Sunday, August 20, 2017

Reflections: That Ye May Believe

That Ye May Believe by Neal A. Maxwell
That Ye May Believe has a wonderful premise; to wit, Neal A. Maxwell wanted to write letters to his grandchildren "as if they were older."  He said "while my answers do not now intersect with their present capacity to so ask questions, it seemed desirable to attempt a blend of anticipation, affection, and counsel."  I adore this idea.  In some ways this little book is a blog before blogs came into existence; albeit, a blog written a whole lot better than most.  Neal A. Maxwell's intellect shows through these brief letters, yes, but so does his sentimentality.

That Ye May Believe as a book is somewhat problematic by definition.  These letterssome several pages in length, others only a few paragraphsoften left me wanting more.  Maxwell was a brilliant writer, thinker, and spiritually influential leader.  I loved reading his commentaries on usually ignored topics.  Someone like Maxwell wouldn'tand rightly sofocus on some of the more mundane topics in his public speeches.  However, his insights on dealing with an unkind friend are as interesting to me as are his comments on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, albeit one topic has more eternal significance than the other.  Similar to The Lord's Way, That Ye May Believe pulls the curtain back a bit on the thinking of men who are not only very, very smart and thoughtful but also had (or have) very important ecclesiastical positions, especially for Latter-day Saints.  It's not canonized scripture, but it is certainly worth understanding and appreciating.

I find the idea of That Ye May Believe wonderful.  Writing letters to your grandchildren in anticipation of questions they have not asked yet is a genealogical gem.  Being somewhat of a writer myself, I was immediately attracted to the idea of doing something similar.  In a way, the various blog posts (including my several Thousander Club book reviews) I have written and will write can be letters to posterityno matter how embarrassing some of them might be in a few years!  Reading That Ye May Believe was a nice reminder to think not only of the current generation but of the many generations yet to come.  Rather than being a vanity project to achieve some fa├žade of immortality, a book like That Ye May Believe shows how meaningful a connection to future generations can be.  Those generations won't need to wonder what Maxwell felt or thought on certain topics and issuessome of the most important, such as his belief in God.  That's not vanity.  That's wisdom.

Although it will leave some readers wanting, such as myself, That Ye May Believe is a great little book.  The book and the writing is brief and conciseto a fault.  I wanted more because Maxwell had so many incredible insights to share.  However, what he did write shows very clearly what he did believe.  And for me, as well as his grandchildren I'm sure, Maxwell has helped me believe as well.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith
Reflections: The Great Divorce

Friday, August 18, 2017

Reflections: The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer
Reading a story like The Iliad does a few thing.  First, it reminds me how little mankind has changed in relation to our desires, our vices, and our virtues.  Second, it reminds me how little stories have changed.  Heroes, villains, gods (or circumstances beyond mortal control), death, honor (or lack thereof), love, hate.  It's all here.  In terms of being a milestone of Western literature, The Iliad deserves its place; nonetheless, readers will have to abandon some of their modern sensibilities when it comes to narrative and structure in order to enjoy it.

Some of the oddities (for a modern audience) of The Iliad's narrative become very apparent very quickly.  For example, the author appears as much interested in providing otherwise irrelevant genealogies in the middle of a frantic battle scene as he does in describing the battle.  This could become tedious, as it did for me at times, for a modern reader. Yet, I felt it provided an interesting insight into what societies of that age valued.  Honor and glory was inextricably linked with family and duty.  Knowing which Trojan slew which Achaean (Greek) was critically important.  Furthermore, readers of today may assume they know certain elements of the story and be somewhat surprised by the "true" story.  For example, the love affair between Helen and Paris is hardly mutual.  Helen despises Paris, as do most of the Trojans, for the misery of war he has brought upon both peoples.  (At the start of the story, which actually chronicles the end of the war and ignores its beginning, the Achaeans are debating over and struggling with what I couldn't help but see as the sunk-cost fallacy).  There is no "true love" story to be found here between the two individuals at the center of the war.

Moving beyond the story's antiquated elements, the myth is as compelling as one would expect.  There is both admirable heroism and repulsive cowardice on display in this tale.  I admit I really enjoy these "Sword and Sandal" stories, especially those which emphasize attributes not usually heralded in modern culture. (Gates of Fire was my favorite fiction book in 2015). When I read the following statement from Odysseus"Though cowards quit the field, a hero, whether he wound or be wounded, must stand firm and hold his own"I am moved by the courage and honor of a bygone era.  Subscribing to the Joseph Campbell school of thought, I think The Iliad showcases those elements of The Hero's Journey we're still witnessing in story after story after story.  To my earlier point, although The Iliad's structure and pacing is odd to us; it's not all that different from our modern stories.  Reading The Iliad not only provides insight into an ancient culture and ancient peoples, it provides insight into ourselves.  We are not all that different from our distant ancestors.

The Iliad is wonderful.  It is, in my opinion, as relevant today as it was when it was first recorded.  True, a reader may have to sift through seemingly irrelevant elements of the story, but the fundamentals of this storylove, loss, war, hate, honor, and, yes, even faithare as compelling today as they were thousands of year ago.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I Have Ever Read

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reflections: Manliness

Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield
Reading a book called Manliness in public is a little awkward.  At first glance it may look like a self-help book to help the unmanly become manly.  Although Harvey C. Mansfield has a few things to say about that, Manliness is far more philosophical and academically esoteric than some would expect.  In fact, who thinks about "manliness" from an intellectual perspective at all?  Mansfield's book is fascinating and important but also a bit laborious.

Manliness attempts to define and re-enshrine manliness in what Mansfield calls a "gender-neutral" society.  Is there a place in such a society for manliness, which the author defines in part as not "mere aggression; it is aggression that develops an assertion, a cause it espouses."  One of the most interesting sections of the book is its exploration of feminism and its precarious relationship with manliness; it both seeks to eradicate it but also embrace it.  Should men be less manly but women more so?  Furthermore, is manliness a social construction or an outward expression of natural impulses?  And even more fundamentally, are women and men truly different?  Mansfield brings his cerebral prowess to bear on these questions and showcases a great deal more thoughtfulness on these questions than is sometimes exhibited.

Although it may seem odd, I am very interested in manliness as a subject of consideration and debate.  From a personal standpoint, I feel attributes of manliness have been disparaged or shunned simply because we don't know how to comfortably fit manly behavior into a gender-neutral society.  Reading a book like Gates of Fire or even canonical texts reminds one that manliness is not only a real thing but even desired.  Of course not all manly behavior, just like not all compromise or all compassion, is inherently good nor should be accepted as beneficial without additional scrutiny.  However, a great deal of manliness as a concept is rejected because it appears exclusionary.  (And on some levels it is).  I think this is a mistake, and I appreciate Mansfield's contribution to a topic I am personally interested in.  I also realize I'm probably a part of a very small audience.

Where Mansfield stumbles is in his insistence on providing far more textual interpretation than is necessary.  Mansfield has plenty to share and opine about without providing pages and pages of commentary on existing texts.  I completely understand the value of establishing concepts and ideas and by doing so with ancient or modern texts.  However, at a certain point the author should realize I'm reading his book for his original ideas and writings, not Aristotle's.  As someone who loves to write and certainly loves to quote other more capable writers, I absolutely see the value in spring boarding from existing knowledge and precedence, but eventually your interpretation of another author's writing becomes much, much less interesting than your own perspectives and outlooks.

Manliness is a challenging book to read. It assumes (or maybe not) familiarity with a variety of authors that many readers may never have read beforemyself included.  I liked the book, and I love the contribution it makes to a topic I care about.  The book's influence might be limited, but I learned a lot about the virtues and dangers of manliness and where it fits in our gender-neutral society.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reflections: Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation
I have wanted to read an Isaac Asimov book for years.  I would pass some of his more popular workssuch as I, Robotin various bookstores time and again.  Finally I decided to begin his Foundation series by picking up Prelude to Foundation.  I generally enjoy science fiction, and for the most part I enjoyed but didn't love Prelude

The most interesting element of Prelude is the conflict surrounding the main character—Hari Seldon—and his theoretical speculation that the future can be predicted.  During an academic conference Hari posits this possibility and quickly gains the notice of the galactic rulers and the inevitable hunt begins.  After all, if a ruler could predict the future, what could possibly threaten his or her perpetuation of power and control?  Perhaps more than the narrative of the book itself, I really enjoyed the idea of what Seldon (and, of course, Asimov) calls "psychohistory."  This comprehensive and predictive worldview requires a much greater understanding of the universe—not merely mathematical but historical, sociological, etc.  That's a cool idea.  I loved the following quote from the book: "How harmful overspecialization is. It cuts knowledge at a million points and leaves it bleeding."  Academics and laypeople alike can glean some wisdom from that poignant statement.

The difficulty with Prelude to Foundation is that it feels somewhat cold.  I never truly connected with Hari Seldon or his companions.  I went along for the ride but wasn't exactly moved by it.  As the title of the book suggests, Prelude is a prequel and certainly feels like it.  After some thought, I wonder if it was good or bad that I started with the prequel rather than with the first book in the series as Asimov wrote it.  I can't say if I would have felt more or less invested in the characters.  As a stand-alone book, Prelude is perfectly adequate but by no means a masterpiece.

And so I find myself asking if I'll continue with the Foundation series.  Probably.  I liked Prelude well enough to want to see where things all end up.  I must admit I probably won't remember too much from the book aside from the concept of psychohistory.  I always like finding a new series to dive into and spend a few years with.  I'm hopeful Asimov's Foundation series can be that new series for me.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Friday, May 26, 2017

Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith

Learning in the Light of Faith
Learning in the Light of Faith is more of a tract than it is a book.  Its brevity is one of its most attractive attributes. (I recently finished reading a book which was over 1,000 pages long, so I was ready for something a bit shorter).  Learning in the Light of Faith is a collection of speeches given to students in the Brigham Young University Honors Program by various LDS scholars and leaders. As can be expected, not all of the speeches are created equal, but the cumulative value is very evident.

Several years ago I read People of Paradox by Terryl Givens.  As a Latter-day Saint, it was an illuminating book and one which had a significant impact on how I saw the Mormon culture I am a part of.  One of the most interesting questions explored in that book was that of education and Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Learning in the Light of Faith provides a brief but valuable answer to the salient questionhow should Latter-day Saints, especially scholars, balance their loyalty and deference to reason and revelation?  With scholars like Neal A. Maxwell, Henry B. Eyring, and Dallin H. Oaks answering portions of that question, this little book is plenty authoritative for me.

I have a personal interest in the topics explored in Learning in the Light of Faith; therefore, I may find it much more interesting than a general audience, even a Latter-day Saint audience.  Although all Latter-day Saints should have a keen interest in educationsecular and spiritualnot all need be a scholar in a secular sense; albeit, the requirement to be a scholar in the spiritual sense isn't wisely ignored.  No doubt this little book is useful for both groups, it's much more relevant for the former group.

Learning in the Light of Faith was a refreshing and energizing exploration of topics I care a lot about.  I love the idea of scholarship, and I love the doctrines of the LDS Church.  Therefore, a book like this speaks directly to some of my most cherished beliefs and convictions.  Even with its brevity, Learning in the Light of Faith has plenty to edify its readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Book of Mormon
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: The Lord's Way