bible is shown on the evening news, I hope they’ll remember how ubiquitous that book is. And that as they celebrate the miracle of unburnt paper, thousands of decent people find they have no pieces to pick up.

What this moment makes me consider is the fundamental question I recently asked myself: what makes a person good or bad? Am I a good man? As a naturally introspective individual, I ask and have asked myself this question often. I see now that, like Sydney Carton, I’ve been too quick to resign myself to let some aspects of my life eat me away. I am a man of good abilities and emotions but have given much of my sense of self-worth over to the judgments of others. The tendency seems a common and formidable trap amongst humankind. And while I wait for people to draw near to me, I become incapable of exercising what talents I have developed toward the pursuit and promotion of goodness and happiness for myself, let alone others.

The stark realization I have recently experienced was as liberating as it was demoralizing. How many people, emancipated from mind-forged manacles, have finally understood Steinbeck’s insight that, when we let go of being perfect, we are finally enabled to be, very simply and adequately, good? Unfortunately, the peddlers of “perfection in Christ” still make the demand and seem ironically hell-bent on making you perfect after their own image of what that means.

Take the less-well-known or even concealed but equally factual and salient aspects of the life of Joseph Smith. When I was a devoted missionary, we taught that Joseph Smith never had a wife other than Emma Smith. That he never practiced polygamy. Any assertion that he did was simply a lie told by bitter apostates or dangerous anti-Mormons committed to destroying the Prophet’s good name. I was taught to feel disgust, repulsion, and pity on the people who perpetuated these lies. I was also conditioned to feel sorrow for the tarnish upon the good name of Joseph Smith. After all, “He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.”

According to the LDS owned Deseret News, the church published an essay addressing Plural Marriage (Newspeak for Polygamy and Polyandry) in Kirtland and Nauvoo in October of 2014. Until this point, my experience with the church including University religion courses at BYU had spoken of Joseph Smith’s practice only as a testament to his goodness. He resisted God’s demand that he institute the practice of Plural Marriage until an angel with a drawn sword threatened to kill Joseph if he did not comply. Such was the story he told. And when Joseph similarly demanded that Apostle Heber C. Kimball give his wife, Vilate, to Joseph for his own wife we are told that all of them were reluctant and wept. However, Heber and Vilate agreed and when Heber presented Vilate to Joseph at his door one evening, Joseph was so overcome with emotion that he wept and told Heber that he’d “passed the test.” On the spot, Joseph “sealed” Heber and Vilate together in the sacred marriage ceremony Mormons place all their eternal hopes on to this day. Such might have been considered a glorious likeness of Abraham and Isaac: a just command given and, with demonstration of obedience, mercy extended. Not only mercy, but divine and eternal blessing!

What we didn’t hear about was Heber’s daughter, Helen Mar Kimball, and her alleged marriage to Joseph Smith. The story was no more than an anti-Mormon deception when I was young. The fourteen year old child coerced into marriage under pressure from her father to do so. In addition, the Prophet of God himself gave her twenty-four hours to decide and meekly informed her that it would ensure eternal salvation for her self and her family if she consented. I do not care whether or not the marriage was consummated, that is no way for a man to speak to a teenaged girl in any generation. If it were done by anyone other that their chosen prophet, no believer in Joseph Smith’s revelation would stand for it! The larger point being that I didn’t learn that Helen Mar was, in reality, married to Joseph Smith until the essay was published. Prior to that, the party line was that Joseph NEVER practiced polygamy himself. Vilate Kimball’s experience was shared as evidence that he DIDN’T practice it, he only humbly, reluctantly taught it to others and then granted great blessings to those who gave their will.

Since my disaffection, people will say that I could never have been a “devoted” missionary because of my current state of disbelief. “If you truly believed and were once converted to the gospel, you would never be able to leave.” These people lack imagination and, worst of all, empathy. I’m certain if you asked my companions, roommates, and high school classmates, most would agree that I was self-righteous and even spiritually arrogant, but that I was a devoted student of LDS doctrine and history and that I was entirely committed to my covenants. I was a budding apologist with a fire for defending the faith. But, in a high-demand religion, what one’s knows or claims to know doesn’t matter. If you are an unbeliever, your motives automatically negate your message regardless of its factuality. For Mormons, and I suspect for most religions, what one does matters less than what they profess.

My father-in-law can imagine an eternal heaven in which, if he remains faithful, he’ll become like God in power. He can imagine a conscious life he lived with God and Jesus before being born to Earth. Somehow, his imagination cannot handle conceiving of something that has actually happened many times in history. What would he tell his fifteen year-old granddaughter if the prophet of the Mormon church came to her and told her she had twenty-four hours to decide if she would consent to be his “plural wife.” If she said no, she would be damned. If she said yes, she and her entire family would be guaranteed eternal life. He deflects this question as smoothly as a politician. However, in the same conversation, he agreed that for a public school teacher to make an identical offer would be criminal. If the prophet asks, you pray about it and do what you feel is right. (Spoken like a person accustomed to holy manipulation.) If someone else does, you call the police.

So what if Joseph never had children with any of his approximately forty wives? Brigham Young and others practiced the same order of plural marriage and DID have children by their other wives. The facts are that Joseph deliberately hid the practice from his followers and his own wife. His sacred sealing to his “legal and lawful” wife, Emma, happened only after he was already sealed to many other women that she didn’t know about. He conveniently allowed himself to be “re-sealed” to two of these women, sisters, at Emma’s approval. He never told Emma that he’d already been sealed to them.

Reminds me of Bible verse from Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” The behavior of Joseph, in concealing his escapades from his wife and the public, seem like the behavior of a man who knows he is wicked. If he really felt he was doing the will of an omnipotent God, would he need to add lies upon lies?

He married dozens of women without his first wife’s knowledge or consent. When she finally found out, he prophetically threatened her with divine displeasure and eternal destruction if she did not accept polygamy. Poor Emma had caught him in the barn with Fanny Alger. Emma found her divinely anointed husband in the barn with the sixteen year-old girl who had served in their home. She euphemistically said that she viewed the “exchange” through the gaps in the barn wall. Oliver Cowdrey, incredibly upset by the relationship would call it a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” Read the history from both apologists and independent historians and decide for yourself if you feel this behavior can be excused in any way.

He married sisters as well as mothers and daughters. Neither of these things bothers me so long as they are consenting adults. What does bother me is that Joseph and Brigham Young would both send men on missions to build the church and, while they were away, make their spouse a plural wife. Even worse, we come back to the secrecy. Not simple failure or neglect to reveal the facts, there was a concerted effort to obfuscate the truth. He would say publicly, in May 1844, when he already had 30 wives, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.”

Here is a good source of Joseph’s carefully worded denials over the years.

To me, the creme de la creme is the story of Joseph fleeing an absent pursuit, involves his relationship with Sarah Ann Whitney. The incriminating letter Joseph wrote to her and her parents highlight both his guilty conscious in the attempts to conceal as well as his intentions with at least some of these women. It was not merely dynastic.

Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—

I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and <if you> three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me; now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyrams farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come <can> come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at <the> window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction, or not at[ta]l now is the time or never, but I hav[e] no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater frendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I <will> tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is <to> git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you wi will pardon me for my earnest=ness on <this subject> when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to <make> every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, <and> affectionate, companion, and friend.

Joseph Smith

Why would Joseph care so much about keeping a home teaching visit from his wife?

So, what makes a man a good man? Believer’s and apologists say that Joseph didn’t lie because his “sealings” were not the same thing as having wives. Yet, these same individuals wouldn’t have that double-speak in any other context from any other human being outside of the LDS church leadership.

The simple analysis is that, for a believer, what qualifies a man as a good man simply comes from his active membership in the right church. That’s it. That’s all that matters. Even if he says what you’d rather not hear, if he claims membership you agree with, that’s enough to invest your life into. Even actions don’t matter after that. I mean, is that what the “second anointing is all about?” He could murder someone in the street and you’d still vote for him.

It’s not just Mormons. A stark example comes from a video oft posted on the web. An Islamic cleric of some degree (I plead ignorance of their hierarchical structure) claims that the man who does not pray is a more vile sinner in God’s eyes than the man who murders or, even, the man who rapes children. I’m certain he does not speak for all Muslims, but he does demonstrate the odds we face as a species. Goodness is determined by your profession of faith, not how you treat others. Just read a book about the Presidency of Donald Trump. See how the evangelicals flock to his banner. Mormons, too.

For Mormon young women, there is immense pressure to marry a returned missionary. That’s the overwhelmingly important criteria for a suitable partner. A kind, hard-working, respectful man without the name tag is, at best, a risky proposition. Other things may be overlooked or, at the very least, the man can be reformed or improved if he’s done his two years proselyting.

When that is the kind of man you consider “good” and the example a good man should follow? The Doctrine and Covenants declares Joseph’s “the best blood of the nineteenth century.” Either that statement is scripture to you, or it is not. Also said, “He lived great and he died great.” Does that include his treatment of women and their husbands? Yes, it does. We’ve had this conversation.

How can a non-Mormon, especially an apostate defector, ever be good enough for you? How can he or she measure up to that? Your standard allows debauchers, manipulators, and purgers to be counted as good in the face of their actions simply by their affirmation of a shared faith. There is no objective standard one could reach because it is capricious. It is based on feelings alone that ignore repulsion or categorize it carefully. Believers are conditioned to think that when they encounter “troubling” information that the unease or repulsion they experience is not because of what they are told but because they are losing the Holy Ghost who testifies of truth.

“I don’t like what you said, it makes me feel bad. Therefore you must be lying to me.”

As an unbeliever, one would make you uneasy. They would be a hindrance to you feeling the spirit. Thus, that individual must be wicked. Certainly he cannot possibly be a good man.

Our challenge becomes avoiding Mr. Carton’s fate: resigned to ourselves, letting the situation eat us away. We have made a horrible but necessary decision to leave the faith of our youth. We’ve chosen our integrity over propping up a corrupt institution that pads its coffers on promises made to the destitute. We’ve learned that being perfect according to dogmatic definitions, is neither sufficient nor is it necessary to being good. Thank you Mr. Steinbeck.

And to be overly dramatic and even sensational, in freeing ourselves from the mind-forged prison of piety, we, like the Mr. Carton later in A Tale of Two Cities, we can feel for ourselves that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

No Mask, No Vax, No Problem

You don’t blame the neighborhood cats for barking. Barking is a dog problem and one that seems to spread with little encouragement. When one canine begins the nightly recitation, it’s as if all dogs within earshot cannot help but joint the expanding chorus. I can’t claim to know much about Islam or Judaism. I can say that the madness of crowds appears to be an especial susceptibility amongst Christianity. They have just enough political clout and a sense of inter-denominational solidarity that when one pundit, priest, or pastor makes sufficient noise–though it sound like irrational barking to other, highly evolved primates–the reactionary minds within range tend to pick up the refrain. Like ripples on the water, it spreads amongst those too conditioned in their reactionary tendencies to critically assess what the barking even means. They see neither the irony of the “dog whistles” to which they lend their voice and their vote, nor of their own theocratic positions that lie just a bit further down the slippery slopes of their own cognitive bias.

As Christopher Hitchens once said, “[Their] sail [is] so raised as to be ballooned by any bullshit that [blows] by.”

Yes, I suffer from this affliction as well. Just like the tendency to bark in response to barking, irrationality is a characteristic of the human species. However, I believe it is one tendency we are intelligent and compassionate enough to be capable of outgrowing or, even better, inoculating from the species while they remain impressionably young.

Speaking of inoculations: I currently sit in a coffee shop named after the owner’s Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I like this cozy, small town coffee shop. I find the energy of coffee shops creatively stimulating. Not quite so sterile as a library. Not so lonely as my empty home. People come and go and speak of things trivial and things paramount. I can tune out the din with noise-cancelling headphones and still experience the caffeine-perpetuated buoyancy. I often seek out coffee shops when I write. This one has become not only an easy choice by proximity, but one I’m accustomed to such that, when I enter, my brain easily settles into a mindset conducive to writing. I have a few other shops I’ve gravitated to over the years. One closed during the pandemic. Another seems to have survived. But, this may be my last visit to this particular shop and, regrettably, I find myself in a state of mourning.

When I entered today, I found a familiar notice on the front window. By direction of the state and local government, masks are mandated in public areas to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Interestingly, the first paper they have displayed is a general order from the city government. We are a town that straddles two counties, one of them happens to be the “liberal” bastion of Boulder, Colorado. So, the shop owners, on their second, displayed paper, blame Boulder for the mask mandate when the order they list, clearly states that it comes from the city of Erie government. (I tried to avoid revealing my city. Well, here we are. If anyone who wanted to know actually reads my blog, it will be hard to keep my identity secret now.)

Two slippery slopes easy to identify.

First: concern about overreach of local government. A close friend and brilliant political mind, when asked by me, replied that he felt our interests were usually best represented by the smaller, local governments. That mobility allowed someone to change their location geographically, when they felt their local government no longer represented their interests. That doesn’t excuse real overreach by government of any size. What I do find confusing is where someone’s liberty is being undermined. How does mandating mask use in public, for Mr. Franklin’s ill-applied caution regarding safety, harm anyone? My profession wears masks all day, anyway. Aside from a bit of acne, it seems to have negligible ill-effect on anyone. And acne is not an infectious disease I can spread just by breathing.

I don’t like the idea that someone should have to move if they feel oppressed. But I don’t see how masks are oppressive. Turn on the Christian and political right’s entertainment network, Fox News, or simply tune into a conversation at a coffee shop named after Jesus, and you’ll hear the pundits and citizens tell immigrants, “If you don’t like our laws, go back where you came from.” For how much support American Christians offer to Israel, would they tell the Israeli’s to leave Palestine if they don’t like how local politics functions? They are the immigrants, after all.

Masks are not some tenet of Shariah. Immigrants are not coming to America and claiming that a neighborhood should be allowed to forgo mask mandates in public spaces because of their religion. Yet, here we have some fanatical blowhards, taking up the neighborhood bark that, somehow, a equitably enforced mask mandate, without preference for any ethnic or religious group, is the equivalent of Nazi propaganda and practice. When someone says that only Christians must wear masks in public, I’ll consider the parallel and, likely, come vociferously to your defense. Until then, stop barking.

On top of that, consider a law passed in France in 2010 that prohibited the wearing of face coverings in public. The direct result was an infringement of the rights of Muslim women from wearing the full burqa as mandated by their faith. In effect, the “mandate” prevented those who wanted to be free to practice their faith, from leaving their homes. Like a mask mandate to slow the spread of coronavirus, people who did not want to break the law became confined to their homes, significantly restricting their freedom. I remember the discourse amongst my Christian friends and family (including myself at the time) that we wished there were a similar law in the United States to restrict Muslim women from wearing face coverings in public. Like the the European Court of Human Rights, we accepted the argument that the such a law promoted “a certain idea of living together.” Religious freedom meant something for us, but we would not extend it to them? Like J.S. Mill said regarding the freedom of speech, if it is not for the other person, it is not freedom. “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

Perhaps I should be willing to include a person’s right NOT to wear a mask in public. Despite what the coffee shops own notice stated, the workers were NOT wearing masks. I was the only one wearing a mask for much of the time I was there. I did “get looks” and I didn’t care. I do care that people seem unwilling to make a simple choice that does benefit others in their community. Their freedom not to wear a mask is fine, I’ll simply do as capitalists do and take my business elsewhere. But what freedoms would these people NOT tolerate from me? Which brings me to my second point.

The devoted Christians who own and operate this establishment would immediately call the cops if I insisted upon sitting in their establishment in the nude. No shirt, no shoes, no service. The evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists LOVE public decency laws. Why? “To protect the children.” Or, as the owners of this coffee shop said, “For [others] safety.” They would legislate burqa-like shrouds for women in public (many in private as well) if they could name them something appropriately Christian in the process to avoid sounding like hypocrites. (Catholics have habits but evangelicals may need their own terminology.) Shoulders are pornography as is a hint of cleavage. Women are made responsible for how men think about them. Each person, especially every woman, becomes responsible for protecting the virtue of the populace by being forced to wear mandated minimums of clothing.

This is a strange, slippery slope where clothing may be mandated for public decency and restricted for a particular religious group in the name of public safety and is oddly consistent with their parents’ stories of walking “uphill both ways” to school. Except, these Christians don’t seem to walk to school anymore, and it shows. A healthy dose of church every day and worship at the altar of Fox News keeps them immune to the devilry of charitably wearing masks to protect others. Masks protect us but, more so, they protect others from us. Additionally, my Christian friends seem to have lied about being barefoot on their cold, uphill trudge to school. Being shoe-less wouldn’t fit into their public decency mandates for shirts and shoes.

Think about this: they ardently support mandates for a women to wear a shirt in public lest her exposed breasts pose a threat to the public good. They do NOT think the same applies to a microscopic virus that has already killed over 800,000 people in the U.S. That’s the entire population of South Dakota completely wiped out in under two years. The difference that ought to be obvious to the nudity police is that a person can close their eyes or avert them to avoid looking at a shirtless woman if they find the view offensive. What we are unable to do is hold our breath in the presence of contagious diseases suspended in the very air upon which we depend for the next sixty seconds merely to remain alive.

A close family member has recently inundated my email inbox with conspiracy theories. I’m making an effort to be open-minded and evaluate what I other consider worthwhile information. But opening and reading those emails is like watching a horrible car accident. I want to look away but find my eyes, for once, without the need to blink for a time. I’m a bit of a prisoner to my past. Too much of my life was spent calling everything that challenged my beliefs a lie and everyone who challenged them a liar. I disregarded anything and everything for for 34 years and, because I listened in church, claimed I was informed and unbiased. Well, I listened to the video provided in the email and heard the same, tired line about how infectious disease spread has little to do with masks or vaccines and more to do with host theory. (I posted about a confrontation with my chiropractor on the very subject some time ago.) It turns out that the people who question germ theory don’t understand what they claim to disagree with. Germ theory includes the understanding that the future, infected host must be susceptible to the infectious disease.

Like the Immaculate Conception for Catholics or just about any controversial subject in Mormonism, the adherents know so little about what they don’t believe and claim to be a lie, and they know even less about what they do believe and upon which they stake their lives. They take the barking dog line that “humans didn’t evolve from monkeys” and repeat it as if this is the absolute refutation of Evolution by Natural Selection. They are right that humans didn’t evolve from monkeys or even chimpanzees. They are wrong because they think that is exactly what Evolution postulates. They don’t understand the very basics of a theory they claim to be false.

I was speaking with a close family member last week when the subject of alcoholic beverages came up. This person and their children, all devout Mormons, questioned why someone would drink alcohol. I responded that even Jesus made water into wine for a wedding (over 900 bottles worth with much of it left to spare) and that Joseph Smith requested it during his imprisonment at Carthage Jail and for the express purpose of calming his nerves. The adult in the conversation scoffed and said, “Why would he drink wine then? He refused it as a boy for his leg surgery?”

Under the weight of this air-tight logic, I realized I had to find a good resource. First, it had to be accurate and, for the other person’s sake, had to come from a non-biased source like from the LDS church itself. Luckily, it took only a short web search to find the I had to find a BYU site with the story published. BYU Studies, a part of BYU.edu published regarding this incident in a lesson manual. Everyone in the LDS church knows that John Taylor, one of the men that shared the jail cell with Joseph, was asked to sing A Poor Wayfairing Man of Grief. The don’t question that story. But, though it comes from the same account and in the same paragraph that reported the singing, they are quick to call into question the “Prophet’s” request for wine.

Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us. I think it was Captain Jones who went after it, but they would not suffer him to return. I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards. We all of us felt unusually dull and languid, with a remarkable depression of spirits. In consonance with those feelings I sang a song, that had lately been introduced into Nauvoo, entitled, ‘A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief’, etc.

Take up the tune of the barking, neighborhood dogs. Any barking you’ve never heard before or that doesn’t fit the accustomed din, must be rejected and it’s speaker called a cat. There is no incentive to research the entirety of the facts when your leadership carefully crafts the narrative and you’ve been convinced that no one else has better intentions than they.

I’m often wrong and some readers will potentially point out those points of which I’m mistaken. Last night my Fox News-loving mother pointed out that liberals had been anti-vax prior to the election. I didn’t remember hearing that so I challenged her to send me references. She balked and said that she’d “just heard it.” A five-minute or less search at home found several sources that would seem to corroborate her assertion. But, upon reading the actual quotes from liberal politicians, I can see that they are easily spun for conservative political talking points. While there was skepticism among democratic leaders prior to the election, it was a wariness of Donald Trump’s motives and support for a vaccine in-the-face of the expertise of doctors and scientists.

While Mormons, at large, seem to be hell-bent on supporting a person’s freedom from wearing a mask, consider that Utah has charged individuals with “lewd conduct” for being topless in their own home. They wouldn’t sue a parent for failing to cover their face and, as a result, infecting their child with COVID that ultimately led to the child’s death–as unlikely as that outcome may be. But if your step child accidentally sees your breasts, you can be held criminally liable. Her husband, also without a shirt, was not charged with a crime. The death of a child to COVID is a tragedy. Their eyes seeing a boob is a crime.

I’m trying to be alert to the barking I take up by reflex. I’ve been indoctrinated to bark and even though my paradigm has substantially changed, the urge to join a chorus has not been inoculated from me entirely. It likely never will be. But the simplest solution is, in this day and age of instant information, available at our finger tips. Look for the original source before you start barking.

Transcending the Trivial: When Sports Are At Their Best

I was raised to see skin color and to pass judgments as if it mattered. For a boy growing up in rural, Mormon-pioneer-settled-community in Wyoming, I saw very few people who’s skin was not as white as mine. When I saw a white family at church with the black nephew and niece they were raising, my four-year-old self turned to my mom and asked, “Are those chocolate people?” My mother, horrified, hushed me while my father and older siblings chuckled. They hadn’t taught me to think like that, but I hadn’t been taught not to. I don’t think that four-year-old or his parents should be blamed for what was said. Other races were simply not in our line of sight on a regular basis. Our television received three, grainy, rabbit-ear signals out of the cosmopolitan enclaves of southeast Idaho and northern Utah. We didn’t have PBS–a good thing, too, since their liberal ways triggered my father. I didn’t get to see Mr. Rogers dip his feet in the pool with his black mail carrier until I was an adult looking for genuine role models.

What I did get to see, on the rare occasion they were broadcast, were sports. I didn’t really start watching them until I was ten. in 1990, just twelve years after the Mormon church finally allowed members with black skin to hold the priesthood and be married in their temples, Ty Detmer won the Heisman trophy for our BYU Cougar football program. The season captivated me as I fed off the excitement of my father and older brother. I also started to notice, that there were black people playing…and they were incredible athletes! Detmer won over Raghib Ismail and Eric Bieniemy! Despite being enamored by Detmer, I can’t remember any specific play from that season. I do remember the incredible kick return by Ismail that would have won the Orange Bowl had a penalty not nullified it.

Sports became a passion for me following that season. Up to this point, there had been little exposure to racism for me in my home. It was definitely there but it was subtle, built into the daily discourse in a way my young mind couldn’t discern. You might say it was systemic and by being so prevalent, it was normal. I figured everyone spoke this way.

We had our teams to follow–BYU anything; Steve Young’s San Francisco 49ers; and whomever was playing against the University of Wyoming. When basketball season came around, we peripherally followed the Utah Jazz. That white point guard they had was an acceptable role model. He wasn’t flashy but he was tough, smart, and dignified in his press conferences. He looked and sounded like us. But when a game came on the TV with two teams we didn’t know, I learned quickly how to decide which team to cheer for. When I asked who my father was cheering for, he almost always had picked a team, especially when it was basketball. “Why them?” I would ask.

“Because they have more white guys on the floor.”

Over time I learned to think in this way. I should cheer for the team with the most white guys because we are different than the black guys and…it mattered. If it mattered for something as trivial as sports outcomes, what about real, complex, divisive social, political, and personal issues?

I think that I felt there was something not quite right about this but, like my love of ice cream and my devotion to Mormonism, I absorbed some unhealthy habits from my dad. This trite phrase became hard-wired, expected for its consistency as well as its reliability and applicability. In essence, there was a difference when it came to race. I should notice white and black, and one reason to think this way was as a standard for deciding who to cheer for. Can you imagine how I felt when Barak Obama campaigned for the presidency against a white war hero or, *gasp*, a white Mormon?

THE ROOTS OF MY RACISM

I grant my parents and grandparents a pass. Why? Because, like anyone raised in a cult like Mormonism, everyone following orders is a victim. Add to that a moral superiority and divine infallibility exuded by the men at the top claiming to be modern-day Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and you can get anyone conditioned to defer to your judgement to say or do anything.

Artistic depictions of my white family’s and largely white church’s Palestinian-Jew, Jesus, were always of an anglo-Scandinavian male who’s slightly tanned flesh was the result of a bit too much desert sun. The actual words “white and delightsome” are used in The Book of Mormon to classify the good guys. The bad guys of the same book, in a vision to a prophet, were labeled as “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.”

When that vision came to pass, we are told in 2 Nephi 5:21-25:

21…as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.

23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.

24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.

Don’t fret. These dark and loathsome creatures can reverse their “curse.” In fact, as recently as 1960, Mormon church leaders have taught that the curse can be and has been reversed so that the loathsome, dark skin of Native American children was becoming lighter! Prior to the civil war and for sometime after, leaders promoted the eternal rightness of enslaving people of African decent. Though the church wants to now promote the idea that these prophets were products of their time, other church leaders within the same governing body, The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were opposed to slavery. (Turns out that Brigham Young University bears the name of a decrepit racist) The apostle Orson Pratt, unlike the slave-holding and slaver-sympathizing leaders, opposed to slavery. He was certainly ahead of his time and perhaps should have been targeted by God to lead the church so that the church couldn’t be led astray against reassurances that said deity would never let that happen. Prohibitions against interracial marriage were taught from the pulpit for over one-hundred-thirty years. Until 1979, blacks couldn’t go to the temple for the most sacred, capstone-rite of Mormonism–eternal marriage to one’s spouse.

Those factors influenced my parent’s a great deal as the operating system they were given had been passed from their parents for at least six generations of Mormons. (That’s as far back as anyone can claim.) But my dad had his own reasons for cheering for the team with the most white boys playing. It took me thirty years to figure it out.

Members of the University of Wyoming’s “Black 14”

We cheered for BYU and whoever was playing against the University of Wyoming. This became a double-win when, as happened in 1969, BYU travelled to Laramie to be UW opponent. Fourteen black players at UW asked their coach if they could wear black armbands during the game to quietly protest BYU’s sponsoring entity’s–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–policy that excluded black individuals from equality in the church. The “Black 14” included seven starters on their nationally ranked team. The coach’s response was to promptly remove each of the players from the team, citing team rules. The University realized there could be a constitutional conflict with their rules and dropped the rules a week later. However, they did not reinstate the fourteen students.

The bad PR to the University of Wyoming is its own story. For my father, something else happened. Like the University of Wyoming, it was my father’s own fault for reacting as he chose to. His loathing for UW became permanent and irrevocable, a loathing he passed on to my older brother. I, too, carried the torch until reason prevailed over me, and I realized that the only chance of anything catching fire was my own decency. The larger choice my father made was to see black athletes as lazy and entitled and lesser.

His own mother, a vocal racist in her own right, used the word “negro” or “colored” as often as occasion would permit. A college tennis player in the early 1940’s, we watched tennis tournaments all summer in her home. Due to a lack of diversity, I saw few non-white competitors in tennis before Venus and Serena Williams. My grandmother was happy to see Venus win Wimbledon and talked about watching Arthur Ashe play. This was the first I’d heard of him. My grandmother was one of the sweetest women I knew. She was also the racist product of a sectarian, racist belief system and larger, racist social construct. We cheered for the Williams sisters in-spite-of their skin color. My father is her son with the slow erosion of social progress smoothing some of the rough edges.

The simple fact remains that through sports my father taught me that race matters. It may just be through sports that I have learned that it shouldn’t matter.

WHEN SPORTS ARE ONLY GAMES

I do not think my father is or ever was a malicious racist. I believe he would, like Abraham Lincoln, espouse and defend the axiom, “As I would not be a slave, so I will not be a master.” Even the great Lincoln, with his fight for emancipation, seemed to believe that whites and blacks could not or should not coexist. President Lincoln made attempts to garner support in an effort to expatriate blacks, after emancipation, in colonization efforts to Liberia or the Caribbean.

In 1880 Frederick Douglass said, “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.” Yet, Douglass would also said, four years earlier, that Lincoln was, “In his interests, in his associations, in his habits fo thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”

I’ll accept both Lincoln’s–the Great Emancipator and the White Man’s President. Why should I revere half of one man? Why should I choose to see only the half of my father that maintains racist impulses or the half that would not be a master any more than he would be a slave?

Watching sports with my father, and football in particular, was always all about the contest. Extended breaks for replay were perpetual annoyances unless it benefitted our team. Distractions from the game and competition were almost always unwelcome. With the exception of the Olympic games, story lines were rarely compelling outside of the competition at hand. Unless, of course, it involved a former or current BYU athlete.

I recall in 1993 when Emmitt Smith held out from his expiring contract with the Dallas Cowboys. I think I remember it mostly because my dad thought such a thing as a holdout was immature and immoral. After all, Smith signed a contract. “When you sign a contract, you follow through.” (My father also opposed unions, convinced they were an apparatus of socialism at best, and that was an inevitable precursor to communism at worst.) During the 1993 season and the years on either side, we cheered for the San Francisco 49ers–the Dallas Cowboy rivals–led by BYU alum and future hall-of-fame Quarterback, Steve Young. Despite the Cowboys being our arch rival and a much better team with Smith on the field, my father seemed to take Smith’s holdout personally. “They are payed millions to play a game!”

I heard similar rhetoric, though with more disgust and vitriol from my father when Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during The National Anthem prior to Football games in 2016. This behavior had gone from something like Smith’s selfish demand for money to blatant disrespect for the United States of America and its divinely inspired and appointed National Anthem! Disrespect for the soldiers who had given their lives to defend its Constitution and the freedoms it outlines.

I’m not immune to the climactic, elation-inducement of a well-performed rendition of Francis Scott Keys’ lyrical majesty. When Whitney Houston performed our National Anthem in Tampa Bay before Super Bowl XXV, I was not yet a teen. With all that surrounded that monumental performance in 1990, perhaps it is no wonder that my father’s eyes were misty at the end. If you watch the video and see faces in the crowd, and even Ms. Houston’s, he wasn’t alone. To this day, her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner still brings a tear to my eye.

Let’s not forget that there are more verses to the Nation Anthem than the first. The author, himself a slave owner, penned the words that celebrate the United States of America as a bastion of freedom for the oppressed. Black men (women, black or white, weren’t counted at all) were legally considered only 3/5 of a man and then only for apportioning WHITE representatives to the U.S. Congress. For practical purposes, it would seem that few considered their black slaves as human at all. Treating them as beasts of burden and chattel, I think of Jefferson’s words (another slaveholding founding father who perhaps appreciated the irony of the practice) when he said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Even under the grand auspices of The Star Spangled Banner, we must admit that it contains a dream of freedom for everyone…so long as they are considered a human.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, father to the famed Supreme Court Justice, penned a fifth verse to the Anthem during the American Civil War. Perhaps we will one day, our nation may stand united when we have realized the hope contained in Homles verse:

Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!

Until then, I don’t think we should find it offensive or even surprising that an entire community within our nation should find a hero who kneels for them. The song certainly did not represent them when it was written or adopted. After reflecting on the justice of God, Jefferson added, that God’s “justice cannot sleep forever.” And despite the famous Christmas refrain, “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.” For now, I am left to trust in the goodness of collective humanity–an exhausting and discouraging course–to break the chains. Rosa, Martin, Colin, Bayard, Abraham, and George: If God’s justice is to be awoken, chains broken, and the oppressed to go free, it will begin these names and those we haven’t yet met who’s acts and words will inspire and indict.

Sports At It’s Worst


Fall in line. Do your duty. More dramatically, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” That is how I was raised. There’s no value in dissent. Conformity is far more honorable than individuality. Things are pretty good. The status quo works! Well, it works for families like mine. God. Family. Country. The United States is ordained by God! To serve one is to serve the other. Ms. Houston’s yet unrivaled performance of the Nation’s anthem evoked a great deal in my mind. Commitment to the flag and the institutions of the country. Somewhere within that, I believed that the government and the flag were the country

An injured olympian struggling to finish a race to which they’ve dedicated their life, only to see their father run from the stands to help them cross the finish line.

A high school athlete collapse when her body can’t go on, and struggle to rise, determined to finish when her competitor stops and lifts her as they cross the finish line together.

A professional athlete, idolized by a child visits them in their hospital bed granting them encouragement.

Alex Smith, determined to return to the field after a horrific injury and near deadly recovery, returns to competition and leads his team to the playoffs.

Victories of the human spirit over their circumstances. Sports can and often does inspire the best within us. Yet, the two-bladed-sword of humanity cleaves divisively in the opposite direction. Where there is the best, we often see the worst at work as well.

There exist grotesque levels of selfish, entitled, and violent behavior from fans, parents, and athletes. These often happen precisely over the less-important, silly-children’s-game aspects of sports. I can’t think of them being justified. But they happen when scores, playing time, and individual ego are taken too seriously by aspiring amateurs and overpaid, professional, athletic entertainers. Sports are at their worst when we take them too seriously for what they actually are. Other than money or pride, little rides on the outcomes of sporting events. A person’s livelihood may depend upon it, to be sure. And I expect that every player takes their job seriously. They put their health on the line to entertain. They are placed in an environment of physical and mental strain. I’m not surprised. But I have come to appreciate that sports can be so much more than entertainment. I want the entertainment, but I see now that we, all of us, need the game to be far more.

As a youth, I vaguely understood the ill-defined silhouette of these historical events and motivations leading up to and through the end of The Civil War. I pledged allegiance to the flag, saluted it appropriately in cub scouts, and Lincoln’s reminder or redefining at Getteysburg of “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” may have made “the people” extensions of those symbols rather than the reason for their adoption. The military pomp with navy, marine, and army color-guards and air-force fighter-jet flyovers that accompany the National Anthem remind me of George Orwell’s words in his essay, My Country Right or Left. In the essay that explains how the middle-class are most susceptible to and are a nationalistic toward military service. He wrote, “I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism…To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during, ‘God save the King.'”

Sports At It’s Best

From “God Save the King” to “The Star Spangled Banner”…

I was raised to hate an athlete like Colin Kaepernick. Overpaid prima donnas making a fortune to play a child’s game. What happened to the love of the game and striving for the best within us? The virtues that made college sports and the Olympics the pinnacle of athleticism? I just wanted to watch football. Get through the ceremony of the National Anthem and watch some football. The Anthem was out-of-place anyway. Not only should there exist a “wall of separation between church and state” as Jefferson once said, there ought to be a wall of separation between sports and patriotism. Are we to be indoctrinated as Orwell said by the vestigial rite we perform before each athletic contest? But that’s not really the point or, rather, it doesn’t have to be. What I did feel was a reverence for the song and the flag–symbols–not a reminder of what the symbols represent.

I tolerated the form which was made more important than the freedoms.
Now, consider the irony of my father’s dislike for Colin Kaepernick. For a man who believed that sports were a child’s game and could be little more than that, he refused to allow sports to represent something more. For a man or woman to use the stage of athletic contest for something other than entertainment; to kneel or sit and by so doing to stand for something much bigger than a game; this is where sports are at their very best! This is where a man like my father ought to see that an athlete might just be worth millions.

Transcending the events on the field is when sports is at its best–black fists raised in solidarity and black knees bent in memoriam. Triumph on the field of competition can’t mean more than victories in our communities and schools. If it’s all about cups and rings, my dad is right. Its just a game. A captivating but ultimately meaningless game played by adults. And the worst of it is just the natural offspring of it.

We’re not talking about an uninjured LeBron James walking off the floor with nearly six minutes remaining in a blowout, playoff loss. We’re talking about the difference between that “me first” behavior and The Black 14 who weren’t allowed to play for making a statement about something bigger than their own ego. I’m a white dude enjoying privilege and security from a life easy enough to grant me the time and energy to contemplate these things. I’m not sacrificing much. I write under a pseudonym to protect me from my family or friends learning my identity. Most of my family wouldn’t care if I expressed racist or sexist views if they were framed with the “wisdom” of ancient scripture or modern, prophetic catch-phrases. Harming the reputation of their tribe is what is important to them. They don’t care about Kaepernick’s tribe. Yet he and others have sacrificed their careers to their tribe. He took a knee in an attempt to raise his tribe’s station. I don’t doubt he would welcome a common unity where the only tribe that matters are those of the collective, human race.

When Kaepernick lost his value in the NFL, I heard some say, “It serves them right for being ____________.” This kind of reaction offers a lazy mind (dogmatic minds tend to be lazy) a comforting, facile deflection from engaging with difficult ideas. But when they fill-in-the-blank with “gay” or “a woman” or “a black man” it is necessarily preceded by a qualifier like “bitter”, “man-hating”, or “ignorant.” A white man is simply an “angry man”, or an “ignorant man.” In saying it this way, it seems to justify the anger or ignorance or at least to excuse it as understandable if not acceptable.

While the golden rule serves as a great mantra for those who feel empowered, it seems to fall short for the marginalized and oppressed. It can lay a groundwork for such individuals and groups to act passively when strength is called for in word and deed. The Bible played a powerful role in both oppression and emancipation. The fact that it can be used to justify both sides weakens its role as an arbiter. It encourages slaves to be subject to masters and for everyone to submit to the powers that be. Don’t go violently usurping an oppressive tyrant. God put him there to begin with!

Far better is the wisdom often attributed to Nelson Henderson though written by his son, Wesley, in the book, Under Whose Shade: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to be utilizing this mantra when he, realizing it would not happen in his life time, still dreamed of his own children playing with the children of his white neighbors as equals in dignity and opportunity. Can we say the same for Colin Kaepernick? It seems safe to assume that he put his career in serious jeopardy by “taking a knee.” Kapernick took a knee to direct people’s minds to the persistent inequity with which black people continue to endure in the land of the free.

Tim Tebow loved to take a knee. It’s hardly possible to imagine him without visualizing him on one knee. He took a knee to point attention to the “big man” in the sky. If it were not for that reason, why do it publicly? I don’t recall him kneeling during the Anthem, but should it matter? Both are attempting to point attention to where they feel it needs to be.

The difference is that we can all see the people to whom Kaepernick attempted to turn our collective attention. We don’t need to take anyone’s word for it. Sky Daddy has yet to come out of hiding yet society seems to pine and sappily ahhh when an athlete takes a penitent knee. It’s not only Tebow. Many athletes of every ethnicity do the same.

Like those who went before him, Kaepernick utilized his platform of athletic popularity to plant a tree. Today, athletes take knees during the National Anthem with some regularity. None of them risk their career and their reputations seem to recover well-enough. They bask in a shade under which their predecessors only dreamed.

What is the National Anthem? It is a poem put to music and adopted as a theme for the United States of America. It celebrates the grim nature of war if fought for a just cause. It celebrates a red, white, and blue fabric and the freedom from oppression for which it stands. It honors free and brave individuals who give their lives for collective emancipation.

Where we should honor the principles and ideals for which it stands, in this country our co-dependent relationship with an idol of billowing fabric too often supersedes the republic for which it stands. Many people in my circle who seemed incredibly offended by the passive, kneeling activism of Kaepernick and his disrespect toward the Stars and Stripes were reluctant or even obstinate in condemning the Capitol storming of January 6, 2020. Somehow, for them, the fabric of the flag and the F.S. Keys poem set to music are sacrosanct while the institutions and civic rites for which they stand are easily anathematized. Even by riled protestors waving the same flag in insurrection upon the floor of our congress.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, and spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of the earth.”

We can’t see the future but we have a clear view of the past and growing clarity of the present. Kierkegaard reminded us that, though we live our lives forward, we can only understand it backwards. Like Lincoln, the Black 14, and Colin Kaepernick, we don’t know the future. We can’t see it. We can only hope for it and strive to bring it into being. Whether on our feet or on our knees, it is our hearts that must learn empathy and our minds that must endure the painful struggle of understanding. We hope to see a tree, we hope to bask in its shade. I hope that we can find the shade as one people. I hope for a day when sports can be about the competition because, perhaps through sports, we will have arrived at a place dreamed of by those ahead of their time.

Illusions of Grandeur: Politics, Religion, and Polite Company

Considering the relative ease with which one buries refuse at a landfill, relative to the difficulty one faces of burying within their mind harmful, detestable, insidious ideology, it would seem one method of trash handling is not applicable to all circumstances. Neither is the modern ease with which we dispose of excrement to be found in the shit-sifting that is breaking free of childhood indoctrination. Without a severe blow to the head, it would seem the evolved primate brain to which we are dependent, is nearly incapable of purging noxious patterns of  programming. Perhaps this understanding illuminated Christopher Hitchens when he wrote, “Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown.” 

Growth is about change. Change comes as we enlarge our view of the world, of others, and of ourselves. The foremost challenge is against our preconcieved notions and long-held traditions. When we refuse to entertain new information we become prisoners of our own illusions.  “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the Earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” The appetizing fruit at the top of the pile is enough to satisfy our eyes to the point that we may say either the rot doesn’t exist–a willfully ignorant position–or, more sinisterly, the rot doesn’t matter at all. How deep are we willing to dig for truth? Does complete truth matter or only our small, superficial view of the surface layer we allow ourselves to see?

I once believed and was often taught that after death, one of my regrets would almost invariably be that I had spent too little time in study of the scriptures. Now I can say that I feel precisely the opposite. Committed to my memory are a small collection of wisdom from Kipling, Shakespeare, Frost, and Twain. Crowding the precious and seemingly more resistant space within the same memory are a festering, heaping, landfill of Bible and Book of Mormon versus. Myths and fanciful teachings of men like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other “prophets.” These are largely passages and phrases to which I was exposed from the ages of fourteen to thirty. Try as I might, the process of “burying” the refuse with fresh soil in which new epigrams, lessons, and sonnets may be stored has proved much more difficult than I might have imagined. But where I cannot obscure or flush away the stinking waste, I am attempting to outgrow it.

In addition, I faced the guilt of wanting to read anything if I had not yet read from The Book of Mormon. If I hadn’t given time to reading the Mormon foundational scripture that day, I was making a poor choice to read something else. I felt less guilt for reading books or articles by church leaders or apologists, slightly more for clever but harmless fiction, and shame for an interest in literature or philosophy with their dangerous, liberal ideas. This guilt often won and, despite my piety, I wound up reading nothing at all. Outside of school obligations, I found reading or studying those things that interested me a burden rather than a joy. I sated myself with the droning punditry of Fox News and thought I had learned something. 

Unfortunately, it is not simply an issue of available space or adequate time. As the venerable Twain was known to have said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.” Former Congressional Librarian, Daniel J. Boorstin is credited with refining and focussing Twain’s sentiment when he said, “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Herein lies the greater tragedy of my youth. Space can be made or expanded in the miraculous mind of a human, but changing the manner in which one learns, the lens through which they view the world, and reclaiming the time spent conforming the square mind of the indoctrinated to the round hole of reason and logic proves far more difficult than I might have imagined. Falling into old ways of thinking and responding to feelings in a reactionary reflex to protect my ideas and, indeed, my feelings from a perceived attack requires some professional help to deprogram. Especially when I was nurtured to equate disagreement with hostility and depravity.

Though I ask for and accept no sympathy regarding these emotional and mental handicaps, I cannot keep my reader from recoiling in disgust and their heart swelling with the natural primate impulse to empathy when I reveal that I received a degree in Neuroscience from Brigham Young University. The only ill-will I hold in regards to my time there is with respect to the academic integrity. I’ll allow one example to speak for my scientific education at BYU. (Though a great deal could be said about the required “religious” studies credits which amounted to one, two-credit course each semester!)

On a pleasant afternoon, I made my usual journey on foot from my off-campus apartment to the heart of campus for a class. I took a path through the Wilkinson Student Center to find that the university President, Merrill J. Bateman (a member of the LDS church’s First Quorum of the Seventy and thus sustained as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” by the membership of the church), had subjected himself to an open question and answer session. Any student willing to wait in line could ask whatever question was on their mind. I watched the display for some time as students asked questions ranging from the understandable “married housing is too expensive on campus, what are you going to do about it?” to the inane “how can we keep the girls on campus from wearing immodest clothing? For gosh-sakes, their knees are visible! And sometimes their clavicle!”

Finding that I had time on my hands, I stepped in line to see if I could ask a question. This was not long after I had returned home from my two-year missionary service. I had become more indoctrinated in that time and more confident in my faith. I had a real world to live and work in. I wanted to know and understand the secular arguments that I would inevitably encounter. The sooner I was exposed, the sooner I could wrap them tidily in the revealed truth of the gospel. As it turns out, due to the time constraints, I became the last individual to ask a question. “It seems to me that students are not treated as adults in our science classes. My professors hedge as if they walk on broken glass when the subjects of big bang cosmology or evolution come up. We hear a banal statement from the church on the first day of each semester in any natural science class. A statement from 1909. Why can’t our professors treat us like thinking adults and teach us what they surely learned in their PhD programs?”

As if his brain shut down or, rather, went into his ecclesiastical programming at the mention of “big bang” and its debaucherous cousin, “evolution,” Mr. Bateman said nothing more or less than, “The church has made a statement on the origin of man. I would refer you to their statement for any clarification anyone would seek on this matter.” And, like a good prophet, seer, and revelator, he walked away. The crowd dispersed, and I went to whatever class was on my schedule with a strange sense of anti-fulfillment. It wasn’t that I had failed to be fulfilled, it was that any fire of scholastic fulfillment had been doused by a needless evasion. What if I had asked him about the veracity of the 1969 Moon landing and he had said, “I refer you to a statement by LDS Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, from 1961:

We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.

I wonder how many books this was written in? Remember, this was from the mouth of an Apostle of Jesus Christ, a prophet, seer, and revelator to members of the church that sustained him as such. To take it to the ultimate endgame, he believed himself an Apostle chosen by God to minister to the WHOLE WORLD even if only his acolytes in the church were listening. He didn’t muse it in a journal or say it jokingly over donuts and cider. It was said in an official church meeting in Hawaii over which he would have been viewed as the presiding authority. 

So, it came as no surprise to read another compelling observation of Mark Twain. “All schools, all colleges have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten.” It turns out that Mr. Twain was more prophetic about BYU than Joseph Fielding Smith was regarding space exploration. He was also more insightful regarding the Mormon church’s long history of consciously concealing the unsavory and deceitful aspects of the church’s history that rot at the bottom of the basket of the “appealing” fruit they sell. By their fruits, ye shall know them! Just don’t forget to raise the first layer to see what lurks beneath. 

This type of wizard-behind-the-curtain or king’s-new-clothes might be nothing more than an amusing blip in the human species collective history if reason could win the day. In his iconoclastic expose on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens adroitly observed, “In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjurer is only the instrument of the audience. He may even announce himself as a trickster and a clever prestidigitator and yet gull the crowd.” Ask those who sustained Joseph Fielding Smith a prophet of God if his rotten, prophetic fruit dissuaded their opinion in any way? Or, more to Hitchens point, what about the followers of Mormonism’s not-so-distant cousin led by Warren Jeffs? This man, once placed in prison and after languishing for some time, announced to his followers that he was a fallen prophet. Ironically, the statement is a “revelation” that the Lord “dictated” to Jeffs. But, he was their prophet! Of course, they would not listen–even to him. Not listening to what you don’t want to hear is a long-honored tradition for the zealous faithful. For the faithful, their hearing may be selective though not so selective as what they choose to believe. Where the ears cannot always be guarded, the mind can be made nearly impervious to challenges to one’s faith.

Merrill Bateman’s answer demonstrated two aspects of NEWSPEAK from George Orwell’s 1984. At the end of the narrative story, Orwell includes a section called “The Principles of Newspeak.” Of the need for brain activity in answering questions regarding INGSOC, or in my case, The Church, he said: 

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brains centres at all…[words were] ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox one, it implied nothing but praise…

I don’t doubt that, in a private conversation with Mr. Bateman, the topic of evolution or The Big Bang would result in much more fulfilling and insightful dialectic. Orwell further expressed regarding Newspeak: 

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray for the the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument, and the texture of the words, with their harsh sound and a certain wifely ugliness which was in accord with the spirit of Ingsoc, assisted the process still further.

Language is simply a tool for the pious devotees to those truths who’s only evidence is faith. The real depth of the chasm to be crossed is determined by the height of the cliffs which abut it. They are the tangible reality on one side in which everyone shares sense experience. On the other side is the reality that many “see” through their lens of faith. They have a scriptural teaching that “now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Worse yet, they are instructed in their perfect, divinely inspired book in the same verse that “now I know in part; but then shall I know…”

We can share the experience of watching the sun rise. We can expect similar physiologic results from medicines. We can watch the same video of the President lying to the world. We can read the same histories of “holy men” declaring that they are the husband of one wife while secretly having wed dozens of other women and girls. We can study the same anthropology, archaeology, and DNA history of the world. The reality of these facts and countless others, are there for the individuals of the world to share.The facts remain indifferent the conclusions drawn. In the world of falsifiable science, we are eager to render the best conclusions. Often we are right! That does not make the intellectually honest unwilling to change or outgrow their assumptions and conclusions under the light of new information or contrary evidence.  

But what about the unfalsifiable? How can we verify heaven? Especially when we have so many, conflicting versions of the same? There is no evidence we can point to that a person can share or verify in any way. In a recent conversation with my own mother, I was told that with the coronavirus pandemic, the wildfires, the social unrest, and the threat of war with various countries, the second coming of Jesus Christ couldn’t be far off. “When the church announces temples in Independence and Far West, Missouri,” (a totally Mormon thing associated with Jesus coming again) “I’m gonna say I told you so.” 

Aside from my disdain for those who crave death and destruction upon the world for their illusion to be made real, I was hurt by my mother’s attitude. However, I have developed a thicker skin and a confidence in how my mind works. I attribute this to my confidence in my intellect but my willingness to be proven wrong. My reply was calm as I said, “Well, your position is unfalsifiable. You’ll always be waiting to tell me ‘I told you so.’ I would never want to say that to you. But there is not and never will be anything you’d accept as evidence against your position. If it does happen, you’ll say I’m right. If it doesn’t you’ll say, ‘We weren’t worthy of it.’ Or, ‘God works in His time.'”

My mother, and many others, believe their concept of heaven is more real than their experience here. This veil of tears is an illusion. They will reject any and all evidence present in this illusion if it does not conform to the reality of their heaven. They can reject evolution, physics, climate science, psychology, medicine, etc because they are products of an illusion. “I reject the evidence of my eyes and ears for the ideas of my mind and heart because right now, we see through a glass darkly.”

How many families have been torn apart because the faith-devoted spouse rejects the love of their unbelieving husband, demonstrated through decades of commitment, affection, and intimacy for the illusion, born of hope and unsupported by ANY evidence, that after she dies she can bask in the eternal love of a white-bearded old man in heaven? The pious will willingly and joyfully sacrifice relationships with children and grandchildren in the tangible now to build a future kingdom through missionary work and to save the dead. All of this is dependent upon their illusion of a future kingdom–an illusion they “know” is more real than reality. “You may be LGBT now but I will cut you off to show you that I care more about an illusory exaltation than our real, demonstrable relationship. One day you’ll thank me, my child.”

It’s not only the power of religion that can and does arouse such devotion. I used to view iconoclasts as petty, negative swamp rats that gloried in controversy and provocation. I see them quite differently now. To place any individual in a position of glory, saviorship, and adoration creates a fertile bed for cults of personality to take root. It is then a short growing season to the harvest of tyranny. 

How often have we heard Donald Trump say something grotesque regarding women, those with mental or physical handicaps, or call dead soldiers “losers”? How many times has he said something idiotic or wrong regarding the coronavirus? He may be ill-informed or simply ignorant of facts in some cases. But do a web search of the verified LIES he has said or written. The stance I’ve heard from his supporters? “The media doesn’t give him a fair shake.” And, yes, I’ve heard this one, including yesterday from a Republican Party pollster going door to door in my neighborhood, “The real Donald Trump isn’t the one you see on TV or Twitter.”

Their idea of him is more real that the reality of what he has said and done on record. Again, what he says and does are well-reported facts that supporters and opposers alike can share. But for the believer, there is no way to falsify their position. NEWSPEAK has gone from Trump’s witless rambling to infect his supporters. Their brains have shut-off to let Trump and the vociferous right’s inane language become their bulwark. He mocks you for your belief. He’s bragged–BRAGGED–that his followers are so loyal, he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and not lose a single vote. He’s not an idiot but he knows his supporters are. That is why he mocks you. This is not praise for you. Can you imagine anyone saying this? Even Stalin was more shrewd than this. It’s the equivalent of a mob boss looking you in the face and, knowing how pathetic and sycophantic you are, telling you, “I could tear your kids from your arms, kick you out of the country, and kill your spouse in-front-of you and you’d still love me.” It’s not praise, it’s bragging! He’s taunting you. Your illusion of who he is is more real to you than the reality we can actually, mutually see, hear, and read about.

There is another level of devotion to an illusion, however, that may be more disturbing. What is truly frightening is when people acknowledge the shared reality in the face of their individual illusion, yet claim it does not have any affect on their reality. This degree of devotion requires an obscene amount of “inoculation” and “brainwashing.” It is nearly always a case of special pleading. They reserve their harshest judgements for any and all other individuals while refraining from applying the same to their revered leader/savior/prophet. If Joe Biden were to have said or done what Donald Trump had said or done, the rules they refuse to apply to Trump suddenly become paramount against Biden. This is a broader human problem for which both sides of the aisle are guilty. It seems, to me, far more apparent now with the would-be-dictator currently inhabiting the White House. 

Oft attributed to Jonathan Swift, the following is perhaps less eloquently rendered but still as true, “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.” Put another way that elucidates the emotional aspect of the same epigrammatic image, English Poet John Dryden said, “A man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reason’d into truth.” The two topics, politics and religion, that we oft avoid but of which G.K. Chesterton said, “There is nothing else to discuss,” are simply emotional realms. They don’t have to be, but changing human nature will not happen by the dialectic. Again, we can’t change our illusions or our nature, we must learn to and work to outgrow them. This is where the dialectic is ALL THAT WE HAVE.

Along my journey, I’ve leaned on many forms of support as I challenged my own illusions and grown to accept my doubts. My journey accelerated around a significant back injury, surgery, and recovery. Frequent walks were the prescription therapy in the weeks following surgery. Up to five walks a day with increasing duration. As the paths I walked around my home became more familiar, I looked for insight and distraction from audiobooks and music. Already a casual fan of Coldplay, they had a new album released, Ghost Stories, that I began listening to during these walks. This led me to other albums. The most supportive and insightful during that time was their album X&Y. Among the applicable tracks, the song Talk applies well here: 

Oh brother, I can’t, I can’t get through

I’ve been trying hard to reach you ’cause I don’t know what to do

Oh brother, I can’t believe it’s true

I’m so scared about the future, and I wanna talk to you

Oh, I wanna talk to you

You can take a picture of something you see

In the future where will I be?

You can climb a ladder up to the sun

Or a write a song nobody has sung

Or do something that’s never been done

Are you lost or incomplete?

Do you feel like a puzzle, you can’t find your missing piece?

Tell me, how do you feel?

Well, I feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak

And they’re talking it to me

So you take a picture of something you see

In the future where will I be?

You can climb a ladder up to the sun

Or write a song nobody has sung

Or do something that’s never been done

Or do something that’s never been done

So you don’t know where you’re going and you wanna talk

And you feel like you’re going where you’ve been before

You tell anyone who’ll listen, but you feel ignored

Nothing’s really making any sense at all, let’s talk

Let’s talk, let’s talk, let’s talk

It’s all we have. Talk. Conversation. Open-mindedness and shared experience. If we can’t share it, we can’t talk about it in a meaningful way. If what we share is an illusion compared to what you believe is yet to come, we can’t talk. We need to talk about here and now. The climate is changing. The serious researchers that spend their lives studying it are in almost perfect consensus on the fact that mankind is largely responsible. If you believe an unseen God whose more real to you than your neighbor will destroy the earth with fire and war and plaque and pestilence before restoring it, how can we talk about what our species can do now? If you feel that your illusion about the current political leadership is the real Trump and the comments, tweets, and lies we can both view are an illusion, we can’t talk about it. If you believe that glory awaits you in heaven for obedience to the dictates of an unseen God through other men and women on this planet, how can we find common ground on social justice issues?

At some point in the future, my teenage daughter will ask if I voted for Donald Trump. I have not. My reason the first time around were his degrading statements about and treatment toward women. We share the reality of what he said. I couldn’t face her if I had voted for him. I couldn’t talk to her and tell her that its not the real Trump. I couldn’t expect her to buy the illusion in which I would certainly have had to sell my integrity to believe. If we can’t talk about the only experiences which we can share as earth-born primates, we can’t talk.

Let’s talk.

Feces and Beards and Fan Clubs to the Rescue!

I hope that one day I will such a level of popularity that I also enjoy the corresponding dislike of large groups of people. Before I earn such distinction, I would do well to grow a thicker skin. Should I achieve such a level of popularity, I hope it will be as a result of my writing and my novels in particular. Amongst literary fan clubs, it seems there are two types of fans that align with their corresponding peers. For simplicity I will call one group those who enjoy escapist fiction which consists of cheap or trite plot lines and characters and who’s novels command a wide distribution. These works are often immensely popular and will remain at eye level on store shelves for a few years until the next fad novel comes along. The other category I refer to as literary fiction. This latter category may not sell as feverishly as the former but the influence of the books will often be felt in future generations. Though they may not receive bestseller placement, large book retailers will keep these books on their shelves for many decades and school’s will incorporate them into the curriculum well past their expiration date.

I used to gravitate toward escapist fiction. As a typical American caught in the trap of a semi-fulfilling career, I needed the escape from the monotony of making a living. As Orwell said in Coming Up For Air, “like everyone else I was fighting for a job, and then I’d got a job and the job had got me.”My heart wasn’t in my job and, rather than find a place for both to coexist, I escaped from real life in exciting but forgettable novels. The escape was valuable, in its way, but it had its a sinister side: this kind of writing gave me only the tool to escape real life while I engaged with the text. What it did not offer was inspiration. Nothing in the narrative or dialogue elevated my internal dialogue nor did it challenge me to re-engage with my own life’s trajectory having some momentum of my own to alter it. Having limited experience with drugs, even with alcohol, I imagine the escape as I might the effects of an intoxicant in that I began to need it to cope with life. There was nothing in escapist reading that improved my life, rather it only provided a brief reprieve from it.   

In 2014, when my life-long faith crumbled before me, I needed to rebuild everything in my paradigm regarding the world and my place within it. Suddenly—almost overnight—escapist fiction lost its savor. I was primarily a fan of epic fantasy fiction up to this point. Since my faith transition, I would and still do pick up recommended titles in the genre with some excitement. Rarely will the writing entice me beyond the first chapter. If it does, I almost always find my interest fizzle by the third chapter. Those which I have completed are largely forgettable, and I have always had an uncanny knack for remembering what I read.

One of the first fictional works that I read after my loss of faith was George Orwell’s 1984. I have wondered if reading a master work like 1984 could be to blame for my dissatisfaction with fiction since. However, having known many people who have read Orwell’s seminal novel and largely forgotten it (and seem utterly unaffected by it) I am reasonably confident that the change that occurred within me is the culprit. Other works of literary fiction I have since enjoyed include: 

The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger by Albert Camus; 

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse; 

Coming Up for Air and Burmese Days by George Orwell;

Silence by Shūsaku Endō;  

and, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. 

This doesn’t mean I haven’t read any escapist fiction in seven years. As I peruse my Goodreads bookshelf, I can see that I have read quite a few. Such as it is, and to my point, I don’t remember many of them. And I have read what many consider to be contemporary classics that I am neither fond of nor do I remember much about them. As an example, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I remember almost nothing about that book. While Andy Weirs, The Martian, remains one of my favorite reads of the last decade. Bestsellers, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky and 11/22/63 by Stephen King were not only entertaining but poignant for me. (King’s, The Gunslinger, absolutely crossed the lines between page-turning escapsim and literature for me.)I can remember my excitement reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Black Widow by Daniel Silva. What I can’t remember is anything else about them. Each author, whether I remember it or not, created an exciting narrative and compelling plot. They wrote well and I have no regret in reading their work (except The Alchemist—that’s a few hours I’ll never get back). But too many of them are entirely forgettable to me.  

A few years ago I came across a sub-Reddit for my favorite non-Tolkien fantasy author, Patrick Rothfuss. Posts often involved redditors postulating their theories and attempting to second-guess the content of the long-awaited third installment in the Kingkiller Chronicle. Many asked for clarification of some plot-line they found confusing. Others tried to point out plot holes or inconsistencies (as if that redditor was capable of holding together a fictional narrative without mistake for over six-hundred-thousand words). A few complained about the author’s delay in releasing book three with many angrily vowing to abandon the series completely. Somehow, they were personally wronged by the author for having to wait. Escapist fiction is a hell-of-a-drug!

I see that I am not nearly the fan that so many others are. I made one post in the sub-Reddit simply to offer a chuckle to other redditors. A news article regarding the presence of fecal bacteria being often present in beards seemed apropos to the sub, considering Rothfuss’s famously expansive, wizard-like beard. I believe I titled the post, “Oh No, Pat! Say it Ain’t So!” I admit that the entire post was silly and, aside from evoking a chuckle here and there, entirely without merit. Not expecting to procure a great deal of karma, when I went back to Reddit the following day, I wasn’t surprised not to find much. What I did find amongst the few comments, were a small but very vocal constituency of fans who were offended by the jest. While they may simply have been socially inept with the corresponding lack of a sense of humor, they expressed their offense on behalf of Mr. Rothfuss that anyone would suggest something so vile.

I’m not a member of that sub-Reddit any longer. While I enjoy diving into the books, I can no longer see the point in devoting so much of my mental acuity to the nuances of a fictional world. Outliers notwithstanding, many fans of elaborate fictional worlds seem to know even the most minute of details in the lives of minor characters, the book’s great wars, and the world’s strange magics. But could these same acolytes tell you the first thing about the elected leader of their country, wars past and present, or how the economy works in the actual world they inhabit?For the majority, I think it unlikely. I would still take the over under on a person who reads being better informed about those things than a typical Nascar or NBA fan. But they are symptoms of a similar drug addiction. Avoidance of the painful and ever-present real world.

The difference between fans of escapist and literary fiction seem to me to be that literature forces us to confront the absurdity of the real world. It challenges us to confront our social and cultural norms. Though one could read East of Eden without reconsidering their concept of what morality is, it requires a magical capacity for mental and emotional lethargy to do so. This is why literary novels—though each has its ardent naysayers—more often inspires conversation over hero worship. Perhaps it is because many of the authors are dead already. Or, maybe it is precisely because the readers of it are thoughtful and trying to confront the real world rather than simply endure it. 

There exists a latent and even blatant nihilism in fantasy. The worlds are make-believe and, even if they offer some metaphorical parallel to real life, the problems created and problems solved involve magical intervention. 

Some works of fantasy fiction have transcended my seemingly strident definition of literature. And they are books that I love. The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. The Chronicles of Narnia. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. While Chronicles is a blatant allegory of Judeo-Christian mythology, it borrows that mythology from even more ancient tropes of Egyptian and Greek mythology. Tolkien famously decried the author’s oppressive tendency to apply allegory to his work, believing that it claimed too much influence over the reader. He preferred, “application,” which left power in the hands of the reader. We may argue whether or not Tolkien succeeded in maintaining an indifference to the mythologies and religious traditions with which he was raised and educated. Within Tolkien’s magical and whimsical world, any reader may step in and ask what they would do if faced with similar odds.

One of my favorite series of fantasy is Robin Hobb’s, The Farseer Trilogy. For me, the tale of FitzChivalry was utterly enjoyable. Hobb managed to craft a lengthy, first-person narrative better than anyone I had read before and, perhaps, since. Two decades later, I still remember many of the high and low points. Yet, I never remember wondering how I would behave if I were in the shoes of any character. How I interact with my own world and my conceptualization of morality, good and evil, remained unaffected. I was supremely entertained, but I was not inspired.

Fantasy’s less verbosely obese cousin, science fiction, is, by nature, far more prescient. It takes place in a world the author envisions growing out of our own. How could it not have direct implications for society? I read far less of this genre. But what I have read, in addition to being escapist, tends to stick with me on a deeper level than most fantasy. (Why don’t I read more of it?) In sophomore english class, my teacher elected to expose us to the books approved by the school board as acceptable alternatives to Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness. Instead, we read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I remember them well. I was and continue to be effected by their literary gravitas. Even modern sci-fi that I have read, for example, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovksy has haunted me in profound and lasting ways.

I wish I could say the same about modern fantasy. I really do. Some well-written books just lose their appeal by chapter three. Anything by Brandon Sanderson, unfortunately. Joe Abercrombie’s highly recommend, The Blade Itself, had one of the most gripping opening scenes I’ve read in a book. I lost interest, I’m sorry to say. That doesn’t mean these books are not worth reading and if I had made it through, perhaps I would have included their works in the successful transcendent works with The Gunslinger. I hope many readers buy them and continue to buy them. Authors put an obscene amount of time into crafting their works. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that there is an author for everyone, but no author is for everyone. I write what I would enjoy reading and one day I hope to have an audience. No doubt some blogger or Redditor will mention trying to read me and discovering how irreparably boring my writing is and that by chapter three they gave up.

What I don’t want is write something exciting and forgettable. Like lightening striking close: a flash of light, an ear-splitting crack, and a charge in the air that makes your hair stand on end. But then it is gone. Your light-bleached retinas return to normal; the ringing in your ears subsides; and your hair, once again, lies flat. Many an exciting, page-turner, has left me with far less. If the ending was exciting, I couldn’t tell you for what reason or why.

Fantasy gives me the chance to write what I like to read. The audience tends to appreciate what I call a slow burn. They aren’t typically in the mood for a quickie when they pick up a book with over 150,000 words. If they are like me, they want to be teased. They want you to help them explore each of their senses, building intensity then pulling back and letting them breath while they wonder what is next. They enjoy the build-up so much they don’t want it to end and, when it does, it is heavy and intense. Then, as the expected lightening flash fades, they bask in a serene and satisfying afterglow.

What I have just explained is, of course, possible in escapist and literary fiction. Patrick Rothfuss, a master of the slow burn, is a benchmark for my prose style. And though I remember much of his story, I’ve never felt the stakes were high enough or the conflict close enough to my heart to influence me as an individual. The relationship his protagonist, Kvothe, has with a strange and mysterious girl who lives in the catacombs under the University, Aurie, probably comes closest to achieving this level of impact. Nevertheless, I will continue to reread this series from time-to-time as I await the third installment—Rothfuss’s feces-soiled beard notwithstanding.

I recall being warned by zealous, religious parents that there was a danger in literature. A danger to my faith and the fictional narrative Christianity and Mormonism had reinforced in my head and heart for—go ahead and laugh or scoff, I have—thirty-four years before I realized that Mormonism was little more than escapist fan fiction that tried to advance and amend Christianity’s own mythology. It didn’t give me tools to comprehend or deal with the problems of the world in which I lived since it had created its own world and enticed me, on pain of eternal torture or eternal bliss, to buy into it, heart, body, and soul. It was a daily, hourly, by-the-minute escape into a fantasy realm where the stakes could not be higher. Everything outside the carefully crafted dogmas were simply nihilism. 

I think I finally understood the fear of my parents with clarity when I recently read Orwell’s, Burmese Days. (Spoiler Alert). In the end, the protagonist kills himself. My conditioning from my upbringing set off the alarm bells. “This is why we don’t want you to read this stuff. It just shows that life isn’t worth living.”

Able to read it with the clear lens of a mature, skeptical mind, I can see how superficial such a reading of Burmese Days actually is. It is not about how life is not worth living. Such a conclusion is simply lazy. While some philosophers and writers have, no doubt, approached their writing with a sense of or dedication to nihilism, I have found the greatest peddler of nihilism to be found in the monotheistic faith traditions. One of my favorite authors who, though he read an overwhelming amount of fictional literature, never wrote a word of fiction himself, Christopher Hitchens, had a lot to say about the nihilism of monotheists. Here we have a world full of individuals dedicated to and eagerly awaiting armageddon and a wrathful judgment by a vengeful god. They cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake the earth and the daunting business of learning, understanding, and working to improve this life—the only one we can be certain actually exists. But let’s forget that! Burn it to the ground and end all life for the hope of a fantasy heaven to come on the other side of death. A side NO ONE can possibly claim to know exists for anyone else.

This is why fantasy and fiction, in general, has largely lost its appeal for me. I spent thirty-four years escaping real life into the fantasy world of Mormonism. Many lessons learned there are valuable, and I do carry them with me. But, at the core, the foundations and conclusion and many of the morals required to reach a level of purity to be saved are at best unverifiable and, at worst, admitted fraud by a convicted con man. To pretend or accept that those things don’t matter is nihilism to me and I won’t spend another minute of my life escaping into a similar world that claims to explain this one.

For literary fiction, the genius comes from the author’s ability to utilize the simple and profound power of, as Orwell put it, facing unpleasant facts. This may appear like nihilism to the superficial and suspicious and lazy reader, but it is what makes The Brother’s Karamazov, Les Miserables, Burmese Days, East of Eden, The Stranger, Lolita, Silas Marner, and any other work of literary greatness so powerful. Their impact is not in helping one escape, but in helping one navigate the absurdity of life in increasing their capacity to face unpleasant facts.

Who wouldn’t appreciate a fan club that debates and comes to my defense over fecal bacteria in my facial hair? (For the record, I typically go clean-shaven.) Who wouldn’t like a fan club that is so invested in your work that they learn the made-up languages you created and understand the mythology of your world better than they do their own?

Me.

I don’t want that fan club.

Far more do I want my work to make people engage in the real world. I would like for them to read it, tell their friends about it, and engage with reality. Make this world a better place or learn more about a different culture than argue about whether or not the Elf Witch could have defeated the Dark Lord one-on-one. The worst result would be to become something like a prophet or a yogi who’s work, intentionally or inadvertently, becomes simply a portrait of themselves. A work of self-adoration that increases their celebrity. 

My goal is to be a window to direct a reader’s eye to the world outside or a mirror to reflect their view back upon themselves. Facts may be unpleasant but we can and we must face them—with a sense of irony and a commitment to our shared, inherently magical, and singular world.

A Theocracy By Any Other Name Would Smell As Foul

Being raised a Mormon in the 80’s and 90’s, a common trope I heard oft repeated was that of the Lord preparing the way for the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. One of the highlights and, perhaps, high-points of this preparation was the work of the protestant reformers in Europe. The vague, relevant points of the stories of Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Wycliffe, among many others, received and continue to receive their praise from Mormon leaders and scholars alike.

(Note that my links are not to LDS sources because, frankly, I don’t want to drive traffic directly to their website. A quick search of “lds Martin Luther” or any other name will bring up a trove of results leading one to their sources.)

The church praises these men for acting in the mid-teenth centuries as John the Baptist acted in the first century. They each played a roll in preparing for the coming of one greater than they. Of course, Joseph Smith was the ONE for which each reformer, unwittingly and unintentionally, prepared the way. An easy co-opting by leaders and scholars of the lives and contributions of these men grants validity to the claims of the Mormon church. They even go so far as to quote Tyndale who is said to have told critics, “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou doest.” Another example of holding in lesser regard Tyndale’s real intent in the saying to make him an unwitting, unintentional, and, I would venture if he were aware of its use in this way, unwilling prophet. For Joseph Smith was a common farm boy who, as well as claiming to know a great deal about scripture due to revelation, also claimed to know where to find treasure by use of a peep stone. Treasure that, when it was not found by his paying clients, he claimed with just as much conviction, had been taken by spirits and hidden elsewhere.

And it doesn’t stop there. Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers of the United States become tools for god. Despite the horror they inflicted on indigenous peoples, or the discoveries they made, or wars they won, or documents they penned, the ULTIMATE good all their lives did was to make way for a small cult to flourish in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The gist of what these reformers were attempting to throw-off was that oldest of human governments to which men, by choice, would willingly submit, theocracy. “I have a special connection with someone you cannot see or hear, but he speaks to me and tells me his will for you. How benevolent of him! Now give me your money and your women.”

When the only people who could read in any language let alone speak in a dying language like Latin are the one’s sermonizing, they control the narrative people may hear. Indulgences, witch-hunts, inquisitions follow. There is power in literacy and power may be taken by its employ. Divinely appointed monarchs, literate as they were, could have no reason to bite one of the the larger hands that fed them–the Church itself. The entity that granted them divine legitimacy. Common men and women, under threat of earthly torture and eternal torment, were slaves to their ignorance.

John Wycliffe, an English priest, in the late 14th century, pioneered the translation of the Bible from Latin to the vulgar or common language spoken, if not read, by common men and women. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the reformation was that of arguing for the scripture rather than the papacy to be the authority on doctrine and practice in the church.

Martin Luther, famous for declaring 95 reasons why the existing church was not operating or teaching in accord with the Bible as he read it, was excommunicated and placed on trial with secular authorities–as secular as they could be in the early 16th century. Condemned by the Pope and the Emperor, the was excommunicated. A former priest and monk within the church, he started a stone rolling that would fill the Earth. Which, perhaps, goes to show that for a ship as large as a world-wide church to change course, the influencers that come from within have a great deal of power, even and especially in excommunication.

Willam Tyndale, a contemporary of Luther, pioneered the translation of the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the text. As a direct challenge to the Christian leaders hegemony at that time, possessing a copy of the Bible in English was made a crime punishable by death.

Disagreements with the Bible as the last word in any disagreement notwithstanding, the work of these men and others like them was to challenge the theocracy that reigned over the minds and lives of humans. To say that the men in authoritative positions within the church are fallible and subject to selfish whims or well-intentioned misinterpretations  yet that the Bible could become the sole arbiter of any and all things, is to create a self-deluded irony. The Bible, too, was written by men. Very few, if any, direct witnesses of claimed events. Yet, their word is made sacrosanct–unless it supports slavery or suppression of women or any other inane pronouncement that is inconvenient in our modern day. Rest assured, however, that if society would permit it, these god-fearing saints would gladly tell a woman she cannot speak in church, that to have black skin is a curse, and would be eager to call you to a church court for wearing fabric of mixed fibers.

I digress.

Mormon’s celebrate the emancipation of man from the theocracy of the middle-ages only to embrace theocracy in another form in their own lives. If challenged, I can imagine at least one defense you might hear from a staunch Mormon since, as a missionary, I often used this myself:

“Well, every worthy male can hold the priesthood now, so all men can have authority, not just the clergy.”

Yes, that is the claim you make. But in order to act with the authority in any ordinance that actually affects a person’s salvation, you must do so ONLY with permission from and oversight by a presiding authority. These same men must authorize you to enter their temples! Believe me when I say, the ceremonies that go on in those whited-sepulchers are neither inspiring nor insightful. They are creepy, cultish, and downright bizarre.

Furthermore, only the prophet can interpret the scripture. Only he has a direct and personal line to God himself! He has the final word on all things doctrinal or procedural. Thus, when Joseph Smith calls you on a mission, don’t be surprised if you come home to find that he married your wife while you were away. Not only that, but you had better support him in marrying your 14-year-old daughter because he is the prophet. Regardless of how it makes your stomach turn at that thought, it is apostasy to oppose him. That kind of opposition sounds a lot like what you celebrate Martin Luther for doing in the first place!

How about the voices in our day that have come out against the bizarre, inconsistent, and cruel theocracy of the Mormon leadership? Let’s excommunicate you for standing up for the dignity of children and their safety against pedophiles “in high places.” Vile acts swept under the rug to protect the church at the expense of the victims. Sound familiar? How about asking for clarity on historical issues that have not only been neglected in the dominant narrative, but actively suppressed by the men at the top? Excommunicate him! Can we have equality for women in the church? Excommunicate her!

Each of these cuttings-off is done under the guise of protecting the members from wicked and evil influences that seek to destroy their souls. Somehow, the powers that be in Salt Lake City think this action delegitimizes the accused. You want us to learn from Luther, Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others like them? They are made famous and revered by men. The institution becomes infamous and distrusted.

When your thoughts are at the mercy of the whim of the current leader, you are in a dictatorship. When the leader stands for or is a supernatural individual, you have a theocracy. Perhaps a case in point:

Nearly a year ago, I had a conversation with someone very close to me. This came on the heels of a leaked audio of church apostle and member of its highest governing body, the First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks teaching young men in a congregation about the sacrament, aka: communion. He instructed them that it should be taken by the recipient with their right hand. Such a pharisaical distinction on his part would, to him, seem appropriate considering that all ordinances of the holy priesthood have a scriptural injunction to be done in proper order.

This individual is still a believing Mormon and our relationship, since my disaffection from the faith, has experienced a near constant if not intense strain as a result. Recalling a moment from childhood, I expressed that my mother had taken the chance when I, as a young adolescent, more than once reached for the communion bread or water my left hand to kindly inform me that it should be done with the right hand always. Considering how this person feels about my mother, her response was too scoff and roll her eyes. I mentioned the comment by “Elder” Oaks. She then said, “Well, some people just don’t know what it is all about.”

Does she really believe that? I wonder, in my apprehension to bring up the recent change to the church’s official handbook–as close to scripture as their official cannon though subject to easier modification–, if she would come to the sudden and abrupt defense of the direction considering it is codified as an admonition in the official instructions (section 18.9.4, Item #7)? They would not prevent anyone from taking if their right hand were absent or incapacitated. They wouldn’t call you to repentance if they saw you take it with the left hand when the right was capable. But they have established a written expectation that will be bandied about in sermons, lessons, and discussions. It will become a means of virtue signaling to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is precisely the rigorous straining at gnats while swallowing camels by the religious authorities of Palestine during the first decades A.D. that elicited strict rebukes by a fringe preacher of that time and place who was called Jesus.

While rejecting the gnattish dogma’s of original sin and it’s corollary, infant baptism, paid clergy, the sale of indulgences, papal authority and infallibility, just to name a few, Mormons swallow or have swallowed in the past the camel-like and eerily reminiscent dogmas of the inferiority of people of African descent and their proscription from priesthood authority and temple ordinances. Their upper quorums leadership and mission presidents enjoy a “modest stipend” that puts them each amongst the most wealthy 1% of people in the world. Yet they claim with great aplomb that the distinction of the true church of Christ is to have “no hirlings in the flock.” Which begs the question that, since they are paid by the church and receive parsonage, health insurance, travel expenses and other benefits, do they, like the pigs in Animal Farm, privately believe that, indeed all members of the flock are equal, but some are more equal than others?

Ask a Mormon to truthfully tell you where those who do not pay tithing will go after death? Certainly not to one of their complicated and class-based degrees of the heavens. They cannot go to the temple which is a representation of heaven on Earth, a metaphor for the standard we must reach to be worthy to be invited into heaven after death. Pay to play, I’ve heard it said. Indulgence by another name. Even the destitute cannot receive assistance from the church unless they are paying tithing. And, to refer back to the handbook change (they’ll call it a clarification) that the sacrament ought to be taken with the right hand, those who called such a thing ridiculous months ago, will find themselves defending by gaslighting and other means, this pharisaical jot and tittle because it was approved of by their infallible leaders. Leaders who are infallible only when alive but who’s words can be swept under expensive temple rugs hanging under chandeliers that cost more than most people make in a year of hard labor.

This rabbit hole goes as deep as one is willing to dig. George Orwell acknowledges in his essay The Prevention of Literature, that every observer can only view an event, present or historical, “as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which [they] suffer[].” Orwell’s descriptions of totalitarianism in his fiction and essays always put me in mind of the theocracy in which I was raised. A theocracy I did not realize at the time. A Plato’s cave, if you will.

Since “taking the red pill” several years ago, I have come to believe that the real, eternal struggle of the human species, is against totalitarianism. Regardless of the form in which it comes to us, learning to recognize its enticing and comforting tropes is a key in shaking its chains. Emancipation from it depends to a large degree on the appreciation of irony as we work at becoming aware of our own self-deceptions. Can we see the unpleasant but striking humor in our celebration of reformers who threw off theocracy, even as we subject ourselves to tyrants with modern business suits who “recycle[]…familiar rhetorical themes, and…stale rhetorical expressions“? Shall we even attempt to hold the more-equal members of the flock accountable for those standards they have set for others? Will we give them a pass because, though other totalitarian systems gave privilege to the ruling class, the one to which we belong is both uniquely not totalitarian and inarguably sacrosanct?

Perhaps we fight to battles in life, one we may win and another we are doomed to lose–as the elves of The Lord of the Rings who, no matter if the ring were to be taken by the enemy or destroyed would ultimately result in the end of their lives in Middle Earth. Galadriel called this catch-22 “the long defeat.” Death comes for us all. Totalitarianism will make its attempts.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her poem Conscientious Objector, “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.” Totalitarianism must remain a part of our collective memory as we relegate it to history. I will remember the reformers and patriots who struggled to emancipate me from monarchy and theocracy, but that is all that I shall do for tyranny.

“Hero Worship? No thanks, dinner will be fine.”

It must be human nature to love our liberators. Such adoration is a gentle, fervent emotion marked by gratitude and respect. Their liberators feel something for them for they seek no power over them. They want nothing from the captive, only to offer them deliverance. They may be pitied and even loathed, but solidarity is enough to bridge the chasms of language, culture, race, and religious devotions. 

But nothing gets one into a fevered, zealous devotion like a bag of flesh and bone poised at a pulpit or on a soap box, promising emancipation to a crowd of people thinking too hard, working too little, and taking as much as they can. Be it loosing the bands of tyranny, economic oppression, imprisonment, slavery, sin, or that old foe death. Such promises are always coincident with explanations of the requirements against the to-be-delivered’s dignity, material resources, absolute abdication of will to the leader, and even their very life must be placed on an altar. The deliverer’s promises cost him or her—though let’s not pretend the female of our species has so often been guilty as the male—a great deal of breath, exposed themself to scrutinies to be vehemently defended against by acolytes, and even some moments where they must show miracles to the doubting or openly antagonistic. They need not fear. Their followers, once initiated, will do this great work for them. Miraculous conceptions and births, discoveries that can only be explained as great revelations uniquely appointed to the leader by deity, delivery from death at the hands of detractors, and acts of compassion the likes of which mere disciples could not muster against gentillic outsiders, may be created ex post facto for the building up of the leader to those already devoted and those teetering on the edge of reason unto faith.

Once, I thought I knew who my deliverer was. A deity that took upon himself mortality to save me from, well, everything! Including and most importantly, myself. Fallen and despicable as I was, certainly less that the dust of the earth, I was in need of this savior. I was the creation of either himself or his even grander father, depending on who you ask in western civilization, born in a fallen state, incapable of goodness without their approval, and doomed to suffer misery for the duration of mortality and on into the horizonless expanse of eternity. I was taught that tears meant truth; that benevolent God spoke to old men for my sake; that I could be saved from eternal torture if I confessed my sins that were the product of weaknesses granted me by my loving father-in-heaven in the first place. If I could despise myself enough to cow to the delightsome, white, and glorious deity’s every command, I might finally be able to love myself enough to endure mortality. This man I’d never known and who had been dead (though he did rise again) for two millenia, had died for me after all.

Perhaps the only thing I really learned from my time in a mainstream cult, came when I was finally able to see it from the outside. That lesson: Worthiness, is a four-letter word.

My liberators? Friends that challenged my binary beliefs about reality. They gave me the doubt I needed regarding my solipsism. A self-centeredness carefully cultivated from before I could understand the denotations of language. Forging manacles in my impressionable mind, I became bound to a narrow world view shared by thousands! We must be right! Look how good we are! Look how quickly our ranks are swelling with recruits! How can one doubt! There are thousands of us, I tell you! Thousands!

While the world population drew near seven billion, yet our tiny sect was the right one. What my friends showed me was a devotion to their own tribal upbringing. They, too, had miracles that confirmed their faith. And that was just a small number of Christians in a small city in the southern U.S., a city once shaken by a man who stated “I have come to peace with myself, my God and my cause.” I found faith universal in it’s respectability and relative in it’s expressions of moral action. My understanding of a universal, unchanging god developed a crack as in a dam. A roller coaster ride of several years with peaks of stomach tingling, enlightened faith and valleys of darkened, nauseating doubt ended when I made a choice. I got off the roller coaster when I accepted that my doubt did not make me broken or without value. I said a final prayer, truly open to the idea and reality of God. No longer needing to feel but still willing to do so…I was utterly alone. In that moment, I learned what had escaped me in the eschatological sewage of religion, I did not need to be told by an evidence-less deity that I was valuable because he said I was. My value was for me to decide. But most important, my mind became my own that day.

The first book I read after embracing doubt was The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I mention this as a bridge to my most influential deliverer. But, therein, I found a well-spring of reason and evidence-based argument, the likes of which I had never before been allowed to experience. And I came to it with an open mind for the first time in my life. No walls went up around my fragile, faith-plagued mind. Professor Dawkins’ example of Jewish school children either supporting or opposing systematic slaughter of men, women, and children based on the context of the story nearly made me vomit. For I had been like them at one time! Justifying the divinely ordered genocide of children! 

The connection to Christopher Hitchens came when I googled Richard Dawkins. Within a couple of Youtube videos, I discovered Hitch and other contemporaries of Professor Dawkins. This was in 2014, nearly three years after Mr. Hitchens had already passed away. Perhaps I shall write a longer essay on the specifics of my admiration for Christopher Hitchens and the role he played in my deliverance. Suffice it to say, here I found a man who expressed so eloquently the thoughts I was now having. He spurned euphemism and flowery language—a staple of biannual, cult indoctrination conferences—for plain and harsh indictments. His scathing rebukes and calm, crowd-playing style in debates were the refreshing antithesis of carefully selected language meant to obfuscate abuses of power and diminish immoral behavior of the ordained to the point of pitying the offender over the offended. 

Much to his chagrin I am sure, I feel a curious sense of loss for a man I never knew of in life. Those closest to me feel I have been taken in by a false prophet in Christopher Hitchens. Curiously, if these same friends and family who ardently proclaim a living prophet in their Russel M. Nelson would ever listen to Hitchens, they would find his own stern objection to such a characterization. He had no desire to be anyone’s prophet let-alone savior. The only devotion he asked from fans, another relationship he felt might have bordered on indecent, was for them to buy his books. He did not ask for their minds or their wills or their tithes. He did not expect conformity and instead ruthlessly ridiculed the credulous and irrational. 

I have become a student of Christopher Hitchens in the last several years. I own many of his books and collections of essays even if I have read only a small portion of what I possess. I have sought out his favorite authors and books. Some I have loved, like Orwell, Jefferson, Paine, Owen, Kipling, and Larkin. Some I have not. Others I have not tried yet. With a few, like Dostoyevsky, I am putting in a good faith effort to appreciate. I will not call him my hero, for I believe he would reject the title. Perhaps he may serve as a Socrates to me as I pursue the development of my own morality and intellectual ideas. Still, and as strange as it is, despite the wealth of text and audio and video of which he is principle, I miss him. 

When I play the simple, childish game of favorite this or that, if I had the choice to have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be? I have heard others tell of enjoying epic, eight hour meals with Hitch, discussing various topics in depth. Humor flowed as liberally as libations. And insight seemed to garnish every moment. Regardless of the time spent, in-spite-of the old advice to avoid meeting your heroes, my choice for a dinner partner would certainly be Christopher Hitchens. And if I was lucky enough to spend eight hours with the man, I’m have no doubt the experience would leave me far from satiated.

The Truman Show Revisited

Just over twenty years ago, a classic movie from Australian director, Peter Weir, debuted in theaters. Written by New Zealand born writer and director, Andew Niccol, The Truman Show needs little introduction. The timeless film continues to reach new generations year after year. I remember viewing the film at the local theater in the small Wyoming town in which I was raised. A small town that was and still is predominantly Mormon. I found it an enjoyable movie with great acting though, at 18 years old, I’m certain I didn’t appreciate the depth and metaphor. And I saw the movie through the lens of a fully believing, indoctrinated Mormon teenager just six short months from wearing the black name tag of a Mormon missionary.

So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, read no further. My observations are a poor replacement for viewing the incredible film with your own eyes. Though I’ve seen the film multiple times, I just rewatched it myself for the first time in several years. With my post-cult mindset, I found myself weeping at several moments. So traumatic can be the journey from cult living and thinking, I even exclaimed at one point, “You bastards!” to the television.

So, just to be clear, SPOILERS AHEAD. You have been warned and, might I say, admonished to view the film before reading further. I realize my writing, wit, and charm are compelling enough that, in your subtly hypnotic state, you’d like nothing more than to read on. Let my captivating style compel you to carefully bookmark this blog page that you may read it after enjoying the actual film.

Regarding fundamentalist religions, what interests me most at this point in my life, are the experiences people have in the process of leaving them. The Sophie’s Choice each individual must face between Pascal’s Wager and intellectual integrity is only a small part of it. The bigger challenge they must face is the excruciatingly painful choice to estrange themselves from their closest friends, their families, employment, and the entire culture and paradigm under which they may have lived quite happily for decades of their lives. Like a spouse finding their loving and attentive companion has been cheating on them for years, upon discovering the facts spoils the truth of their relationship in an instant. All the good feelings, reassurances during difficult times, and companionship they once felt feels all-for-none.

For Truman, some eye-opening events unfold that reveal the true nature of those he thought were his strongest advocates. Jim Carrey pulls off the shock, despair, and resolve that apostates–once the most ardent supporters of a faith–experience when the curtain is pulled back and the wizard is revealed to be little more than a lecherous, cringing troglodyte. A weak man of weaker ideas that clings to his power through parlor tricks and casuistry.

Probably the moment that struck me the most was when Truman, after his wife left him, sits on an unfinished bridge, speaking to his best friend, Marlon. You get the feeling that Marlon, though a hired actor, really does care for Truman. They’ve been best friends for a long time, practically their whole lives. Truman expresses his doubts to Marlon, and the feeling that everybody must be in on it. Marlon seems emotionally shaken through the conversation, but his JOB is to keep Truman in the dark. Keep him loyal to the show which must go on.

After a few lines of dialogue, the camera begins to go back and forth between the show’s producer–the metaphorical ‘God’ of this fantasy world–and the two on the bridge. That’s when you realize, that everything Marlon is saying, is being put in his ear by the producer–Christof. We are left to think that little of what Marlon says came from his own mind and heart. He was simply a channel for the voice of ‘God’ to speak to Truman.

I paused the show at this moment. For so many years I tried to be such a person. To say what a deity would have me say that would be best to help a struggling friend. Though I realize now that any words I said were my own, the idea of God giving me the words to speak perverted them. It undermined the relationship I had with everyone since my highest responsibility in life was to promote the show of which I was a part. Bring in new  converts and retain long-time members. Every friendship was tainted by some ethereal expectation to build a fantasy world on Earth.

Sitting on a broken bridge, we viewers are reminded of the manipulation done to keep Truman in the dark. The bridge goes nowhere. His whole life he’s been made to be afraid of the water. Living on an island, the only way off is by boat or across a bridge. He is forced to see his father drown out on the ocean to create such a fear of the water, that he can never leave. Go to a Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ‘fast and testimony meeting’ or listen to their General Conference. Members and leaders extol the virtues of emotional and physical trauma that serves to keep a person’s faith in the organization firm. The untimely death of a child that serves to bring a wayward parent back into the fold of God is a good thing. Of course, they get this from their Abrahamic foundations in which they celebrate the willingness of a father to gut his own child to show his love of God.

So here, Truman is held captive by a mind forg’d manacle. Even when he shares his dream of traveling to Fiji with his friends and family, they mock him for wanting to go somewhere else. His school teachers impugn his desire to be an explorer like Magellan by telling him there’s simply nothing left to explore. When his wife finally agrees to go to Fiji, it isn’t because she loves him. She’s mocking him. When they reach a bridge to leave town, she reminds him of his fear of the water and that he can’t cross the bridge. Her greatest commitment is to the show, not to Truman.

Here we understand that the greatest virtue of the show/cult, is to protect the fabricated reality. ‘Lying for the Lord’ is the modus operandi. Relationships, facts, and compassion are all subservient to the kingdom created.

All of Truman’s relationships are engineered by the guy at the top. Parents are placed there and are caretakers. Their devotion is to the god and corporation that own them, not to Truman. They may love Truman in a real and genuine way, but they will sacrifice that to relationship to protect the show. They say what they are told. They die before your eyes if it serves the good of the god. His own wife marries him because she is told to by god, her fingers crossed the whole time. The reality of the relationship only holds up as a part of the fantasy. When he confronts his wife, Meryl, one evening, she doesn’t know what to say or how to act. Since their relationship always had ‘god’ in the way, she resorts to spouting trite advertising slogans to try to distract or appease him.

In a cult, slogans and mottos and catch-phrases begin to dominate real conversation. Repeated, faith-promoting, organization-affirming drivel go from subtle ‘garment checks’ among the faithful to insipid parlance in all conversation.

Since Truman cannot leave with his wife–he tried and faux firefighters in radiation suits tackled him and video-taped every heart-rending second to slake the fans of the show–he must craft his own way out. When Christof realizes his favored sheep is now the lost lamb, every person in the show is brought out to search for him. His recently rediscovered father, who seemingly broke into the show to be with a son we thought he had loved enough to see again, joins the throngs of the show. I was left to wonder if the father loved Truman or the show more? Or did he long to have his son such that he would play pretend again just to be with him. That answer is up to each viewer I suppose.

At one point during this phase, the typically reclusive Christof consents to an interview the whole world can watch. Something the real ‘god’ has yet to do though, when he does according to most monotheistic religions, it will be preceded by his judgments of death and hell-fire to the world. The interviewer asks Christof why Truman hasn’t reached this point of asking questions up to now. Christof responds, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Especially when we are born into a delusion and carefully raised so as never to question it. Questions are dangerous.

When we finally see Truman again, he is facing his fear. Alone, adrift on an ocean in a small boat, he smiles and calmly stares up at the bright, engineered Sun and sky. We see a man at peace with himself and his world. A man that feels a sense of self-determination he’s never known before. But most of all, we see an apostate leaving a cult. And, like so many, he must leave alone.

But even the god, Christof, tries to make this about the show. Finding the perfect camera angle, Christof holds out his hands and exclaims that this is their “hero shot!” Having power over the weather, Christof then creates a storm with the intent of bringing Truman’s fear to the surface and making him turn back. When some rough waves and wind don’t do the trick, cries out, “Is that the best you can do? You’re gonna have to kill me!”

Of course, just as the god of perfect love we know from the Bible, Christof orders more wind, more waves, more terror. He has to bring his sheep back to the fold, even if it kills him.

How many have been told, either before or after leaving a cult, that it would have been better for them to die than to leave? In my opinion, one is a great deal too many.

After Truman is nearly killed and the producers of the show demand that god–Christof–not kill someone on live television (a courtesy not extended to unworthy humans in real life) the storm is stilled and Truman is able to continue sailing away from his fantasy world.

Then he runs into the edge of the world. A wall/barrier with a door nearby. This is the moment Christof chooses to speak directly to Truman, rather than through the earpiece and mouth of an actor in the world. The dialogue ought to make any apostate shiver and I’ll leave it to you to watch. Suffice it to say, we hear the same drivel religion has peddled for millennia.

  • It’s all created with you in mind
  • I know you better than you know yourself
  • “You can’t leave, you belong here with me.” This said by Christof as an amplified voice from the sky with a feigned or genuine adoration of Truman. A man he was ready to kill just moments earlier as punishment for his hubris in challenging him.

Truman’s choice is his. And we catch a glimpse in his response that, despite the fetters of his fantasy world, he had always been authentically himself. This may be one of two subtle differences between apostates and Truman. Many who leave a cult only then begin to discover themselves. That’s not their fault though it is a painful and difficult journey.

The biggest difference in real life, is that the gods and producers and practitioners of religion are not “in on it.” The majority, in my opinion, have bought into the fantasy as much as their adherents.

This alone allows for two differences in leaving for us versus for Truman. When he left, he was alone because everyone was in on it. Many of us will endure the same. But, often, we can and do get to take the journey with friends and family. We can reach out to support groups in a way Truman never could. But the friends and family that, in love, try to keep us in the fold, aren’t knowingly deceiving us. They aren’t actors, they are acolytes.

We should know what that is like, we were once the same.

Some Thoughts on Religion

Really, this is a random collection of thoughts I’ve had and written in the notes section of my smart phone. I’ll present the individual idea and then any commentary on it that I may feel inclined to share. These are random–mostly for me to have repository of them for my own use–and as I cut and pasted them from my notes, they ended up in reverse order with the most recent thoughts first.