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

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Best Books of 2004, Part II

And now, without any further adieu, the best of the rest from 2004:

5. Othello, William Shakespeare.

A biracial marriage between the black Othello and the white Desdemona--still in its honeymoon phase--sours quickly when Othello's lieutentat, Othello, insinuates that Desdemona has been unfaithful. There's a rather explosive ending, but I won't spoil it, on the off chance that someone doesn't know what happens here.

I feel like something of a heathen, since what I consider to be the Bard's best play doesn't make it higher than this--but then I remember that Othello is, after all, a play, not a book. There's something about the greatness of any play that is lost as soon as you remove it from the stage. Sure, you could read this classic tale of jealousy aloud (much better than Anna Karenina, which would probably be my second pick for books on "jealousy"), but you can never capture in mere words the sort of tension that mounts in a live production as you watch Iago pry Othello and Desdemona apart, lie by damning lie. It's gripping, every time. I only wish that
the Patrick Stewart production that reversed the races (Patrick Stewart was the only white actor in the play; it was set in an imaginary modern South Africa, instead of Renaissance Italy) was on film--I'd love to see that!

4. The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod

This is the sort of book that gets me excited about writing a "best of 2004" post, because it's a book that most of you have never heard of, but one whose premise I can almost guarantee you will be interested in. In Evolution, Axelrod demonstrates that the best solution to the prisoner's dilemma is to cooperate. Now, you might ask, what is the prisoner's dilemma? So glad you asked.

Let's imagine that you and I are prisoners incarcerated for our partnership in some heinous crime and facing the prospect of 3 years in prison. The DA comes to each of us--separately--and offers to reduce our sentence to 1 year if we rat out the other partner (who would then get 7 years in prison. The prisoner's dilemma is this: Is it in your best interest to rat out your partner or stay silent? There are three possible outcomes in this scenario: 1) Both prisoners stay silent and get 3 years. 2) One prisoner talks and gets 1 year while the other gets 7 years. 3) Both prisoners talk, and both get 7 years. You cannot know what your partner in crime will decide to do--so how do you decide whether it is in your best interest to talk or stay silent?

You might wonder why I am so excited about a book solving the prisoner's dilemma when I have no immediate plans of being incarcerated--but the prisoner's dilemma is a model that applies to decisions in everyday life. Let's say you're a general contractor who has hired a subcontractor to put the plumbing in a set of houses. You can 1) share profits evenly with your subs or 2) try to screw them out of as many dollars as they will let you. The subcontractor has a similar set of choices. He can 1) do the best work possible for the general contractor, which will make the GC's customer's happy or 2) rush through the job, take his money and run. Though this scenario might not seem like the prisoner's dilemma, there are, once again, three possible outcomes that roughly parallel the outcomes above: 1) The GC and SC cooperate, sharing profits and doing quality work. 2) One of the parties acts honorably (sharing profits or doing good work) and the other acts dishonorably, shafting the honorably party (squeezing profits or doing shoddy work). 3) Both parties act dishonorably.

Do you see the ways in which the prisoner's dilemma is a simplified version of life? The prisoner's dilemma asks us to decide whether we will be nice to and cooperate with others or shaft everyone in order to maximize our own benefits. Now, I've personally made the decision to be nice and cooperative--which makes Axelrod's book that much more exciting to me. In it, he proves empirically that being nice is the best choice--that nice guys finish first. Just as importantly, he does so in an engaging, fun-to-read way. Evolution is insightful and entertaining, which is about all that I could ask for from a book. Read it.

3. Don Quixote, Cervantes.

Readers of this blog (if there are any) will note that the top three entries for 2004 receive less attention than the fourth entry--The Evolution of Cooperation. This is not because I think Axelrod's book is better; obviously, I would have ranked it higher, otherwise. Rather, it is because I think the book needed more explanation to be appreciated than the narratives that make up my top three.

Don Quixote is a book that I could re-read every year without enjoying it any less. Four centuries later, Cervantes still delivers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments with the exploits of his knight errant (emphasis on the err portion of errant) and helpful (sort of) squire Sancho Panza. This is--arguably--the first modern novel and a must-read before you leave the world.

2. Between the Testaments: From Malachi to Matthew, Holzapfel and Brown.

The Bible isn't real clear on the events that transpire between the Old and New Testaments--neither is the Apocrypha, though it purports to give a history of the time period. I much prefer the account of Holzapfel and Brown, which is clear and provides contextual information that makes the transition from New Testament as seamless as four hundred years can be.

1. Paradise Lost, John Milton.

Probably my pick for the best book ever written. Need I say more?

Coming Attractions: The only surviving picture of Aaron's fu manchu...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A New Theory of Relativity

I know that there are probably at least two people dying for the last five books of my 2004 top ten, and I promise to return to that topic shortly. But for now, I want to introduce a new theory of relativity--a theory that you will care about much more than Einstein's. This theory comes from Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, a book that will undoubtedly be making my top ten in 2008 (though that's getting a bit ahead of myself).

Ariely reminds us of something we already understand intuitively--that we make judgments in relative terms. We can identify the color teal only in terms of blue and green; teal has a little bit more blue than green, and a little less yellow. You can't evaluate teal in terms of red and purple, because teal does not share any identifiable characteristics with those colors. Similarly, Ariely argues, we look at faces and people in relative terms. After recounting several experiments he conducted, Ariely provides dating and marriage advice.

Dating

"What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive potential dating partners as possible at an upcoming event? My advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics (similar coloring, body type, facial features), but is slightly less attractive (-you). Why? Because the folks you want to attract will have a hard time evaluating you with no comparables around. However, if you are compared with a '-you,' the decoy friend will do a lot to make you look better, not just in comparison with the decoy but also in general, and in comparison with all the other people around."

Take home lesson for the double-dating youth of the Hutchins clan: When you're trying to make a first impression, or when you're out on your first date with someone, make sure that the other member of your sex along for the double date is someone who will make you look good. If you want to be seen as teal, make sure you bring along a fried who is blue, so that your date will be able to distinguish the things that set you apart from your blue friend. (If you bring along a red or purple friend, it would be like comparing apples and oranges; this way, you're giving your date a look at a nicely shined apple and one that looks less appealing.) If you've got a good friend who's willing to play the part (dress slightly worse than you, be less engaging than you, etc.), perhaps you could even take turns being the decoy--because once you've snagged your date, you no longer have to use the decoy to maintain your hold on him/her.

Marriage Advice

I am happy. I think--and I'm not sure I agree with Ariely's point of view on this one, but it's entertaining, so I thought I'd share. Since our perceptions of happiness depend on our perceptions of relative circumstances, Ariely reminds us of a comment by H. L. Mencken, a satirist and journalist. Mencken proposed that "...a man's satisfaction depends on (are you ready for this?) whether he makes more than his wife's sister's husband. Why the wife's sister's husband? Because (and I have a feeling that Mencken's wife kept him fully informed of her sister's husband's salary) this is a comparison that is salient and readily available."

Now, as I stated before, I think I'm happy--but maybe I'm really not and only think that I am--because my wife's sister's husband makes at least four times what I do. (Obviously, I believe there's more to happiness than money, so something else must be compensating for the relative lack of cold hard cash in my life.) The lesson, though is still good as far as marriage is concerned: If you marry into a family where the other son/daughter-in-laws are exceptional, you might expect to have a harder time living up to the expectations of your spouse. If, on the other hand, you marry into a family where previous son/daughter-in-laws have proved to be a disappointment, you might expect to be praised by your spouse even for relative mediocrity--because all they have to compare you with are relatively disappointing sons/daughters-in-law.

Just a few thoughts from my most recent read--and one that I would highly recommend.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Best Books of 2004--Part 1

As a graduate student earning a PhD in Enlish, I have adopted D&C 88:118 as the theme of my current and prospective career as a teacher: "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." Of course, there are so many books printed each year that even a monk cloistered on a windswept peak of Tibet who did nothing but read all day and night could never keep up with the printing presses. So if you cannot possibly read everything, how can you know what books are "best" and make available a small amount of time to read them?

You could ask me.

Now, I can't read every book any more than my imaginary Tibetan monk can, but I do read much more than most people, and I can tell you which of the many books that have engrossed me are the best (and why). Since 2004, I have made notes on each of the various books that I have read, and I would like to provide a top ten list for each of the past four years in an attempt to help others find what I consider the best books and avoid wasting their time on books that are only good--or that are just plain bad. For today, I'll limit myself to identifying the best of more than 50 books that I read in 2004. (Be aware that my list excludes the standard works--not because I haven't read them--but because they should be read before any other books are even considered.)

10. The Eight--Catherine Neville

The only contemporary novel on my list makes the cut because Neville spins such a good story about chess. She weaves together two thrilling stories that take place centuries apart and works in more than one good anecdote about the history of chess. This is a great read that will entertain you without much effort on your part, one of the most hard-to-put-down adventure stories I've ever read.

9. The Idiot--Fyodor Dostoevsky

In all of his novels Dostoevsky includes "holy fools," characters who are naturally without guile and who have truly "become as little children" (Matthew 18:3). These holy fools are often Christ figures, and the main character of The Idiot is the best of Dostoevsky's collection. The Idiot shows us what it means to turn the other cheek and tells a pathetic story of love unrequited that any lover who has ever been spurned will relate to. Unfortunately, Dostoevsky's writing style is somewhat dense, which means that reading The Idiot will be difficult for most. Still--many of the best books require readers to earn the rewards that lie within their pages, so cultivating the ability to read difficult texts is an essential first step to obeying the Lord's injunction in the Doctrine & Covenants.

8. Perelandra--C. S. Lewis

Lewis is best known for his Narnia series, The Screwtape Letters, and non-fiction books like Mere Christianity, but this sci-fi work is one of his most unique contributions to Christian literature. In it, he tells the story of Adam, Eve and the Fall--on Venus. As usual, Lewis provides an insightful commentary on the scriptures in an entertaining story, examining questions of agency and temptation in a setting so strange that readers are forced to reevaluate their preexisting notions of the Fall. Unlike Lewis's Narnia novels, which are so short they might more appropriately be termed fables, Perelandra is a full-fledged novel, which moves quickly, but which also requires a more significant commitment than his simpler works.

7. Spencer W. Kimball--Edward L. and Andrew E. Kimball Jr.

President Kimball's life story is well worth the telling, and this biography would be much higher up on my list except for two limitations. First, the writing is good but not as good as the prose in Dew's biography of Pres. Hinckley or Condie's biography of Neal A. Maxwell. The other problem is something that is fairly common in church biographies--they are written before the subject is dead! Writing a biography about someone who is still alive has its advantages--you get to conduct interviews with the subject--but it also limits the biographer to an account of the subject's life, necessarily excluding the subject's later life, death and legacy. As someone who never knew President Kimball, I would have appreciated a retrospective look at President Kimball's struggles with cancer and death, perhaps a second edition of this book with an afterword.

6. Bleak House--Charles Dickens

If you only read one Charles Dickens novel, this should be it. Dickens is at the top of his form, writing a mystery novel that is both compelling and insightful with type-cast characters that leave you laughing out loud. There are two catches with this novel that prevent it from rising. 1) It's almost a thousand pages long, which is voluminous even for a man paid by the word. 2) The first hundred pages move fairly slowly, as Dickens introduces a multitude of characters without making their relationships at all clear--but pages 100-1,000 are fantastic. Overall, the novel reads quickly and is wildly entertaining, but it is long and gets off to a slow start.

Coming Soon...The top 5 books of 2004.