Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Forgotten Gift

This being the Christmas season, we naturally think about Jesus Christ and gifts--particularly gifts that we might give Jesus Christ as a token of our love for and gratitude to him. We tell the story of the wise men found in Matthew 2 and discuss the potential meanings of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We remember the Savior's mission and the gift that he gave us, the atoning sacrifice without which no other gift would be meaningful. But one gift, a gift that Jesus Christ commanded us to remember is almost always left out of the Christmas story, one you will find in Matthew, chapter 26, verses 6-12:

6 ¶ Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,
7 There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.
8 But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?
9 For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
10 When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
11 For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
12 For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

This is a story we all know, but pay attention to the directive that Christ gives and Matthew records in the next verse, verse 13:

"Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."

The same injunction to remember the gift of this woman (presumably Mary, sister of Martha, based on John's version) can be found in Mark 14:9, and the other two gospels include the story without the commandment (it doesn't seem like a very forcible command in English, but English doesn't translate the subjunctive in the Greek as well as it could--the "shall" should be SHALL).

Christ directs our attention to specific stories and examples in scripture elsewhere; in 3 Nephi 23:1, he says to the Nephite multitudes, "Yea, a commandment I give unto you, that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah." We take this directive very seriously, studying Isaiah more frequently than other books of the New Testament, but I rarely hear the story of Christ's anointing singled out for significant study, despite his special emphasis and our interest each Christmas in stories of gifts given to Jesus Christ.

What is it that Christ wanted us to learn from this story, and why did he single it out? I would propose that this story is significant in part because it illuminates the relationship between the first and second commandments of the law. Recall the Savior's response to the lawyer's question, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" Christ's response in Matthew 22:37-40?

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The first commandment is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor. In most instances, those two commandments don't conflict with one another. But think about tithing, the money that the church collects from members and spends in administering the church. A significant portion of tithing funds is used to build temples--structures that are probably more beautiful and costly than they need to be to accomplish their intended purpose. After all, early saints performed baptisms for the dead in rivers; the beautiful and expensive building is nice but not strictly necessary. Instead of giving the money spent decorating the temple to the poor and needy, we use it to worship God through architecture. Why? Because loving God with all our heart, soul and mind is the first commandment, and temples are symbols of our love for God.

This is the lesson that the story of Mary's ointment teaches: God deserves our best every time. If we have to choose between God and our neighbor, we should choose God. Most of the time the first and second commandments don't conflict, but occasionally they do, and in those cases, it's important to remember which is the first.

So: if God deserves our best, what will we give him this Christmas season, this New Year? The spikenard was such a precious gift that it provoked indignation and wonder from Christ's apostles (not just Judas), yet Mary never hesitated to make the sacrifice, and Christ praised her decision. What will we give? What comparable sacrifice could we make? That is a question for each of us to answer individually, but the important thing is to remember that loving God with ALL our heart, soul and mind probably involves giving more of ourselves than we might think when deciding what gift to make the Savior this New Year's Day.

And whenever you tell the story of Jesus Christ, remember to include Mary's gift; her example is too important to be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WWAD

Every December we celebrate Christmas, and that celebration generally entails thinking up new ways to remember and emulate the Savior whose birth we celebrate: Jesus Christ. One popular way to remember Christ's example is to surround yourself with the questioning acronym WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? You can buy bracelets, jewelry, tracksuits, giant beanbags, magnets, stuffed animals and other products emblazoned with these four letters. If remembering the acronym WWJD really made people more Christlike, one would suspect that the sheer volume of merchandise currently available for purchase online would have already kickstarted the Millennium and triggered the Second Coming.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I suspect that the WWJD acronym really isn't that effective, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints frequently tout the virtue of wearing a CTR (Choose the Right) ring, which they hope will inspire them to make good choices. But the constant presence of the letters CTR or WWJD renders the message they represent less meaningful. If the letters were invisible until you were about to sin and then flashed in bright neon, I suspect that the message would be much more potent.

Another reason the WWJD message may not have the intended effect is because we might find it difficult to imagine exactly what Jesus would do in any given situation. If Jesus was late and on his way home to a wife who needed him, would he let that car into traffic or would he press on? What would Jesus do? I have no idea. It's a little bit hard to imagine, in part because he lived in a time and place so different from our own and in part because it's hard to imagine (at least for me) the Son of God doing mundane things, like driving home from work in rush hour traffic.

For these reasons, it helps to find Christ-like qualities and examples in the people we associate with on a day-to-day basis. I can't imagine Jesus on the beltline, but I can imagine my mother, who would always let the needy driver in (and who would never be late in the first place). In addition, people, unlike acronyms, are hard to ignore; we might take the Christ-like example or qualities of our spouse for granted, but it requires more spiritual laziness on our part to ignore an act of service than to ignore a few mute letters.

Last Christmas, I was privileged to see such a Christ-like example, and I'm grateful to say that this mortal disciple of Jesus Christ has had a much more positive effect on my own thoughts and actions than the CTR ring I lost five minutes after my baptism seventeen years ago. In December, 2006, during my family's annual White Elephant Gift Exchange, my brother Aaron randomly drew the number one, which entitled him to claim any gift at the night's end as his own. He selected a "magic" lamp given by my father which entitled the holder to one wish. This lamp and Aaron's wish were the subject of significant familial speculation. We all wondered what Aaron would ask for: A new car? A TV? A special outing? While none of us knew what he would request, many of us (myself included) thought about what we would ask for in that situation, and I never dreamed of doing what Aaron did with his wish.

One year later, at last year's White Elephant event in December 2007, Aaron redeemed his wish. Concerned for my father's health and the effect that his prodigious consumption of Diet Coke was having on it, Aaron asked my father to give up colas. His request drew a stifled moan from other cola drinkers in the room and surprised almost everyone. Aaron could ask Dad for anything--and he asked him to stop drinking Coke? Every wish that I had imagined asking my father involved a substantial gain on my part. I would ask him for money, for a gift, or for some other tangible goods that would benefit me and impoverish him (relatively, of course, not absolutely). Aaron asked for a gift that benefitted himself little or none (perhaps he anticipated a benefit in the prospect of additional years with his father) and that benefitted my father's health tremendously (or at least it was intended to). He took a situation that invited him to be selfish and turned it into an opportunity for selfless giving.

Now, I don't know what gift Jesus would bring to a White Elephant Gift Exchange, and if you had asked me before last year's event what he would ask for if in possession of the coveted wish, I would have had no idea. But I know now--Jesus would have done exactly what Aaron did, which is another way of saying that Aaron knew W(hat)W(ould)J(esus)D(o) and he did it. Think about it: If we gave Jesus a wish this Christmas, would he ask for a Wii? For a Tickle-Me-Elmo? For a book? No--if we gave Jesus a wish this Christmas, he would use that wish to bless our lives, because he loves us more than himself. Aaron taught me that, and the return of the White Elephant Gift Exchange has reminded me of his lesson.

Now, my challenge is to remember his selfless example (and the EXEMPLAR he was imitating) throughout the rest of the year. I've thought about putting a picture of Aaron in my wallet, but I just don't look in there very often. If only there was something I could do to help me remember on a regular basis, perhaps a saying that would remind me of Aaron's wish/gift all year round, that I could emblazon on my bracelets, jewelry, tracksuits, giant beanbags, magnets and stuffed animals. Maybe WWAD? What Would Aaron Do?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Be Excited. Be Very Excited.

On December 26th, Hutchins family members celebrating the holidays in New England will gather for a white elephant gift exchange. If that doesn't sound exciting, check out this video of last year's event.

UPDATE: Ok. I know there's no video. Sorry--This is about my fifth attempt to load one. You'll just have to wait for a hard copy to become available (and for those of you who are coming to the White Elephant, you won't have to wait long). Sorry!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Feedback Please

When I posted my prospective hymn submission two weeks ago, several of you provided helpful feedback that pointed out a few weak spots in the poem (thank you!). I'd be grateful for similarly constructive criticism of this draft:

Be Fruitful

At birth each spirit fin'lly gains
The body it will need
To sit upon our Parents' thrones
And act as God in deed;
But gender is eternal, not
A random circumstance:
Our mortal roles were foreordained,
Not left to genes or chance.

On earth we seek a spouse who lifts
Us up, a true helpmate
Without whom we cannot progress
To God's celestial state.
For men and women cannot be
Exalted while apart;
Our better halves must complement
And help perfect each heart.

That marriage was ordained in heav'n
The scriptures make it plain--
Where Adam, Eve and God all join
To make one flesh of twain.
As equal partners husbands, wives
Must learn to do God's will:
And His command to multiply
Remains effective still.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Peter, Social Capital and Understanding Agency

Peter and Social Capital

Two and a half months ago, I (briefly) told the story of Peter, a young man who moved from BYU, Utah and a predominantly Mormon culture to NC State, Raleigh and his non-member girl-friend Chelsea (again, all names have been changed). I explained that my job as a ward missionary is to provide Peter with social capital that is supportive of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Social capital is important, because it is the number one predictor of religious belief or conversion. To use a secular example, I'm much more likely to believe that the world is round if I'm around lots of other people who believe the world is round, regardless of whether or not that belief is accurate. So too, are we much more likely to believe specific religious doctrines and churches if we are around other people who believe in the truthfulness of those doctrines and churches.

Since my initial observations on the importance of providing Peter with social contacts supportive of belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Alana and I have met with him and Chelsea once (and we will meet with them again next week). I feel cautiously optimistic that we are developing a good relationship, and I hope that our relationship will eventually provide both Peter and Chelsea with the social capital that will make her baptism in the church and his reactivation seem like natural and logical steps (the assumption is that social capital normalizes behavior that might otherwise seem strange--like paying 10% of your income to the Church, for instance).

Now, I recently received an anonymous comment on the post that originally described Peter and Chelsea's situation asking of social capital, "but isn't this afterall just what one might call 'peer pressure'?" The answer, to be blunt, is no. The relationships which make up our social capital may occasionally be used to exert peer pressure, but social capital exists regardless of whether it is used to influence an individual in one direction or another. Let me illustrate this point with a personal example:

I have a brother Rich who graduated from Princeton. My relationship with Rich made it seem natural and desirable to go to Princeton even though he never encouraged me to do so. The social capital of our relationship made Princeton seem like a desirable option for my own education simply because Rich had gone there--for no other reason. Now, I also have a mother who loves me and who wanted me to go to Princeton (or some other Ivy League college) because she thought that I would never achieve my potential otherwise. My mother used her relationship with me to try and persuade me to apply for and attend one or another of these colleges. She took me on campus visits. She hounded me about application deadlines. She exerted pressure. (Ultimately, I never completed a college application for any institution other than Brigham Young University, a decision which I am very pleased with but one which my mother still bemoans. I love you Mom!)

I have social capital (good relationships) invested both in my brother Rich and in my mother, but only one of those individuals tried to use their social capital as a means of influencing my decision as to where I should apply for college. Developing a good relationship with someone generally means that you will view the behaviors and beliefs of that person with more respect, regardless of whether or not you try to pressure that individual into changing their behavior or beliefs. Peter is very well educated and has more than enough information; I'm not trying to provide new information or persuade him of anything--I'm only trying to develop a good relationship with him, in the hope that he will have one more reason to come to church each Sunday.

Understanding Agency

The same anonymous commenter (thanks for reading, by the way!) also had this to say:

"if we as mormons are truley persons of "free agency" then we should let peter find his own way back to the church. we should not lean on him, make him feel pressured, or overtly encourage him to stregthen his testomony. we should not question his motives, his peers, or his doubts. we should not undermine his conceptual maturity by reducing it to social interaction. peter may be at a crossroads in his life. we should treat him with the same love, respect, and adoration that was offered during his most pious state. if he indeed is a true believer, he will find his way back to the gospel."

Let me make a few comments on the concept of agency (notice I didn't use the word "free"--my wife gave an excellent talk on the subject of agency in church today, and she addresses that point here). We typically think of ourselves as agents, beings with agency, or "the power or authority to act" (from the American Heritage definition of "agent"). But there is another definition of agency that is, perhaps, even more applicable to our status as agents. Agency is also "the office or function of an agent or factor" (Oxford English Dictionary definition), where agent means "one that acts for or as the representative of another" (American Heritage).

When an individual becomes a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they exercise their agency as individuals, and they agree that in the future they will act as an agent or representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we exercise our agency for the last time--we contractually obligate ourselves to act for and in behalf of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places. Doctrine and Covenants 64:29 teaches us that "Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord's errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord's business." The word agents here clearly does not refer to our ability to make whatever choice we want; it refers to our status as agents of Jesus Christ who should be on his errand at all times and in all places, so that whatever we do is "according to the will of the Lord" and is therefore "the Lord's business." Until individuals have been baptized, "they are agents unto themselves" (Moses 6:56), but after they have made covenants, they become the Lord's servants, and "he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned" (D&C 58:29; see also verses 27-28).

Let me apply this understanding of our agency to Peter's case with a secular example:

Let's pretend that Peter is really Pedro, an Hispanic immigrant who applies for citizenship in the United States. Pedro's application is approved, and he shows up at the courthouse on a Saturday morning to take the oath of citizenship, which requires him to obey, honor and sustain the laws of the land. Pedro takes the oath, and everyone cheers. Sadly, however, after becoming a citizen of the United States, Pedro starts to spend time with and invest social capital in people who do not believe in obeying, honoring and sustaining the laws of the land. Pedro begins to break laws. Now, as Pedro's friend, should you "overtly encourage" him to strengthen his testimony of the laws of the land, or should you allow him to continue breaking them without questioning his motives, peers and doubts about the law? Is it wrong to attribute Pedro's "conceptual maturity" to his interactions with a group of people that don't respect the law? Do I love Pedro any less because I want him to stop breaking the law before he has to suffer the consequences?

Peter has made covenants: in the premortal existence, at baptism and in the temple. He can choose to break those covenants, but he will have to suffer the penalty affixed in the law. Because I don't think Peter would appreciate my concern for him if I tried to remind him of those covenants and the consequences of breaking them, I'm not trying to pressure him--not because I think that pressuring is inherently wrong, but because I don't think it would work. Instead, I'm trying to develop a good relationship with him and hoping that he will choose, of his own will and volition, to act once more as an agent of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Be Fruitful

Each March, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints invites the submission of original music and poetry "to encourage musical talent and bring new musical works to light." Among other categories, the church invites the submission of potential hymn texts. Now, one of the things that hymns do is teach doctrine, and since the last edition of the hymnbook was released, a substantial new statement of doctrine has been issued by the First Presidency--The Family: A Proclamation to the World. This unique document teaches at least eight principles not taught by any hymn currently available in our hymnbook:

1) Marriage is ordained of God.
2) The family is central to God's plan.
3) Gender is an eternal and purposeful characteristic.
4) God's command to multiply and replenish the earth is still effective.
5) Parents are accountable to God for raising their children.
6) The family is ordained of God.
7) Families are encouraged to work and play together.
8) Husbands and wives are to act in concert, as equal partners.

In addition, Elder Bednar's talk from the February 2006 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting (available here) provides a ninth principle related to the family that had never been explicitly stated prior to the most recent edition of our hymnbook:

9) Each gender complements and perfects the other.

It seems to me that a new hymn which teaches some of this doctrine would be an appropriate addition to our hymnbooks (as would the Proclamation be an appropriate addition to our scriptures). In that spirit, I have composed the following poem/hymn text:

Be Fruitful

All newborn spirits gain at birth
The bodies they will need
To sit upon their Parents’ thrones
And act as gods in deed.
It matters not our gender here;
We owned it long before
We came to earth in our attempt
To live with God once more.

What matters is our real desire
To find and wed a mate
Without whom we cannot progress
To God’s celestial state.
For men and women cannot be
Exalted while apart;
Our better halves must complement
And help perfect each heart.

That marriage was ordained in heav’n,
The scriptures make it plain—
Where Adam, Eve and God all join
To make one flesh of twain.
As equal partners, we too must
Learn to obey God’s will,
And His command to multiply
Remains effective still.

Not surprisingly, I think that the process of writing this poem/hymn has been far more beneficial to me than it will to anyone else--especially since an earlier version of this hymn/poem was already (very nicely) rejected by General Music Committee, which reviews church music submissions. Still--it's been a worthwhile endeavor and learning experience for me. Do some learning yourself--submit your music or text by following the instructions found here.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

PPI: Personal Pornography Interview

In Elder's Quorum today, we had THE TALK. If you are a man, or if you are a woman who has ever been to priesthood session of General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, you know what THE TALK is. THE TALK is when a priesthood leader pleads with his male listeners not to view pornography and exhorts those who are consumers of pornography to get ecclesiastical (and potentially professional) help. THE TALK is almost always uncomfortable, but I thought my Elders Quorum President, Matt Willis, did a phenomenal job today. More important, for the first time in a long time--perhaps since I got THE TALK on a monthly basis as a teenager--I actually heard a new idea for preventing pornography use: the PPI.

In Mormon culture, PPI stands for Personal Priesthood Interview, a (supposedly) regular meeting between men and their immediate priesthood leaders where priesthood holders give an account of their lives (in general terms--confessions of sins are saved for interviews with the Bishop) and receive encouragement in adhering more closely to the principles of Christ's gospel. But one member of my Elder's Quorum had a new suggestion that he had received from a relative.

That relative is a newlywed, and each month, he sits down with his wife, and she conducts a PPI--a Personal Pornography Interview--where she looks her husband in the eye and asks him whether he has viewed pornography in the past month. What a marvelous practice! Sexual intimacy is something that should be kept sacred and discussed (in any sort of detail) only between a husband and wife; but if the lines of communication are not kept open on a reliable basis, needed discussion about such a delicate subject may not be passed on. More importantly, I have to believe that such an interview would provide a powerful deterrent for those who are tempted to view pornography.

At any rate--it's a new idea, and if you've heard THE TALK before, you know that those are relatively rare.

The Fourth Commandment

In 1747, a young missionary named David Brainerd died. He had spent the last four years of his life preaching to the Delaware tribe of Native Americans, living among them and teaching them about Jesus Christ. His life story, as recorded in his journal and popularized by Jonathan Edwards was a bestseller in the eighteenth century and is still in print (and read) today.

As a full time representative of Jesus Christ, Brainerd took his religion a little more seriously than most, but as I read through his journal, nothing struck me more than his reverence for the Sabbath Day. On each Sunday that he made an entry in his journal, Brainerd began the entry with the title "Lord's Day" and then described his day's activities. On one Sunday, Brainerd writes that he preached to a group of Christiant "about sanctifying the Sabbath, if possible to solemnize their minds; but when they were at a little distance, they again talked freely about secular affairs. O I thought what a hell it would be to live with such men to eternity!" (63). For Brainerd, keeping the Sabbath day holy not only means avoiding secular affairs such as work, play, etc.; it also means avoiding thoughts and speach about such things. How do you measure up to Brainerd's standards for Sabbath-Day observance? Would you make it to Brainerd's heaven?

Now, Brainerd's standard may not be your own; I'm not even suggesting that it is mine. But, the depth of his feeling for the Sabbath Day was a nice reminder to me of how I ought to feel and think about the day which our Heavenly Father has designated for our worship of Him. With the possible exception of the first commandment to "have no other gods before me," (especially if you're a fan of Spencer W. Kimball's talk, "The Gods we Worship,") I can think of no commandment violated more frequently and casually than the Lord's commandment to "[r]emember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:3, 8). There are only two commandments (of the ten most famous) that ask us to DO something; most are DON'Ts. But that doesn't make honoring your parents and remembering the Sabbath any less important.

Much as a one hundred percent focus on spiritual things is desirable, it may not be wholly practical: if you're leaving for a trip on Monday morning, you might need to talk to your spouse about that and pack on Sunday night, unless you had enough foresight to take care of those activities on Saturday. I don't think the Lord would condemn you for such an action. But--there are standards which modern prophets have given us for Sabbath day observance, and I've collected a selection of quotes on the subject that I'd like to share with you.

“Our observance or nonobservance of the Sabbath is an unerring measure of our attitude toward the Lord personally and toward his suffering in Gethsemane, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. It is a sign of whether we are Christians in very deed, or whether our conversion is so shallow that commemoration of his atoning sacrifice means little or nothing to us.”

James E. Faust, “The Lord’s Day,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 33

“The Sabbath is a holy day in which to do worthy and holy things. Abstinence from work and recreation is important but insufficient. The Sabbath calls for constructive thoughts and acts, and if one merely lounges about doing nothing on the Sabbath, he is breaking it. To observe it, one will be on his knees in prayer, preparing lessons, studying the gospel, meditating, visiting the ill and distressed, sleeping, reading wholesome material, and attending all the meetings of that day to which he is expected. To fail to do these proper things is a transgression on the omission side.”

Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. 96–97.

“When He instructed us to be unspotted from the world, I believe He not only expected us to stay away from worldly places on the Sabbath, but also to dress appropriately on His day. I often wonder what happened to the good old saying, 'Sunday best.' If our dress deteriorates to everyday attire, our actions seem to follow the type of clothing we wear. Of course, we would not expect our children to remain dressed in their church clothes all day, but neither would we expect them to dress in clothes that would not be appropriate for the Sabbath.”

L. Tom Perry, “The Importance of the Family,” Ensign, May 2003, 40

"...appropriate Sunday activities include (1) writing personal and family journals, (2) holding family councils, (3) establishing and maintaining family organizations for the immediate and extended family, (4) personal interviews between parents and children, (5) writing to relatives and missionaries, (6) genealogy, (7) visiting relatives and those who are ill or lonely, (8) missionary work, (9) reading stories to children, and (10) singing Church hymns.”

Hartman Rector Jr., “The Resurrection,” Ensign, Nov. 1990, 76

"The mechanic will be able to turn out more and better products in six days than in seven. The doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, the scientist will accomplish more by trying to rest on the Sabbath than if he tries to utilize every day of the week for his professional work. I would counsel all students, if they can, to arrange their schedules so that they do not study on the Sabbath. If students and other seekers after truth will do this, their minds will be quickened and the infinite Spirit will lead them to the verities they wish to learn. This is because God has hallowed his day and blessed it as a perpetual covenant of faithfulness."

James E. Faust, “The Lord’s Day,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 33

Have a happy--and holy--Sabbath.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wickedness Never Was Happiness

When Alma first told Corianton that he should stay away from the harlot Isabel because "wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10), he offered spiritual counsel to a wayward son without any sort of external proof. He asked Corianton to believe that the enticing pleasures obviously associated with many forms of wickedness bring no lasting satisfaction. Now, 2,100 years later, I bring you empirical proof that "wickedness never was happiness."

In his book, Gross National Happiness, Arthur C. Brooks calls attention to Thomas Jefferson's claim in the Declaration of Independence that all men are entitled to "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If the United States is a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, Brooks asks, what are the public policy goals that will make our individual pursuit of happiness more successful?

Using 30 years of survey data and a variety of experiments, Brooks concludes that the following things make people very happy: personal freedoms, marriage, a belief in God, friendships, holding conservative political views, work, volunteering and charitable giving. Most of the items on this list are things I would guess are almost universally thought of as being things that contribute to happiness (with the possible exception of the conservative politics bit). More importantly, at least for the purposes of this forum, all of these things (again, with the possible exception of conservative politics) are inherently righteous. God wants us to have agency, to be married, to worship Him, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to work, to serve others and to give our substance to the poor. In effect, Brooks simply proves Lehi's point that "if there be no righteousness there be no happiness" (2 Ne. 2:13). In that respect, what Brooks advocates is a nation dedicated to righteous policies (my words, not his--I think Brooks does a great job of writing from a politically and religiously neutral position), and he does so in a very entertaining way.

Brooks also takes a good look at what makes people unhappy--and that is wickedness. Brooks separates the aforementioned category of personal freedoms into several subsections: economic, political, religious and moral freedoms. Personal economic, political and religious freedoms are all strongly correlated with happiness: the ability to choose how to spend our money, who we should vote for and what church (if any) we should attend makes us very happy. But moral freedom--freedom from moral or social restraints--makes individuals very unhappy:

"Unlike economic, political, and religious freedom, moral freedom has not brought happiness. We can see this vividly by comparing people who favor various moral and social freedoms to those who do not. Do you think a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason? Even correcting for your age, income, education, race, and marital status [things that might otherwise affect your happiness], you are 9 percentage points less likely to be very happy than those who do not believe in abortion on demand. Do you hate the church's moral strictures and think religion brings more conflict than peace? You are significantly less likely than religion's supporters to say you are very happy. Premarital sex, drug use, you name it--the moral traditionalists have it all over the moral modernists when it comes to happiness" (94-95).

For me, this is nothing new; I think Alma explained things very well 2,100 years ago. Still, it's nice to have empirical proof, and Brooks' book presents some fantastic insights into how we can live "after the manner of happiness" (2 Ne. 5:27) at a national level today.

Let me offer three more excerpts from the book which I found thought-provoking.

1. Brooks' argues--and his data prove--that while marriage makes people happier, having kids does not (this is actually a bit reductive; he suggests that kids make most of us unhappy but that kids make the people who have large families happy--or at least less unhappy). My favorite quote from this section: "None of this is to say that people with kids are unhappy people. There are many things in a parent's life that bring great joy. For example, spending time away from their children" (p. 66).

On a more serious note, Brooks defends the practice of raising kids (and lots of them) as a practice that will increase happiness at the national level because being part of a family is what makes kids most happy--as reported by none other than MTV, in conjunction with the Associated Press. Brooks concludes:

"And here lies the great irony of parenthood. Parents always talk about the joy they get from their kids, while kids complain about their parents. But in fact, there is strong evidence that parents make children much happier, while children make parents slightly less happy. So procreating may in fact contribute to our gross national happiness--just not in the ways we might have always believed. We should think of parenthood as a charitable act, by which parents invest some of their own happiness to create that much more for the next generation. This may be the greatest happiness-related reason of all for having children" (p. 72).

Brooks' words reminded me of another observation from Lehi, on a position relatively (but not wholly) unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--that "Adam fell that man might be, and men are that they might have joy" (2 Ne. 2:25). Think about the ways in which Brooks' conclusions on the impact of children on happiness might be relevant to the case of Adam and Eve. Both undoubtedly would have been happier--at least by our standards--remaining in Eden than they were after the Fall. But they sacrificed their own personal happiness in order to bring about an tremendous increase in aggregate happiness by allowing each of us to come to earth and receive a body. I think Brooks has uncovered more truth than he knew.

2. Another interesting finding Brooks makes comes from "a survey of almost 15,000 twins born in Virginia between 1915 and 1971 [in which] researchers found no evidence that religious affiliation--the actual religion or denomination that one belonged to--had a genetic component to it. They did find, however, that between 25 and 42 percent of the variability in how often people attended their houses of worship could be explained genetically. Happy people of faith, it seems, beget happy people of faith" (p. 47). This particular finding is interesting to me because of the strong emphasis in the Judeo-Christian tradition on a familial religion. For most of history, most religions in this tradition have been family affairs, whether we are talking about Abraham, Muhammad (Islam certainly springs out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether or not it is commonly recognized as such or not) or Joseph Smith. The Puritans came to the New World because they believed that the unregenerate or ungodly should be restricted from church membership, but they established what was called "The Half-Way Covenant" in 1662, allowing the children of church members to receive communion even if they were not godly, because they believed that God was more likely to send an "elect" spirit to an "elect" family. Apparently, the Puritans may have been right.

3. My favorite quote from the whole book isn't actually from Brooks. He quotes Newt Gingrich, who reminded American citizens that "the Declaration of Independence asserts that we deserve 'not happiness stamps; not a department of happiness; not therapy for happiness. Pursuit'" (p. 32)

So go pursue! (But only after you read Wickedness Never Was Happiness, Part 2.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Priesthood Blessings


Priesthood blessings have been on my mind recently, for a number of reasons.

My mother-in-law is feeling poorly and has been for at least a week. On Monday night, she requested that I give her a blessing. Since neither Alana nor I had firm plans for our Family Home Evening lesson that night, we decided to teach my two-year-old son Gabriel about priesthood blessings. He folded his arms reverently three times: once when I consecrated oil for the healing of the sick, once when Donald Gilreath (my mother-in-law's home teacher) anointed her with the oil, and once while I gave her a blessing. He listened patiently while Alana and I explained how priesthood blessings can make us feel better and help us learn what Heavenly Father wants us to do. Then, he ran to me and said very seriously, "I want a blessing, Daddy."

I, of course, was glad to oblige and touched that he wanted a blessing. This is the blessing he received:

"Gabriel Ogarek Hutchins, by the power of the Melchizedek priesthood which I hold, I give you a blessing as you have desired. I bless you, Gabe, that you will know how much your Heavenly Father loves you and your family—your mommy and daddy and your grandparents and your little brother David, who loves you. I bless you that you will grow strong and active and obedient, especially as you learn and continue to grow older: that you will become increasingly obedient and that you will be a help to your mother and a good older brother who plays with his little brothers. I bless you that you will learn a lot in nursery, and in your primary classes at church and that you will have the play time that you want with your family. And these things I bless you with, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen. "

Afterwards, Gabe was very proud: "I got a blessing."

In addition to the opportunity to bless Gabe and Mam O (my mother-in-law), I have thought a lot recently about a blessing my father will receive before his surgery on Saturday to remove a cancerous thyroid gland from his throat. I hope that this blessing will promise him continued long life, as a 2003 blessing at the hands of apostle Richard G. Scott did, the first time he was treated for cancer. But...if he is not so blessed, my faith in the priesthood and God's goodness will remain unshaken.

Below is a talk I recently gave on the topic of priesthood blessings--another reason that the subject has been on my mind lately. I learned much more than I anticipated when I was asked to give this talk (and more than I've shared); I hope you will too.

The Holy Ghost is made available to each of us as a constant companion through the ordinances of the Melchizedek priesthood. After we are baptized, an elder of the church lays his hands on our heads and confirms us members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He directs us to “Receive the Holy Ghost” and pronounces a priesthood blessing on our heads as directed by the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Ghost is precious—in the apostles’ day, when a local magician named “Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost” (Acts 8:18-19). But the Melchizedek priesthood cannot be acquired with money, and priesthood blessings cannot be bought by the richest man. And while the gift of the Holy Ghost may be the greatest of the blessings available through the Melchizedek priesthood, worthy priesthood holders can also bless babies, dedicate a home or a grave, provide inspired counsel, and heal the sick. I suspect that when brother Henderson called and asked me to address the topic of “priesthood blessings” that healing the sick is what he had in mind—and it is on that subject that I wish to speak with you today.

The church handbook of instructions provides excellent guidance on how to administer a priesthood blessing for the healing of the sick. Ideally, you should have two elders and a small amount of oil that has been set apart and consecrated for the healing of the sick. After placing a small drop of oil on the crown of the sick or injured person’s head, one elder will place his hands on the head and, calling the person by name, announce that he is anointing him or her under the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood and close in the name of Jesus Christ. The remaining elders participating in the ordinance will then place their hands on the sick or injured person’s head and seal the anointing before providing a personalized blessing of counsel and comfort as directed by the Spirit. Most, if not all of us, have been the recipient of such a priesthood blessing.

These priesthood blessings follow the pattern established by the Lord Jesus Christ and his ancient apostles. When the Christ first sent his apostles “forth by two and two” to minister in Judea, the gospel of Mark says that they “anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:7, 13)—and, incidentally, Mark is the gospel to read if you want to know more about healing and being healed. After his resurrection, Christ explained that healing the sick is one of the “signs [that] shall follow them that believe”; true believers “shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17-18). Christ’s brother, the apostle James, later codified the process for us: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). James promised that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:15). I can and do testify to each of you that James’ promise is efficacious, that the prayer of faith can heal the sick. I have laid my hands on the head of a sick man and commanded him to be healed—and he was healed, in that very moment. Other holders of the priesthood have laid their hands on my head and healed me. Christ promised that true believers in him would have the ability to heal the sick, and I know that that power is present in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The miraculous healings I have witnessed do not prove that this church is true in and of themselves, but they are a proof.

James’ promise that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick” notwithstanding, priesthood blessings are not a panacea for all ills, and all the faith in the world will not save an individual whose time on this earth has finished. I know this for myself—six years ago this November, my parents received a call from President James E. Faust while they were driving in the car. He extended a call to them, asking them to serve as mission presidents. My parents accepted gratefully. In December, my father, who was the stake president at the time, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He tearfully informed President Faust of his medical problems. President Faust told him that because of his changed condition, he would be restricted to a mission within the United States, but he also offered words of comfort and cheer. When it came time for the reorganization of the stake presidency in March, 2003, Elder Richard G. Scott was sent by the First Presidency to officiate, but also to give my father a blessing. In the Boston Temple, Elder Scott laid his hands on my father’s head in the presence of each endowed member of my family (except myself—I was serving my own mission at the time). He rebuked the cancer and promised my father that he would be enabled to serve his mission unimpeded. This was in March. By late June, when my parents reported to the MTC, my father was cancer-free and no longer required medical treatment. My family and the attending physicians considered this a miracle. For three years my father served as a mission president without any health problems; at the end of his third year, President Hinckley called him and asked him to serve as the Boston Temple president—an assignment that started in November 2006. He continued to experience good health until he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer three weeks ago. I dare say that my father’s faith to be healed and Elder Scott’s faith to heal have not changed—but there will be no repeat of that 2003 blessing—and even if Elder Scott did fly out and give him a blessing, there is no guarantee that his blessing would offer good news.

Priesthood blessings, like prayer, are the means “by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of [a priesthood blessing] is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are conditional on our asking for them” (BD, “Prayer,” 752-53). In 2003, when my father received a priesthood blessing, he was not trying to convince the Lord to heal him. He just did his part to receive a desired blessing that the Lord was already willing to give. It may be that a loving Heavenly Father is willing to heal my own earthly father again, when he receives a blessing prior to surgery—but if my father is not healed, it will have nothing to do with a lack of faith on his part or on the part of those blessing him. When we ask for a priesthood blessing, we should emulate the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These faithful youth, when threatened with death by fire for failing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idols told him that “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Dan. 3:17-18). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego earnestly desired to be delivered from the fiery furnace and expressed complete faith in God, but they were willing to accept the Lord’s will in the matter. When we ask for a priesthood blessing to relieve us of an infirmity, we too must learn to say “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us […] but if not,” we will continue to trust in his mercy and goodness.

Sometimes priesthood blessings serve to reconcile us with the reality that we will not be healed, that a given physical affliction is a necessary part of our experience here in mortality. In the ward I grew up in, a horrible car accident left two teenage boys paralyzed, quadriplegics with a limited use of their bodies from the neck down. The accident seemed a disaster, a tragic event that limited their futures. When I spoke with the two shortly after they received their patriarchal blessings, however, they told me that the stake patriarch had informed them that this accident was foreordained—that they had both accepted the burdens and challenges of being physically handicapped in the preexistence, long before they came to earth and had their accident. Similarly, several times in my own experience, I have been asked to provide a priesthood blessing to individuals who were in pain and awaiting surgeries. On at least one occasion, I received a clear prompting that the individual in question would not survive the surgery for any appreciable length of time. Instead of blessing her to be healed, I felt prompted to offer her a blessing of comfort. She died shortly thereafter. We should remember the counsel shared with us two months ago by Elder Bednar, who pointed to Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s example of patient suffering and reminded us that “Not shrinking is more important than surviving.”

But death does not always release us from physical pain anymore than priesthood blessings do—at times, we are required to live with physical liabilities in order to learn that we must depend on Jesus Christ and not our own strength. The apostle Paul, “lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations” was given “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” Paul “besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me” but the Lord did not remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh; instead, God informed the apostle that “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, was willing to trust in God even if he was not delivered from the fiery furnace of arthritis, epilepsy, migraine headaches or whatever other chronic malady afflicted him; he told the saints in Corinth, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Again, to recall Elder Bednar’s recent words of counsel, “Happiness is not the absence of a load.” Whether a priesthood blessing removes a load of physical pain from our lives or not, it is always an opportunity to grow closer to the Savior and to gain a deeper understanding of his atoning sacrifice.

When priesthood blessings do heal us, they do so by and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, who went “forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11). When we ask for and receive a priesthood blessing, we ought to remember that we are really asking for Jesus Christ to interpose his precious blood on our behalf and to take upon Himself our sufferings. Fortunately, every priesthood blessing provides us with a clear symbolic reminder of the part that Christ’s atonement plays in the healing process. Before any blessing for the sick, one drop of consecrated oil is placed on the sick person’s head. This oil has no magical properties and is not the means of healing. Elder John A. Widstoe explains that “it is the prayer of faith that saves the sick, and the Lord who raises them up, not the oil” (Priesthood and Church Government). Just as the waters of baptism, in and of themselves, do not wash away sin, consecrated oil, in and of itself, does not heal the sick. Instead, consecrated oil points us to the sacrifice of our Savior. Elder Nelson explains that quote “Jesus came to the base of the Mount of Olives to effect the first component of the Atonement. This He did at the Garden of Gethsemane. The word Gethsemane comes from two Hebrew roots: gath, meaning ‘press,’ and shemen, meaning ‘oil,’ especially that of the olive. There olives had been pressed under the weight of great stone wheels to squeeze precious oil from the olives. So the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was literally pressed under the weight of the sins of the world. He sweated great drops of blood—his life's ‘oil’—which issued from every pore. […] So the next time you witness consecrated oil being anointed on the head of one to be blessed, and these sacred words are said, ‘I anoint you with this consecrated oil,’ remember what that original consecration cost” end quote (Nelson “Why This Holy Land”).

Remembering the part that Christ’s Atonement plays in healing the sick makes the promise of James—that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick […] and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:15)—more real to us. When we are healed by a priesthood blessing, we experience the power of the Atonement in our lives. If we have sufficient faith to be healed physically, we have sufficient faith to be healed spiritually, and spiritual healing is always unconditionally available to us. This is why, when Christ reached out to heal the man “sick of the palsy,” he could say “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee” instead of “take up they bed and walk” (Mark 2:5, 9). Christ’s real message is that His atoning sacrifice has interceded and made it possible for the man to be healed completely, both physically and spiritually. The scribes present murmur when Christ verbally forgives the man’s sins because they do not understand the means by which his physical ailment—the palsy—is healed. If they truly understood that miraculous healings are the product of the Atonement, they would understand why spiritual healing invariably accompanies physical healing.

Both types of healing require an active faith on our part. Those who desire to be healed physically must seek out that blessing, because the Lord has instructed priesthood holders in this day and dispensation not to go about “healing the sick […] except it be required of you by them who desire it” (D&C 24:13-14). In addition to simply requesting a priesthood blessing, sick individuals must seek to develop “faith to be healed” just as those offering the blessing must “have faith to heal” (D&C 46:19-20). Both types of faith are spiritual gifts made available to every member of the church “by the Spirit of Christ; and they come unto every man severally, according as he will” (Moroni 10:17). These gifts “are given for the benefit of those who love [God] and keep all [His] commandments, and [those] that seeketh so to do” (D&C 46:9). While priesthood blessings are administered only be worthy Melchizedek priesthood holders, these spiritual gifts are available to all members of the church, and miraculous physical healing can take place without the application of consecrated oil or of Melchizedek priesthood holders. Sick individuals who wish to be healed should express their faith by requesting a priesthood blessing, but when such a blessing is unavailable, Elder Orson F. Whitney has promised that healing can still take place: “The sick can be healed without the use of consecrated oil, or even without the laying on of hands” (“The Second Birth,” Saturday Night Thoughts). In the Haun’s Mill massacre, a seven year old boy named Alma Smith was severely injured; his hip had been irreparably damaged by gunfire. The men of Haun’s Mill were either dead or wounded and Alma could not receive a priesthood blessing, but Alma’s mother, Amanda Smith, believed that the Lord could heal her son even when a blessing was not possible. She prayed for her son’s recovery and dressed his wound in the manner in which the Spirit directed, and in five weeks her son had completely recovered.

For many of us, exercising such faith may seem a daunting task, but if we, like the father who brought his possessed child to Jesus Christ, will request that He “help thou mine unbelief,” He will provide the means for us to be healed (Mark 9:24). When, in Bethsaida, a blind man was brought to him, Christ “spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him” and “asked him if he saw ought.” The blind man replied that he saw “men as trees walking”—that he had been restored to partial sight. Christ then “put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly” (Mark 8:23-25). It may be that Christ healed this blind man in stages because the man initially lack sufficient faith to be completely healed—but that his faith was strengthened after Christ first put his hands on his eyes. I know that if we, like this blind man and the father of the possessed child, exercise all of our faith that the Lord will make us whole once again—even if do not have sufficient faith initially. To paraphrase Second Nephi 25:23, “It is by grace that we are [healed] after all we can do.” Like the woman with an issue of blood, who, “When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment,” we too must exert ourselves before He will hear our cries. It is not enough simply to enter the crowd—we must stretch forward and do all that we can to prepare ourselves for the Master’s healing touch. And then, after we have done all we can do, let us remember the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and say, “Lord, I know that you can heal me and believe that you will, but if not…I will still be faithful.” It is my testimony that as we exercise our faith appropriately in requesting and administering priesthood blessings the Lord will heal us—but if not, He will explain to us the reason why, just as He told Joseph Smith in his time of trouble that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

Get better on Saturday, Dad--and know that I'll be praying for the Lord to intervene on your behalf--but if not, I know that you'll continue to be a good example of unwavering trust in the Lord and his purposes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Native Sons of Northborough, Part One















I grew up in Northborough, Massachusetts. It's a small, suburban town where little extraordinary happens--trust me, I lived with the town's police chief for twenty years. Northborough also doesn't have the rich history that other Massachusetts towns/cities do--Henry Walden Thoreau didn't build a cabin within town limits, John Adams didn't own a farm there, and James Naismith didn't throw a ball through into a Northborough peach basket. But, there are a more than a few individuals who were either born in Northborough or who lived there for substantial periods whose ties to Northborough should be celebrated, and William Francis Allen (1830-1889) is one of them.

Allen was an educator whose career seems fairly uninspiring: he spent 8 years as an assistant principal at a high school and 22 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While years of academic service are highly admirable (at least from my admittedly biased perspective), there are many other denizens of Northborough who have gone on to careers in academia; why does William Francis Allen deserve to be honored more than any of these other individuals?

Allen deserves our approbation--at least in part--because he made modern gospel music possible. In 1867, he published Slave Songs of the United States, a collection of the lyrics and melodies that slaves sang as they worked on southern plantations. To make a long story short, modern gospel music is descended from--or at least heavily influenced by--slave melodies like the ones Allen transcribed. His collection was the first of its kind and prompted other individuals to supplement his musical collection with songs of their own. Slave songs really took off nationally in the 1870s, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers--a group of 8 poor African Americans--toured the northeast singing harmonized versions of these songs to sold out crowds, eventually earning enough money on a European tour to found Fisk University. (If you're interested in a little more information on the history and origins of gospel music, my 1,000 word essay on the subject can be found here.)

I love gospel music--I love singing it and I love listening to it--and I love the fact that it was made possible, in no small part by a native son of Northborough. All hail William Francis Allen--especially if you're Algonquin High School. Shouldn't one of the songs he transcribed be sung in at least one concert each year? I'm only sad that I didn't discover this information last year, when ARHS could have put on a special concert for the 140th anniversary of Slave Songs. Oh well--there's always 2017!

PS-I ran across this information in no small part because Congress has named September Gospel Music Heritage Month. They did so largely because of lobbying by the Gospel Music Channel. Now, I'm fine with honoring a musical tradition that is uniquely American--but I'd like to honor gospel music because it is of intrinsic value, not because a Gospel Music Heritage Month is worth some specific sum of money to a corporation. Remember Robert Reich's warning in Supercapitalism that corporations had hijacked Washington? Next thing you know the Quaker Oats company will be lobbying for an official recognition of December as Quaker Heritage Month and asking us to buy their oats as an official means of expressing our appreciation for William Penn and other important Quakers in American history. Gag me--and get corporate money out of Washington!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Keep Your Religion Close And Your Friends Closer

My mother always told me to "choose my friends wisely," a piece of advice that I suspect most parents pass on. But did she--do you--realize how important those friends were? Did she know that choosing the right friends may have been more important than--or at least the same thing as--choosing the right religion?

Rodney Stark's The Rise of Mormonism (2004) is a book explaining why, "If growth during the next century is like that of the past, the Mormons will become a major world faith;" to put that statement in perspective, Stark considers Islam the last religion to "become a major world faith" and we know how important that religious movement is today. Stark is not Mormon; his interest in the church is that of a sociologist who wants to know what has made the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints successful in attracting and retaining converts at a growth rate of 40% per decade (no, that's not a typo). In truth, his book is less about Mormonism per se than it is about discovering general principles that underly successful religious movements--and one of the principles that Stark has discovered reveals exactly what is is that makes individuals convert (switch religious traditions, say from Hinduism to Christianity) or reaffiliate (switch religious affiliations within a larger tradition, say from Prebyterianism to Episcopalianism).

Ask any convert to a new religion why he (or she) converted, and he will tell you that he made the change for doctrinal and/or spiritual reasons. Converts might cite doctrinal concerns such as infant baptism or the restriction of pristhood authority to men as a reason to change religious affiliations; they might narrate a spiritual experience that prompted them to change faiths. But Stark--who spent a significant chunk of time watching individuals move from ignorance of a faith to interest in a faith to conversion in a faith--argues that neither spiritual nor docrtinal concerns are the primary factors of conversion:

"Yes, after people have joined a new religious movement and have fully learned its doctrines and forms of worship, they emphasize the centrality of belief in their conversion. But having observed these same people before and during their conversions, [study co-author] Lofland and I knew better. It was the social connection that led to their conversions, or, as we put it, 'conversion was coming to accept the opinions of one's friends [or relatives]'" (23).

All of this is not to say that individuals who change faiths do not experience a spiritual epiphany or appreciate the new doctrinal tradition they have joined--only that their social connections have made that epiphany or doctrinal appreciation possible. What does this mean? It means that my mom knew what she was talking about when she told me to choose my friends wisely. According to Stark,

"Subsequent studies have shown that, in fact, interpersonal ties, or social capital, are the primary factor in conversion; my more recent work on this phenomenon is based on the proposition that when an individual's attachments to a member or members of another religion outweigh his or her attachments to nonmembers, conversion will occur" (23).

To illustrate Stark's argument in the terms of real life, let me tell a brief story.

As previously mentioned in this forum, my wife and I are ward missionaries, which basically means that we have the responsibility to visit members whose testmionies need a boost or who require some other form of service as directed by the bishop or ward mission leader. Recently my bishop forwarded an email to me from a concerned father in Utah, whose returned missionary son is attending a college here in Raleigh, and who lives in our ward boundaries. This son (we'll call him Peter) had recently informed his parents that he had renounced the church and his (formerly strong) testimony. His father suspected that this decision was the result of influence exercised by a girlfriend with strong anti-Mormon sentiments, and Stark would agree.

Peter is far from all of his (presumably LDS) friends and family that he has in Utah--in other words, he is severely lacking in social capital. This being the case, he has acquired new social capital in the form of his girlfriend and her (likewise anti-Mormon) friends and family. Peter's revelation to his parents that he has lost his testimony has been spurred, I would argue, by the fact that his social capital here in Raleigh has recently begun to overshadow the social capital he left behind in Utah. Now--Peter's father has urged him to read the Book of Mormon, and Peter has agreed to do so--but Stark would argue (I think) that the doctrines of the Book of Mormon are irrelevant unless Peter decides to trade in his anti-Mormon friends for some Mormon friends.

This is where Alana and I come in. Our job is to provide Peter with ready-made social capital--though this will only work if he chooses to make us his friends--and help him regain his testimony.

Peter's father thinks we are the "right friends," largely because we share the beliefs that he wishes to inculcate in his son; he intuits the need for social capital as a prerequisite for Peter's reconversion and subsequent retention.

In many ways, what I am saying is nothing new--Stark's emphasis on social relations as the engine that drives spiritual change is only revelatory inasmuch as it changes the degree to which we appreciate the impact of social relationships.

Few of us, I think, would have guessed that friendships were the primary force driving religious change. We might still disagree with Stark's assertion that social relationships cause change; but his research makes it clear that, at the very least, social relationships precede religious change.

So choose your friends wisely!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Most Important Book I've Ever Read


I read books for a living. It's not a very good living...but that's another story. Still--I am paid to read, so I don't throw around words like "MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I'VE EVER READ" without some serious consideration. Those words need a qualifier, of course; I should have said that Supercapitalism is the "most important book I've ever read not written by God," but the title seemed snappier and more weighty without the qualifier. Even with the qualifier this is a heavy statement. To emphasize the importance of this book in another way: I don't think you should be allowed to vote if you haven't read this book. I don't want to disenfranchise anyone, but I don't want you voting unless you understand what Robert B. Reich has to say either. (Incidentally, Reich's book strives to remain non-partisan, and he skewers both parties regularly. Supercapitalism isn't politics as usual; it's a striking illumination of the nation's largest problem.) If you don't agree with him, that's another matter, but willful ignorance is a woeful excuse.

If all of this hasn't whetted your curiosity sufficiently, at least read my admittedly reductive attempt at summarizing Reich's main points.

Summary of Supercapitalism

1) America is no longer a society based on democratic capitalism.

"Since the late 1970s, a fundamental change has occurred in democratic capitalism in America [...] Capitalism has triumphed, and not simply as an ideology. [...] Democratic capitalism has been replaced by supercapitalism." (50)

2) The forces of capitalism and the sheer amount of money invested in big business has wrested decisions that used to be made by citizens into the hands of investors and consumers. In other words, our dollars are currently voting more effectively than our ballots. For example, even though most Americans might agree that Wal-Mart's practices as an employer are distasteful and in need of alteration, we continue to shop at Wal-Mart, voting with our dollars for practices that we would never vote for if they were actually on a ballot.

"If most people are of two minds about supercapitalism, why does the consumer-investor side almost always win out? The answer is that markets have become hugely efficient at responding to individual desires for better deals, but are quite bad at responding to [civic] goals we would like to achieve together. While Wal-Mart and Wall Street aggregate consumer and investor demands into formidable power blocs, the institutions that used to aggregate citizen values have declined. [...] no longer do local voluntary associations [National Legion, etc.] have much effect on legislators; no longer do regulatory agencies with broad reach define the public interest" (126)

3) Washington politics and legislation are the product of business, even when the laws debated seem to be about issues. Although lobbyists for various business interests are driving the agenda on Capitol Hill for both parties, legislation is presented to the public as though it were a question of morality or efficiency without disclosing the real interests driving policy. For example:

"In October 2006, Congress passed legislation barring credit card payments for Internet betting--which as a practical matter placed a ban on all online gambling. The ostensible purpose of the legislation was to reduce the public's vulnerability to what is considered an immoral or addictive activity. But the initiative was actually spearheaded by gambling casinos--of whcih there are more than nine hundred in the United States--which saw the huge growth in online gambling as a potential threat to their profits but wanted their own operations to remain unrestricted. [...] It seems doubtful that the legislation will have any effect on the amount of gambling Americans engage in. That was a subterfuge. Its real purpose was to increase the profits on certain kinds of gambling, thereby reducing profits associated with other kinds." (149-50).

4) Because citizen voices no longer carry the day in Washington, they frequently try to force companies to act virtuously and in the interest of citizens by publicly shaming them or boycotting them, but this is ineffective, whereas the interests of consumers/investors are vigorously guarded by companies.

"As an investor, I know exactly how to express my displeasure with Microsoft or any other company. I simply sell off shares of its stock. It's exactly what I do as a consumer to express displeasure in a company--just stop dealing with it and go to a competitor that offers a better deal. Wall Street and Wal-Mart have enhanced my power in both regards by giving me an easy means of aggregating my preferences with those of others." (166)

As a citizen, "Vivid displays of corporate goodness can mask problems a democracy should grapple with--would grapple with--if the public understaood their true dimensions. And because public attention spans are short, such temporary displays can preempt permanent solutions. [...] In light of rumblings from the Federal Communications Commission and from conservative legislators concerned about sex and violence cable companies were pumping out to their subscribers, cable operators in early 2006 announced plans to offer packages of family-friendly channels so parents could shield their children. 'There's no need for legislation now,' said Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, after being reassured of the cable companies' plans. 'We have to give it a chance to work.' But cable companies had made similar promises before that had never been fulfilled. Presumably, cable companies will continue to pump out sex and violence until Congress or the FCC stops them, because sex and violence make money." (190-91).

5) Legislators who publicly shame companies without passing legislation to prevent future shameful behavior may seem like they're serving the public interest, but they are really protecting the companies they shame, because public outrage potentially restricting bad behavior will soon fade, but legislation would actually force change.

"When B[ritish] P[etroleum]'s carelessness on the North Slope led to the temporary shut-down of the nation's largest oilfield, in August 2006, Congress demanded BP executives appear in person to be held accountable. At the ensuing hearing, members from both sides of the aisl accused the executives of crass negligence. [...] Committee members then grilled the BP executives about why the company had failed for as long as fourteen years to do the sort of internal inspection and maintenance on its pipelines that was performed every two weeks on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, into which the BP pipelines feed. The BP executives solemnly promised to be more careful in the future. But neither the members of Congress nor the BP executives focused on the most pertinent fact: Frequent inspections of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline were required by law, but no similar inspections were required on feeder pipelines such as those owned by BP. If the panel was serious about getting BP to change its ways it would have introduced legislation to close this loophole. [...] The panel did not introduce such legislation because the hearings were for show." (196-97)

End of Summary

Now, the most important point here is that these are not isolated cases but illustrations of a larger truth: Washington no longer legislates for the social good; it legislates for the corporate good. While this is good for you and me as consumers and investors, it is bad for you and me as citizens. Whether you agree or disagree with the legislation banning online gambling or other legislation is irrelevant. The point is that we're not really making these decisions--lobbyists and gobs of corporate money are making them for us, because enough money can (almost) always buy public opinion, especially when the money runs through Congressional coffers--but we should be.

To give you an idea of how solidly Supercapitalism is in place, let me borrow from some of Barrack Obama's speech when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President. Describing the American dream, he said: "It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road."

Now here's the problem with that promise--it places governmental responsibilities toward the social body (American job growth, labor benefits) on corporate entities. I'm not interested in advancing partisan politics or in trying to criticize Obama (Reich was an economic advisor to Clinton, so advocating his book certainly isn't pushing Republican rhetoric), and I'm sure that McCain has said something similar (just not in a speech that I've heard, and I haven't gone searching)--but when a major political candidate can say on national television that businesses should perform what we have traditionally thought of as the responsibilities of government without a major outcry, you can be sure that supercapitalism has replaced democratic capitalism. Businesses have no responsibilities except to make money for investors and to satisfy consumers. If we, as citizens wish businesses to act virtuously, then we must force them to do it with legislation--they will not voluntarily change their ways unless behaving virtuously will improve the bottom line. It is the responsibility of government to make sure that businesses act virtuously so that we will experience greater social well-being.

Reich has numerous suggestions of how we might make Washington more responsive to our desires as citizens and to restore some sense of balance between democracy and capitalism, but if you care enough to work towards those goals, you'll read the book. At the very least, I hope that this small summary of "THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I'VE EVER READ" shows you what is wrong with Washington and hints at how we might fix it. I personally hope that you will prioritize the removal of business from politics as you evaluate presidential candidates this fall--whether that means voting for Obama, McCain or some nobody third party candidate, because I can't think of a single issue more important than this one.

I don't customarily encourage you to forward things that I write, lest I appear overly enthralled with my own self-importance, but I do think that this message is something every person (and especially every voter) needs to get loud and clear--so forward it if you think fit.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On Inter/In/Dependence

Three weeks ago or so, my wife and I were made ward missionaries. As this is a calling in which Alana and I will have to jointly leave the house and our two (very) small children, our bishop was very hesitant to extend such a calling--but we were excited, and it has already been a wonderful blessing. Wanting to engage right away, we jointly agreed that one of us would prepare a backup gospel principles lesson each week, just in case the regular teacher happened to be absent without providing for a backup (which he had been occasionally, or so we'd heard).

Well--that very first week, the regular teacher was absent, and I got to hear Alana give the best lesson on service that I have ever had the privilege to attend. As part of that lesson, she taught about the importance of learning to accept service as well as give it, something that readers of this blog will know is a lesson we have learned this summer. In describing the process of learning to be served, Alana explained that most of us recognize a natural progression in our lives from being dependent to being independent. Every teenager understands the importance of this progression and tries to accelerate the process--usually reaching for independence before they are ready for it. This was no big news.

But the Beautiful Mrs. Hutchins' next point was an absolute bombshell. She pointed out that most of us view independence as the desired endpoint in our physical/emotional/spiritual maturation but that the real pinnacle of progress is a state of interdependence. Now, stop and think about that. We are all quite eager to move from dependent to independent--but how many of us are then eager to be interdependent?

I teach a class in college writing where group work is paramount. For the last third of my class, each group of 4-5 students turns in one assignment, and every student in that group receives the same grade. Most students hate this. They hate being dependent in any way on the contributions of another individual; they want total control in their own hands.

But I'm fairly certain that one of the main purposes in our mortal probation is learning to embrace a state of interdependence. Quick--who is the individual that most desires independence and autonomy? If you answered Satan, award yourself two points. Satan wanted all of the control in his own hands; he didn't want to depend on anyone, not even the Father.

Now, I'm not trying to shy away from a great American tradition in the Declaration of Independence--but I think the founding fathers would agree that they were more than happy to depend on France's military aid in the Revolutionary War. No one in that Second Continental Congress would have dreamed of rejecting France's proffered aid in the name of being strictly and completely independent.

Nor am I suggesting that Alana revealed some novel truth in extolling the virtues of interdependence. I think that most of us realize this in a limited sense--we all agree that we need divine succor and aid in our lives and none of us feel that we should be ashamed of accepting help from our Heavenly Father or Savior. Quite frequently, however, I think we feel that being dependent on another mortal is degrading or demeaning, that we have somehow slipped from an ideal state of independence. Fooey. This is our pride speaking, and as President Ezra Taft Benson stated, "The central feature of pride is enmity--enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen." None of us would make enmity or even pride an end goal or virtue--but that is what we do when we strive for absolute independence.

Willingly becoming interdependent involves meekness, humility and faith in your fellowman; I am convinced that interdependence is the key quality of a Zion community. If Zion is to be a society of physical and spiritual equals (and if you don't think it will be, read 4th Nephi 1:17-18 and D&C 78:5-6) and we are all unequals before arriving in Zion (and we are--the United States and the world in general are moving towards ever greater income disparities, and I would venture to say that this is true in the Church as well, if to a lesser extent), then the only way to make Zion a community of equals is to willingly become interdependent, to accept the freely given gifts of those who are your superiors in both physical and spiritual things without pride-induced shame.

We tend to think of the progression from dependence to independence as an isolated event, a single moment of change that takes place in our teens. In reality, this progression is like a set of stairs stair, where we step from dependence to independence to interdependence line and precept upon precept. Until I heard Alana's lesson, I hadn't even considered that there was a higher place to put my foot. Now I know--thanks, love.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

I Take Requests

By now it should be obvious what this blog does--it discusses topics of books and religion (mostly) in ways that I hope are interesting to you, my devoted readers. However, if you have questions about books and/or religion and or general topics that you would like me to address, I would be happy to take requests in an effort to better please you, the reader. I have plenty to say without your help--but I also have a vested interest in providing material that you'd like to read. So send in your suggestions if you have a question you want answered, a book you want discussed, or a pressing need to criticize my syntax. I write for you (mostly)!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Brother to a Fu Manchu

While visiting family in Massachusetts, I was the only individual lucky enough to capture my brother Aaron's experiment with facial hair on film. As you can see, it would have been tragic for his Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks-esque 'stache to go without preserving it for posterity.

I liked Aaron's mustache--but apparently I was the only one. From what I heard, not even Aaron was particularly fond of the look, despite the fact that his mustache would allow him to intimidate witnesses in court without speaking a word. My mother, in particular, objected to Aaron's mustache for religious reasons; she believes that we should all emulate the example of the prophets and apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who are clean shaven. She also served a three year mission for the church with my father in Tampa, Florida, making sure that all of the missionaries under her supervision remained clean shaven (a requirement)--so you can imagine that she feels strongly about the issue.

Well, my mother's thoughts on the subject of facial hair made me wonder--When did the church transition from "facial hair is ok" to "facial hair is unacceptable for official church representatives such as missionaries and apostles"?

The answer is complicated and as yet incomplete.

Joseph Smith never wore a beard, but after his death, Brigham Young became the president of the church; he wore a beard for most of his life and all of his tenure as the president of the church. After Brigham Young, every single prophet wore a beard until (do you know?) David O. McKay. When George Albert Smith died in 1951, the beard-as-prophetic-fashion-statement died with him. But President McKay's ascension cannot have been the occasion for the Church's change in policy; I'm sure there were other members of the Twelve who had facial hair at the time, and I seriously doubt that President McKay would have asked them to shave.

The earliest statement I have found requesting missionaries to forego facial hair is from an April 1971 issue of the Priesthood Bulletin, a publication the first presidency frequently used to issue istructions:

"With increasing frequency the Missionary Executive Committee receives missionary recommendations accompanied by photographs of young men with beards, moustaches, long sideburns, and long hair.


Bishops and stake presidents are requested to advise young men who may be considered for missions that the nature of the missionary calling is such that we must insist that those who are called and who serve in the field shall be clean-shaven and that their hair shall be neatly trimmed. The photographs that are sent in with missionary recommendations are to reflect this appearance; accordingly, the photographs are to be updated if necessary. Stake presidents may properly take note of the appearance of missionaries when they are set apart prior to reporting to the Missionary Home." (3)

But this instruction is for missionaries--not the general membership of the church--and so would not apply to Aaron's case or support my mother's position. For that, you have to go two years later, to a September 1973 BYU devotional talk given by church president Harold B. Lee. He tells the following story:

"Now may I make a personal reference, which I’ll try to treat in such a way as to preserve the confidentiality. It involved a beautiful, young wife and mother from a prominent family. She had gone away from her home and was now in the East. She had gone out into an area where she and her husband had taken up with those in the ghetto, and she wrote me a rather interesting letter, and I quote only a paragraph: ‘Tomorrow my husband will shave off his long, full beard. Because of the request of the stake president and your direction in the Priesthood Bulletin, he must not have the appearance of evil or rebellion if he is to get a recommend to go to the temple. I have wept anguished tears; the faces of Moses and Jacob were bearded, and to me the wisdom and spirituality of the old prophets reflected from the face of my own spiritual husband. It was like cutting out for me a symbol of the good things my generation has learned.’ Then the letter concluded with a challenge to me: ‘We are prepared for clear, specific, hard-line direction as youth. Wishy-washy implications are not heard very well here. We look to you to tell it straight.’

"I don’t know whether she knew just what she was asking for when she asked me to tell it straight, but these are some things I wrote to her: ‘In your letter you address me as, “Dear President Lee,” and in your first sentence you refer to me as the Lord’s prophet. Now, in your letter you tell me that you are saddened because with the shaving off of the beard and the cutting of the hair, which, to you, made your husband appear as the prophets Moses and Jacob, he would no longer bear that resemblance. I wonder if you might not be wiser to think of following the appearance of the prophets of today. President David O. McKay had no beard or long hair; neither did President Joseph Fielding Smith; and neither does your humble servant whom you have acknowledged as the Lord’s prophet."

The implication of President Lee's talk is that just prior to September 1973, an issue of the
Priesthood Bulletin instructed brothers wishing to obtain a temple recommend that they should enter the Lord's house clean shaven. Now--because I do not personally own an archive of the Priesthood Bulletin and am in North Carolina, where large collections of Mormon history are rare, I cannot further document the Church's policy on facial hair at this time. But I'm still interested, and especially in this question: Who was the last apostle/member of the first presidency (if you'll recall, there were several non-apostle members of the first presidency in the mid twentieth century) who wore a beard during his service? It could be George Albert Smith--but I suspect that it was someone else. A prize will be awarded for pictorial proof of the last whisker to grace the chin of an apostle.

NOTE: I received help in my research from the BYU 100 Hour Board, an organization of undergraduate students who will attempt to answer any question within 100 hours of your submitting it. For questions that require significant research (as mine did--I asked them to find the
Priesthood Bulletin reference for me, and they were unable to do so, even in BYU's archives), they may take a longer time, but they're a great resource. Visit them and ask a question at: theboard.byu.edu.

UPDATE: I just discovered that when David O. McKay was called to be an apostle in 1906, he sported a mustache--so the gradual disappearance of facial hair that seems to start with him can't be marked down to any sort of personal prejudice. You can see the picture here: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/RelEd&CISOPTR=6380&CISOBOX=1&REC=11