Friday, October 17, 2014

Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz

In 1961, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award, which is one of Science Fiction's most prestigious awards.  It has subsequently been honored on many best of science fiction lists, and I believe it deserves every honor.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is a unique, entertaining, and frankly a brilliant book.  It's not only one of the best science fiction books I have ever read, it's one of the best books I have ever read.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is in some ways a fictionalized version of the Durant's excellent little book The Lessons of History.  The way in which the cyclical nature of history is explored in Canticle is masterful.  Broken up into three main sections, the book spans hundreds of years.  The characters change, just as civilizations and populations do, but the themes do not.  Humanity, burdened with its perpetual weaknesses and battling its persistent demons, has to face the horror of its own nature cycle after cycle after cycle.  Can the eventual and cataclysmic conclusion ever be changed or avoided?  A Canticle for Leibowitz asks questions like these and presents our uniquely human moral and ethical dilemmas with such skill it is as didactic as fiction can be without being overwrought, overbearing, or heavy-handed. 

One of the most admirable things about A Canticle for Leibowitz is that the book takes a well-worn, exhausted idea and setting, i.e. a post-apocalyptic world, and does more with it, fictionally, artistically, and thematically, than the myriad of other books which share a genre and setting with it.  Canticle proves that even though there is no truly unique story, a single well written and well thought out story can still overshadow in every way the mountains of fictional rubbish which is published each year.  I can't help but think of our current craze for young adult fiction, which has found a niche in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, and hope that one day a book like Canticle will be read, digested, adapted, and embraced as much as some of the more popular, albeit less thought-provoking, fiction.  Furthermore, I insist this desire isn't some arrogant elitist attitude toward the unwashed plebeian masses.  I want people to read A Canticle for Leibowitz for the same reason I would want them to read To Kill a Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities.  There are important and fundamental ideas and debates presented in Canticle, just like some of humanity's more well-known literary achievements, and they should be read, understood, debated, and explored. 

Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is an excellent book, even a classic.  It's well worth reading, exploring, and discussing.  If you're a lover of science fiction, it's an indispensable addition to your collection.  If you love books and the important ideas they can showcase, you should read this book and maybe humanity can learn a thing or two. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Reflections: Hyperion
3 Reasons Why We Need and Love Stories

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

Shortly before Joseph Smith was martyred, he said: "No man knows my history."  I have been pondering what he meant.  I can say now after reading Richard L. Bushman's excellent book Rough Stone Rolling that I know Joseph Smith and his history a little bit more. 

Joseph Smith has to be one of the most fascinating personalities to have ever graced the American scene.  I say this not because he had eccentric ideas but because those ideas stuck.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is 15 million strong and is growing rapidly every year.  More and more people are coming to know Joseph Smith as a prophet of God in our latter-days and are joining themselves to a Church which claims Joseph as their "prophet of the restoration."  Like the great men and women we study and admire who left an imprint on human history, religious and otherwise, Joseph Smith deserves attention.

The culture of the time is as much a focus of Rough Stone Rolling as Joseph Smith is.  (No wonder the book's subtitle is "A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder").  One of the most difficult aspects of studying history is understanding the culture and milieu of the place and time you're studying.  We too often inflict historical personalities with our own sanctimonious judgments regarding correct behavior and correct viewpoints.  Bushman does a wonderful job of comparing Joseph against his contemporaries and highlighting how we was the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Joseph, like us all, was in a few ways, but certainly not all, a product of his circumstances.

Considering what Joseph Smith accomplished during his forty-four years of life is staggering.  Latter-day Saints believe what John Taylor, third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it" (D&C 135:3).  Even from a non-religious and purely secular perspective, one has to recognize Joseph did some extraordinary things, building cities as much as translating ancient records.  Even with near constant and virulent opposition, Joseph and the early Latter-day Saints accomplished incredible feats.  Rough Stone Rolling provides a rich history which I believe Mormon and non-Mormon alike can appreciate.  The book presents an incredibly dramatic American saga, which any lover of history can benefit from by adding it to their reading collection.

When I began reading Rough Stone Rolling I stated my hope as follows: "I'd like to break down some of the barriers between myself and Joseph as a human being and get to know him as I would if he visited my home and shared dinner with my family."  And what is my verdict?  In large measure, yes, Rough Stone Rolling made Joseph more human, more understandable, and perhaps in some ways even more inexplicable.  He made some decisions which, especially in light of the Saints' precarious position in Illinois in the early 1840s, that simply don't make any sense, such as instituting and practising polygamy.  The question of why is unavoidable.  At this point the opinions diverge.  Latter-day Saints will say he was commanded by God and as a true prophet he would obey, regardless of the consequences.  Non-Mormons have plenty of explanations for why he did what he did, most of them less than positive.  For my part, I believe the former.  I believe he was a prophet of God who acted in good faith toward God and men.  He was human as we all are and his weaknesses and faults are more abundantly testified of by his detractors exactly because he claimed to be a prophet.  It's a lofty and lonely position. 

At the most recent General Conference, Elder Neil A. Anderson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated: "The negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior."  It is noteworthy to point out that Latter-day Saints link the attacks on Joseph's reputation as one of the signs signalling the second coming of Jesus Christ.  Enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know, as well do the Latter-day Saints, that the foundation of the Church's position rests on Joseph Smith's claims to be a prophet called of God.  If he wasn't, then the Church he founded, and the line of priesthood succession continuing through him, must be a fraud.  If he was, then the implications of such a fact are immense, affecting every human life on earth and their life in eternity.  Rough Stone Rolling doesn't answer that question, but it does present an American drama so extraordinary it begs to be read.  Rough Stone Rolling isn't the only worthwhile account, but it is certainly a valuable addition to what will no doubt be a growing literature on Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints.

Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 3

Friday, October 3, 2014

Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 3

I know the story of Joseph Smith.  I've studied the stories about the early Latter-day Saints' struggles and suffering, including their expulsion from three States, to wit: Ohio, Illinois, and most infamously Missouri.  What Rough Stone Rolling has done thus far is provide a layer of depth and complexity I scarcely could imagine.  The early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were messy.  The nascent world organization which we know today—organized, uniform, rigidly hierarchical when it comes to canonized doctrine and policy—looked a lot different in its infancy.  This is expected but nonetheless surprising when my whole experience with the Church has been one of witnessing its clockwork regularity. 

What Rough Stone Rolling does not do is present an image and picture of Joseph Smith that is Job-like; in other words, Joseph had struggles and sacrificed a great deal, but Richard L. Bushman does not describe Joseph as "perfect and upright" (Job 1:1).  The book certainly isn't antagonistic toward Joseph, but it presents a sometimes angry prophet, even impetuous.  It's a side of the prophet, if true, that is a marked difference in how Latter-day Saints normally view him.  Bushman also describes moments of genuine caring and compassion, which is more aligned with Latter-day Saints' common understanding of Joseph, but Bushman appears eager to present another side of this complex personality.  Having said that, Rough Stone Rolling highlights how momentous and staggering Joseph's goals and accomplishments were, and why his failures were so heartbreaking.  Joseph Smith was as much a city-builder as he was a prophet according to Bushman.  He was truly a Moses in his day, regardless of how one may feel about the verity of his mission or claims.

In the controlled chaos of the early days of the Church, there was a flood of revelation given through Joseph to the Latter-day Saints and subsequently the world.  It was almost as if heaven was fed up with holding back the light and truth it regards so dearly and used Joseph as a spigot.  As these revelations poured through Joseph, the new truths, the new visions of heaven, hell, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, caused uproar not only among those on the outside of the Church but on the inside as well.  That aspect of Rough Stone Rolling has been one of the more fascinating historical precedents.  When Joseph revealed Doctrine and Covenants section 76, known in his day simply as the "Vision," some Latter-day Saints were so off-put by its seeming re-definition of heaven and hell they left the Church.  They couldn't reconcile this new revelation with the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which both teach a very binary view of the afterlife.  (The Bible at least hints at elements more fully described in section 76, whereas the Book of Mormon is totally silent on the matter).  These doctrinal dilemmas, personal opinions crashing up harshly against newly revealed doctrine, is still very much a part of a modern Latter-day Saints' experience with the Church.  It is true we don't experience the same kind of flood of revelation which was almost a constant during the early days of the Church, but we are certainly not without controversy within the Church.  (In our day, it appears the trend is to try and change established doctrine instead of struggling with the reception of new doctrine; the Church's position on homosexuality and ordination of women to the priesthood are good examples of this). 

Although Rough Stone Rolling provides incredible detail of Joseph's life, it is important to point out the book strives to be a cultural biography of Joseph.  In consequence, a great deal of his personal life, especially with Emma, his wife, is omitted from Bushman's book.  I find this to be an enormous weakness of the book.  I'm not suggesting the book needed to be an additional 500 pages in order to chronicle all of his familial relations; rather, I believe it's a necessity to read other works to understand Joseph's personal life.  Emma is an indispensable part of Joseph's saga and the history of the Church he established.  Her reputation among Latter-day Saints still prompts debate, albeit the controversy isn't divisive today like it was after Joseph's death.  Joseph dearly loved Emma, and her struggles, especially when it came to Joseph's taking multiple wives, informs our understanding of Joseph Smith and some of the actions he took shortly before his martyrdom. 

I am on the home-stretch of finishing Bushman's incredible Rough Stone Rolling.  My overall opinion of the book is essentially settled, and my excitement to finish the book increases with every page which brings me closer to the dramatic end of Joseph's life.

Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2