Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections: Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith

Latter-day Saint Sunday school classes are filled with commentaries, quotes, and doctrine related to the early years of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Those formative years of a growing but bewildered new religion are sources of inspiration (and sometimes controversy) for Latter-day Saints. In the Nauvoo period in particular, Latter-day Saints explore the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith mostly as it relates to the Saints' eventual exodus to the West, leaving behind the more nuanced circumstances of who and why. Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith lets the reader linger and learn some of those nuances.

To begin with, I greatly underappreciated how much politics played into the assassination of Joseph Smith. Although he had declared himself to be a candidate for President of the United States of America, the real political forces working toward his demise were local. With the Saints' growing population in Nauvoo and by extension Hancock County, Illinois, the "old citizens" became increasingly worried over the shifting political balance. It is the nature of a democratic government to reflect the majority of those it governs. Therefore, with more Mormons comes more Mormon public officials or those sympathetic to Mormon interests. Although religious bigotry and persecution was clearly an element of the Saints' eventual expulsion, the more interesting storyin my opinionis how those anti-Mormon feelings fed into political agitation and upheaval.

Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill's recreation of the conspirator's trial doesn't exactly explode off the page but was enthralling nonetheless. As mentioned earlier, well-known and much discussed Mormon history pivots after the martyrdom to the Western epoch and essentially leaves the fallout of the assassination to a small coterie of interested scholars. As a Latter-day Saint, I genuinely had no idea what the outcome of the trial would be, albeit I had my suspicions. As with any history, the true but refined version we're usually presented immediately becomes more subtle and opaque as you read the words of multiple witnessesmany of which had competing accounts to tell and disparate interests to protect. The trial is the central focus of the book and the periodic commentaries from the authors is instructive. In order to understand this trial, the reader must appreciate the workings of criminal law and the cultural influences of a different time and place.

Carthage Conspiracy is not for the layman when it comes to Mormon history. Although the authors attempt to provide as much background as possible to the events discussed, I imagine it would be difficult for a non-Mormon with little knowledge of the Mormon Church and its history to be able to understand or care much about what this book explores. I don't fault the authors for this since attempting to truly explain the origins of Mormon history and culture would be far too onerous for a book with a deliberately limited scope. I would think and hope that others who do have a background in Latter-day Saint history and culture would be able to enjoy this book.  Although some may be turned off or confused by the commentaries on legal theory and practice, I found it utterly fascinating and appreciate this treatise as a lovely addition to my growing collection of books related to Latter-day Saint history.

Carthage Conspiracy is an exploration of a mostly unknown moment in human history (even for Latter-day Saints), which is of most interest to a very small group of people. It is nonetheless worth reading, especially for Latter-day Saints. We honor the man who was assassinated, but what came of his accused assassins?  Carthage Conspiracy provides the answer and pushes the reader on to many more compelling questions.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: Enoch the Prophet

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reflections: Neuromancer

Neuromancer was the first book to win the "triple crown" of the science fiction genrethe Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.  It's an impressive achievement for a mildly coherent book.  Considering the book was written in 1984 testifies to the author's vision, but it seemed obvious to me that these ideas were so new it was a challenge to actually write about them.

Neuromancer can certainly be lauded for its prescience.  Its influence in the science fiction genrewhich can be seen in films like The Matrix and Inception and in books like Ready Player Oneis noteworthy.  As far as I know, the premise of Neuromancer was ground-breaking.  "Cyberspace," "the matrix," and virtual worlds weren't fully unexplored at the time of its publication.  All of this is admirable from a creative standpoint; I want to give credit where credit is due.  Yet, I found the narrative of Neuromancer to be at times confusing and illusory.  There were many times I genuinely did not know what was happening, even after re-reading certain passages or paragraphs several times.  I wouldn't consider myself a novice reader, but this one sometimes left me perplexed.

Furthermore, the main protagonist of Neuromancer is hardly someone I would sympathize with.  He spends half the book on drugs.  The world of Neuromancer, at least the world presented to the reader, is dark and squalid.  The relationships between characters are barely human, and it all leaves the reader feeling as alone as the characters.  This book isn't very fun to read.  I don't need a "toothpaste commercial," but I also am fine with leaving such miserable and broken characters behind when I've finished a book like Neuromancer.

Appearing on a great many "best of" science fiction book lists, I figured I would see what Neuromancer had to offer.  I now know it has a lot to offer in creativity and futurism but a little less to offer in terms of narrative and enjoyment.  The book gave me a few things to think about but nothing to really sustain my curiosity.  I can say I've read it, but I can't say I liked it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Ready Player One
Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Reflections: Enoch the Prophet

Enoch the Prophet is the third volume in the collected works of Hugh Nibley. After having read only three volumes, I already feel the immense wait of Nibley's work. The man was truly prolific. As with his other works, Enoch the Prophet is a dive into the deep-end of the academic and theological pool, and I think the water is lovely.

As the title of the volume suggests, Enoch the Prophet is an exploration of the prophet Enoch as found within Latter-day Saint canon and doctrine, as well as found in ancient texts. It is in the ancient text that Latter-day Saints will find the most intriguing comparisons. Enoch is hardly mentioned in the Old Testamentalbeit he is referenced by Jude in the New Testament, which I did not realize until reading this book.  Joseph Smith revealed additional scripture in the Pearl of Great Price that showcases Enoch and his prophecies. In fact, some of the most empathetic insights into God we have are found in Enoch's words, as revealed by Joseph Smith.  Nibley recognizes this and spends a tremendous amount of time comparing some of those most unique doctrines with the writings found in ancient texts. Are the same themes found? Are the same events chronicled?  Nibley is enthusiastic in his comparative study and asserts the similarities between the Pearl of Great Price record and the little known and little studied (up to that point) ancient texts is some of the most convincing evidence we have of Joseph's prophetic calling.

Not being a trained theologian, it is interesting to me to read about some of the academic methodologies for studying ancient texts. Furthermore, I didn't know something like theodicy even existed. When discussing the doctrine of Christ, D. Todd Christofferson once said that some "faith traditions" rely on "ecumenical councils of the Middle Ages and their creeds. Other place primary emphasis on the reasoning of post-apostolic theologians or on biblical hermeneutics and exegesis." Reading Nibley has given me some insight into those esoteric corners of human knowledge and study. The finding and studying of ancient documents and how they compare to biblical texts causes contention and debate in the Christian world.  Yet, to be frank, the great majority of Christians, and most Latter-day Saints, aren't paying much attention.  I'm not suggesting they have to in order to solidify their faith, but I have found this information presented by Nibley to be challenging and affirming.  It seems obvious after reading Nibley that the Lord is at work in many ways I hadn't fully appreciated before.

Enoch the Prophet opens several doors I didn't even know existed.  I learned more about my own faith and its canon, as well as more about the nature of ancient texts and why they would be relevant and important to us today.  This book, like Nibley's other books, is not for the casual reader.  These volumes require work and intellectual effort. I highly recommend them but only for those willing to pay the price to understand them.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Old Testament and Related Studies
Reflections: Temple and Cosmos
Reflections: Faith Precedes the Miracle

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rebuttal: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman
Guest writer Cliff Ward shares a rebuttal to my review of The Third Policeman.  Is it not so bad after all?

Shenpa. The term comes from Tibetan Buddhism, or at least the Pema Chodron version. Its literal definition is difficult to verify, but meditation teachers generally open by calling it a fishing hook. And then they us the word “hook” to describe anything that we needlessly obsess about, or spend too much time being distracted by. In other words, Shenpa is all that is irrelevant to having peace and happiness, and meditation, according to these teachers, is the key to remaining unhooked. The Third Policeman is a Shenpa object lesson. It doesn’t tell us how to pull the hooks out, but it does show us in book length what being hooked really means so that we can identify some of the less prominent hooks most of us are pierced with from time to time, like the overwhelming need to possess complete answers to questions and challenges, or placing more value on what is temporary than what can be eternal—family, truth, love, good will. 

Thus, the atomic theory of bicycles. If a man spends so much time with what is temporary and irrelevant that the man and his hooks become indistinguishable, is there really a man left at all?  Has he given away what makes him a man for, ultimately, nothing? O’Brien/O’Nolan said, “Answers do not matter so much as questions . . . A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.” I don’t agree that this applies to all questions, but in fiction, with its freedom for exploration and conjecture, the absence of answers provided by the author (perhaps to questions unanswerable by the author) extends a challenge to us, the readers, the thinkers, the hooked, and the unhooked, alike.  Can we answer the difficult questions about the consequences of our less invasive hooks?  Where are they, how can we pull them out, what will it take to heal the wounds?  What percentage of ourselves is something else, something that shouldn’t be occupying our bodies and minds at all (what’s our number?)?  Fiction is true for this reason: it asks questions we hadn’t thought of yet, and specific answers only come from specific questions. 

The Third Policeman is one of those books, like the poems of Emily Dickinson for me, that requires the reader to be in a near-hostile psychological or emotional condition in order to appreciate it. If the reader is not already in that place, the book is liable to take them there. And regardless of the old axiom that “adversity is the best education,” and the fact that much good can come from a sour mood, it is unlikely that anyone would willingly leave behind happy contentment for melancholic ennui. However, in the way a sad song can sooth the sting of a lost love or a crappy job, or the way Greek tragedy can bring forth and drain dry the toxins of the soul, The Third Policeman has the power to uncover the futility and associated suffering of self-centeredness and an obsession with irrelevancies. It is a living Hell that is depicted in the novel, one that shows us consequences that—like Meth Project Foundation ads—work to deter us from those misdirected priorities. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel when I read it, aside from the atomic theory of bicycles bit, but I have thought about it a lot since that reading. And I think the value of the book is not in its slight and dark attempts at humor, or in its surreal absurdity (though there is a certain realm of pleasure that those things permit access to). It’s in the stylistic method used to teach the same old lessons in a unique way—don’t be selfish; don’t spend all of your time looking for answers to the wrong questions; don’t value your possessions above people, or you may end up a possession yourself.

- Cliff Ward 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Third Policeman

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Reflections: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell is a talented writer. Unlike many authors, he is able to write about potentially banal topics in a fresh and neoteric way. Having read The Tipping Point, I had a good idea as to what to expect with Outliers and found some familiar territory and style. Outliers is a good book, worthy of challenge and discussion.

Outliers purports to be "The Story of Success." Rather, it seeks to subvert some of our cultural and societal expectations of how success is achieved. In many ways, it seeks to undercut the myth of the rags to riches, scrappy loner, clawing and climbing his or her way to the top all by their lonesome. In Gladwell's words: "No one - not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses - ever makes it alone." Gladwell provides, with convincing clarity, that the most successful among us were assisted by incredible opportunities, family relationships, cultural heritage, and sometimes blind luck. All of this true; however, I did feel the book emphasized too much the circumstantial elements of success toward the beginning of the book. Regardless of circumstances, as Gladwell points out, unless an individual is willing and engaged in taking advantage of opportunities, then it doesn't matter how serendipitous their circumstances are. Having said that, I do feel the book corrected its emphasis repeatedly and kept things in focus. Of the several ideas presented in the book, the 10,000 hours rule (which has plenty of critics) is perhaps the most popular and well-known, and that idea clearly emphasizes the importance of hard work.

Parenthetically, I think the book, like most commentaries on "success," has too specific a definition of success. Success isn't necessarily (and shouldn't be) linked most directly to material and financial acquirement. Those who are considered "poor" can be perfectly successful when that word is more broadly defined. Furthermore, an exceptionally wealthy person could be considered, according to certain definitions, to be a very unsuccessful person. Consider, for example, the following axiom, which I consider to be wise and true: "[N]o other success can compensate for failure in the home" (David O. McKay).  The outliers detailed in Gladwell's book are outliers of a certain kind but not necessarily the most important kind.

Continuing on, perhaps the idea I found most interesting in Outliers was its exploration of the impact of cultural heritage and legacy. The discussion of plane crashes and the cultural communication problems which appear to be their cause was enthralling. As someone professionally and personally interested in communication and its impact, I found the insights provided by Outliers to be supremely useful and applicable. There is education to be found here, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Gladwell's conclusions and prescriptions.

I enjoyed Outliers. Although not a monumental achievement, and no doubt deconstructed and "debunked" by many after so many years of being published, the book is a fine contribution to the conversation regarding success, opportunity, and hard work.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow