Saturday, February 25, 2017
This is a short story I wrote a few years ago that was published in Dialogue. I’ve broken it into three parts because it’s fairly lengthy. The idea came to me one day when I was wondering what living in the terrestrial kingdom would be like. Trying to put flesh on the bones of that question revealed some perplexing paradoxes.
The next day Kim received a visit from three officials: Kay, the director of the library; Marn, city administrator of Caldora; and Alma, high priest of the local synagogue.
“Kim,” Marn began, “may we ask you what you were trying to achieve yesterday?”
“Yes,” Kim answered. “You may ask.” He smiled disarmingly.
“Well, we are asking.”
“What do you think?” Kim asked in return.
“We have no idea,” Kay answered. “Nothing like this has ever happened in the long existence of the library.”
“No, I don’t suppose it has.”
“We don’t understand,” said Alma. “Could you enlighten us?”
“We’re concerned,” said Marn. “There are rules of appropriate behavior, as you know.”
“I’m not acquainted with a specific rule that prohibits music in the Great Hall of the library.”
“These rules are understood,” Marn answered.
“Maybe I don’t understand them.”
“Well,” said Kay, attempting to be kind and stern at the same time, “you will not do this again.”
“You’re right,” said Kim.
“We’re glad you understand,” Kay nodded.
“I’ll probably do something different next time.”
His three visitors sat in stunned consternation for several seconds. Finally Alma spoke. “Such as?”
“I have no idea.” Kim held his hands out, palms up. “It depends on what I wish to learn.”
Alma opened his mouth as if to speak but then changed his mind.
“Can I be of further assistance?” Kim asked.
His three visitors looked at each other silently. Finally they stood and excused themselves. Kim saw them to the door and invited them to return whenever they wished.
After they had gone, he walked back inside and sat down on the sofa. He had never had any sort of official dealings with the authorities. He knew they were there behind the scenes, but he had never really spoken with any of them. He figured he was in trouble, but he also figured the authorities weren’t quite sure what kind of trouble he was in. This was virgin territory, and he himself wasn’t sure where he was headed.
After a half hour, Kim walked outside and wandered into town with no particular destination in mind. He felt different somehow, but nobody else seemed to notice. Several friends passed and greeted him as usual. Just when Kim was wondering if the visit by the authorities had been a gross overreaction, a citizen he didn’t know stopped him on the street.
“You’re the one who played ‘Viva la Vida’ yesterday in the library.”
“I suppose I am.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t believe we know each other,” he said. “My name is Cory.”
“I don’t know why you did it,” Cory continued, “but I’m glad you did.”
“You are?” Kim was genuinely pleased.
“Yes. It reminded me of something.”
“What?” Kim asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe a purpose.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
They stood in silence for a time. Finally Kim spoke.
“Cory, I live in Woodland Court. Please come visit me sometime, if you’d like.”
“Why not? I’ll be home in the afternoon.”
Kim walked on but was stopped again soon by an acquaintance named Leslie. By the time he returned home, he had been stopped twenty times and had issued that many invitations for the following day. He had an unusual feeling, which he recognized as satisfaction over his newfound fame. Of course he knew the dangers, but he liked the feeling anyway.
The next afternoon Kim had a houseful of guests, including Tracy, a good friend he had invited simply because he felt he needed someone there who would give him an honest assessment of the meeting after it ended. He wasn’t quite sure what to do, but a rousing discussion started more or less spontaneously. It kicked off with someone mentioning the music in the Great Hall, but the conversation ranged far and wide. The participants hadn’t had a discussion like this in five thousand years.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” Kim said after a couple of hours. “In mortality, our greatest works of art were often created not by the sensible and ordinary people, but by the disturbed and irrational ones. How many great artists were addicts? Depressed? Neurotic? Tormented? Violent?”
“Van Gogh?” Cory suggested.
“Hemingway?” said Ronny.
“Mozart?” Kelly added.
“Yes,” said Kim, “and thousands of others, millions probably, if you look at all the worlds in the galaxy.”
“So, what’s the connection to us?” asked Leslie.
“I’m not sure, but it may be that great art can only spring from great adversity and maybe great contradiction. How many great novels, for instance, were written by authors who spent their days as accountants or engineers and their evenings and weekends as model parents? Most of the truly creative geniuses in mortality were dysfunctional in some way.”
“Or in lots of ways,” Ronny added.
“And how many of those individuals ended up here in the terrestrial kingdom?” Cory observed.
“None,” Ronny nodded. “By definition, we’re the boring people. We weren’t ‘valiant,’ but we were good, decent people. No murderers or adulterers or liars ended up here. We’re the ones who weren’t very interesting in mortality. We weren’t passionate about anything, good or evil.”
“So, are there great works of art or music or literature coming from the telestial kingdom?” Kim asked.
“I’ve been there a few times to visit my kids,” said Leslie. “No, they’re pretty much like us now—content and peaceful and dull.”
“If you were going to write a history of our world,” Kim asked, “what would you write about?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Cory answered. “Nobody would want to read it.”
“Nothing ever happens here,” Ronny concluded. “Nothing interesting.”
“Not yet,” mused Kim. “Not yet.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Cory.
“I don’t know. Yet.”
Eventually the conversation lulled, and people started filtering out a few at a time. At the end, Tracy was the only guest still there. She hadn’t said a word the whole time, which worried Kim a little.
“So,” he said when they were alone, “what did you think?”
Tracy scrunched her lips together for a few seconds. “It won’t work.”
“What won’t work?”
“Whatever it is you’re aiming to stir up.”
“What if I’m not aiming to ‘stir’ anything up?”
“You are.” She paused. “You’re bored, and so are they. But what can you do about it?”
“Create a little history worth writing about maybe?”
“Creating history has always been—shall we say—dangerous,” warned Tracy.
“I suppose you’re right. But what can they do to me, kill me?”
Tracy laughed. “We both know there are things worse than death.”
The group met again the next day, but this time they brought friends. Thirty friends.
After a few minutes, Leslie spoke up. “Ever since we met yesterday, I’ve been seeing things in a new way. I can’t get an image out of my mind: I feel like I’m in one of those funhouse mirror rooms. Everywhere I look, it seems like I see a reflection of myself. And there’s no way out.”
“I’ve noticed it too,” said Ronny. “We’re all just so much the same. Do any of the rest of you feel that way?”
“Yes, exactly,” Kim answered. “Do you remember the passage in the Book of Mormon about needing opposition in all things? That’s what’s missing here: opposition. No sin, so there’s really no righteousness. No sickness, so health has no meaning. No death, so life is rather flat. There are also no rich or poor, bond or free, male or female. What’s our purpose? What are we going to do about this?”
“Well,” said Leslie, “we can’t do much about death, or about sickness.”
“No,” said Kim, “but we can create a bit more opposition, make life a bit more meaningful.”
“Sin?” asked Ronny.
“No,” answered Kim, smiling. “Sports!”
There was a moment of silence, then someone yelled out, “Cool!”
Kim had wondered at times why there were no sports in the terrestrial world. Resurrected bodies were flawless and indestructible, of course, but they weren’t identical or equal. Some were taller, some shorter, some faster, some slower, some more coordinated. He supposed it was because competition led to contention, and there was to be no contention in the terrestrial world.
“But what kind of sport?” asked Leslie.
“Well, we’ve got a little problem,” Kim stated. “We have no equipment, no balls, bats, hoops, goals, nothing.”
“I know where I can get a soccer ball made,” offered a newcomer named Mandy.
“And I know someone who could make us a couple of goals,” said Cory.
“I’ve read about soccer,” said Ronny, “but I’ve never played. I lived in the thirteenth century. We didn’t have much opportunity for sport.”
“Don’t worry,” Leslie assured him. “You’ll pick it up easily.”
“Can I ask something?” said another newcomer named Pat. “We’ve been taught that we’re not supposed to try to excel one above another. How do you reconcile sports with that commandment?”
“Sometimes two worthy goals find themselves in conflict,” Kim answered. “We have to decide which is more important. Is creating meaning in our lives through opposition more important than the risk that we’ll try to excel?”
Heads started nodding, although no one spoke.
Two weeks later the group met at Kolob Park where there was enough grass to play soccer. They set out some markers, and several of them set up the collapsible goals. Mandy had brought a fair replica of a twentieth-century Earth soccer ball. For his part, Kim had brought a pair of scissors.
“I guess if we’re going to play soccer,” he said, “we’ll have to have to modify our robes a bit.”
He cut the skirts of his robe off at the knee. “There,” he said, “our world’s first fashion statement. And it only took five thousand years.” Everybody laughed, then took the scissors one after another and made their own modifications.
They reviewed the rules and divided up into two teams. Scoring a goal was about as infrequent as in a mortal soccer match. Their bodies were quicker and more coordinated than mortal bodies, but that gave the defense just as much advantage as the offense. The biggest difference was that none of them got tired. After four hours, they called it a day. Kim’s team lost 6–5.
As they sat around afterward in the shade of a spreading mulberry, Kim came to a startling realization.
“You know, everybody,” he said, “I’m having a very strange feeling right now.”
“I know,” said Cory, “it’s the exhilaration of competing. I haven’t competed at anything since I died.”
“No,” answered Kim, “it’s more than that. And I don’t think you can understand, Cory, because your team won. What I’m feeling is this intense disappointment about losing. Do you realize that I haven’t lost at anything in several millennia? It’s incredible. I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything.”
Several other players on Kim’s team were nodding. A peculiar light was in their eyes.
“When should we play again?” Kim asked everyone.
“A week from today?” Leslie suggested.
“Yeah,” said Cory, “and maybe my team can lose next week.” He laughed, then added, “But I doubt it.”
“We’ll see,” said Kim. “Now that I’ve become reacquainted with what it feels like to lose, I’d like to try winning.”
“What about getting together to talk some more?” asked Logan, rolling over and propping herself up on her elbows. They had met three times since the first two get-togethers.
“How about two days from now, at my house?” suggested Cory.
The group met twice before they gathered at the park again. The second soccer game was even more intense; at one point, Ronny got in Logan’s face and they stared each other down. Leslie laughed at them and broke it up. A couple of hours into the game, Kim looked over to the side of the field and noticed two people watching: Marn and Alma. They were not smiling. After another hour, the players decided to take a break. As they lounged around in the shade, Marn and Alma approached.
“This activity is not permitted,” Marn announced.
“What, soccer?” Kim asked. “Why?”
“Competition is not spiritually healthy,” Alma offered in a quiet voice.
“It’s harmless,” said Ronny.
“Actually, it’s a lot better than harmless,” Cory exclaimed. “It’s invigorating, spiritually and physically. Really. You ought to try it.”
“No, thank you,” replied Marn with a grim face.
“And your robes are immodest,” added Alma.
Kim laughed. “How is that possible? We have terrestrial bodies, Alma. There’s not much to hide anymore. And besides, you can’t expect us to play soccer in long robes.”
“I can expect you to not play soccer.” He folded his arms and cocked his head to one side.
“What are you going to do to stop us?” asked Kim. “Lock us up?”
“You know there are no jails in the terrestrial world,” answered Marn.
“No,” said Kim with sudden earnestness, “there aren’t. And that’s part of the problem.”
“The lack of jails is a problem?” Alma’s eyebrows rose a notch.
“A couple of weeks ago,” Kim replied, “we discussed a verse in the Book of Mormon that talks about the need for opposition in all things. If there aren’t opposites, then ‘it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.’”
Alma just stared at him but didn’t respond.
“You’re a thing of naught, Alma. And so am I.” The truth of his own words almost took Kim’s breath away.
“I am striving with all my heart to live a life of joy,” Alma replied softly.
“But you’re failing. And so am I. Or at least I was until we started playing soccer.”
Alma shook his head slowly. “But soccer isn’t enough, is it?”
Kim’s eyes narrowed. “It’s just a game,” he admitted.
“And nobody wants to spend an eternity in which the most meaningful thing in life is a soccer game.”
Now Kim regarded Alma silently.
“This will lead to evil,” Alma declared.
“Or great good.”
“What good do you think you can accomplish with this competition?”
“I’m making it possible for you to acquire new virtues,” Kim answered.
“New virtues?” Alma looked genuinely surprised.
“Patience, for one,” said Kim. “And how about mercy? Or what about forgiveness? We’re commanded to be forgiving, but how can we be forgiving if nobody does us any wrong? Or maybe you can learn to be a peacemaker. You can’t be a peacemaker if there is no conflict. We’re creating some conflict. Maybe next week we’ll figure out a way to help you develop generosity. You’re not generous, Alma, because nobody in this world needs anything.”
The high priest merely shook his head disapprovingly.
Kim stood up. “Halftime’s over,” he shouted to the group. “Will you join us, Alma?”
Alma looked at Marn, who in turn looked bewildered. “Not today,” he answered. “Not today.”
“Your loss,” Kim said as he ran back onto the field.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
This is a short story I wrote a few years ago that was published in Dialogue. I’ll break it into three parts because it’s fairly lengthy. The idea came to me one day when I was wondering what living in the terrestrial kingdom would be like. Trying to put flesh on the bones of that question revealed some perplexing paradoxes.
For some reason I can’t explain,
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.
Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body,
neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed.
I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called
Christian world expects us all to be—neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings
having received the resurrection. —Joseph Fielding Smith2
Kim had been in the terrestrial kingdom for five thousand thirty-six years, two months, and seventeen days when it occurred to him that he3 was bored. He was in the library, perusing a treatise on monarchic democracy written by a senator on the fourth planet from the star Sigma Draconis, when he quite suddenly lost interest in, well, everything. He rolled up the parchment scroll, returned it to the retrieval system, and walked out into the perfect sunshine.
When Kim reached his home, he was surprised to realize he wanted to go into a bedroom and lie down; but since terrestrial beings do not need sleep, he did not have a bedroom. So he went to the sofa in the parlor and stretched out. He took a deep breath and sighed.
“What’s wrong with me?” he wondered aloud.
No answer came.
He lay there for a long time. How could anything be wrong? The terrestrial kingdom was like Utopia, Shangri-la, the Garden of Eden, and Camelot all wrapped into one. The weather was mostly sunny and warm, with a slight breeze to caress the nerve endings and an occasional rain shower to refresh the plant life. Social order and perfect peace reigned. A hunger for learning permeated the very atmosphere, and the resources to facilitate learning were endless. There was no sickness; in fact, terrestrial bodies were not only incorruptible and indestructible, they were endowed with remarkable spiritual and physical senses. The geography of the terrestrial world was remarkable as well—rugged, snow-capped mountains; fertile valleys; lush, sprawling forests; pure, pristine lakes and streams; deep-blue oceans with white, sandy beaches; magnificent sandstone formations; but no wasteland. During his mortal probation, Kim had lived in Utah. He knew wasteland. On drives through Nevada he had marveled at how dull and mind-numbing certain tracts of the Earth’s surface could be. But there was no Nevada here, and certainly no Sin City, because there was no sin. The inhabitants of the terrestrial kingdom were not perfect, but there was no intentional evil, let alone gambling; in fact, there was no money. Who needed money when everything was free?
Kim wondered what was wrong. For over five thousand years he had been contentedly blissful. Oh, he knew that the terrestrial kingdom was technically a sort of damnation, but the terrestrial world was the degree of glory he had earned—it was where Kim belonged. The Lord’s judgment, he knew, was merciful. When he had stood before Jesus at the end of his stay in the spirit world, he recognized that he wasn’t fit for the celestial kingdom where he would have been miserable among all those who had lived a more consecrated life. The terrestrial world was the one he had sought out all the mediocre days of his mortal probation.
Kim’s sole regret was that he had let Julie down. She had always lived for celestial glory and had cried tears of sorrow at their eternal separation. Though she had been given to another, she had visited him from time to time during the first thousand years. Eventually, however, her visits had ceased. They had precious little to talk about. Whatever they had shared in mortality had been silenced by their diverse resurrections—hers to a degree of feminine perfection unimagined to mere mortals, and his to a neutered, sexless physicality that left him without the passions that made marriage not only possible but intensely desirable. He was incapable of feeling for her now what he had felt in mortality, let alone arousing in her those same feelings. Of course, in mortality he hadn’t been all that successful at arousing feelings in her either. And the irony wasn’t lost on him that back then she had been the one largely uninterested in intimacy. Go figure.
But this one regret had been mostly washed away by the pleasures and relative perfections of this terrestrial paradise. For over five thousand years, the Spirit had brought him peace and contentment, light and truth, and eternal learning. Here, memory was complete and perfect: so perfect, in fact, that Kim had taken it for granted for a long, long time. Why dwell on the past when it was there for perfect recall at any instant? But now he did turn his mind to the past, his past, and he wondered.
Kim had met Julie at the BYU Twenty-third Ward’s opening social in September 1977. He was a newly minted RM, fresh off the plane from Copenhagen. She was a twenty-year-old English major struggling her way through Shakespeare and Dickens and Henry Adams. They somehow ended up together after the party, walking around the block again and again and again, talking and talking and talking. Finally they got tired of walking and stopped at the old Joaquin School, where they sat on the swings in the playground until three in the morning.
“Tell me about your family,” Julie said.
“Oh,” Kim answered, “there’s not much to tell. My family’s been in the Church since pioneer days, both sides. My parents are pretty ordinary Mormons. And I’ve got three sisters.”
“Do they tease you?”
“Endlessly,” Kim laughed. “But I can dish it out too.”
“I’ll remember that,” Julie said, flashing her best smile. “But tell me, what do you want to do with your life?”
“Sheesh,” Kim exclaimed, “you ask easy questions, don’t you? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I mean, of course I want to get married and raise a family, but I don’t even know what to major in. I’ve thought about accounting. My dad says it’s a ticket to a good job.”
“Sounds boring,” Julie suggested.
“Well, yeah, I suppose it does. But I don’t really have strong feelings about anything else. I guess the worst I could do is prepare for a decent job. Why did you choose English?”
“Because I love literature.”
“So, do you want to teach?”
“I can’t imagine myself as a teacher,” Kim answered. “But I wouldn’t mind marrying one.”
They stared into each other’s eyes under the starlit Provo skies, and something ignited there that was never extinguished. Well, at least not until Judgment Day.
Kim had graduated from BYU in accounting the year after Julie earned her English degree and two years after they married in the Provo Temple. He landed a job with WordPerfect, made a decent salary, moved to Novell when it bought the carcass of WordPerfect, then bounced around from one high-tech startup to another after Novell laid him off. In the meantime, he fathered three kids, attended soccer and basketball games, track meets and tennis matches, piano recitals and parades. And somewhere along the way, the fire that had been kindled while he was knocking doors in Denmark burned low. He stayed active in the Church, but a certain spiritual urgency was gone. While Julie became more devout and spent countless hours fulfilling Church callings, Kim floated from one low-visibility position to another, making a negligible impact in people’s lives. But he didn’t mind. He didn’t have any need for either the emotional burden or the time commitment of leadership.
After the kids were gone, Kim came to the conclusion that accounting really was boring. He toyed with the dream of writing a novel, but it always remained a dream. Though he read a lot of fiction—not the light-weight stories most Mormons preferred, and also not the sort of novels one might call fine literature—he couldn’t find either his own voice or a story that simply had to be told.
And now, more than six thousand years later, he remembered that dream, and he no longer wondered what was wrong. He had his answer.
* * *
Later that day, Kim arranged a trip to the East Sea, where the weather was perfect and the ocean view from the dunes spectacular. He sat on the beach for hours watching the waves slap the shore, but the sound wasn’t as soothing as he’d hoped.
Back at his cottage, Kim pulled out a portable keyboard and started typing. He tried to begin a novel about life in the terrestrial kingdom; but just as in mortality, he had writer’s block. This time, however, it wasn’t because of his own limitations: There simply was no story to tell.
He pushed the keyboard away, leaned back, and put his feet on the tabletop. He thought about the library in Caldora, his city. One whole floor was devoted to fiction. The greatest novels in the galaxy were collected there. But to his knowledge none of them had been written in the terrestrial kingdom. All were composed by mortal authors.
“So,” Kim said to the wall, “what is it that makes a great novel?”
The wall didn’t answer, so he did. “Lots of pages and a great plot?” He laughed grimly.
“Right, and what makes a great plot?”
“Suspense, adventure, conflict, good and evil, personal weakness, sin, violence, natural disasters, irony. And romance.” He laughed again. “Guess what we don’t have here?”
“No wonder nobody’s writing great fiction.”
It then occurred to him that no one was writing history in the terrestrial kingdom, either. Of course, with perfect memories, the inhabitants of the terrestrial world didn’t need a record to remind them of what had happened. But events aren’t history. History requires interpretation, the carving of meaning out of a series of events. And without the drama of power struggles, wars, natural catastrophes, or social upheavals, the events of the terrestrial world didn’t seem worth interpreting at all.
“Nothing matters here,” Kim muttered.
And there in the solitude of the cottage, he made a decision. He didn’t know where it would lead him, but he knew he had to do it.
That night he packed up his things and returned to Caldora.
The next day, Kim went to the Caldora library and climbed the stairs to the music archives on the fifth floor. He had narrowed his choices down to three: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Claire de Lune by Debussy, and a rock song his daughter had played back when Kim was in his fifties. He pulled all three music spheres from their respective shelves and stared at them in turn. They were primitive and unsophisticated compared with the complex but emotionally sterile music of terrestrial composers, but all three had a yearning, aching passion that was missing from the music of Kim’s world. Finally Kim decided on a sphere and carried it to the mammoth central hall of the library, where hundreds of tables and desks were scattered out among the bookshelves beneath a cavernous ceiling that glowed like the full moon.
Kim found a table near the middle of the hall and set down the sphere. He touched a light spot on one side, and a line appeared. He slid his finger along the line from left to right, then touched a black arrow that appeared beneath the line. Suddenly staccato strings filled the air, joined by vocals harsher than any terrestrial voice could produce. In a place that had known only hushed, studied silence for more than five thousand years, the singer’s aching lament about ruling the world, only to end up sweeping streets and sleeping alone, was shocking. Patrons stood up from their tables and desks and craned their necks to see what was happening. Kim leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let their scrutiny wash over him. A hint of passion stirred inside, something he hadn’t felt since mortality.
The music ended, and still all the eyes in the hall were staring. Kim left the sphere sitting on the table, stood up, smiled to himself, and walked out of the library. As he reached the exit, the rapt silence was broken by a rush of whispered exclamations. He kept walking.
1. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida,” Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (New York: Capitol Records, 2008).
2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 2:288.
3. Since inhabitants of the terrestrial kingdom are sexless, their language includes a pronoun to reflect this condition. Unfortunately, English does not include a gender-free pronoun, so I have chosen to describe the characters in this story according to the gender identities they possessed in mortality.
Saturday, February 11, 2017
I hope this post isn’t too sacrilegious, but sometimes you overhear snippets of conversation that are just downright funny. One day last week I wandered past the office of one of my fellow editors and heard one of our student interns say, “I was talking with Steve, the director of the Universe.” I stopped and poked my head in and said, “I’d always wondered what his name was.”
Of course they were talking about BYU’s student newspaper, which changed its name in 2012 when they stopped printing a paper every school day and went to a once-a-week publication. The website masthead still reads “The Daily Universe” and describes itself as “a student-produced media enterprise that publishes a weekly print edition, The Universe, and has online news presence at universe.byu.edu.” But still, our intern’s statement sounded pretty funny out of context.
And that got me thinking. Actually, I think quite a bit about God. I’m not sure the reverse is true, but I have all sorts of questions that no one this side of the veil can apparently answer. That doesn’t stop me from wondering about them, though. As Mormons, we believe in a personal Father in Heaven, who is the epitome of our race, what we are supposed to strive for. Those of you who have read much of my writing might have come across my contention that our God is not the “supreme Governor of the universe,” as our Bible dictionary and quite a few of our highest earthly leaders now claim. If we believe Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow, our Father lived on an earth like this one, went through the trials of mortality, and eventually reached his exalted state like all the gods before him, and like we hope to do also. If this is true, then he wouldn’t be the God of this universe, and neither would his father or his grandfather, and so on. Not unless we believe in the multiverse (a different universe for each god), for which we have no scriptural evidence and no statements from prophets to give it any weight. I’ve suggested that being the God of the Milky Way galaxy would be plenty to worry about and would actually quite comfortably fit the self-description God gives Moses, of having created “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33) that are “innumerable . . . unto man; but all things are numbered unto me” (Moses 1:35). We have only vague estimates of how many billion stars are in our galaxy, and the estimates keep changing. So, yes, the worlds in our galaxy are innumerable unto man.
But if God really did live as a mortal man on a planet like ours, where he worked out his salvation, he would have been given a name by his earthly parents. We don’t know that name. For all we know, it could be Steve. Why not? He also probably had a name given to him by his heavenly parents. We don’t know that one either. It wasn’t Elohim, which Mormons often misconstrue as the name of God. But Elohim isn’t a name. It is a title, of which God has many. This one happens to be a Hebrew term, most often plural, meaning “gods” or “deity.” It isn’t a name like Steve or Ralph or Ethan.
And this got me thinking about our relationship with God. We sometimes get these folksy ideas that we lived with our Heavenly Father in the premortal world, and if we do everything we ought to in this life, we’ll live with him again. Sorry, but I just don’t buy this, at least not as literally as most Mormons. In my recent Dialogue article, which was based on three posts on this blog from the fall of 2015, I gave the full details of a population estimate I did for this earth based on Mormon assumptions (starting with two people at about 4000 BC and winding up with a thousand-year Millennium in which people live to the age of 100 and then get twinkled). In many ways, mine is a rather conservative estimate (I know, you probably don’t think I can be conservative about anything, but this time it’s true), and the final tally for people born on this earth comes to something just north of 200 billion. Add in the obligatory one-third of the hosts of heaven that followed Lucifer, and you get about 317 billion spirit children of God “living with him” in the premortal world. And that’s just for this earth, one of his “innumerable” worlds. In other words, this is not a family that sat round the dining room table for dinner every evening or held family home evening in the cozy family room. No, 300 billion kids is rather a lot. Which means we probably had virtually no face time with our Father, if any at all.
What this suggests is that if we “lived in God’s presence” before this life, a concept that undergirds a good portion of our reasoning behind the “plan of salvation” (we had to leave his presence in order to learn to live by faith, yada, yada, yada), then there wasn’t really much chance to actually spend any time with him, unless you propose something like multidimensional time, an idea I’ve actually explored before (maybe I’ll post that chapter sometime). But, again, we don’t have a lot of evidence for such a condition, nor do we know how it would actually play out. What we can probably surmise about our relationship with God is that it was likely based on some sort of spiritual connection, rather than a lot of face time. We don’t really know what the Spirit is, but it must be some sort of medium through which we were able to be in communication with God without actually being in his immediate presence and having a verbal conversation.
We also believe in a God who is omniscient, whatever that means. Years ago, I wrote an essay for The Religious Educator in which I took the notion of omniscience to its logical extreme. I’d probably dial it back a bit now, but we do believe in a God who can “hear” and “answer” the prayers of billions of children simultaneously, govern the physical elements of his realm, and be aware of not just what is happening everywhere but also of future contingencies (things that might happen). LDS scripture insists that God doesn’t just compute probabilities for the present and future to know what is happening. In some way that we can’t comprehend, he sees it. Jesus describes himself as “the same who knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2). All things. Whatever that means.
One thing it does mean is that God is a being who is very different from us on a fundamental level. We cannot really relate to the sort of experience he has, just as we cannot relate to a computer that is able perform millions of tasks simultaneously. What sort of relationship can you have with a being who is relating to billions of other people at the same time? Well, it probably means that God can never give us his “undivided attention.” Which makes me wonder if we really understand the sort of existence we claim to aspire to. As I put it in a recent Sunstone essay:
Our theology insists that we can become like God. This means we can become omniscient. And omniscience means not only that we will someday understand every living being in the universe with perfect intimacy but also that every other omniscient being will understand us in the same transparent way. Mormon theology thus suggests an existence in which there is no need to communicate, because the race of gods we aspire to join already knows everything that everyone will ever say. Why communicate even telepathically if there is nothing new to share? Is this the end of our quest for perfection? Something like the Q Continuum (from Star Trek), a collection of eternally bored but seemingly omnipotent and omniscient beings?
Mostly what we have is a load of unanswered questions.
I’ve often wondered whether most Mormons really want to be gods someday. I think about members of my ward, who are certainly, on average, better educated and better employed than most Mormons. But how many of them would really enjoy being the CEO of a large corporation, to say nothing of being director of the universe? I know I wouldn’t. After I finished my MBA, I avoided corporate America like the plague. That just wasn’t my idea of fun. I would not enjoy for a moment being the CEO of Exxon or Walmart or even Google. But what I am taught to aspire to is to be a manager on a galactic scale. Not just a father. A manager. We belong to the most corporate of all churches. We must assume that the hereafter is as hyperorganized as the twenty-first-century LDS Church is. So being in charge of even a whole galaxy sounds like something most Mormons wouldn’t sign up for. I mean, we feel sorry for men who get called to be bishop and women who are called to serve as Relief Society president. If they posted a job description for God, I wonder if anyone would apply. What, I wonder, is most Mormons’ idea of the best way to spend eternity?
Which vision of the celestial kingdom is more accurate? We have two, you know. There’s the one in which the celestial kingdom is just a brief way station on the path to “getting my own world” and populating it with hundreds of billions of my own children. Then there’s the other one, in which we spend eternity on this celestialized earth, associating with our parents and children and friends in a perfectly peaceful and blissful society. Forever. If the former is more accurate, then the celestial kingdom will soon be empty, except for those unfortunate souls who never married or whose spouse didn’t measure up. And how would that world be different from the terrestrial kingdom? This is another place where out theology breaks down. When we start asking specific questions, we discover that we really don’t know anything about the hereafter. Are we to become gods, with all that that term implies, or just citizens in a gloriously perfect society? Do we really want to become omniscient, with all the headaches and handicaps that state suggests? Or will we settle for just being really smart and really righteous and willing to let someone else worry about all the details? I have no clue. Maybe I should ask Steve.
Monday, February 6, 2017
On Groundhog Day this year, The New Yorker ran an article by Jiayang Fan1 that recounted her experience as a second-grader growing up in China. Despite the many things that were not reliable in 1980s China, one that was “as constant as the sunrise” was “the voice of the loudspeaker broadcasts in our Army hospital compound (my mother was a military doctor), which woke me every morning before I could witness the dawn.” When she was eight, her family came to America, not as political refugees, but so her father could pursue graduate studies.
“The first time I read ‘1984,’ George Orwell’s classic dystopia,” she explains, “I was an eleventh grader in America, and its portrayal of a world rife with loudspeaker announcements and an omnipotent Party did not strike me as related to the world we had left behind when I was eight years old. . . . In my early childhood, at least as I remembered it, everyone I knew lived ordinary, unmolested lives. An impassioned teacher, given to rhetorical drama, once tried to convince me otherwise: ‘Don’t you see? The Chinese government hurt its own people, and you were a helpless victim.’ But I’m not hurt, I insisted.”
A few years later, armed with facts about what the Chinese government had really done, she tried to convince her mother of the truth as she now perceived it, but her mother “recoiled with such violence that I understood instantly that my catalogue of facts was irrelevant.” To her mother, a rejection of the Communist Party would have been a rejection of most of her adult life. Facts and rationality had nothing to do with it.
As I read Fan’s account, I couldn’t help thinking about the good Germans I came to know in the 1970s, many of whom had lived under Hitler’s Nazi regime and had been subjected to a view of reality that only fell apart for most when the Allied conquerors opened the doors to the concentration camps and let the light in. This was an absolutely devastating revelation to people who had believed in the glorious promises of the Third Reich. Some Germans, like Helmuth Hübener, found access to outside information and tried to spread it. They were generally viewed as troublemakers—indeed, they were the ones listening to “false” propaganda from the BBC—and so the government quickly rooted them out and silenced them. Hübuener, of course, was both excommunicated by local LDS leaders and executed by the Nazis. The point, though, is that we should not be astonished at what people are capable of believing, given the right circumstances and a flood of misinformation.
Fan makes a connection between her childhood, “1984,” and the present:
Rational reasoning and truth have been much on my mind as we enter a world of alternative facts and crypto-fascist edicts from the White House, less than two weeks into Donald Trump’s Administration. Last week, when “1984” rose toward the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, I dug out my dog-eared paperback copy and reread a quotation that I had underlined a decade and a half earlier: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”
In recent days, as Trump and his cohorts have peddled blatant falsehoods—that his Inauguration attracted the largest crowd in history, or that he lost the popular vote owing to millions of votes by illegal aliens—I have wondered about the extent to which minds can be controlled, or, rather, commandeered, by the relentless deluge of misinformation.
This has been on my mind a lot recently, too, and not just because of the rise of a mendacious “crypto-fascist” to the most powerful office on earth. I spend my days, and often my evenings too, reading, studying, and examining Mormon history, doctrine, culture, and organization. Among other things, I read a lot of history, and a statement I came across several years ago is always in the front of my mind. It always frames what I read. For years I couldn’t find the source for this statement, but a recent Google search suggested that it was probably Henry L. Miles in a 2007 Dialogue essay.2 In the essay, he credits this wisdom to Hayden White. It’s a simple statement, really, but incredibly profound: “Events do not tell their own stories.”
Events do not have meaning on their own. Events are just events, the facts of what happened. Meaning always comes in the selecting, ordering, analyzing, and retelling of the facts. We call this interpretation. And historians aren’t the only ones who infuse meaning into events through interpretation. Politicians do it constantly. So do government and religious leaders. So do teachers. In fact, so do we all. For example, I have told one particular experience from my life in at least three different ways. All accounts, I believe, are “true.” But by leaving out certain elements of the story, emphasizing others, providing a particular context, and drawing certain conclusions, I use the experience to provide meaning—indeed, different meanings—for the different audiences I am addressing. Is this dishonest? No. Not if I don’t introduce untruthful elements to the story or twist the details in order to deceive. And there’s the catch. Where do we draw the line between leaving out or including information to make a valid point and doing so to give a false impression or to achieve questionable ends? Life is complicated, and so are human motives. I would argue, though, that with Donald Trump this task is quite easy. He is generally so far from this somewhat hazy line that only the truly gullible or indoctrinated are blind to his real motives. This explains his historically unrivaled low approval ratings as a new president.
Mormon history is a different matter altogether. In the not-so-distant past, Mormon history was published primarily by two groups: LDS Church employees and leaders, whose goal was to present the Church in a completely positive light, and critics of the Church, whose purpose was to make the Church look bad, either through the publishing of embarrassing episodes in Mormon history or through an interpretation of events that cast doubt on the Church’s truth claims. For decades, the Church tried to control its own story by restricting access to crucial records that might lead to different interpretations than the Church’s official historians and leaders wanted people to embrace. In 2007, Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen gave a presentation at the Mormon History Association’s annual conference in which he showed a picture of a sign that had hung outside the old library in the Church Administration Building. Elder Jensen’s point was to show how much things have changed in recent years. The sign read: “Library, No Admittance.”3 Funny until you start thinking about it.
This sign has direct relevance to Jiayang Fan’s story, and to Nazi Germany, and to what we are seeing today with the chaotic unfolding of the Trump regime. The common thread here is authoritarianism. Authoritarian institutions want to control the narrative. In other words, they seek to control the interpretation of facts and events. In the past, they did this largely by restricting the dissemination of information. China controlled the media. Hitler and Goebbels created a massive propaganda machine. The LDS Church restricted access to its historical documents and disseminated only those parts of its story that were “faith-promoting.” Trump faces a different challenge. Because of the long tradition of a free and inquiring press and because of the information explosion that accompanied the rise of the Internet, Trump and his ilk have used different tactics, although we are nonetheless seeing the first steps by the new administration to close down certain channels through which information from the government has freely flowed in the past. These new tactics include:
(1) producing so much misinformation that the press can hardly keep up and the public suffers from sheer exhaustion;
(2) using the Internet (primarily social media) to bypass the mainstream media and reach a targeted audience that is already inclined to believe the lies;
(3) directly attacking credible media outlets and their credibility, so as to undermine trust in traditional reporting;
(4) repeatedly painting the country in dark tones so that people believe our situation is far worse than it actually is, thus creating the illusion that we need an authoritarian figure to “fix” things;
(5) boldly attacking and insulting anyone who dares to disagree with the “alternative facts” and dark vision spewed out by Trump and his puppets; and
(6) offering rewards to political or business allies if they will turn a blind eye to improprieties (think Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Jason Chaffetz, and Wall Street bankers).
Trump is an anomaly, of course—not in world history, because he is following in the footsteps of many, many dictators and autocrats, including Putin—but certainly an anomaly in U.S. history. We have never really had an authoritarian figure like this to contend with, and it is discouraging to see how many Americans are fooled by his cheap act. But authoritarian individuals and institutions always seek to control the stories people believe, and the LDS Church, in its history and its present, has dabbled in this strategy.
One of the most disappointing incidents involves historian D. Michael Quinn, who, with the self-professed intent of educating Latter-day Saints about a portion of their history he felt they needed to know, published details about post-Manifesto polygamy, a taboo topic at the time. For daring to challenge the narrative the Church had carefully created and disseminated, Quinn was excommunicated. This for publishing information that is now acknowledged on the Church’s own website.4
But the effort to control the narrative is not just a past phenomenon. I mentioned the present above, because even though circumstances have indeed changed, the Church is still an authoritarian institution in significant ways and still seeks to shape the stories its members believe. For a variety of reasons—most importantly the rise of the Internet and the accompanying easy access to information—the Church has had to become more open. Needless to say, this has been a struggle and has happened in fits and starts. Mormon studies, as a field of research and writing, is exploding. Mormon history, as part of this larger field, has changed radically in the past couple of decades. No longer is Mormon history a polemical debate revolving around the question of whether or not the Church is “true.” Many scholars, both LDS and non-LDS, are performing quality research with the apparent purpose of simply trying to understand the Church and shed light on its history rather than trying to prove anything one way or the other. And while objectivity is always an unreachable goal, it appears to be a goal nonetheless and thus shapes the final product.
This drastic change in Mormon history has created multiple problems for the Church. First, the Church can no longer just refer to its “enemies” or “anti-Mormons” and thus discredit any information they produce. Many of these scholars have no ax to grind, are friends to (or members of) the Church, and are not overtly interested in questions of “true or not true.” Second, the institution is no longer able to control its own narrative to the degree it had become accustomed to. This means that members who are aware of even some of the material being published are going to read things that Church leaders may not be thrilled about. Third, the complexities of real life, as reflected in this new Mormon history, tend to quietly undermine the story the Church has been telling for decades; they also undermine the illusion it has maintained for so long that our past is filled with only inspired decisions, heroic sacrifices, and never-failing direction from heaven. Unfortunately, this is still the illusion that is taught in most Sunday classes. On Sunday, there are no contradictions in our doctrine, no uninspired prophetic statements or decisions, and no questions that cannot be answered.
Things are changing gradually. The Gospel Topics Essays were written and then hidden in an obscure corner of the Church’s website in an obvious attempt to not draw attention to them. They were not announced to local Church leaders through official channels, which led to several ironic situations where teachers who knew about them and used them in class were reprimanded by their local leaders for teaching controversial material, even though they got it on lds.org. This is finally changing, but oh so slowly. Elder Ballard has been almost a solitary voice in drawing attention to the essays. They are now being used in seminary and institute, and this year, with Church history as the Gospel Doctrine curriculum, there are a few references and links to them in the online versions of the manuals—but not in the printed manuals, which many teachers still use exclusively.
So, what about the essays themselves? Yes, they are a huge step in the right direction, and they reference even more publications that people can examine to get better informed, including the Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, and BYU Studies. But again, we must remember that “events do not tell their own stories.” All history is interpretation. And these essays are still the Church’s interpretation. What this means is that while the writers of the essays may have had the best of intentions and may have tried to be open and honest about a number of difficult topics, the essays were written with a specific purpose in mind and still had to be approved by Church leaders; they are intended to shape the story Church leaders want both members and nonmembers to believe. This means that, inevitably, certain facts, events, details, and perspectives will be left out of the essays. Of course every writer knows that he or she must select from a plethora of information on any subject, and that selection is always done with a deeper purpose in mind (perhaps even as deep as the subconscious). But everything the Church publishes must serve to support the notion that the Church is “true.” I’m not saying this is bad; I’m just saying this influences which details are included and which are left out. It also influences how the details are presented. In short, there is no such thing as perfect openness or perfect objectivity. All history, indeed all composing of narratives, is interpretation. We simply need to be aware of this as we read.
So, here’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: How are we to know which interpretations to trust? On any topic. How are we to know which stories to believe? The only advice I can give, and I am certainly not unbiased, is that more information is always better than less information. So don’t get all your input from Fox News or Deseret Book. Don’t get all your data from the Huffington Post or the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, either. Read and listen enough that you can begin to judge people’s motives and biases. Read and listen enough that you start to understand context and complexity in the real world. There’s hardly an issue, either political or religious, that isn’t a whole lot more complicated than you want it to be. If it’s any consolation, I really can’t think of any aspect of Mormonism that I don’t have questions about. Nothing is simple and straightforward when you dig into the details.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (both Junior and Senior) has been credited with saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is the challenge we face. Too much of what we have been fed by the Church and by politicians is a “simplicity this side of complexity.” It is intended for people who want to be told what to believe. But if we are to arrive at “the simplicity on the other side of complexity,” we must wade into the mire and start sorting things out. I have discovered that one result of this venture is that I believe a lot fewer stories than I used to. I have had to put my judgment regarding the accuracy of many stories on the shelf while I dig into the messy details to determine which parts of these stories ring true and which don’t hold up to careful examination.
One thing I think we can be certain of, though, is that after making a diligent and honest effort to arrive at the truth of any question, religious or political, it is certain to be a more cluttered and complicated “truth” than the institutional Church or any political party is likely to be comfortable with.
1. Jiayang Fan, “Donald Trump through a Loudspeaker, Darkly,” The New Yorker, February 2, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/donald-trump-through-a-loudspeaker-darkly?mbid=nl_TNY%20Template%20-%20With%20Photo%20(129)&CNDID=33622727&spMailingID=10354252&spUserID=MTMzMTgzNzMxNzEyS0&spJobID=1100178277&spReportId=MTEwMDE3ODI3NwS2.
2. Henry L. Miles, “An Old Mormon Writes to Harold Bloom,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 4 (2007): 166.
3. See Marlin K. Jensen, “Church History: Past, Present, and Future,” Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 2 (2008): 42.
4. See D. Michael Quinn, “Background and Fallout of My 1985 Article ‘LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,’” Sunstone 179 (2015). See also “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng&old=true.