Friday, December 31, 2010

Your Wine or Your (Second) Wife

History says that you've got to have one or the other, so either the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants (the LDS prohibition against alcohol) or Wilford Woodruff's Manifesto (the LDS prohibition against polygamy) will have to go. According to a new paper from the American Association of Wine Economists (an organization I would definitely make fun of if I wasn't an academic myself), the discontinuation of polygyny (multiple wives) is closely linked to the rise of viticulture--the drinking of alcohol and, especially, the phenomenon of intoxication (getting drunk).

In "Women or Wine?" the authors "find evidence of a positive correlation between alcohol use and monogamy both over time and across cultures," meaning that as social groups transition from polygamy to monogamy they begin to consume alcohol. This historical trend, obviously, is one that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have bucked; the church officially disavowed polygamy in the aforementioned 1890 Manifesto from President Woodruff. If the relationship between monogamy and alcohol were causal, then we would have expected members of the church to take up drinking alcohol at some point over the past 120 years; instead, if anything, church emphasis on the Word of Wisdom and abstinence from alcohol has been strengthened over that period.

I'm not sure what there is about the prospect of spending the rest of your life--"till death do you part"--with just one person that has driven men and women to drink, but perhaps eternal marriage provides a substitute form of intoxication; the beautiful Mrs. Monk certainly makes my head spin (which I hear is a common side effect of alcohol).

ps--as a side note, the research for this paper was prompted by the existence of fundamentalist LDS sects that continue to practice plural marriage AND obey the Word of Wisdom's prohibition against alcohol.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Great are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 44

As previously noted, the land of Israel was dotted with temples during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah; in addition to the main (and famous) temple complex built by Solomon in Jerusalem, Israelites worshipped in at least fifteen other, smaller temples built to Jehovah. Unfortunately, Israelite patrons converted many of these temples to the worship of Canaanite gods, especially Baal and Ashtorath. Isaiah condemns this corruption of temple worship repeatedly in his messages to Israel but especially in chapter 44.

Through Isaiah the Lord reminds his people that they salvation can only be found in and through Him: "I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God" (44:6). But this reminder, as Isaiah knows very well, has come too late; the Israelites have already begun to worship other gods, abandoning their covenants and perverting temple rituals. Isaiah complains that "The carpenter stretcheth out his rule [a plumb line used to measure and square]; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man" (44:13). This carpenter--in his perverse usage of divinely appointed creative powers and methods--mocks a God described in the scriptures using those same tools to create the earth and to build the New Jerusalem ("When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth," [Prov. 8:27]; "He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end," [Job 26:10]; in building a "city . . . holy unto the Lord" "the measuring line shall yet go forth over against it upon the hill Gareb, and shall compass about to Goath," [Jer. 31:38-40]).

This idolatrous carpenter imitates Yahweh by creating a figure in the form of a man, but unlike Yahweh, he has no power to animate it, to fill it with "the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7). This idol, Isaiah charges, is no more alive than the scrap wood that the idolatrous carpenter burns to bake his bread; without the breath of life, the idol is no more alive or powerful than the dust that Adam was formed from, and Isaiah warns that an individual who worships such idols "feedeth on ashes" (44:20). Because of his false worship the idolater "cannot deliver his soul, nor say, 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?'" (44:20). In abandoning the appointed forms of worship, Israel has forsaken their claim on "the saving strength of [God's] right hand" (Ps. 20:6); they have left "the path of life . . . at [God's] right hand" (Ps. 16:11) for "the hand of strange children; whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood" (Ps. 144:7-8).

Notwithstanding these transgressions, the Lord reminds Israel of his love for them and invites them to return: "I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins; return unto me; for I have redeemed thee" (44:22). Then, as if to compare the idolatrous carpenter's powers and his own, Jehovah reminds Israel of his own creations: "I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself" (44:24). Whereas the carpenter "stretcheth out his rule" the true Carpenter "stretcheth forth the heavens." By reminding Israel of the difference in the creative capacities of these two carpenters, Isaiah "frustrateth the tokens of the liars" (44:25) and--implicitly--calls on Israel to remember the tokens of their covenant with the Lord, tokens carved into their own flesh as well as their God's: "And he shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" (Gen. 17:11); "Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands" (Isa. 49:16).

Isaiah isn't simply condemning idolatry in chapter 44; he's reminding Israel of their temple covenants, of the Lord's incomparable creative powers, and of the physical, fleshly tokens of their covenant relationship with Jehovah. He does condemn idolatry, but he also reminds Israel of the appropriate temple worship in which they have covenanted to participate exclusively.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Surprising History of "Small" Temples

Quick--without looking at Google or lds.org, how many temples are currently in operation around the world?

Answer: There are currently 134 temples in operation around the world, with another 23 either under construction or announced. Those 134 temples are more than 6 times the number of operating temples in existence 30 years ago, and when the St. Louis, MO temple was dedicated in 1997, it was the 50th--so in the last thirteen years, more than 100 temples (twice the number previously extant) have been built or are now being built. This explosion in temple construction has been made possible by the proliferation of "small temples," buildings much smaller than the Salt Lake or Washington D.C. temples, but that nonetheless "accommodate baptisms for the dead, the endowment service, sealings, and all other ordinances to be had in the Lord’s house for both the living and the dead."

When the late President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the advent of smaller temples, he explained that this innovation would make ordinances available to members who lived at a remove from the major metropolitan areas that traditionally attracted a sufficient concentration of members. I remember his announcement at the October 1997 priesthood session of General Conference; I was floored. While smaller temples seem very commonplace today (especially for someone who lived in Raleigh and made bi-monthly visits for four years), it seemed like a revolutionary concept at the time. Come to find out, there's a long history of "small temples" among the Lord's covenant people.

Let's try a new version of the quiz that opened this post: how many temples were in operation in Old Testament times (during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, if you want to pin down a specific date)?


One you say? Solomon's? Think again.

You can probably think of plenty of "temple experiences" in the Old Testament--Abraham on Mount Moriah, Jacob at beth-El, Moses on Mount Sinai, the tabernacle in the wilderness, etc., but I'd be willing to bet that your knowledge of actual stone-and-mortar temples in the Old Testament is limited to the one built by Solomon. Hey, I would have said the same thing until yesterday. Yet it turns out that ancient Israel--like the latter-day version--made temple worship available to those who lived outside of the capital in Jerusalem.

In Solomon's Temple William Hamblin and David Seely explain:

"Although Solomon's temple remained the great central national shrine of Judah, from its construction (c. 950 BC) until the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah in the 7th century BC Israelites also worshipped the Lord at other holy places, such as Ramah, where Samuel led the people in sacrifice. The Bible describes at least eleven [ELEVEN!] buildings that can be identified as shrines dedicated to the worship of Yahweh, including Shiloh, Dan, Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Hebron, Bethlehem [interesting, no?], Nob, Ephraim, Ophrah, and Gibeah. The most prominent of these was Shiloh, where the Ark was kept, and where Eli the priest is depicted sitting beside 'the doorpost of the temple of the Lord' (hekhal Yahweh) (1 Sam. 1:9). Shrines at Dan and Bethel also existed from very early times; there was apparently a statue of Yahweh in a temple at Dan (Judg. 18:28-31). Later, these sites were appropriated by King Jeroboam who set up golden calves there. A platform and small altar have been excavated at ancient Dan. Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of at least four Israelite temples not mentioned in the Bible that flourished during this period [bringing our total up to FIFTEEN temples other than Solomon's]: Megiddo, Arad, Lachish, and Beersheba" (33).

One of the reasons that we so casually gloss over the existence of these additional temples is the fact that Josiah (who reigned from 640-609 BC) consolidated temple worship in Jerusalem in order to prevent idolaters from using these "small" Israelite temples to worship Baal and Ashtoreth. Presumably Josiah believed that he was acting to enforce the decree of Deuteronomy, where the Lord explains that Israel should establish a temple "in the [singular] place which the Lord shall choose in one of thy tribes" and that those who live "too far" from that lone temple should "kill of thy herd [...] and thou shalt eat in thy gates whatsoever thy soul lusteth after" (12:15, 21). After Josiah Israel never again deviated from the model of centralized worship that he created (although there were temples of Yahweh in Egypt during the second century BCE) and so readers of the Bible--who spend a disproportionate amount of time studying the New Testament--assume that the status quo in Christ's time (one temple) also applied during the earlier eras of Israelite history.

The bottom line is that President Hinckley's paradigm-shifting move to "small temples" was anything but revolutionary; when his people have been unable to travel to temples, the Lord has always--in the time of ancient Israel as today, in latter-day Israel--brought temples to his people. So the next time that you find yourself worshipping in one of the "small temples" built under the guidance of President Hinckely, pause a moment to reflect on the ancient Israelites who lived on the outskirts of Shiloh and worshipped in the local temple because they couldn't afford the trip to Jerusalem. The Lord loved them in the same way that he loves you, and the proof lies in the proximity--and the oridnances--of his House(s).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Maybe I Should Have Stayed in the Monastery . . .

So I've just finished my first semester of full-time university teaching. The good news is, my students seem to like me and claim to have learned life lessons and academic skills in my classes. The bad news is, my somewhat narcissistic belief that I've somehow made a difference in their lives is probably misguided.

Lars Lefgren and David Sims, two economics professors at my own school, have just published research which suggests that a teacher's impact on his students' lives, whether that impact is positive or negative, is a fleeting phenomenon. "The researchers report that most of the gains from a highly rated teacher vanish quickly. In reading [English!], 87 percent of the benefit fades after one year." Now, to be fair--the findings of Lefgren and Sims were drawn from middle school data, so their research might not reflect the ability of college students to learn and retain skills/knowledge . . . but it's a sobering reminder that education is not a silver bullet for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For a reminder on what factors HAVE been shown to permanently impact childrens' education, brush up on your Freakonomics; a child's parents and home life are clearly the most important factors--but perhaps not in the way that you might expect.

So maybe, if I wanted to change lives, I should stay at home with my wife, in the monastery.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Margaret Fuller on Thanksgiving

Back in the 1840s, before Thanksgiving was a national holiday, Margaret Fuller--one of the first female journalists (for the New York Tribune), and the first to serve as a foreign correspondent (during Italy's battle for unification)--celebrated the spirit of Thanksgiving and called for its establishment. This is, in part, what she had to say:

"Thanksgiving is peculiarly the festival day of New-England. Elsewhere, other celebrations rival its attractions, but in that region where the Puritans first returned thanks that some among them had been sustained by a great hope and earnest resolve amid the perils of the ocean, wild beasts and famine, the old spirit which hallowed the day still lingers, and forbids that it should be entirely devoted to play and plum-pudding. [. . .] And, in other regions, where the occasion is observed, it is still more as one for a meeting of families and friends to the enjoyment of a good dinner, than for any other purpose. [. . .]The instinct of family love, intended by Heaven to make those of one blood the various and harmonious organs of one mind, is never wholly without good influence. Family love, I say, for family pride is never without bad influence, and it too often takes the place of its mild and health sister.

"Yet how much nobler, more exhilirating and purer would be the atmosphere of that circle if the design of its pious founders were remembered by those who partake [in] this festival! If they dared not attend the public jubilee till private retrospect of the past year had been taken in the spirit of the old rhyme, which we all bear in mind if not in heart--

What has thou done that's worth the doing,
And what pursued that's worth pursuing?
What sought thou knew'st that thou shouldst shun,
What done thou shouldst have left undone?

If parents followed up the indulgences heaped upon their children at Thanksgiving dinners with similar messages, there would not be danger that children should think enjoyment of sensual pleasures the only occasion that demands Thanksgiving."

December 12, 1844

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 50

In the first verse of this chapter the Lord answers the implied accusations of Israel. In response to their claim that the Lord has divorced them and sold them like slaves into bondage, God asks, "Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you?" Of course, the Lord has NOT divorced or sold Israel; rather, Israel has sold itself into bondage: "Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away" (50:1). But Israel's voluntary slavery is "for nought" (52:3) as Isaiah makes clear some verses later. And why is their slavery "for nought"? Because the Lord has already given himself into slavery to pay our debts.

In Deuteronomy the Lord explains the process by which an Israelite may voluntarily give himself into slavery: "And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. [. . .] And if it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee; Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever" (15:12, 16-17). In other words, those who voluntarily gave themselves into slavery had their ears pierced as a token of their love for and service to those whom they serve.

With these verses in mind, Isaiah 50:5-6 takes on new meaning: "The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting." These verses describe the Christ and the way in which he will be (mis)treated as a slave; we know that he is a slave because of the first phrase: "The Lord God hath opened mine ear." The verb "open" here might better be translated "engrave" (as it has been translated in Exodus 28:36, I Kings 7:36, and Zechariah 3:9) or, in our modern idiom, "pierce." Christ has willingly given himself as a slave in our place so that our backs would not have to receive the lashes of the smiter, so that our cheeks would not have to receive the spittle of antagonists. But if we, like Israel, refuse to acknowledge his sacrifice, we will ourselves become the slaves of sin.

In the Doctrine and Covenants Christ warns that "behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken" (19:16-20).

He reminds us, in effect, that he has already sold himself into slavery and that we need not endure spiritual and physical bondage--but those who refuse to acknowledge his sacrifice on our behalf must, like ancient Israel drink "at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling" (Isaiah 51:17).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fornication Pants

I'm wearing them right now.

I'd be willing to bet that you're wearing them too.

"Fornication pants" is the phrase that Brigham Young purportedly used to describe . . . blue jeans.

I just finished reading the book Jeans by James Sullivan, and it was quite fascinating. I now know that denim was around for the American revolution, that it comes from the region of Nimes in France ("de Nimes), and that at least 25% of all US paper currency is denim. No--seriously, that picture of Andrew Jackson in your wallet? It's made out of the same stuff that's covering your butt.

This book is a must-read for jeans enthusiasts . . . but I would be a little wary of Sullivan's claims. For instance, that bit about Brigham Young? Sullivan claims that Young denounced blue jeans as instruments of sexual deviancy in the 1830s, when blue jeans first incorporated button flies. While I wouldn't put it past old Brigham to have used those words, I highly doubt that we would have a record of him speaking on the subject from the 1830s, when he was a relatively low-level official in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Quorum of the Twelve didn't really come into power until the 1840s; until then, the local high councils were generally more influential and outspoken).

Sullivan does give a source for his quotation, however--the coffee table book Let There Be Clothes, by Lynn Schnurnburger (say that ten times fast). On page 266 Schnurnburger alleges that "The 1830s bring on an innovation that spells relief--that's when men's trousers button down the front for the first time (The silk band that runs down the sides of tuxedo pants recalls the old tradition of side buttoning.) One of the few opposed to the new style is Mormon leader Brigham Young. Appalled, he dubs them 'fornication pants.'" Unfortunately, Schnurnberger does NOT provide a reference for her quote--and her book doesn't exactly scream "meticulous research."

But even if we can't be sure that Brigham Young used those exact words, anecdotal evidence from pioneer Utah suggests that blue jeans did, in fact, incite lascivious (and otherwise immoral) behavior. In Great Basin Kingdom, Leonard Arrington describes the community of Orderville, Utah--a Mormon community that voluntarily adopted the United Order, a coordinated effort to live the law of consecration--and the lone pair of blue jeans that brought down the whole shebang.

The Orderville United Order was organized in 1875 and quickly became self-sufficient; they produced their own cotton, poultry, dairies, lumber, molasses, silk thread, furniture, etc. In the difficult financial times of the 1870s, this community was  quite a success, and the settlement initially ballooned as settlers in surrounding communities accepted the Order and immigrated. "Church officials advised [Orderville leaders] not to 'overload the boat' by accepting too many new members," Arrington writes, "but the Order members were so charitable in this respect that population began to press upon their limited resources" (335). --Snarky side note: No such charitable problem with today's immigrants!-- But it wasn't the arrival of immigrants that brought down the Order; it was an overabundance of money and the "fine clothing" that Nephi prophesied would cause individuals to "rob the poor" in the last days (2 Nephi 28:13).

When Utah Southern Railroad brought the wealth of the silver mines at Silver Reef, Utah into proximity with Orderville, the formerly content citizens began to covet fashionable goods made outside the community, and one boy's vanity--his distaste for the Order's "floppy straw hats, gray jeans, valley tan shoes, and one-room shanties" (336)--brought the whole community to the brink of crisis:

"As he gained in stature, the pants he wore seemed to shrink, but as there were no holes in them, and no patches, his application for a new pair was denied. But where 'there is a will there is a way.' There was a big crop of lambs that spring. When the lambs' tails were docked, the young brother surreptitiously gathered them and sheared off the wool which he stored in sacks. When he was assigned to take a load of wool to Nephi, he secretly took the lambs' tail wool with his load and exchanged it for a pair of store pants. On his return he wore his new pants to the next dance. His entrance caused a sensation. The story is that one young lady rushed to him, embraced and kissed him."

Fornication pants indeed! (Although Brigham was undoubtedly dead by the time this occurred.)

The Order claimed the pants as their own--since the lambs belonged to the Order--but agreed to use the store-bought blue jeans as a pattern for their future homemade gray jeans. This, however, did not fix anything; the young man's vanity soon infected his peers:

"The tailoring department was soon swamped with orders. The elders of the Order protested. The boys went to work, as usual, but loafed on the job. It was noticed that the [normally] everlasting [gray] pants worn by the boys were getting thin in spots, and even some holes had developed. These boys were often on their knees when at prayers, or when weeding in the garden, but not much time was spend sitting down. Why was this unusual wear on the seat of the pants? When the elders saw the boys going in groups to the shed where the grindstone was housed, they became suspicious and investigated. Yes, the boys were wearing out their pants on the grindstone." (336)

The vanity of these young men forced the elders of the Order to buy denim instead of using their own homespun, and this "victory" spurred the youth to further rebellions against the Order. In 1885, the Order was dissolved. Who needs the law of consecration when you've got blue jeans? And what's covering your derriere?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wickedness Never Was Happiness, Part 2

In Wickedness Never Was Happiness Part 1, I noted that Arthur C. Brooks has made a persuasive empirical case that acts of righteousness--charitable giving, marriage, labor, service, etc--cause an individual to experience happiness. For Part 2, it's time to look more closely at the other side of the coin: unhappiness.

Prophets and apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long warned that watching television can have a detrimental impact on our lives; in 1989, Elder M. Russell warned about the deleterious effects of watching inappropriate material on television, while also acknowledging that "Philo T. Farnsworth, back in 1927, must surely have been inspired of the Lord to develop this remarkable medium of communication" (Seriously--go check out the link; it's the most extensive General Conference talk ever given on the subject, and the picture is priceless.). So saying that "TV is bad for you" is less than revelatory.

But researchers at the University of Maryland have just released a new study that is a little more nuanced. According to the research of John Robinson and Steven Martin, watching television is an activity best compared to smoking cigarettes or other addictive behaviors. Television viewers almost always feel that the show they are currently watching--or that they just finished watching--provided significant pleasure, but when asked about their viewing habits at a chronological remove, they indicate that watching television is a waste of time and resources.

Robinson explains that "What viewers seem to be saying is that while TV in general is a waste of time and not particularly enjoyable, 'the shows I saw tonight were pretty good. . . . The data suggest to us that the TV habit may offer short-run pleasure at the expense of long-term malaise." This fleeting burst of pleasure can be addictive. "Addictive activities produce momentary pleasure and long-term misery and regret," Martin says. "People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged. For this kind of person, TV can become a kind of opiate in a way. It's habitual, and tuning in can be an easy way of tuning out."

Watching TV, Robinson and Martin argue, does not provide the same satisfaction and happiness that social interactions--or good books--do. Their research shows that happy people spend more time in these two activities (socializing and reading) while unhappy people tend to spend more time watching television. I guess there's a reason that we're commanded to "seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom" (D&C 88:118) and that the commandment to "watch ye the best sitcoms" hasn't come yet.

Again, I acknowledge that many, many church leaders have expounded on the beneficial aspects of television--it can be used for educational purposes, enjoying the performing arts, and broadening our cultural horizons, among many other purposes. For these reasons, it seems something of a stretch to say that watching television is wicked. But after having been exposed to the research of Robinson and Martin, I feel perfectly comfortable making the assertiong that watching television never was happiness.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Creative Power of Faith

In his epistle to the Hebrews, Paul explains that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). Paul emphasizes the materiality of faith when he describes it as a “substance” with “actual [physical] existence” and an “evidence” or physical “proof” of that which is “hoped for” and “not seen,” but too often we treat this foundational description of faith as though it meant simply a mental belief in things hoped for and not seen. Alma reminds us that faith requires that we, as believers, take physical action and conduct an “experiment” (Alma 32:27) that will give substance to our beliefs and eventually lead to “a perfect knowledge” (32:26). Faith is, as Elder Richard G. Scott taught us in his most recent General Conference address, “a principle of action and power.”

During my years as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, I spent many nights wooing the woman who would eventually become the beautiful Mrs. Monk, and I remember one night in which she taught me a powerful object lesson regarding the active character of faith. As we walked through an on-campus parking lot on our way to some event, the future Mrs. Monk and I found ourselves asking one another a series of hypothetical questions. She queried, “If I was falling, do you think you could catch me?”

Without much thought I replied in the affirmative—after all, she was a foot shorter than me, and couldn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds—before following up with a question of my own: “Do you believe I could catch you?” She likewise replied in the affirmative, but I must have heard some hesitation in her voice, because I immediately challenged her to demonstrate her belief. Pointing to a nearby pickup truck, I invited this girl whom I had known for all of a week to prove that she really believed I could catch her: “You climb up,” I said, “face forward, so that your back is to me, and fall backwards off the truck. I’ll catch you.”

I could tell from the look on her face that this was the not the anticipated or desired result of her question. But, to her credit, she gamely climbed up into the truck bed and perched herself precariously on the tailgate’s edge. Craning her neck, she inquired if I was ready. I confidently replied in the affirmative and invited her to look forward and fall back blindly. After several seconds which, she later confessed, were quite nerve-wracking, she allowed the substance of her body to fall backwards into space, hoping that someone she could not see would catch her and provide evidence that her trust had not been wholly misplaced. I did, in fact, safely catch her in my arms and found her face just inches from my own—which was exactly the result that I had anticipated and desired.

I set her down gently, and we quickly left the parking lot, but the powerful object lesson that she provided to me that night has never left my thoughts. It was easy for her to verbally express a mental belief in me and my ability to catch her. It was much more difficult for her to physically climb into the waiting truck, let her body fall backwards, and exercise her faith in me, but until she began to take action, she had no faith, and only through an exercise of faith could she come to a perfect knowledge of my ability to catch her. In order to exercise our faith we must physically act; for this reason James teaches that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” because “by works [is] faith made [a] perfect” knowledge (James 2:17-18, 22).

As we appropriately exercise faith, our actions make a substantial difference in the physical world around us. When a man exercises faith in the commandment to “seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118), he acts by finding the best books and reading from them. As a result of this physical act, new chemical pathways will develop in his brain to record the information he has learned; he will literally become a different person. When a woman exercises faith in the word of wisdom, she acts by eating “every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof” (D&C 89:11). As a result of this varied diet, she will acquire a fullness of the nutrients which our Father in Heaven has provided on this earth; the very cells of her body will change, and she will literally become a different person. When we act on our beliefs and exercise faith, we impose the internal order of our minds onto external matter.

Clement of Alexandria, the earliest of the post-apostolic Christian fathers, once observed that “The whole creation is to be understood as a synthesis: the imposing of inner order on outer material" (from Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 273). Clement's claim is consistent with revealed truths about the creation; as we learn in Abraham, the Gods "counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth" before they actually "came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth" (Abraham 5:3-4). The act of creation is the act of translating mental images and understandings onto physical matter; it is an act of faith.

Paul testifies that “we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God [through faith]” (Heb. 11:1), and Elder Scott recently added his witness that “[f]aith is a foundation building block of creation. . . . The Master used it to create the most remote galaxies as well as to compose quarks, the smallest elements of matter we know of today.” As children of our Heavenly Father, we enjoy the opportunity to exercise our faith in mortality and to become, with Him, co-creators. The “exercise of faith in true principles builds character," and as we actively seek to “become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become,”we participate in the creation of our future bodies and souls (Scott).

When we faithfully follow Alma’s counsel to Shiblon and “bridle all [our] passions,” we impose a mental or spiritual order on our physical flesh (Alma 38:12), and President Packer recently testified that “[t]hrough the righteous exercise of this power [to create life], as in nothing else, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy.” When we exercise our faith in the law of the fast, we likewise discipline our physical bodies by refraining from food or drink for twenty-four hours so “that [our] fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that [our] joy may be full” (D&C 59:9, 13). In the scriptures, being full of joy—or having a fullness of joy—is a phrase used to describe exaltation, when the body and soul are perfectly united. The Doctrine and Covenants explain that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93: 33). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we bridle our passions, when we fast, when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with a perfect, immortal body inseparably connected to our spirits.

The appropriate exercise of faith in Jesus Christ will literally change our very natures, as we experience his grace and “receive strength and assistance to do good works that [we] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to [our] own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (BD, “Grace”). When we act in faith and obey the commandments of Jesus Christ, we create ourselves—or at least our future selves—by organizing and ordering our own bodies. It is in this sense that I understand the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie's suggestion that "[i]n a real though figurative sense, the book of life is the record of the acts of men as such record is written in their own bodies. It is the record engraven on the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body. That is, every thought, word, and deed has an affect on the human body; all these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is Eternal as easily as the words in a book can be read" (Mormon Doctrine 97).

If we believe Paul; if we believe Elder Scott; if we believe that the exercise of faith is an act of creation, then we are practicing all the time for a future as gods and goddesses who will advance in their capacity for action from internal, physiological creations to external, cosmological creations. Understanding this truth provides insight into just why it is that "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:19). The advantage that comes to those who exercise their faith by studying the best books, by obeying the Word of Wisdom, by bridling their passions, by obeying the law of the fast is not a reward or prize, a place at the head of the heavenly bread line; it is a natural expansion of their abilities as creators that will allow them to use their faith in the same way that God uses his sooner than those who have not exercised their faith to the same extent during their time on earth.

When we understand that an active “[f]aith in the power of obedience to the commandments of God will forge strength of character,” that our “exercise of faith in true principles builds character," and that our character is the only product of mortality which we can take with us to the judgment bar, the true relationship between faith and salvation, between faith and exaltation, becomes clear (Scott). Peter taught that “the end of your faith [is] the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9), and Elder Scott explains why: “In the next life your righteous character will be evaluated to assess how well you used the privilege of mortality.” When we exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we qualify ourselves for the blessings of eternity; when our actions evince a lack of faith, we condemn ourselves to a lesser kingdom of glory.

During my time as a ward missionary in Raleigh, North Carolina, I met many individuals struggling to reconcile common Protestant interpretations of scripture with the revealed truths of the Book of Mormon. John Wycliffe and other Protestant reformers who objected to the corrupt Catholic practices of selling indulgences for sin taught their followers that they could be saved by faith alone, and pointed to Paul’s letters as proof: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). I remember one particular young man named Jacob whose belief in this Pauline doctrine of faith made it particularly difficult for him to accept the words of Nephi, who teaches that “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God, for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). What Jacob failed to comprehend—because he did not understand that “faith in the Savior is a principle of action and power”—is that Paul and Nephi teach the same doctrine. Salvation “through faith” is not, as Jacob supposed, salvation ‘through belief’; rather, salvation “through faith” comes as we “labor” to express our faith in Jesus Christ through meaningful service and produce the “works” that James teaches are the inevitable fruit of true faith.

As we do so, we build righteous character. We discipline the natural man and our physical bodies. We experience a brief foretaste of the fullness of joy that characterizes the existence of exalted beings. We begin to exercise the powers of creation that are ours by birthright, as sons and daughters of God. Through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the active engagement (D&C 58:27) that faith implies, these blessings and all other blessings of the gospel are available to us.

I have faith that this is so.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Immersion of Alma

After writing about Ammon's LACK of priesthood authority, as recorded in Mosiah, it only seems fitting that I address Alma's apparent SURFEIT of priesthood authority; after reading our last entry, the lovely Miss Jan asks, "Why was Alma able to baptize after fleeing from King Noah?" So glad you asked, Jan . . .

Mormon's description of Alma's baptism in the waters of Mormon has provoked a lot of thought in me throughout the years, and while I'm not sure that I have THE answer, I certainly have come up with a lot of answers to explain the (apparently) unorthodox events of this passage:

12. And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.
13. And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body: and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
14. And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.

There seem to be at least two major questions that this account invites. 1) Where does Alma get his authority from? 2) Why is he submerged and "baptized" at the same time as Helam?

EXPLANATION #1:

The easiest way to answer these two questions is to suggest that Alma needed no prior priesthood authority to baptize and that it wasn't his choice or intent to baptize himself--that the "Spirit of the Lord" both authorized and acted upon him. This explanation relies almost entirely on the account of Adam's baptism given in the book of Moses. As the first man on earth, Adam could not 1) receive the priesthood by laying on of hands unless an exalted being (and since there were no "resurrected personages" [D&C 129:1], Heavenly Father is our only option here) ordained him, and therefore he could not 2) baptize his family or be baptized. The sixth chapter of Moses explains how the Lord circumvented both of these difficulties:

64. And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water.
65. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.
66. And he heard a voice out of heaven, saying: Thou art baptized with fire, and with the Holy Ghost. This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever;
67. And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.

Adam is both baptized and ordained to priesthood authority by the same "Spirit of the Lord" that was present during Alma's immersion; after he "was laid under the water," he became a member of "the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years"--someone who holds "the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God" (D&C 107:3). While Alma's circumstances are not nearly so constrained as those of Adam (Couldn't a translated Moses/Elijah have appeared to ordain him?), it seems at least possible that the precedent of Adam's baptism and ordination by the Spirit applies here. After all--when Mormon records that "Alma and Helam were buried in the water," he makes it sound very much as though they had no agency in the matter, as though some other force or agent did the burying (not wholly unlike 3 Nephi 19:11, where "Nephi went down into the water and was baptized" by a personage or force unknown--and then began to baptize others).

EXPLANATION #2

For those who are unhappy with the idea that Alma derived so much authority in such an unorthodox manner, there is another, relatively simple explanation. During this period in the Book of Mormon, as at other times, the Nephite king (Benjamin and then Mosiah) was also the highest priesthood authority in the land; he was the prophet. As the head of all civic and religious affairs, the king presumably authorized the original expedition of Zeniff; he certainly authorized the journey made by Ammon to find "the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi" (Mosiah 7:1).

If we assume that the prophet/king Benjamin authorized Zeniff's expedition, then he surely would have made sure that there was adequate priesthood leadership along--and Zeniff, whose pleading on behalf of "that which was good among [the Lamanites]" prevented their massacre, would seem an ideal candidate as priesthood leader (Mosiah 9:1). He certainly seems to have acted as a priesthood leader, as he led his people to "cry mightily to the Lord that he would deliver us out of the hands of our enemies" (9:17) and to depend upon "the strength of the Lord to battle" (10:10). So if we assume that Zeniff held the priesthood (and he consecrated priests, whether he held the priesthood or not--11:5), then we can almost certainly assume that he conferred it on the son who he appointed to take his place as a prophet king: Noah. Noah, in turn, "consecrated new [priests]," one of whom was Alma.

Thus Alma--like Zacharias or John the Baptist in the New Testament--would have been legitimately ordained by one who held authority, even though the general administration of priesthood authority was corrupt. In this scenario, Alma already held the requisite authority to act--he simply needed to access the power of the priesthood by repenting and sanctifying himself. In this respect, President Packer suggested last April, the people of King Noah had something in common with us: "We [like King Noah] have done very well at distributing the authority of the priesthood. We have priesthood authority planted nearly everywhere. We have quorums of elders and high priests worldwide. But distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced, I think, ahead of distributing the power of the priesthood." So if Alma had the priesthood, then his self-immersion might simply be understood as a re-commitment to his earlier, baptismal covenants (and re-baptism was not all that uncommon a practice in the early restored church--plenty of analogous examples).

So--take your pick. I think in either explanation there is ample evidence that Alma acted with ample authority when was immersed with Helam and baptized in the waters of Mormon.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Limhi, Ammon, and Priesthood Keys

I recently read the Book of Mormon account in which Ammon (the first one, not the arm-chopper) encounters the people of King Limhi and the descendants of Zeniff after an extensive bit of wandering in the wilderness. After all that Limhi and his people have been through, they are ready to forsake the sins introduced (or at least promoted) by King Noah and to enter the waters of baptism:

"And now since the coming of Ammon, king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments. And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant." (Mosiah 21:32-33)

These verses always troubled me. Ammon clearly has the priesthood--why doesn't he just baptize them? I've generally been content to assume that Ammon was not personally worthy and neither were any of the other men who came with him. But I've recently changed my opinion; I think Ammon both had the necessary priesthood power and was worthy to use it. So why didn't he? I believe that it is because Ammon, whose grasp of priesthood roles and functions was so great that his instruction that "a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have" (8:16) is still the definitive statement on the subject, understood the need for priesthood keys.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ammon possessed the priesthood necessary to baptize Limhi and his people--but it seems less likely that he had the authority (which the text itself indicates) to preside at such an event. The Church Handbook of Instructions directs that baptisms must be performed "[u]nder the direction of the presiding authority," and in a place where there was no established church, that authority probably reverted back to King Mosiah, who was the head of the church in Zarahemla and thus held the relevant priesthood keys.

And speaking of priesthood keys, I loved the clarity of these principles from Robert J. Matthews of BYU's Ancient Scripture department:

  1. It is evident that a person who holds the keys can 'give' them to another without losing them himself.
  2. There is a difference between holding the keys sufficiently to function and being the person designated to convey those keys to others. Both Moses and Elijah gave keys to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, yet it was still Moses and Elijah who brought them to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1836. No doubt Peter had sufficient of 'Elijah's keys' to operate the Church during the meridian dispensation, yet the Lord did not use Peter to convey those sealing keys to Joseph and Oliver. [A more mundane example might be an Elders' or Deacons' Quorum president, who holds keys--but has no power to pass those keys to someone else; that power is retained by the stake president or bishop.]
  3. It is clearly stated in the Book of Mormon, more than once, that the Twelve in the Western Hemisphere were subject and would be subject to the Twelve in Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 12:9; Mormon 3:18-19). This suggests, again, that a people may have sufficient keys of the priesthood to operate the Church without having the right to pass those keys to future dispensations.
  4. Truly, all of the keys and powers of the priesthood have not yet been delivered to us in our day; much lies in futurity, including the keys of creation, translation, and resurrection.
(From Robert L. Millett, "Prophets and Priesthood in the Old Testament," Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005, p. 65.)

I'm sure that there's still more to the story of Ammon that I'm missing--but at least I don't have that nagging feeling when I read about his "unworthiness" any more.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Reminder from President Packer

This morning, as I listened to conference with the beautiful Mrs. Monk, she and President Boyd K. Packer provided a gentle reminder: it's time for another personal pornography interview with your loved ones. Don't delay--early intervention could make all the difference.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Prosperity Theology and the Book of Job

The book of Job begins and ends like a fairytale, but the middle reads more like philosophy, with endless disquisitions on the moral and ethical principles which have guided Job in the past and should guide him in the future. Because the "story" of Job differs so drastically in style from the philosophical substance of Job, biblical scholars have long thought of the first and forty-second chapters of Job as a "frame tale"--a literary excuse for telling the story (or, in this case, having the philosophical discussion) that you wanted to tell. For example, the pilgrimage in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a frame tale, whose main purpose is to enable to author to narrate the many unconnected stories that the pilgrims tell each other on their road to Canterbury. The notion of God conversing with Satan is so far-fetched, scholars have argued, that it obviously can't literally be true, or even theoretically "true" in the patronizing sense that the author of the book of Job believed what is obviously, to our modern, "enlightened" sensibilities, false.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have no stake in the question of whether or not God actually talked with Satan regarding Job, but latter-day scripture helps us to better understand the doctrinal purpose that this introduction fulfills. In the book of Moses, we learn, regarding the council in heaven, that Satan offered to "redeem all mankind" by eliminating individual agency, so "that one soul shall not be lost" (4:1). This understanding of Satanic intent is a key aid to interpreting the exchange between God and Satan in Job. Satan asks, "Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face" (1:9-11). In effect, Satan accuses God of removing Job's agency, his ability to freely choose whether to curse or bless God, by providing Job with temporal prosperity in return for his obedience. There is irony here, as Satan accuses God of doing that which he has already proposed to do--but this exchange also makes the story of Job into a theological defense of individual agency.

From this perspective, the point of Job's story is that God would permit almost any atrocity, including the personal buffetings of his most wayward child, Satan, rather than interfere with the agency of men. Job's agency--his ability and willingness to bless God despite his innumerable woes--is the entire point of the book. He cannot be coerced, either by God's blessings or Satan's buffetings. This explains--at least to me--the conversation between Satan and God. But what about the other half of this frame tale? The fairy-tale ending for Job, in which he receives twice his previous wealth as "the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning" (42:12) is more than a little hard to believe. And what's the point, doctrinally speaking? That the righteous will always prosper in temporal affairs? Surely not.

My favorite commentary on Job, and especially on this question, is actually a poem written by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Anne Bradstreet:

Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow neer I did not look,
I waken'd was with thundring nois
And Piteous shreiks of dreadfull voice.
That fearfull sound of fire and fire, 5
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spye,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my Distresse
And not to leave me succourlesse. 10
Then coming out beheld a space,
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And, when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust: 15
Yea so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.
He might of All justly bereft,
But yet sufficient for us left. 20
When by the Ruines oft I past,
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spye
Where oft I sate, and long did lye.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest; 25
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt,
Nor at thy Table eat a bitt. 30
No pleasant tale shall 'ere be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lye; 35
Adieu, Adeiu; All's vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide,
And didst thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust? 40
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect
Fram'd by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished, 45
Stands permanent tho' this bee fled.
It's purchased, and paid for too
By him who hath enough to doe.
A Prise so vast as is unknown,
Yet, by his Gift, is made thine own. 50
Ther's wealth enough, I need no more;
Farewell my Pelf, farewell my Store.
The world no longer let me Love,
My hope and Treasure lyes Above.

Bradstreet invokes Job as a key to understanding her own loss in line 14, where she paraphrases Job's faithful statement that "the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21). From that point forward, her poem loosely parallels Job's own story. First, she considers her loss--the loss of a trunk, a chest, and other worldly goods. This loss eventually causes her to question her faith. Line 34 mourns that no more weddings will be celebrated in the family home, but it also suggests that Bradstreet is wondering whether the Bridegroom will indeed come, or whether religion, like all of the other pursuits listed by Solomon in Ecclesiastes, is "all vanity." But Bradstreet, like Job, finds consolation in the resurrection; in answer to Job's declaration that "after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (19:26), Bradstreet declares that her "hope and Treasure" also "lyes above," not in "mouldring dust" and the "arm of flesh."

But my favorite aspect of Bradstreet's poem, by far, is the way in which she reflects on her own earthly losses with Job in mind. Despite her awareness that Job received a double portion following his temporal losses, Bradstreet does not look for similar blessings. She understands the faulty logic behind prosperity theology (previous comments regarding the Sabbath notwithstanding), understands that such a course would, in effect diminish individual agency. Instead, she looks for a mansion in heaven analogous to the one she lost on earth, making Job's inheritance spiritual, not temporal. Job may, in fact, have received double his temporal wealth--but Bradstreet knows that in this Job cannot be an example. We can't always receive temporal blessings for being righteous--or else there would be no difference between God's plan of salvation and Satan's plan of coercion.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jarom's Secret for Temporal Success

In each of the three classes that I'm teaching this semester, I've offered the same advice: Keep the Sabbath Day holy by, among other things not working (in this cause studying) on Sundays. As a carrot, I've held out the (previously mentioned) promise of the late President James E. Faust--that you can do more and higher quality work by laboring in six days than you can in seven. And then, a few days before class started, I discovered this remarkable passage in the little-read book of Jarom.

Jarom informs us that the Nephites of his day were wicked: "Behold, it is expedient that much should be done among this people, because of the hardness of their hearts, and the deafness of their ears, and the blindness of their minds, and the stiffness of their necks; nevertheless, God is exceedingly merciful unto them, and has not as yet swept them off from the face of the land" (3). These Nephites clearly are not righteous, and yet Jarom informs us that they "had waxed strong in the land" (5), which is to say that they had prospered temporally; they "became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel" (8).

Why did they prosper when they were so proud and hard-hearted? Because "[t]hey observed to keep the law of Moses and the sabbath day holy unto the Lord" (5), and the Lord has promised those who keep the Sabbath Day holy that he "will cause [them] to ride upon the high places of the earth" (Isaiah 58:14). Even though they were not broken hearted and, apparently, not truly invested in keeping the commandments, they were blessed for their obedience and prospered temporally.

So if you want to prosper temporally, keep the Sabbath Day holy. Hopefully that's not your only, or even primary reason for doing so--but it sure is a nice side benefit.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Provo as Paradise, or, A Sister City for Kirjath-Sepher

Traveling to my new job in Provo has led me to reflect again on the geographical similarities between the Lord’s ancient land of promise in Palestine and the Rocky Mountain sanctuary prophetically foretold by Joseph Smith. These parallels have been well documented: both locales are surrounded by mountains (although the ones in Israel are much smaller than those in Utah); they contain inland bodies of super-salty water which are fed by rivers; and they are refuges for the Lord’s covenant people. In this discussion of geographical parallels, Salt Lake City is the new Jerusalem—the city from which prophets lead the work of salvation in this dispensation.

But Jerusalem was not the only city of significance located in ancient Palestine any more than Salt Lake is the only city of significance in Utah; Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jericho are all cities that played prominent roles in biblical history. Of course, in addition to all of these well-known cities, there are a number of other, less well-known hamlets, and one of these is the city of Kirjath-Sepher. Unless you’ve been reading in Joshua or Judges lately, chances are that you’d forgotten all about this place—but it’s one of the most interesting cities mentioned in the Bible. Kirjath-Sepher is Hebrew for “The City of Books” and it, like Jerusalem, has a sister city in Utah: Provo.

The Bible doesn’t say much about Kirjath-Sepher, but Jerome—the fourth-century church father who translated the Bible into Latin—preserves an early Christian tradition about the city. In a series of exhortations to monks, Jerome explains that Kirjath-Sepher hosted the school of the prophets instituted by Samuel and maintained by his prophetic successors; Jerome explains that every monastery is modeled after this ancient religious academy and teaches that monks should pattern their lives after the “sons of the prophets, whom we consider the monks of the Old Testament.” These spiritual role models “built for themselves huts by the waters of Jordan and, forsaking crowded cities, lived in these on pottage and wild herbs,” and Jerome exhorts monastic imitators to “make your cell your Paradise, gather there the varied fruits of Scripture.” The early Christians believed that their monasteries should imitate the school of the prophets at Kirjath-Sepher; thus, their monasteries would preserve the knowledge of paradise as Kirjath-Sepher trained prophets in the knowledge given to Adam, the first prophet.

Jerome intended monasteries to be paradisiacal refuges where the purity of paradise would be preserved and disseminated to the people, and this was a model that later representatives of the church would adopt when they began sponsoring universities. In the thirteenth century, Pope Gregory “wrote of [the church-sponsored University of] Paris as Kirjath-Sepher.” And Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century Cistercian abbot, recognized that the university of Paris had inherited the monastic tradition of Samuel:

"Just as the Queen of Sheba is said to have come with a large retinue, that by the sight of her own eyes she might have surer knowledge of those things whose fame she had eagerly absorbed from afar, so you too [he writes to Hergald, as student] came to Paris and found, sought out by many, compressed as in a replica—Jerusalem. … Here the wisdom of Solomon is open for the instruction of all who have converged upon the city. Here his treasure house is thrown open to eager students. … it truly deserves to be called Kirjath-Sepher."

These church leaders thought of the University of Paris as a new rendition of Kirjath-Sepher and a place where the knowledge of prophets and of paradise had been preserved; Gregory explains that the

"hand of the Almighty planted aforetime a Paradise of pleasures in Paris, a venerable gignasium of letters, whence arises the font of wisdom, which, channeled in the four faculties—namely theology, jurisprudence, medicine, and philosophy (rational, natural, and moral)—like unto the four rivers of Paradise is distributed throughout the four climes, drains and irrigates the whole world, and from which, further, how much and diverse spiritual and temporal progress Christianity has experienced!"

Gregory hoped that the University of Paris would train students in the ways of paradise and send them forth to water the earth with their knowledge until they eventually transformed the earth back into a paradisiacal state.

This belief in the power of a university to spiritually renew the populace that it serves and the world at large is one that persisted. When Cotton Mather sat down to write the first substantial history of Harvard in 1700, he describes Newtown (which eventually became Cambridge, MA) as “being the Kiriath Sepher appointed for the seat” of Harvard. Mather, like Pope Gregory before him, compares the university to a “river, the streams whereof have made glad this city of God … and a poor wilderness indeed it had been, if the cultivations of such a Colledge had not been bestowed upon it.” Here, as with the University of Paris and the monasteries of Jerome, the new Kiriath-Sepher is a place that will transform the world from desolation to garden, from wilderness to paradise.

Most modern universities—including Brigham Young University, in Provo—owe much of their structure to the University of Paris and its influential successors, such as Harvard. For that reason alone, almost any town that hosts a university could make a claim to being a modern rendition of Kirjath-Sepher. But the comparison between Provo and Kirjath-Sepher is especially apt, and not only because Provo is located in a geographical setting similar to that where the original “City of Books” was built. BYU is home to the largest library west of the Mississippi, and the Provo city library isn’t exactly small.

But more importantly, BYU should be thought of as modern Kirjath-Sepher and “school of the prophets” because of BYU’s special mission to train up a future church leaders. The BYU educational system is a means by which the knowledge of paradise is dispersed to the whole world, and the church leaders that it sends forth have played and will yet play a vital role in fulfilling the promise of the 10th article of faith, “that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

As I begin my work as a teacher at BYU, I do so fully conscious of the academic and theological tradition in which I—and every other professor in Provo—participate; there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather begin my teaching career than in this Latter-day Kirjath Sepher. I think Jerome would be happy to know that at least one of BYU's faculty member's recognizes the monastic tradition in which he is participating--and this Monk certainly does.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Very Own Symonds Ryder Moment


A few weeks ago, this Monk and newly minted PhD received a letter from the Brigham Young University English Department:


The letter invited me to join the only university led by living prophets and to teach early American literature there, but there was one problem: my (now former) address was horribly misspelled. Actually, it's a small miracle that the letter even reached me. I asked myself--how could divinely inspired leaders get my information so wrong? Shouldn't they KNOW? And then I remembered Symonds Ryder (also, infamously, Simonds Rider), who was once placed in something of a similar situation. I quickly decided that maybe spelling wasn't the most important thing, even for an English professor, and suffice to say that I'm now happily on my way to BYU.

Wahoo!

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your starving students yearning for knowledge . . .
Send these, the young, the media-addled to me,
I lift my books beneath the Y!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Befriending the Constitution

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirm that “[w]e believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (AF 12) and that “[w]e believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments” (D&C 134:5). This guaranteed exercise of basic rights, including the right to “worship how, where or what [we] may” (AF 11), is a necessary precondition for our support of government because “[w]e believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” (D&C 134:2). In other words, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that the primary function of government is the protection of individual moral agency, that opportunity which “the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Ne. 2:16). Civil government thus plays an important part in fulfilling the primary purpose for which God created the earth; as Lehi taught, “if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say . . . there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:13). Because this life is, first and foremost, “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24) by exercising our moral agency, “[w]e believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man” (D&C 134:1) so that those precious freedoms for which we fought against Lucifer in the premortal existence can be enjoyed during our time here in mortality.

Whether they live in Kansas or Cambodia, Paris or Paraguay, church members across the globe subscribe to these statements of belief. But for those of us who live in the United States of America, these revelations from the Doctrine and Covenants also urge us to reverence the political documents that made their publication possible. When an inspired Joseph Smith used the language of “inalienable rights,” he paraphrased the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The 134th section of the Doctrine and Covenants confirms the content and paraphrases the language of the Declaration of Independence because, as Latter-day Saints, we believe that the words of this document, and of the Constitution which followed it, were inspired by God. Joseph’s successor, President Brigham Young, explained that “The General Constitution of our country is good . . . for it was dictated by the invisible operations of the Almighty; he moved upon Columbus to launch forth upon the trackless deep to discover the American Continent; he moved upon the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and he moved upon Washington to fight and conquer, in the same way as he moved upon ancient and modern Prophets” (Just and Holy 17). Like the writings of ancient and modern prophets, the foundational political documents produced by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others of the founders deserve careful study because they teach true principles. In an 1839 letter from Liberty Jail, the prophet Joseph compared these foundational documents to canonized revelation: “We say that God is true; that the Constitution of the United States is true; that the Bible is true; that the Book of Mormon is true; that the [Doctrine and] Covenants is true; that Christ is true” (Just and Holy 5). The Constitution, Joseph Smith taught, is an inspired document which deserves the same regard we show to revealed scripture. So, while church members throughout the world have been instructed to support their local governments, church members living in the United States have a special obligation to learn and uphold the principles taught in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution of the United States because they teach true precepts which complement scripture and preserve our freedom to exercise moral agency.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus Christ explains to the prophet Joseph that “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.” “Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land” (D&C 97:8, 6). We, as Joseph’s brethren and sisters in the Lord’s church, are to “befriend” the Constitution, to act as advocates for its protection of moral agency and to support elected officials who will do likewise. President John Taylor, the third prophet of this dispensation, acknowledged the sad truth that the leaders and the policies of the United States may not always operate in accordance with the Constitution; describing the Mormon exodus to Utah, he asked, “When we left [Nauvoo] what did we leave for? . . . Was it because [the] institutions [of the United States] were not good? No. Was it because its constitution was not one of the best that was ever framed? No. Was it because the laws of the United States, or of the States where we sojourned, were not good? No. Why was it? It was because there was not sufficient virtue found in the Executive to sustain their own laws” (Just and Holy 27). This explanation for the failure of government makes our role as citizens and saints abundantly clear; having been commanded by revelation to “befriend” the Constitution, we are bound by covenant to elect representatives, magistrates, judges, and presidents who will sustain its principles and protect our ability to exercise moral agency.

For this reason the First Presidency regularly issues letters read from the pulpit at the beginning of sacrament meeting and before we each individually renew our covenants urging us to participate in the political process by voting for “leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest” (First Presidency Letter 9/22/2008). These letters invariably include a disclaimer noting that the church does not endorse individual candidates or political parties, and Brigham Young explains—at least in part—why this is so. He warns that “[i]t has become quite a custom, and by custom it has the force of law, for one party to mob another” (Just and Holy 14). President Young teaches that this spirit of partisan mobbing is degenerative, noting that “[w]hen the Supreme Ruler of the Universe wishes to destroy a nation, he takes away their wisdom in the first place, and they become insensible to their own interests, and they are filled with wrath; they give way to their anger, and thus lay the foundation of their own destruction” (Just and Holy 15). As a remedy, he exhorts the saints to ignore “political demagogues” and thus “put an end to party names, to party jealousies, and to party conflicts for ever” (Just and Holy 16). President Young called for the saints to condemn contentious, partisan politics precisely because, as Jesus Christ taught, “the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention” (3 Ne. 11:29). The First Presidency reminded church members during the 2008 United States presidential election campaign that “[p]rinciples compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties” (First Presidency Letter 9/22/2008), and given our collective commitment to “seek after” principles that are “of good report or praiseworthy” (AF 13), we have an obligation to consider the ideas of each candidate carefully and impartially without respect to party affiliation. We must follow the counsel of Brigham Young to “select the best man [or woman we] can find” for each political office because our obligation as saints is to support principles, not parties, to elect upright individuals, not outspoken ideologues (Just and Holy 16).

As we act faithfully in our duty to befriend the Constitution, we will further the work of the founding fathers, who drafted that document in order to form a “more perfect union.” We revere the Constitution but recognize that the it was no more perfect in 1789, when it sanctioned slavery, than it was in 2009 or today, as “conspiring men” (D&C 89:4) continually claim that the Constitution sanctions all manner of moral atrocities. President Young taught that “[t]he signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were inspired from on high to do that work. But was that which was given to them perfect, not admitting of any addition whatever? No; for if men know anything, they must know that the Almighty has never yet found a man in mortality that was capable, at the first intimation, at the first impulse, to receive anything in a state of entire perfection. They laid the foundation, and it was for after generations to rear the superstructure upon it. It is a progressive—a gradual work” (Just and Holy 17). Dear reader, you and I are those “after generations,” and, like the founding fathers, it is our work—our privilege—to actively promote the progressive perfection of the nation in which we live. If we are lucky enough to see the day in which that work is completed, we will rejoice in the blessings of a state free of political parties and all other social divisions. In that day there will be “no contention among all the people, in all the land”; there will be no artificial, man-made divisions of “rich and poor”; and there will not be “any manner of –ites” (4 Ne. 13, 3, 17).

We know that multiple iterations of this more perfect state have existed on the American continent in the past and that North America will again be the site of such a society in the future. We know that the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived in perfect peace and harmony, was located on or about the North American continent because when Adam was cast out of the garden he settled in Adam-ondi-Ahman (D&C 116). We know that the people of Enoch, who “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness” (Moses 7:18), resided on the American continent because the prophet Ether foretells their return to this hemisphere (Ether 13:3). We know that the Nephites and Lamanites who lived in the years immediately following Jesus Christ’s visitation dwelt in perfect righteousness and happiness. Why have so many heavenly societies, societies that utopian planners have only dreamed of, made this continent their home? Because this is “a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord” (Ether 13:2). And because we understand the nature of this “good spot of ground . . . which [is] choice unto [the Lord] above all other parts of the land of [His] vineyard” (Jacob 5:25, 43), we understand that what has been in the past will be yet again, that that this land will yet live up to the founders’ dreams of a “more perfect union.”

The tenth article of faith proclaims that “[w]e believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory” (AF 10). The Lord sent the Holy Ghost to provide a vision of this paradisiacal future and thus inspire the exploratory journey of Columbus, the migration of religious groups such as the Pilgrims and Puritans, and the revolutionary pen of Jefferson, and it is my testimony that each one of us are privy to that same inspiration as we obey the commandment to befriend the Constitution and as we work to perfect the nation that safeguards our moral agency. When Columbus arrived in the Americas, he thought that he had located Eden, and he prophesied that a paradisiacal Millennium would be spurred on by his discovery. He declared that “Our Lord with provident hand unlocked my mind, sent me upon the seas, and gave me fire for the deed. Those who heard of my enterprise called it foolish, mocked me, and laughed. But who can doubt but that the Holy Ghost inspired me?” (Just and Holy xviii). Not the Latter-day Saints, who know that Columbus really had found Eden—or at least, as he supposed, that Eden had originally been located in the New World. When John Winthrop led the first group of Puritans across the ocean to form a colony at Massachusetts Bay, he urged them to imitate the charity of Adam and Eve and to make their new home a second Eden “like a watered garden” (“Modell of Christian Charitie”). Through the grace of God, he and those with him understood the paradisiacal potential of this new land. When George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building, he described the workers who would build that edifice of national government as “bees bestowing their industrious labour on this second Paradise,” the United States (1793 newspaper article). Whenever men with pure hearts have been willing to listen, God has revealed to them his paradisiacal plans for this land, and He will likewise bless us with an understanding of “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (AF 9) that are yet to come if we earnestly seek to keep the commandments which he has already given us and befriend the Constitution. In the words of our sacred hymns,

“Then we’ll surely be united,
And we’ll all see eye to eye.
Then we’ll mingle with the angels,
And the Lord will bless his own.
Then the earth will be as Eden,
And we’ll know as we are known.” (#48, verse 4)

All Just and Holy citations are from the anthology of the same name, in which Ralph Hancock has collected prophetic ruminations on the Constitution and American government.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grading the 2010 AP English Language Exam: Sample Essays

This is the fifth part of a five-part series on the mysteries and realities of the AP English Language Exam and its grading process. For more on the marathon that is AP exam grading, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

You’re probably sick of hearing about the AP exam—but before I go, I want to give you a look at the single worst essay I graded during my time in Louisville and a piece of the best writing on humor I’ve ever seen. First the (worst) essay:

“Many people try to be comedy, act funny, and even draw humorists things but personaly that is just a gift that you have to be born with.

“If Mr. De Botton wasn’t a natural this process was very hard for him probably due to the fact that he has to try to impress people and a lot of people get intimated by that. There are also risk of being talked about and laughed at and even dead silences. So Mr. de Botton probably went through a lot to be as well known as he is now.

“In conclusion success doesnot just happen over night it takes time endurance and patients to make it happen.”

Yikes—wretched writing that has little, if anything, to do with the given prompt. Suffice to say that it earned a score of "1".

Now, an excerpt from the man who is probably my favorite living writer of prose, a mere half paragraph that helped me understand the 1970s—and humor itself—better than any other piece of writing I’ve ever read:

“If we are conducting our lives in the usual fashion, each of us serves as a constant source of embarrassment to his or her future self, and by the same formula, all ‘eras’ can be made to look ridiculous in retrospect. But the seventies have always been prone to more ridicule than their twentieth century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (Annie Hall, Nashville, the Me Decade, ‘You’re So Vain’). It required no retrospection for the occupants of the zone now understood as the seventies to acknowledge the goofiness in all their pieties and solipsisms, and it is a mark of our own naïveté (at least) to suppose straight-faced young tax attorney going out on a Saturday night in 1974 wearing platform boots, glitter mascara, and his hair combed up into a two-foot Isro, for example, did not realize that he looked pretty silly. It’s just that looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not an inevitable result of the taking of risks. [201] The sense of liberation that resulted from such risk-taking, however conventionalized or routine it became, was felt for a little while to be well worth the price in foolishness. We are crippled in so many ways today by the desire to avoid fashion mistakes, to elude ridicule—a desire that leads atone extreme to the smiling elision of political candidates and on the other hand to the awful tyranny of cool—that this willingness to be foolish is hard for us to sympathize with or understand. In this age of Gawker.com, we have forgotten the seventies spirit of mockery that smirks at the pretensions and fatuities of others in a way that originates with and encompasses ourselves.” (200-201)

If you, like me, are a post-seventies being, I bet you understand the seventies better now. Not that I'd expect a "9" essay to be this good--but you can bet that this particular passage from Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs (a fantastic, if occasionally R-rated, read) would make the grade. Out of the approximately 2,000 essays I graded, I think I probably gave out 10-15 grades of "9" and another 50 or so of "8." So approximately 3% of the essays I read deserved a cumulative score of 5 on the AP exam, which means that the Monk's official nephew, who just got word that he scored a 5 on the Language exam, is officially top 3% material--not that I needed the AP to tell me that.

Hope you enjoyed the blunders of student essays as much as I did; this is the last post on AP exams, and we're back to my regular eclectic fare in the coming days and weeks.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grading the 2010 AP English Language Exam: Eyesores

This is the fourth of a five-part series on the mysteries and realities of the AP English Language Exam and its grading process. For more on the marathon that is AP exam grading, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5 (coming soon).

During a week in Louisville, I spent 53 hours reading student essays that were recorded in illegible scrawls requiring intense eyestrain to decipher. During that time, I graded more than 2,000 exams, spending a little less than a minute on each essay. I quickly grew tired of reading about Jon Stewart, Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, Tina Fey, and a slew of humorists I had never heard of before my arrival in Louisville. The only thing that pulled me through this slog of essays was the occasional gem in the rough, an essay whose unintentional comedy would lead to laughter. Let me share with you the last of these gems which students thought would impress exam readers:

The following are excerpts from actual exams; each excerpt is in italics, with my commentary in normal typeface.

I think that humorists are to entertain and nothing else. If they were trying to send a message, wouldn’t they get a reply?

Because television hosts like Stewart and Colbert are seen by millions, they know what they’re talking about. Sure—and because the National Enquirer is read by millions, I believe that aliens have abducted Britney Spears.
Glenn Beck is a giant jerk.
If he hear me tell a joke like that, he slap me faster than two jiggles of a jackrabbit’s ass. HUH?
My brother and I are demon hunters who drive around the country in our 1967 Impala fighting the forces of evil. You know, suddenly the National Enquirer is looking a lot more credible.
There are those who don’t like comedians because they take offense and one should not be so touch-e. You know what? Touché.
There’s songs out that reveal people are devil worshippers. What is it with the demons and devils? Were these students possessed?
For example, “Mary! Mary! How does your garden grow, filled with trash and gum wads.” This portrays how her sidewalks are filled litter. Dude—quit forcing Captain Planet onto Mother Goose!
In my lifetime I have lived in a family of foolish people. Which explains you.
Once a stand up comic such as Adam Sandler expressed the fact of him never being able to make a woman orgasim this put many people to understand that ‘your not alone.’ (Shaking head)
Like a political cartoon on Obama that had mooses and elephants to represent the Republican and Democrat Party. Donkeys—Elephants and donkeys. And the plural is moose.
• But my favorite: Comedians point out the ugly truth so that even the airhead bimbo who wrote a similar paper to the one your reading now can understand the subliminal message. Their ability to humorously attack the wishy-washy statements of government without getting pimpslapped by federal agents is what makes humor’s role in society extremely vital. Now you’re talking—students who are bimbos writing about comedians getting pimpslapped—that’s more like academic discourse!

For more, see Part 3: Assimilation, or Part 5: Sample Essays (coming soon)!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Grading the 2010 AP English Language Exam: Prepare to be Assimilated

This is the third of a five-part series on the mysteries and realities of the AP English Language Exam and its grading process. For more on the marathon that is AP exam grading, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5 (coming soon!).

While the grading standards set forth in the official grading rubric for each essay question might seem to be straightforward, you’ll find that most graders disagree strongly as to what makes for an “adequate” essay versus an “inadequate” essay—and that those disagreements are even more stringent when you’re discussing minor variations: What distinguishes an inadequate 3 from an inadequate 4? An adequate 6 from an adequate 7?

The sorts of natural disagreements that any two individuals might have over these sorts of questions are complicated by grader demographics. I would estimate that approximately 50% of the 2010 English Language exam graders were high school teachers; another 35% or so were teachers at the community college level, and the remaining 15% were either graduate students or faculty members at major universities. Think, for a moment, about the implications of that spread—a university professor almost certainly grades papers of a higher quality than a community college professor, and a community college professor almost certainly grades papers of a higher quality than most high school teachers. This means that graders come into the process with widely divergent expectations which must be reconciled so that scores will be standardized and no student’s scores will be skewed by a single grader’s prejudice against writers who regularly split their infinitives.

In this sense, the “Reading,” which is how ETS refers to the week-long grading process, is a lot like the Borg—if you’re not prepared to be assimilated into a greater collective, you’re in for a rude awakening. The “Chief Reader” presides over the grading process; for the 2010 English language exam, this was a BYU professor named Gary Hatch who, tragically, died just a month before the Readingwas to convene and was replaced by a University of professor named David Joliffe. Joliffe oversees the entire process of grading the three essays, but three “Question Leaders” are also designated to oversee the grading of each question. These question leaders oversee between 300 and 400 graders, who are grouped into tables of ten, and each table is presided over by a “Table Leader.” When more than 1,100 graders descended on the 2010 AP English Language exam on June 11, 2010, they were greeted by table leaders who had already been onsite for two days deriving a consensus as to the which essays merited a score of 3, which a score of 4, etc.

These table leaders, in conjunction with the question leader, had copied sample essays that reflected the entire range of scoring possibilities to help graders develop standardized scoring criteria—but graders had to fall in line with the standards that table leaders developed over two days in just four hours. Naturally, this would produce heated disagreements at each table as to why one sample essay deserved a 4 when a university professor saw it as a 2 and a high school teacher saw it as a 6. For four hours we haggled over sample essays while the question leader periodically polled the room to determine whether we were arriving at consensus. When I raised concerns over the last sample essay before graders would switch over to “live books” of ungraded exams, my (wonderful) table leader stared at me with exasperation: “Monk, we have no more time for disagreement. This is a 7. See it as a 7. Be assimilated.”

So I abandoned my individual will and became part of the Borg.

Of course, readers were still adjusting to the grading standards at this point, so table leaders periodically spot checked every reader at their table during the first two days, re-grading every fifth essay or so. When table leaders felt that their charges were straying too far from the established standards—a scoring difference of more than one point—they pulled that reader aside and explained why the essay he or she had given an 8 was really a 4. My weak, fleshy brain was repeatedly disciplined for not adopting the mechanical correctness of the Borg. I resolved to do better.

The following are excerpts from actual exams; each excerpt is in italics, with my commentary in normal typeface.

There were two problems in the grading the exam that were particularly problematic for me. The first problem arose when students made statements that were clever—or at least required thought—but I wasn’t sure whether or not the subtleties of their prose were intentional or not. For instance:

Humorists are a big joke. How is one to interpret this?
Humorists are like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. He may not be real or the truth but he brings smiles to all. In an essay defending claiming that humorists are important players in society, how much credence can I give to the ironic undertones here?
Harassment charges would be brought down on sexually explicit comics like Thor’s hammer. Maybe—but more to the point, is it wrong to invoke the god of thunder in an academic essay?
Humorists are why we aren’t a communist nation. They keep us divided. This might be true . . . but does the student actually understand this argument?
Humorists don’t wear the condom of censorship while breeding out the beautiful baby known as the naked truth. Well, when you put it that way, I guess they don’t. But do I reward you for a sophisticated metaphor or punish you for using informal language?

The second problem was a student tendency to describe works that I considered “serious” as “humorous” because they did political work—and the students understood that de Botton wanted them to talk about the political function of humor.

• As a result, I got students who cited the following works as “humorous” literature: Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (nothing like slavery for a good laugh!), Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear; Machiavelli’s The Prince (ah, the humor of despotism!); Orwell’s 1984; Miller’s The Crucible (and repression!); Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (and ineptitude! Okay—that was a bit harsh); Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (did he even think about the title?); Thoreau’s Walden; Sinclair’s The Jungle (nothing funnier than drowning in a vat of boiling fat); Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series (I admit that hobbits are funny); Ellison’s Invisible Man; Golding's The Lord of the Flies (whose macabre depictions of adolescent cruelty are NOT funny); Melville’s Bartleby (nothing like depression and suicide for a good laugh!); Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead; and Dante’s Divine Comedy. At least this last one had “comedy” in the title, but every one of these books is far more dark than comic, more tragic than titillating.
• We also had students who suggested that films were funny, including The Dark Knight and The Godfather. Yup—a barrel of laughs, those two. "Why so serious?"
• Perhaps most inexplicable were the list of political figures that students described as “humorists.” These included Gandhi (!), Martin Luther King Jr., John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes. Nothing funnier than Leviathan, let me tell you.

As a grader I wanted to reward students for what were, occasionally, intelligent analyses of challenging texts—but I also had to consider the fact that these students failed to understand the basic point of de Botton’s argument that humor makes political statements possible in circumstances when serious works such as the ones above would have been repressed or censored. That was a tough balancing act. Similarly, should I reward students whose arguments were sound but whose facts were faulty?

Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Animal Farm, satirizes communism. Well, no. Orwell satirizes communism—so does the student get credit or not?
Dickens satirizes the French government in Les Miserables. Well, no. Victor Hugo does—credit or not?
Satirical writers have been around since we came to North America. In Praise of Folly is one of the greats. The writer shows that no changes are ever occurring and we are a corrupt nation. First of all, In Praise of Folly was written by a Dutchman while Columbus was still alive, so there was no “nation.” But the rest of the argument was sound . . .
Like a woman trying to cover up her blemish, society attempts to cover up its mistakes using a little puff of powder. Back to the ways in which comedians are pimples . . .
Mark Twain wants to have someone institute an emancipation policy on slavery in Huckleberry Finn. Well—no, he doesn’t, because Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves 20 years before Huck Finn was ever published! But he does criticize slavery as an historical institution . . .

It was hard to know which students deserved the benefit of the doubt, and that question often made a significant difference in score.

Coming soon--Part 4: Eyesore