The Greatest Danger

Last year I read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” a history of Nazi Germany. A few things struck me. One was the terrible state of Germany after World War I. This is an aspect of history we don’t talk enough about, possibly because we – the Allied victors of World War I – inflicted this on Germany. We talk about hyperinflation and a failing economy, but this book showed what those concepts, which I’ve never experienced, meant on the ground.

If I’d been asked to describe the conditions of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, I might have described the scenes I saw in photos of from the U.S. – bread lines, tents in parks, men sleeping in rail cars.But this was far worse. The German government in most places lacked any sort of legitimacy. Armed bands of former soldiers roamed the country, pillaging and taking what they wanted. Germany was a dangerous, terrible place to be at the time.

It’s not surprising that when someone stood up and said, “Stick it to those bastards who forced this on us,” the people cheered him on. When he put bread on their tables, they turned a blind eye as his soldiers started rounding up their neighbors. He gave them a working economy. He gave them safety. He gave them self-respect. The only cost was turning in those who worshiped God differently.

Of course, over time what was “German” became narrower. It wasn’t enough to not be a Jew. You couldn’t be disabled. You couldn’t be gay. Eventually you couldn’t support anything he deemed unGerman. Neighbors spied on each other and turned each other in. Even children were recruited to spy on their parents. Relationships didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was loyalty to the party, which meant loyalty to Hitler.

It’s hard not to see the parallels elsewhere. In the 1960s, Chairman Mao worried that the people were losing their revolutionary fervor. So, he called for a cultural revolution. He wanted an end to anything that was deemed feudal – anything that tied people to the past rather than the communist future. If it didn’t support Mao’s brand of communism, it needed to be destroyed. Centuries of history were lost as art, books, and artifacts across China were burned and destroyed.

The things weren’t the end though. People who supported old ideas needed to go, too. No one knows how many died, but at the least, it was in the hundreds of thousands. Many of those were the doctors, teachers, scientists, and politicians. Students and children turned on their elders. No one cared about the knowledge and experience they were losing. All that mattered was purity of thought. You needed to support the ideas of the party, which meant the ideas of Mao.

Both of these tragedies happened, in part, because the people were told – and accepted – that others did not fit the full definition of their group. Those lost in the Holocaust and those lost in the Cultural Revolution – millions upon millions of lives – were lost not because two evil men hated them. They weren’t lost because people were too conservative or too liberal. They were lost because fervor for the party, loyalty to the leader, became the only driver for people’s actions. The drive to be ideologically pure led to hatred or, at the best, lack of concern, for those who didn’t fit the mold.

Contrast this with a lesson from the New Testament. When asked what the greatest commandments were – the most important rules given by God – He taught that they are to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. When asked who is our neighbor, Jesus told a story not about fellow Jews or pagan Romans. He told a story about the Samaritans – the people the Jews felt had corrupted themselves and abandoned the truth. The Jews wouldn’t associate with the Samaritans in any way. They would interact with Romans, but not Samaritans. These were the neighbors he instructed the Jews to love.

We’ve entered a year in which passions will run hot. There’s a lot of fear. Christians worry they might be asked to compromise deeply held values. Minorities worry discrimination will continue to increase. The sick don’t know how they’ll pay their hospital bills. Immigrants are afraid they’ll be forced to leave the country they’ve sacrificed so much to get to. The young are afraid they’ll be stuck with a broken climate and immense debt. It’s not surprising that emotions are intense. That’s a lot!

With all this fear, it’s not surprising to me when I read about people who stop associating with friends on “the other side.” It can hurt to hear that someone you were friends with supports a politician or position you feel is harmful. But if we divide ourselves from the Samaritans, what have we accomplished? We don’t avoid a Holocaust by separation.

So, is it a small thing to love your neighbor? Test it out. Walk outside and meet your neighbor. Go to the park, the library, a local coffee shop. Talk to someone. Or start a conversation on social media with someone you know holds different positions than you. Don’t talk about politics. Talk about sports, the weather, your hobbies. Get to know your neighbor. Find something in common. And remember that conversation as the election draws near. Remember that blue or red; progressive, moderate, or conservative; pro-life or pro-choice; we’re all stuck here together. We share this country and we have to get along. We will work it out. We have to. Because no one wins the alternative.

What do you do?

I dread this question.

Well, that’s a little strong. I don’t like this question. I avoid asking it and I don’t really like when others ask me.

Why? Because it’s hard to answer. The expectation is that I say one thing – my career. I often go with the easiest answer – I’m a lawyer. Most people don’t really want to hear the full answer: I studied law so I do some work in the area, but I also take care of the kids and house and I’m spending more time writing also; you may also be wondering how we provide for ourselves, and my wife is the full-time breadwinner and she’s an engineer.

There’s also residual guilt from growing up in a culture that teaches the man must be the full-time breadwinner, so I want to provide the context that my wife finds her work more fulfilling and engaging than I did and she had better opportunities and I also think it’s important that a parent is at home and…well, it could get long and full of details few people want to know.

But does that mean it’s a bad question? No, I just need to work on my answer.

So, what do I do?

I’m a father. I know, I know, it doesn’t really answer your question. You could see I’m a dad from the toys around the house, the cheerios in my hand, the kids running around. But I list it first because, to me, it is the most important thing. I’m willing to sacrifice career for it because my family has the blessing of being able to be a one-income household. I also think that it should be more acceptable, and more expected, that fathers sacrifice for their families. It’s far too common for us to accept and expect women to sacrifice career goals for family while men are expected to sacrifice family for careers. If we seek more balance, our workplaces and our homes will be all the better for it.

I am a lawyer. I became a lawyer because I believe in the importance and value of law to our society. I believe that society is better off with lawyers – people who dedicate their careers to understanding the rules of society and using those rules to keep things running relatively smoothly. I do some work for local clients to, hopefully, improve their lives a little. I will also probably write about legal things in this blog because these are the kinds of things I think about. Though I’m not in love with the little details of the law. I like the big picture stuff, policy-level stuff. I did a lot better at Constitutional Law than Civil Procedure (though I did learn from Civ Pro why the “due process of law” – how we interpret it – matters).

I am a writer. I write for lots of reasons. I want to tell stories because stories help us understand our world and ourselves better. I want to ask questions because questions lead us to better ideas. I want to discuss ideas because it is fascinating and fun to explore how ideas connect and relate to each other. I want to get things out of my head because I am in a better place mentally and emotionally when I have time to write.

One final note, because this relates to why I didn’t become a writer from the outset of my adult life. I want to write a little defense of those who dedicate their lives to “entertainment.” These storytellers are important to society. I’m broadening storyteller here to include not just authors, but also screenwriters, directors, actors, singers, maybe even painters and video game programmers and more. Some people rag on these professions because they aren’t doing “valuable work.” They couldn’t possibly provide any valuable input for society.

I beg to differ. First, if society didn’t value their work, then why do we spend so much money on it? Second, they’re just people. Some of them, particularly the most visible, are wealthy and some act badly. But that has less to do with them being in entertainment and more to do with them being people. Finally, storytellers, in trying to tell stories, seek to understand people. They may not understand all the complex interactions of law, economics, foreign policy, etc., but I think we should be grateful when these people who we accuse of being self-centered use their platform to speak on behalf of others. Even if we don’t agree with what they advocate, telling someone they shouldn’t engage in trying to improve society is the wrong approach.

Storytellers also, in trying to perfect their craft, learn truths about the world that go deeper than the creeds of religion and politics. That doesn’t mean everything they say is true, just that we should see if there is something we can learn from them. I’m not arguing for the worship of celebrity, just that we shouldn’t discount an opinion because it came from a storyteller.

What is your iron rod?

I have a bad habit and I suspect I’m not alone. I’m easily influenced by the thinking of people I like.

When I was a teenager, I discovered an author I really enjoyed. I read his books and loved them. I read every word in those books, even the foreword or afterword, or wherever he wrote about his writing process. Then I discovered his blog. I read it voraciously.

And he didn’t just write about books. He wrote about movies and politics, too. The politics stuck in my mind. I must have talked about them with my parents, because at some point my dad gave me a warning: don’t rely on one person for your political views. (Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words.)

That lesson has stuck with me, despite my faltering attempts to implement it. If I recognize that I am a little too fixated on one person’s view of a subject, I search around for a different perspective to balance it out. This applies, of course, to more than just politics. The world is a big place and no single person gets it all. Somewhere in this mist is a path towards that light, with a firm, immovable pole – an iron rod – we can hold too that will keep us on the path.

Readers of the Book of Mormon will recognize Lehi’s dream here. As we read the chapters discussing it this week, I thought about how Joseph Smith must have felt as he translated this portion of the Book of Mormon. You see, his father had a similar dream. There’s a passage in these chapters, repeated a few times later in the Book of Mormon, that says “[God] is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Perhaps that struck Joseph Smith as he pondered on the fact that God sent his own father and the ultimate father figure of the Book of Mormon (most of the book is about Lehi’s descendants) a similar dream.

Others have a different reaction. They see this as evidence that Joseph Smith is the author, rather than just the translator, of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith drew from his own experiences (such as his father’s dream), his own questions (some of the passages of the Book of Mormon address pressing theological issues of Joseph’s time), and his knowledge of the Bible (significant portions of the Book of Mormon quote the King James Version of the Bible) to write the Book of Mormon.

When trying to understand religious questions, such as the truth of the Book of Mormon or the existence of God or the problem of pain, we can feel like we are in a dark mist, obscuring our sight. We look for an iron rod. We may come across someone who says something that makes something solid out of the mist around us. We may treat those words like that pole – we hold tight, thinking that these words will lead us out of the mist and into the light.

As a teenager, I saw some confusing things about the world. I read that author’s blog and clung tight, thinking it was leading me toward light. It did have some light. But in the years since, I’ve also recognized where he got some things wrong.

I only recognized those problems because I looked to other viewpoints and questioned the one I was already following. Had I continued to treat his words as the way to truth, I would be more lost in the mist, rather than (as I like to suppose) a little closer to the light. I found that what I had thought was an iron rod had rusted to pieces and left me grasping mist.

The reason some people’s words capture us more than others is because the things they say just make sense. They make sense because our individual paths, the iron rod we try to construct for ourselves, align. For some, a guiding principle is that “God the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” He will send a similar vision to Lehi and Joseph’s father; He will provide answers from ancient prophets to modern readers; He will speak the same words to both Biblical and Book of Mormon prophets (and prompt them to copy portions of the scriptures they had).

Others whose guiding principle is, perhaps, that anything that can be explained without the supernatural must be explained without it, will see Joseph Smith as using the resources at hand to construct a narrative that fit his own purposes. Each possible source will be more acceptable than God or His Spirit.

We only see, as Paul says, “through a glass darkly.” We have limited time, limited intellect, limited understanding. We piece together truths as best we can so that we can function day-to-day. But we need to take care to investigate our guiding principles. These two groups look at the same facts and interpret them very differently because that rod they cling to – the principle that guides them through life – is very different. What paths are we constructing for ourselves and why? How closely do they align with the path and iron rod that leads toward truth? How do we avoid the rod that will rust in our hands and cling to the one that actually leads to the light?

Why do we argue with our friends?

Why do we have such trouble communicating online?

I saw a comedy sketch in college about the people on your Facebook feed (tangent: here’s a video probably inspired by the sketch. It’s largely by the same group, who started a sketch comedy show called Studio C, then a Youtube Channel called JK Studios). It was pretty funny, but I remember thinking afterwards: if we get annoyed at people posting religious stuff, baby stuff, personal stuff, political stuff, food stuff…what’s left to post?

Perhaps we should ask, why do we post things online at all? Here’s one potential reason:

Opportunity Rover

I’m not exploring Mars like I dreamed of doing as a kid, but there are things that excite me (surprise, surprise). They’re more exciting when I get to share them! I want you to see that cute baby face. I want you to feel the joy I did when I saw her.

But maybe you can’t have kids. Maybe you’ve chosen not to. Maybe you just don’t like kids. So you don’t feel the joy I did. You feel hurt or annoyed. You wanted to see something interesting and instead you just saw the 20th baby post of the day.

Even if there is no particular reason to dislike a post, perhaps the most widespread annoyance is that you didn’t ask for it. Sure, you chose to follow me, friend me, etc., but one of the dangers of social media is that we don’t always know the hobby horses of our friends and acquaintances until we’re already following them.

When it’s so easy to publish something, it’s easy to forget that communication is a two-way thing. Sure, I post things hoping to get a positive response, but it’s so easy to post thinking that people will automatically feel what I felt.

And so you complain about the baby photo I posted. Maybe you just want me to know that you want to see something other than a baby photo. After all, you friended me after rock-climbing together. You thought you’d see more climbing posts. But I don’t take that well. You didn’t respond the way I wanted. Not only that, but you have said something negative about something that I feel strongly about. So we argue.

So how do we post things that won’t break up friendships and create family drama? How do we stop arguing with our friends?

I have one suggestion:

Consider your audience.

Recognize that only some will respond the way you do. They may not need an explanation with that cute baby photo. But for others, I can simply write something with the photo. “Look at my cute baby. This face brings me so much joy! What brings you joy?”

I’ve turned the post from a “look at what’s great about my life” post into a “let’s both share things that make us happy.” I’ve shown some consideration for my audience.

I’m not an expert at this. I have posted things without considering my audience. Some I’m aware of. I’m sure there are others I am not because you chose not to comment. But I’m trying to improve.

What other ways can we share better and argue less?

Coming to Terms with The Book of Mormon

One of the more interesting facets of my beliefs is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a book similar to the Bible in that it claims to tell the story of ancient worshipers of God and their interactions with Him and the people around them.

Of course, there are differences. The Bible is a collection of books gathered together by a variety of people over centuries and millennia. We have copies of some of its pages that are 2000 years old. It mentions people and places that have been corroborated through archaeological evidence (though to say that archaeology proves the Bible is a stretch).

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is largely one book, written by a handful of men. Mormon and his son Moroni, prophets and historians (or at least record keepers) wrote and collected most of it. Only one uneducated man – Joseph Smith – translated it to English, with a few others acting as scribes. Though archaeologists have found evidence of multiple civilizations across the Americas, none of them them can be tied with any certainty to the peoples mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

The other night my 6-year-old daughter asked how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. This would have been an easy question to answer once. I would have shown her a picture like this one. I would explain what I understood from my childhood: that he looked at the plates and, after thinking for a time, he would give the English translation to the person acting as his scribe. Often there was a sheet between himself and the scribe so that they could not see the plates.

Joseph Smith didn’t say much about how he translated the Book of Mormon. He simply said it was by the power of God. I’m not sure exactly how the version I described above came about. I haven’t spent a ton of time researching, but no one I have read describe translation in this manner.

The statements we have from those who helped with the translation are a little different. When Joseph Smith found the plates, he also found two stones set in a breastplate – the Urim and Thummim (verse 52 in the link). Joseph Smith was told by an angel that the Urim and Thummim were prepared for the translation of the plates. Now, this is a portion of the story I grew up reading. I remember wondering what the deal with the breastplate was. I have the idea in my mind that he may have worn the breastplate, which allowed him to translate. As before, in my brief research time I haven’t found support for this. it may be the product of my imagination.

In another account, this one supported by one of Joseph’s scribes, the stones were set in a sort of spectacle frame, so he could wear them like glasses. When he looked at the plates, the words appeared as English (see the article linked at the bottom of this post for more).

Finally, we have the mode that has provided the most fodder for the mockers: he would place the stones in a hat, then place his face inside. The words would appear in the stones and he would read them aloud.

But wait, there’s more! The Urim and Thumim were only one tool he used. Joseph Smith had found a stone years earlier that he called a seer stone. Once the translation process began, he used this stone in the hat interchangeably with the Urim and Thummim.

Does this sound ridiculous? I won’t deny that. But I would ask you to consider, how should God communicate to a prophet? Should he use methods that are more pedestrian? More normal? What exactly is normal about God speaking to a man? Is there a method which wouldn’t lead you to think the man might be a little crazy? Or at least deluded?

As I shared some of this, in a condensed version, with my 7-year-old, I didn’t know where I would go. I hadn’t learned some of this until I was in college. How did I explain it to a her? As I talked, I simply went to the conclusion I’ve come to – the way Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon isn’t that important. He may have used a variety of methods. What matters is that it was by the power of God. All of these methods show God’s hand. Only God could have done this.

If I believe that God has spoken to prophets, I don’t see a barrier to believing this is how he spoke to Joseph Smith. Is it any wilder than looking at a brass serpent to be healed? Or creating the world with a word? More far-fetched than parting the Red Sea with a rod? Or healing a blind man with dirt and spit?

Miraculous acts are part and parcel of being a Christian. I’m not sure where the boundary of “too miraculous” should be.

But, the scriptures do contain warnings that miraculous acts alone are insufficient to prove that someone is a servant of God. How do we tell if a miracle-worker is from God? We must also look at their fruits.

Here are a few teachings from the Book of Mormon that have impacted my life, and help me to believe it is from God:

  • Through faithful prayer, we can obtain forgiveness and have our hearts turned to the welfare of others. Enos.
  • We find happiness in obeying God. Mosiah 2:41.
  • Christ not only suffered for our sins, but felt every mortal pain. Alma 7:11-13.
  • Belief isn’t a one time get-it-or-don’t event. It can be nurtured and grown over time, by testing the word of God. Alma 32:28-32.
  • The Holy Ghost is a gift anyone can receive if they seek God. It will teach them truth. 1 Nephi 10:17-18.

I’ll close with my own experience that I’ve come back to as I’ve explored my faith. Moroni, the final author of the Book of Mormon, closes with an invitation: “when ye shall receive these things…ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” He promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Moroni 10:4.

I’ve prayed to know if these things are true. I have received that confirmation, largely through a feeling of peace I haven’t felt in any other way. I am also reminded of the good things the book has taught me. I believe it is true and that God’s Spirit has confirmed that belief.

Thanks for reading to the end. Here are a couple articles that I found interesting while preparing this post: