Friday, January 28, 2011

A New Study Suggests . . .

. . . that "it's good to lead a monk's existence." While I am thrilled that statistical evidence has finally been found to validate my lifestyle, I'm more than a little concerned at the data underlying this conclusion. In the relevant study, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45% of college students are essentially wasting their own time and their parents' money. A study of 2,300 students at all levels of higher education found no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing for 45% of undergraduates after two years in college. This can't all be blamed on students, however; over half of those surveyed didn't take a SINGLE course that required 20 or more pages of writing per semester or a SINGLE course that required more than 40 pages of reading a week: professors have lowered their standards.

The good news is that students who enrolled in more demanding classes--and were, essentially, forced by their demanding professors to live like monks--did show significant improvement in these areas. The finding of Arum and Roksa, recently published in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, is the latest study to document the decline of American higher education, but it's hardly the first; just last year Craig Brandon warned that a university education had become a Five Year Party. Fight back, students! Demand value for your education dollar from administrators! Demand higher reading and writing loads from your professors! Rise up and be monks!

(Or, if you'd prefer to skip all that hassle and become an honorary monk, I'd be happy to provide a certificate; simply send a $5,000 check or money order to The Mormon Monk, c/o Monastery U.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Are You a Frivvle or a Jibber? And Who Cares?

Have you ever been told that we need to make English the official language of the United States? That bilingual nations are inherently problematic? Gather round, and listen to a story:

Once upon a time there were two monolingual populations, the Frivvles and the Jibbers, living within a single nation. These groups mostly ignored each other; the only real problem arose when a member of one monolingual culture (the Frivvles) wanted to interact with members of another monolingual culture (the Jibbers) but couldn't. In such a scenario, the solution seems very clear: any Frivvle that wants to interact with a Jibber will learn Jibberish, and any Jibber that wants to interact with a Frivvle will learn Frivvlesh. They should coexist peacefully, right?

Ah, I can hear you objecting--what if one culture is more powerful than the other? What if a vast majority of this society speak Frivvlesh, leaving speakers of Jibberish to cluster together and either A) interact only with other Jibbers or B) learn Frivvlesh? I'm not sure why either of those two alternatives would be a problem for a Frivvle, except that they might miss out on meeting a Jibber they would have loved because the Jibbers have ghettoized themselves and the Frivvle refuses to enter that space. I can see how such circumstances would be difficult for a Jibber, but I don't understand why it would be a significant problem. Jibbers in this scenario can choose to speak Jibberish, and live inside what would be, presumably, a much smaller social sphere, or they can choose to speak Frivvlesh and experience an expansion of opportunity. 

But what, you say, if lots of Jibbers move into the geographical boundaries of what had been a Frivvlesh-dominant society? Well, let's look at that scenario. Certainly Jibbers wouldn't consider the expansion of their social sphere a problem. But what about Frivvles? Wouldn't Frivvles consider that a problem? Well . . . perhaps. But it seems to me that the Frivvles in this scenario face the same set of choices as Jibbers in the above paragraph: they can either ghettoize themselves or they can learn Jibberish and experience an expansion of economic and social possibilities. Since the Frivvles haven't chosen this new set of circumstances, they might resent the changing set of circumstances and/or the Jibbers that caused it on a personal level, but I fail to see how the change is a problem for society--the larger body of Jibbers and Frivvles. 

Let's turn the tables. Say that Jibbers are the majority population and that Frivvles begin entering the country of Jibber. Frivvles who enter largely choose to continue speaking Frivvlesh. But because the country of Jibber is so much "greater" and "richer" than the land of Frivvle (And why else would Frivvles emigrate?), these Frivvles soon come to realize that speaking Jibberish would allow them to interact with "rich" and "great" Jibbers more consistently, and that this interaction would enrich them--economically, if not socially. Even if the Frivvles who entered Jibber never learn to speak Jibberish, they will be sure to teach their children Jibberish, right? So let's assume that this second generation--"Fribbles"--speak both Frivvlesh and Jibberish, to the everlasting delight of their parents the Frivvles, who are happy that Frivvlesh culture has been preserved and ecstatic that their darling little Fribbles will have access to the economic opportunities of Jibberish. End of Generation 1: the first generation Frivvles die, and the Fribbles are left. What about them? Well, these Fribbles enjoy their Frivvlesh heritage and celebrate it; they even like to hang out with new Frivvles who have just recently entered the country of Jibber. But they also want to their children to have the economic opportunities they had, so they cultivate ties to Jibberish culture. And, because their economic success (derived in no small part from speaking Jibberish) allows them to live a lifestyle that most Frivvles can't, they buy houses that are further and further from the Frivvle neighborhoods, which means that their children attend school with Jibber-majority populations. Their children eventually become . . . Jivvers. Sure, they remember the old Frivvle ways and preserve a few traditions, but their new primary language is Jibberish, most of their friends are Jibbers, and their children will probably be . . . Jibbers. Long live the great country of Jibber.

Let's say that this doesn't happen. That Frivvles are so stubborn and so numerous and so successful that they overwhelm the Jibbers. So what? Unless there is something inherently wrong with Frivvles and Frivvlesh language/culture, who cares? Individual Jibbers will go on being Jibbers, and their children will probably be Jivvers, but this is not a curse--it's just a slow shift in cultural norms, the sort of thing that happens within Jibber culture, within Frivvle culture, all the time anyways. Take Frivvles--are they really the "same" people today that they were in 1950? Has Frivvlesh culture been preserved unchanged for 50 years? Probably not. Has Jibberish culture remained the same for 50 years? Probably not. But unless there's something inherently wrong with the nature of that change, who cares? Unless there's something inherently wrong with eating Jibberish foods, who cares if a few Jibberish restaurants pop up in Frivvlesh neighborhoods? Unless there's something inherently wrong with Frivvlesh music, who cares if a car playing Frivvlesh music rolls through a Jibber neighborhood? Let's say that a vast overseas people, the Riddicules, are supposed to become super powerful and wealthy over the next century. Wouldn't you want your child to learn Riddiculesh so that s/he would be able to interact with these powerful, wealthy people and become powerful and wealthy him/herself? Of course--unless there's something inherently wrong with Riddicules. 

Culture and language just isn't that important. Sure, you're attached to your language and culture, and I'm attached to my language and culture, but there isn't a right or wrong answer here; my culture isn't better just because I'm attached to it, and your language isn't better just because you speak it. The only thing that matters is the gospel. If the Frivvlesh language and culture somehow prevented me from living the gospel, I'd be dead set against its introduction into Jibber. If, on the other hand, a (peaceful) flood of Jibberish immigrants seemed likely to undermine my Frivvle daughter's socioeconomic prospects, I might oppose that invasion out of selfish grounds, but not because Jibberish language or culture is bad. So if I'm opposed to Jibberish in my Frivvle nation, or Frivvlesh in my Jibber nation, it's because I'm either selfish or, gulp, racist: someone who thinks that another linguistic or cultural group is inherently wrong/inferior. 

Why does this matter? The need to preserve American language and culture is the number one argument used to opposed comprehensive immigration reform, and in November the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a tremendously important statement indicating that it supports the principles of the Utah Compact on comprehensive immigration reform. The press release suggests that the Church supports some sort of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (UPDATE) with children who are United States citizens: "We oppose policies that unnecessarily separate families." The Church-supported Compact also states that "Immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah. We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill."

Immigration policy, church leaders suggest, should be made in the context of Christ's parable of the Good Samaritan: "The Savior taught that the meaning of 'neighbor' includes all of God's children, in all places, at all times." In other words, we ought to see immigration reform and legislation as an opportunity to reach out to and bless those of our neighbors who are suffering, and Church members should be able to respond articulately when others raise objections to comprehensive immigration reform; it's part of being a good neighbor.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Come unto Me, All Ye that Labor and Are Heavy Laden . . .

. . . and I will give you rest. This is the promise of Matthew 11:28, but what does that promise mean? In the very next verse Jesus invites us to "[t]ake my yoke upon you," which hardly sounds like an activity or a posture we would typically associate with "rest."

In this particular case, Christ is using the word rest in the same sense that Alma uses that word when describing the post-mortal life to his son, Corianton: "And then it shall come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow" (Alma 40:12). In both of these scriptural examples rest is used to signify a state of emotional and spiritual release, freedom from sin as opposed to freedom from work.

We know, in fact, that the postmortal life will involve a great deal of work for those who have taken Jesus Christ's "yoke upon" themselves; while describing his vision of the postmortal world the prophet Joseph F. Smith taught that "the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead" (D&C 138:57). Clearly, the rest that Alma envisioned and that the Savior promised does not preclude labor.

But the Savior's invitation in Matthew, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (11:28) signifies something else as well. The book of Matthew was, most scholars agree, first written in Hebrew. Matthew was written primarily for Jewish readers and depicts Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; we presume that it was translated into Greek so that it would be more widely available to the early Christian church who, thanks to the missionary efforts of Paul, were an increasingly cosmopolitan group that spoke more Greek than Hebrew.

In this particular case, translation has obscured Matthew's original meaning. I'm sure that "I will give you rest" is a valid rendering of the original Hebrew, but I also suspect that there are other nuances which have been lost in translation. In the Authorized Version of the Old Testament the English word rest is used to to represent more than 10 different Hebrew nouns and verbs: nuwach, shaqat, manowach, damam, shalowm, nachath, demiy, margowa, puwgah, shabbathown, shabath, etc. The original Hebrew word that has now been rendered rest from the Greek might have been any of these--but I suspect that it was one of the last two--shabath or shabbathown

As Eric Huntsman explained in the December Ensign, Matthew has an interest in portraying Jesus as a second Moses--that is, at least in part, why he tells the story of the Herod slaughtering the babes of Bethlehem (a parallel to Pharoah killing all the Israelite boys) and sets Christ's delivery of the new law in a "sermon on the mount" (reminiscent of Moses delivering the original law on Mount Sinai) while Luke claims that those same teachings were delivered on a plain. Well, when Moses comes to Pharoah, he demands that Pharoah release the Israelites from bondage, and Pharoah replies: "Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens. And Pharoah said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens" (Ex. 5:4-5). Moses demands that Pharoah release the people from their burdens and give them rest (shabath); it makes sense to me that Matthew would have used the same language to describe Christ's invitation to lay down burdens. 

Why does it matter whether Matthew's original used the word nuwach or dayim or shabath? It matters because shabath is also the Hebrew word that we translate as Sabbath, the Lord's day designated day of rest. What I am suggesting, then, is that when Jesus Christ invites us, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," he's also saying, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you the Sabbath" (Matt. 11:28). His promise to give us rest--one of the most frequently quoted in scripture--depends at least in part on us honoring the Sabbath; he's already done his part by designating the day and appointing blessings for honoring that day, but it is still a conditional promise. Want rest and release from your burdens? Honor the Sabbath. 

As a side note, I should also point out that our current chapter divisions in the Bible are frequently misleading. Verses 28-30 of Matthew 11 really belong with verses 1-13 of chapter 12, where Jesus demonstrates that the sabbath is a day of physical and spiritual restoration by disregarding Mosaic law while harvesting corn for food and healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. 

Here's a challenge: go read Matthew 11:28-12:13 in preparation for your Sabbath. Take the easy yoke of the Sabbath upon you, and see if you don't "find rest unto your souls" (11:29). 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 52

When the wicked priests of King Noah wanted to stump/embarrass Abinadi, they asked him a question about Isaiah: "What meaneth the words which are written, and which have been taught by our fathers, saying: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings?" (Mosiah 12:20-21). Of course, as Abinadi makes abundantly clear, he is NOT someone you want to play "Stump the Prophet" with. He launches into one of the finest discourses in all of the Book of Mormon and quotes (what we now think of as) the entire fifty-third chapter of Isaiah before concluding that "the prophets, every one that has opened his mouth to prophesy [. . .] are they who have published peace, [. . .] and O how beautiful upon the mountains were their feet! [. . .] And behold, I say unto you, this is not all. For O how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace, yea, even the Lord" (Mosiah 15:14-18).

Abinadi identifies the Lord and his prophets as the individuals whose feet Isaiah refers to in 52:7; having learned my lesson from Noah's wicked priests I'm hardly interested in contradicting him, but I can't help feeling that by emphasizing the role of prophets over the Lord himself, Abinadi has missed or at least failed to clarify some of what Isaiah is trying to tell us. For starters, Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that his comments about "the feet of him that bringeth good tidings" (52:7) refer to events that will take place "in that day," (52:6), which is scripture speak for the Second Coming. What's more, Isaiah follows his description of feet on mountains with a prophecy that the Lord will "gather many nations" (JST 52:15), which is DEFINITELY a reference to the last days.

If we understand that Isaiah is describing the last days and the Second Coming in this chapter, his reference to feet on mountains makes a lot more sense (at least if you have access to the prophecies of Zechariah, which Abinadi probably did not). Zechariah explains that in the days immediately preceding the Second Coming Jerusalem will be surrounded by the armies of "all nations" (Zech. 14:2). At that point, he continues, "shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof" (Zech. 14:3-4), and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will escape from the siege through the valley that will miraculously appear where the mount of Olives once stood. In other words, by descending from heaven and setting foot on the mount of Olives, the Lord "publisheth peace" (52:7) by preventing war and "shall bring again Zion" (52:8) when he returns to rule personally over the earth. This seems, to me, like the more immediate message that Isaiah was trying to convey, although I think that Isaiah's point is a good one; inasmuch as all prophets are, to some extent, types of the Savior, these words also apply to them as well.

One more point regarding Isaiah's depiction of the Second Coming in these verses--he describes this event in language clearly meant, I think, to remind us of temple ordinances. When the Lord comes, "my people shall know my name" (52:6), and "they shall see eye to eye [face to face in Numbers 14:14]" with the Lord (52:8), and the Lord will make "bare his holy arm [. . .] and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God" (52:10). Why does Isaiah describe the Second Coming in these temple-centric terms? Two reasons, I think. First, Isaiah is literally seeing the universal opportunity to receive temple ordinances in the last days. Remember, because Israel collectively rejected the opportunity to receive their endowments in the wilderness, telling Moses, "let not God speak with us, lest we die" (Ex. 20:19), that virtually no one in ancient Israel received the fullness of temple ordinances as we know them today. In Isaiah's time only prophets and priests had that privilege; today "all the ends of the earth [have an opportunity to] see the salvation of our God" (52:10). Second, I think that Isaiah is reminding us that temple ordinances are literally a rehearsal for that day of judgment, that the temple is a time and opportunity to prepare to meet God precisely because we all will meet him in the day of judgment at the Second Coming. Those who have prepared themselves in the temple will have nothing to fear when the Lord appears; they will already have seen him "bare his holy arm"; they will already have seen "eye to eye" with him; they will already "know my name."

For those of "my people" who have prepared themselves in the temple, the Lord's arrival at the mount of Olives really will be "good tidings." For everyone else . . . well, let's just say that you don't want to be in that camp.