Thursday, January 21, 2010


Two non-blog readers...

People are competitive.

Everything these days is "biological imperative" and "evolutionary conditioning": we gorge on  hamburgers and corn syrup-laden soda pop because salts and fats and sugars were hard to come by for our simian ancestors, all those years ago, and there is some tiny neolithic sensor still pulsing in our brains, telling us to load up on all this life-sustaining goodness, because it won't be here for long.  Promiscuity is more of the same, the ancient lizardy center of our brains impelling us to propagate, that the species might survive.  The Seven Deadly Sins aren't sins at all, but Normal Human Behavior, Extravagance, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy and Pride all natural and completely understandable vestiges of our caveman past.

Competition is part of that.  I regularly jump into that particular vortex, most recently when I stumbled onto a blog which was much like this one in many, many ways (that is, too many words and too much navel gazing), except that it was called something like "From Miserable Mormon to Happy Atheist" and its followers numbered in the hundreds, and the site had had thousands of hits.

I spent a few black moments, feeling thwarted and unsuccessful because this woman, who is a half-decent writer, has found her audience, and I can't even get my mother to read my posts.  And the Happy Atheist has an audience: there are many turgid messages, from people who have abandoned all sorts of religious traditions, but mostly content ex-Mormons, thanking her for her Courage and her Wisdom and her Example, for bravely unhinging the shackles of her benighted and suffocating superstitions, and entering  Nihilism's sweet embrace (maybe that's harsh.  Maybe she's not a nihilist, exactly.  As Robertson Davies notes, the one thing that atheists believe in is themselves, usually with a Weimar-like rate of inflation: "A man who recognizes no God is probably putting an inordinate value on himself.")

There is an interesting arithmetic at work here: anyone from Aaron the priest to Aaron Spelling will tell you that appealing to people's baser instincts will win you friends and make you money.  If I were to change the entire focus of this blog to something more palatable to the worser devils of our nature -- Handsome Nude People, say, or Donuts -- I would probably have a lot more visitors, and more comments (though they would all be along the lines of "More photos like this one please" and "Ooooh! Yummy! And the Donuts look good, too!") and that little lizardy lump in my brain, the one that Yearns For Acknowledgement, would tell me, "Yesssss, well done, my precious."

That's not the point.  Mormonism -- and this will be a surprise to many Mormons, particularly those who live in Utah and are afflicted by a myopathy so acute that one recent transplant to Houston expressed a fair amount of shock to discover that Costcos in Texas do not carry a full array of LDS books and tchotkes, like they do in Orem -- is barely a blip on the world's radar screen (I was at a State Priesthood Leadership Meeting not too long ago when a high Church official mentioned that there were now more Mormons than Jews.  I couldn't resist pointing out that a few decades back, history handed worldwide Judaism a 6,000,000 member deduction, so maybe our victory should carry an asterisk in the record books.  Comments like that are probably why I am no longer required to attend Priesthood Leadership Meetings).  Those aware of the blip, those wholly dedicated to making the blip a great glowing blob, are often far more committed to the cultural barnacles attached to the movement -- BYU Football, Donny Osmond, our love of Jell-O, the fact that a panoply of Noteworthy Figures, from Dennis Eckersley to Philo Farnsworth to Christina Aguilera to Amy Adams, have some tenuous connection to the Church, and therefore, despite their complete estrangement from its doctrines and tenets, are Among The Faithful -- than to the movement itself.

Christianity as a whole fairs little better.  As G.K. Chesterton famously notes, mostly it is found difficult, and not tried: the bulk of what passes for Christianity is actually prejudices, superstitions, rumors, misremembered vestiges of catechism or Sunday School, and, for some at least, liberal doses of the oeuvres of Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, while others apply a heavy schmeer of the lunatic ramblings of Pat Robertson or, even worse, the limp and lifeless cheerleading of the oh so sincere Pastor Joel Osteen, the Richard Simmons of bonehead religiosity.  I am fairly certain that the same is true for Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam: most of the people professing adherence have no idea what the religion is actually about.  I suppose that even Druid true believers get frustrated at the sodden incompetence of the bulk of their kinsmen ("That's no way to worship an oak tree!  This is just depressing.")

(You may think I overstep with the Mafia moviemakers reference.  I do not.  About 12 years ago, and I swear that this is true, I visited an Elders Quorum meeting in a ward in Texas, and a man said, in all seriousness, "Brethren, it's like the Lord says in the New Testament: 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.'"  Many heads nodded in agreement at this sage advice from the Man from Galilee, except Jesus didn't say it; Michael Corleone does, in Godfather II.  And Mike tells Frankie Pentangeli that he'd learned this particular truth from his father, Don Corleone.  As for Pastor Joel, I prescribe for him repeated readings of Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself" and lots  and lots of Paul.  And maybe some King Bejamin or Jacob, if reading from the Book of Mormon doesn't cause his eyeballs to spontaneously combust.)

Christians -- true, committed followers of Jesus Christ -- are a rare breed.  I'd like to think that I am one, but mostly, I fall far short of that mark.  It is not an easy life.  It is a life of service, and sacrifice, of constantly, consciously walking away from the "the natural man," of rejecting that little primitive voice in our heads, telling us to sate our lusts, whether the lust that draws us is sex or fame or food or power.  It is a constant expectation that we will bend our will to a God we cannot see and cannot touch, a God whose presence, whose very existence is usually no more than a whisper at the very edges of our conscious.  It is a determination to press on, usually against the prevailing norms, even when we have all the reason in the world to doubt, to disbelieve.  Prevailing norms change, which is why Martin Luther dismissed reason as "a whore" and a threat to faith.  Faith is illogical, unnatural, unchanging, the message a constant "Doubt not, but believe," which is why it is at once difficult and necessary.

One of the most wonderful things I have ever heard came from the lips of Jeffrey R. Holland, a man I personally acknowledge as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, who said that we know virtually nothing about the Afterlife, that nearly all that is said about it is conjecture and supposition (how often do you hear anyone have the courage to declare, "I Don't Know"?)  What we do know, Elder Holland said, "is there will be families there."  I don't know Heaven.  I don't know what transpired in Gethsemane's garden or on Golgotha's hill.  I don't know what happened to Joseph Smith in that grove of trees back in 1820.  But beyond my senses, beyond reason, I know.

I know because of my grandmother's huge crucifix and my grandfather's rosary and Bible (a Bible read and well-worn) and my father in his bathrobe, stooped and dying from cancer, curled on his bed, reading the Book of Mormon.  I know because Piotr Litwin got on a boat and sailed to a new country, and James Ocean McMurray did the same.  I know because my mother, true to the legacy of the saint whose name she bears, pressed on in a hopeless cause, and found that it was not so hopeless, after all.  I know because of my wife, who prays with real intent, and loves perfectly. I know because of three bright and altogether wonderful children who are uncannily well-equipped to stretch me in all the ways I need stretching.  I know because of a million whispers, more felt than heard, eye blink brief but somehow lasting, telling me to press forward, to keep working, to be happily, gratefully, blessedly obscure.

So I remain, fitfully, inefficiently striving to be like Jesus, who, I am sure, didn't worry too much about the competition.

Tomorrow, a bit about the World War I draft.

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