Monday, October 31, 2005

Blogging and Lying: A Guilty Response

[UPDATE, 1 November 2005: Eric Russell has written a thoughtful review of the actual content of the Banner, as opposed to its real-world morality play aspects.]

Until now I haven’t engaged the thread Blogging and Lying at Times and Seasons, regarding the Banner of Heaven episode. Now that fearless leaders Steve and Brian (and fearless fellow-soldiers Naomi and David) have, I too shall venture forth—well, sort of, from the safe distance of my own blog. (With some trepidation: When I read Shannon’s comment about Brian and Steve's undergraduate romantic escapades, I laughed and shook my head, thinking, “These are the guys I followed willy-nilly into this fiasco?! I should have known!” Surely the first lesson to be learned here is, ‘Think twice, listen to the hair raising up on the back of your neck, when a couple of Benson scholars come to you with a proposition.’ Nevertheless once again I follow them into the breach.)

I am guilty of being involved in something that, in its deceptive execution, turned out to be mean and hurtful to many participants. I regret this. I am also sorry that Times and Seasons and the Archipelago page were used even tangentially, and regret causing the dismay of the unsuspecting proprietors of these sites at their consequent unintentional and faultless association with the affair. (The knowledgeable proprietors have presumably already been flogged by their own.) I don’t know that I’ll ever create any more online fiction, but if I do I will clearly label it as such. I ask for forgiveness from those hurt and offended.

In human terms it’s surely too soon for me, as a guilty participant, to try to draw—much less prescribe—larger lessons from this; but the Bloggernacle moves faster than natural human processing speeds, so I will anyway. I am going to name some names to give examples of where I would like to express appreciation for what they have done over the last few days; having a faulty human memory I will surely leave some out, for which I apologize in advance. I would be happy to update this post with other examples once I am reminded of them.

I am grateful to those such as Rosalynde Welch, Jonathan Green (also here), and John Welch—and even, in his brilliant geekiness, Nate Oman, the instigator of that sprawling brawl of a thread—who deployed their intellectual gifts in an effort to create some meaning out of it all. This impulse—an effort “to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness”—is the noble core of the best artistic/prophetic endeavors.

Since the motifs of participatory self-revelation and transgression/contrition/redemption have become fashionable in these analyses, I’ll throw my two cents in. Think back on Rosalynde’s guest post Smile at the Camera at the Banner just before the unraveling, which in hindsight was a prescient warning shot across the bow: beware, artists, what your compositions say about you; beware, viewers, what your (soon to be manifested) reactions say about you; be aware, one and all, of the deceptions of self and others you are engaging in your every action and reaction. (My comment to her post, under my real name, that “the creator(s) may not even know the meaning of what they’ve wrought,” is surely a candidate for Understatement of the Year.)

What have we learned about ourselves? I have discovered something unflattering about my appalling willingness to be thoughtless, inconsiderate, even mean in the service of fun and pride. Through their public comments in various places, I have learned something about the aggrieved direct participants—people like Kurt, Sue, annegb, Laura (and here), a random John, Eric, Jordan, Jeffrey (also here and here), and others—namely, after varying degrees of shock and hurt, great nobility of soul, manifested in a healing capacity for forgiveness, a steadying sense of proportion, and even the simple happiness of appreciative, bemused retrospective humor. Thank you for your goodness in the face of my lack of it.

And now, while Adam has a point, I shall now nevertheless fail to heed it. (Adam, feel free at this point to add a double meaning to “A Guilty Response” in the title of this post.) I am less sanguine about something else in human nature that has been manifest. Bryce commented that with regard to the transgression/contrition/redemption story, “some would say we’re particularly bad at it.” I think the examples above show that on an individual level, many directly affected are in fact quite good at an important part of this story—forgiveness. And those not so directly affected? Concern, on the part of non-participants, for the impact on direct participants is understandable—and, to a point, laudable. However, it also seems that, for some reason I don’t understand (surely there’s a profound evolutionary explanation in our small-group-hunter/gatherer roots ;-> ), our taste for the pound of flesh seems redoubled when the debt is not even owed us personally. Whatever the primal source of this tendency of the natural man, I wonder if the civilizing and restraining influence of our legal system has something to teach us here, with regard to the concept of having the ‘legal standing’ to demand and administer justice.

And that brings me to my fantasy finale to the Times and Seasons edition of the playing-out of this episode. A thread opened by Nate with insight derived from arcane points of law deserves to be transcended by, what else, another post by Nate with insight derived from arcane points of law. It would be a post I am not equipped to write, but I can suggest a title: Standing and Stone-throwing.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Brilliant Conspirators

No, I’m not talking about the Banner of Heaven (see here, here, and here). I’m talking about President Bush’s political operation. I haven’t seen or read any news coverage yet, but my wife just called to tell me the Miers nomination has been withdrawn. Brilliant! It’s perfectly timed, of course, to compete with news of Rove and Libby indictments. The next brilliant step will be to announce the new nominee tomorrow to increase the background noise on the very day of the indictments.

This much is obvious to everyone; but it gets even better, and more sinister. Here’s my conspiracy theory: They’ve known for months that indictments were likely, so they put up a phony nominee on purpose, possibly with her own knowledge and complicit participation, knowing it would create an outcry and prove untenable—all with the purpose of carefully preparing long in advance a sufficiently big distraction to blunt the impact of the indictments.

Such is the corrosive and wide ranging impact of the Banner—I am now inclined to distrust the Bush administration, which I generally support. (Of course, I can’t help but notice that Rusty’s numbers must be huge… I’m not above parasitically tagging along on the excitement of the whole thing to try and bring a little attention to what Aaron once called my little ”puny ass blog” here. Aaron, you’re the bomb. You go girl!)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Music of the Spheres

Such was the title of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s program this past week, the first in this year’s “Masterworks” season ticket package. Included were Holy the Firm: Essay for Cello and Orchestra (2002) by Jake Heggie and Gustav Holst’s immortal The Planets (1916).

In a preview discussion an hour before the performance, conductor Lucas Richman described the two pieces as exploring spirituality from two different perspectives: one inner and personal, and the other external and cosmic.

Jake Heggie (1961- ) is alleged to be a rising star among American contemporary composers. I gather he is best known for his opera Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. His second opera, based on Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, premiered last year at the Houston Grand Opera. His output consists mostly of vocal music, including many songs in addition to his operas. Maestro Richman has been a friend of Heggie’s since their student days at UCLA; along with a few other friends they formed a kind of composers’ club, “Lo-Cal” (“local,” light, Southern California, … ), that forced them to continually compose for the concerts for which they cobbled together support every couple of months or so.

Holy the Firm, written for cello soloist Emil Miland (who appeared in this performance, as well as the premiere in the recording linked above), is named after Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s short story. I haven’t read it, but am given to understand that it is about a young girl severely burned in a plane crash, and trying to understand how God could allow such things to happen. Apparently the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred in the early stages of composition, with the result that the work took on added meaning as a response to this event. Not having read Dillard’s story yet, I haven’t learned for myself the understanding it finally reaches; the music, however, never seems to reach a resolution. It opens with a strikingly pleasant chord, shortly undermined by an unsettling melody that haunts the first portion of the piece. (The cello—featuring an acoustic cavity similar in size to the human torso—is apparently the stringed instrument most similar in register to the human voice, and is perhaps particularly appropriate for vocalesque expressions of human feeling.) There are some violent and harsh moments, and an anguished cadenza. In the last minute or two of the 27-minute piece the same (or a similar) pleasing chord as the one at the beginning suddenly appears, giving a brief hope of a triumphal or at least peaceful resolution at the last minute; alas, it too is undermined by a more poignant conclusion. It would seem no clear understanding or hope of complete healing is ever reached. The opening sentence of Dillard’s story perhaps provide a preview of the most that can be hoped for:
Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.
Such courageous gratitude for whatever we are fortunate enough to have on loan from this indifferent universe is about the best a die-hard Spinozist would have to cling to in the face of disaster. One of the reviewers at Amazon took away the following message: “There is no God that will directly intervene and tell us what to do, or save us. He is as ruthless as he is merciful.… And we must remember that we control most of the things in our lives directly.”

In contrast, in composing The Planets, British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was motivated by a more fateful belief in the effects of ongoing celestial influences—specifically, as understood by astrology. As I recall (as is often the case, I’m too lazy to read my own link) the idea behind astrology is that a fluid—called ‘influence,’ literally from the Latin ‘to flow in’—flows from heavenly bodies to Earth, directly affecting terrestrial events. The work consists of seven essentially unconnected movements; each is pretty much an independent tone poem (the two missing planets are Earth, which has no astrological significance; and Pluto, which had not yet been discovered). The first movement—Mars, the Bringer of War—is a popular favorite, and is absolutely electrifying to experience live, with its big brass parts and relentless staccato rythms in ominous 5/4 time. (No doubt it suitably represented World War I.) There is a beautiful, stately melody in the middle of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, that I think is in unison in most all the string parts, that brought Kimberly to tears. Another favorite moment for me is the end of the last movement—Neptune, the Mystic—in which a wordless chorus of high-pitched womens’ voices achieves an incredibly eerie effect.

We were able to learn a few other interesting tidbits. Our copy of The Planets, the one linked above, also includes two pieces from movie scores by John Williams: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Main Title from Star Wars, which perhaps have ties to The Planets. For example, Star Wars is reminiscent of Mars, and in Close Encounters there is a vocal segment similar to that in Neptune. In the pre-concert discussion I asked about this, and Maestro Richman—who has some movie work to his credit, as noted in his biography linked above—said that it is common for directors to have some kind of fill-in music (I forget the technical term) that gives the composer a rough idea of what is called for. He said it’s quite possible that George Lucas used Mars as a fill-in in the case of Star Wars. Also, Kimberly thought the melody in the middle of Jupiter seemed familiar from a choral piece. She didn’t manage to ask in the pre-concert discussion, but we happened to see the Maestro, soloist, and symphony managing director after the performance, a couple booths away at the wonderful Riverside Tavern overlooking the Tennessee River. Mr. Miland had changed into a Hawaiian shirt, and Maestro Richman looked every bit the artiste with his goatee, flowing mane, unbuttoned silky purple shirt, and lingering perspiration from the evening’s exertions. They were gracious in answering our questions. Kimberly learned that the familiar melody was Holst’s famous Hymn of Jesus (I thought it reminded me of background music in the Shire in Lord of the Rings). I asked Mr. Miland what soloists do during the rest of the program after their piece is finished—Listen in the wings? Go to the green room and watch TV? Bail to a bar, or to the airport? In this case he had snuck into the balcony to watch the performance. Maestro Richman told of a violinist who liked to shed her fancy soloist garb during intermission and sneak in to wing it among the second violins in standard concert black.

Well, in this self-indulgently long journal piece I hope that for once I’ve made good on the promise in my blog description of perspectives from ‘high culture’—even if the forms of spirituality suggested by the two pieces here are not likely to be enthusiastically endorsed by Mormons!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Spinozist Take from General Conference, October 2005, Day Two

Below are one- or two-sentence first impressions of talks from the second day of General Conference, to be updated after each session.

Sunday Morning Session

President Monson: By example, Joseph taught us courage, faith, honesty, patience, diligence, the importance of missionary service, and love. His message of the Restoration continues to change lives.

President Packer: The standards upon which civilization depends have been swept away, but we can be optimistic because we have the word of God—both the permanent foundation left by Joseph Smith, and continuing revelation exemplified by the LDS edition of the scriptures, the restructuring of the curriculum, proclamations, seminaries and institutes, family home evening, Preach my Gospel, and Church magazines.

Elder Bateman: The gospel, on Earth since Adam, is universal; its appeal is not limited to Americans.

Sister ???: Reading and living the scriptures morning, day, and night, they become written in our hearts, and build a tradition of righteous living.

Elder Scott: People naturally turn to God in deteriorating conditions. Satan is effective in causing them to ignore it, but people should turn to the true Plan of Salvation, which they knew in the premortal life, but memory of which is withheld to make this life a valid test. The Restoration was so important that the First Vision is the only known instance of a visit by both the Father and the Son.

President Hinckley: Forgiveness is the most-needed virtue on Earth. If someone throws a frozen fowl through your windshield, forgive them.

Sunday Afternoon Session

Elder Nelson: Jesus Christ is the Master Healer. Real joy awaits each of us on the other side of sorrow.

Elder Hales: As previously noted by President Packer, Tyndale, in translating the Bible into English, told a clergyman he would make it so a ploughboy could understand the scriptures better than he could. About 80% of the King James Bible relies on Tyndale’s work—a Bible later read by ploughboy Joseph Smith.

Elder ???: Do not be afraid of sacrifice; enjoy the blessings it brings.

Elder ???: By keeping covenants, the challenges of life can be transcended.

Elder ???: With so many roads and intersections in life, Jesus continues to define the true path.

Elder ???: Peter was commanded to feed the Lord’s sheep; Joseph also. Minister to people according to specific needs.

Elder Uchtdorf: Basics of flight, and basics of Church membership: faith, hope, and other Christlike attributes provide forward thrust and upward lift. Oh, and by the way, stay in your own homeland, please.

President Hinckley: It has been an inspirational feast at the table of the Lord. You’re all invited to Joseph Smith’s 200th birthday extravaganza.


Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Spinozist Take from General Conference, October 2005, Day One

Below are one- or two-sentence first impressions of talks from the first day of General Conference.

Saturday Morning Session

President Hinckley: Like the now-defunct British empire, the sun never sets on the empire of Christ the Lord, the restored Church of Jesus Christ. Temple work moves forward, with new temples and a new computer system to avoid duplication of ordinances.

Elder Perry: Accept President Hinckley’s challenge to read that tangible witness—the Book of Mormon, written for our day—by the end of the year.

Elder McMullin: Contemplating calamities in our age of natural disasters, wars, and licentiousness of epic proportions, we are to ask: What part of my life needs to change so chastening won’t be necessary? Tragedies never triumph where personal righteousness prevails.

Sister Tanner: Our physical bodies are part of the divine plan. Sweet rolls can ruin spirituality.

Elder Wirthlin: Like those who were kept safe from the tsunami by following the timely advice of an old fisherman in a coastal village when the ocean receded, those who follow the prophets avoid sorrow and difficulty. Abandon sin and journey to higher ground.

President Faust: Those with our “blockbuster beliefs” have a recognizable light in their eyes, while those partaking of today’s growing secularism have a different look about them. He had a testimony as a young boy; it always seemed to be part of his consciousness, and not the result of any specific event.

Saturday Afternoon Session

Elder Oaks: Employing two not-always-popular words, he notes that priesthood authority is patriarchal in the home and hierarchical in the Church. Our theology and practice are ultimately family oriented: our origins, mortal tasks, and eternal salvation are all defined in family terms.

Elder Holland: On the occasion of a first grandchild becoming a teenager, counsel for young women. You are treasured, but flip-flops in Church (which is not a beach), plastic surgery, and great and spacious makeup kits seem frowned upon.

Elder ???: Happiness comes by obedience to the will of God.

Elder ???: There has been great growth and progress of the Church in Mexico among the children of Lehi, a sign that the work of the Father has commenced in restoring the house of Israel.

Elder ???: Seek to find the lost one. Invite someone (literally) today to hear the prophet (literally) tomorrow.

Elder Eyring: The great test of life is to choose to obey God in the midst of the challenges of life. This requires early and steady obedience and faith in Jesus Christ.

Elder Ballard: On the tenth anniversary of the Proclamation on the Family, a mission statement for mortality: Build an eternal family. Alluding to Harold B. Lee, the Church is a scaffolding for the building of families.

Priesthood Session

Elder Bednar: Are you of the seed of Abraham? You’re no mere civilian. You’re a missionary.

Elder Didier: Hear and heed the word of the Lord. Wrong religious beliefs lead to wrong religious behavior.

Elder Johnson: General Conference provides the spiritual guidance we need.

President Faust: Be in harmony with the Brethren; obtaining spiritual guidance depends on it. Be in harmony with local leaders too. In particular, don’t put your Bishop in a dunking machine.

President Monson: Deacons pass the sacrament and collect fast offerings. Teachers home teach. [I was so bummed in the ward of my youth, when, shortly after becoming a Teacher, Teachers began being called upon to collect fast offerings too.] Priests continue home teaching, and bless the sacrament. Miracles are everywhere to be found when the priesthood is magnified, when selfless service replaces selfish striving.

President Hinckley: Great numbers of brethren have traveled long distances to provide help in the gulf states that have suffered. [Of this I can testify.] This old world is no stranger to calamity, from the great flood when waters covered the earth and eight souls were saved, to [insert sampling of disasters over the centuries here], and more are expected in the future. D&C 88:89-91. The best storehouse is the family storeroom. Without righteousness we cannot expect the help of the Lord, as the Jaredites and Nephites learned the hard way. If ye are prepared ye shall not fear (fine print: whether in life or in death, however, since the rain falls on the just and the unjust).