MY (Unofficial) SVU Alumni Association Essay Contest Submission

I didn’t have the chance to write an essay for the SVU Alumni Association Essay Contest. A couple of things got in the way. Mostly money and the fact that Brittany and I will be going to BV for Christmas so I need to make sure that I have enough vacation time saved up. An unexpected trip could throw a wrench in that. I also felt like I didn’t really have anything to say as far as the prompts were concerned. That all changed this week, when it was announced (kind of? I know President Smith mentioned it on his Facebook) that a new president has been appointed. For some reason, when I heard that my mind started turning more and more to what I hope for SVU’s future. Things got even worse (better?) when an old professor asked me to email him some thoughts about my time as a student at SVU.  So I decided that even though I didn’t submit anything formally to the SVU Alumni contest, it might be good for me to put down some of my thoughts. So with that, I decided to write a blog-style response to the prompt: “How do you picture the school 20 years from now? What do you think will change? What do you hope will stay the same?” 

Picturing Southern Virginia University in 20 years is something that doesn’t come easy for me, probably because in my job I deal a lot with “higher education is going to die” and other such overstatements. So to me the future of higher education is kind of a mystery. The battle right now seems to be about whether or not a college degree is worth the money. Maybe there are better ways to get a job. Maybe people will simply give up on college all together, just focus on reading e-books and Wikipedia entries or whatever it is people think will replace college.

I really hope that doesn’t happen. But I guess it might.

When I hear all this talk of how “unnecessary” college is becoming, between the lines I glean a more precise message: The study of politics, philosophy, art, history and literature are simply impractical. I don’t hear many people putting subjects like science, engineering and business on trial. So when I think about the future of higher education, it’s the humanities that I feel need the most defending. Not that I’m terribly well equipped to defend them. I can hardly say that I became a outstanding student of the humanities during my time at SVU, but I can say that I learned to respect that type of education. Tremendously. It’s a profound respect, the life-shaping kind. The kind I wish everyone could have, mostly because I think it would make common conversation that much more interesting.

So I suppose that when I return to SVU in 20 years, what I hope to see is the same approach to education that has existed since it’s inception — or at least that I assume has existed since then — namely, that seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthwhile.

There are so many elements in a Southern Virginia education that are worth admiring: the close relationship with teachers, small class sizes, beautiful East Coast campus, the LDS atmosphere. But to me, I think, all of these are complementary of the main identity of the school: The liberal arts education. A classical education. The kind that western civilization was built on. The kind that built America. The kind that values things that maybe aren’t always rewarded by the free market, but can also be held responsible for the creation of that market.

That’s what I hope to see. A bunch of kids wandering around campus with copies of The Wealth of Nations under their arms arguing about whether or not Ayn Rand was a hack* (I don’t know, maybe they are walking from MacDonnell’s “America and the Enlightenment” to Armstrong’s “Ethics,” since both will hopefully still be teaching there in 20 years). I understand this is all very romantic, but when all is said and done, the things I value most about my education at SVU are what I actually learned. In my year since graduating, I’ve come to see that all those classes were not built around cute little abstract ideas, but the intellectual structure of our modern world. Right now, in 2014, it’s important to know who Ayn Rand was and what she believed, because politicians and even business leaders cite her as an intellectual authority every day. How many times in the past year have overzealous politicians compared policies they don’t agree with to the national sin that was slavery? The complicated history of race in America is once again front and center, discussed in magazine cover stories and on cable news shows. Understanding the history of the American Civil War isn’t just fun trivia, it’s essential context to much of today’s political discourse.

It seems as though the modern world is doing it’s best to simplify everything: Left and right, good and evil, red state blue state. But the liberal arts don’t allow for such a worldview. A recent essay by Crispin Sartwellin The Atlantic explored how terribly stupid politics makes us, arguing that when the search for truth is confined to ideological territories, no one ever gets anywhere:

When we live in rival unanimous systems of facts, we generate rival unrealities, dueling hallucinations. Perhaps that’s how we ought to think of Red and Blue America: not as geographical or ideological regions, but as rival fictional universes, as though there’s a war between Middle Earth and Narnia.

The reason I value my liberal arts education is because it gave me tools so I can hopefully see that “Middle Earth” and “Narnia” (as it were) are simply fictional worlds that reflect certain biases, etc. When one considers art, science, literature and philosophy as an important part of their worldview, the world opens up. Things become more complicated, but they also become more real. You can more easily see the gray overlaps tangled within all the black and white rhetoric.

Or at least that’s how I see it.

I realize that I’m digressing here, but stick with me. When I visit SVU in 20 years, I hope to still feel all of this. And I also hope to see an LDS tradition of the liberal arts at least partially realized. I understand that not all students or teachers at SVU are or will be members of the LDS faith, but I valued the spiritual insights I received from my professors (Mormon or not) so much that I wish to see that tradition grow and flourish in the coming years. I had the honor of taking SVU’s first (and to my knowledge, only) class that carefully explored the World of Mormonism through the a liberal arts lens. We read pieces of Mormon literature and theological arguments. We studied history and art in the Mormon context. My faith was tried, but in the same way that my relationship with America was tried after learning more of her history. My faith wasn’t diminished, it just changed. And as far as I can tell, that’s exactly what learning is all about.

So maybe another thing I would like to see in 20 years is a bunch of students, wandering around with copies of Exploring Mormon Thought under their arms, having a B.H. Roberts VS Orson Pratt debate. Or something. I don’t want to speak in superlatives, but I’d venture to say that providing a space for young Mormons to thoughtfully examine their own faith has never been more needed. I hope to see in 20 years that SVU has created a unique environment for such a thing.

So there you have it. When Brittany and I are venturing back to Virginia in 20 years for who knows what, and we stumble upon the beautiful campus of Talmage University (one can dream) with her beautiful tennis courts and red brick buildings, I hope to find there the spirit of liberal arts resting serenely, influencing those young little minds who haven’t quite learned yet that “marketability” isn’t everything.

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Oh, and I also hope to see that the ridiculous no facial hair clause has been tossed forever from the honor code. Because seriously, lets move on.

*Ayn Rand was most certainly a hack.

Everyday Robots

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Damon Albarn, probably most famous for being the cartoonishly british voice of the Gorillaz and the more humble half of the Oasis V. Blur battle of the 90s, has released his first solo album. It is so small and quiet, the only thing that really sticks with you are the voices — both the hypnotic samples he includes and his own iconic croon. Lucky for him, that East London accent is a treasure.

This album doesn’t sound anything like the Gorillaz, so if that’s your thing (your only thing) then this whole album will probably be pretty disappointing. In fact, Albarn replaced any hip-hop sensibility he might have with pure pop melodies. This album seems more like a return to Blur’s softer sensibilities. But even when Blur took it slow, tracks like End of Century or  Tender always swelled into something big:

Albarn’s solo album, Everyday Robots, does no such thing. Ever. Tho whole thing is as calm as a gloomy London afternoon (I would guess). The joy comes from finding out what a Brit-Pop pioneer and 90s alt-rock vet like Albarn has to say about modern pop music. The answer is not much, but it’s still a joy to hear.

Of course, Albarn isn’t the only alt-rock legend to step down from his pioneer pedestal. A lot of the solo projects going on these days are unfairly dismissed as vanity projects. I happen to quite like them. Some of my favorites are Ben Gibbard’s Former Lives, which was apparently recorded over the course of a few years. Some of it using Rock Band.

I also think that Radiohead’s drummer, Philip Selway, has a gem of an album that’s been overlooked, unfortunately. 

Of course, there is also Thom Yorke, whose solo album really isn’t great. But Thom Yorke not being great is still more interesting than most things out there. He also contributed a great song to one of the Twilight soundtracks, which is not available on Spotify, and you have to buy the whole soundtrack to New Moon on iTunes if you want to own it. Luckily, there’s Youtube.

A few thoughts about ‘Noah’

I was sad that I didn’t like “Noah” more than I did.

It was so dark, so humorless, and so void of hope that it was almost impossible to enjoy. But I don’t think it was supposed to be the type of movie that you enjoy.

Despite how much I didn’t

enjoy watching it, it has definitely stuck around in my thoughts much longer than I anticipated. It’s the kind of movie that is probably more enjoyable to discuss or theorize about than to actually watch. Which makes perfect sense, since the only other movie I can think of that fits that description as well as “Noah” is Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which felt like it took place in the same spiritual universe as “Noah.”

A lot has been said about Aronofsky’s atheism. In fact, way too much has been said about Aronofsky’s atheism. Ben-Hur was written in large part by Gore Vidal, who was also an outspoken atheist, but that didn’t seem to get in the way of him adapting a compelling story that explored faith.

The focus on Aronofsky’s religious beliefs seems to stem more from people who are giddy at the idea of transforming the film into part of the Culture Wars  than how he actually depicts the events of the Old Testament. The fine young lads over at Breitbart, for example believe the film to be “a brilliant, compelling, beautifully-mounted, beautifully-acted piece of storytelling conceived for the sinister purpose of leading people to believe that Christianity and Judaism [they seem to have forgotten Islam, which also accepts Noah as a prophet] are something they are not.”

The folks at Breitbart are concerned that atheist Aronofsky has made a film worshipping “the pagan God Gaia,” who was basically a personification of Mother Earth. So what worries them is that the God Aronofsky is exploring is inconsistent with their personal conception of who the God of Noah was. Even worse, this God is worried about the environment.

Aronofsky’s blasphemous claim that God is some kind of tree-hugger who wiped out humanity in the Flood to save the planet and punish Man for hunting animals is a bald-faced lie.

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It’s strange to me that the folks at Breitbart interpreted the film that way. There are strong environmentalist themes in the film, there is no doubt about that. But the director also shows some pretty horrific scenes of the depravity of mankind. Man is not treating man kindly, and that comes up more than once in Noah’s explanation of why the people must perish.

To his credit, Glenn Beck seems to have taken the film for what it was. He didn’t like it, but his reasoning actually makes sense, though I still disagree with him. “I believe that it is not a godless climate change movie” he said. “It’s more take ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ meets ‘The Shining’ and ‘Friday the 13th,’ with a sprinkle of ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.’”

And that is how I hope most people will engage with “Noah,” observing it for what it is without attempting to find some sinister subversive message behind it. There are worse messages than “lets stop hurting the environment and  killing each other,” anyway.

But as I said, I don’t completely agree with Beck’s whole “Thunderdome” meets “Sinbad the Sailor” thing. “Noah” says a lot of interesting things about man’s relationship with God that I think are at least worth considering:

First, Aronofsky shows two interesting approaches to believing in God. One, represented mostly by Noah (but also some in his family) is that God in relation to man is a teacher. This is pretty consistent with probably what most religious people think. Noah is a descendent of Adam who has had religious teachings of the “The Creator” passed down from each generation to the next. Noah, like most religious people, is primarily concerned with the meaning and purpose of his life, cultivating a relationship with the divine (in this case respect for nature does play a big part. But suggesting that isn’t consistent with the Bible is absurd ) and avoiding sin. To him the ultimate sin is to abuse the gifts that The Creator has bestowed on mankind.

The second approach to belief, as represented by the villain Tubal-cain, is to believe that the Earth is indeed yours and not God’s. Tubal-cain repeatedly expresses his frustration that God will not talk with him, and constantly justifies his bad behavior by repeating “I was created in His image,” therefore he can do whatever he pleases. God gave us what we need, so we are not at fault for using it to our advantage, the thinking goes.

So as an atheist, it looks like Aronofsky is showing what he admires about religious conviction (humility, belief in a power that advocates for harmony) and what makes him uneasy (prideful “dominion” because we are God’s chosen creation). Both characters speak in quotes from the Old Testament, so Aronofsky seems to believe that both styles of believers had a hand in writing the Old Testament.

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The second thing I found interesting about “Noah” is how Aronofsky depicts communication with God. The Bible simply states “And God said unto Noah,” but they never state how God said it. In “Noah,” God speaks to the patriarch in dreams that “Noah” himself interprets. Those dream sequences are some of the best parts of the film.

Because Noah’s communion with God is cryptic, it also leaves room for him to misinterpret what God is trying to tell him, which is the case toward the end of the film. The most controversial part of the film — the part that made Glenn Beck compare it to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — occurs because when Noah seeks guidance from “The Maker” over something he believes has altered the divine plan, he receives virtually no answer. He interprets the lack of an answer to mean that he must do what he initially thought was necessary. At the end of the film, his wife gives a different explanation. She believes that God left it up to Noah to decide, so he could make the right choice on his own. In this case, so he could feel love for humanity again.

This whole concept is a perfect example of something that was utterly disturbing to watch, but powerful to think about after. He filmed “Noah” in such an abrasive way that it was hard to ever stop and wonder at some of the profound implications of the story.

So, to Aronofsky, if God does communicate with man, it is in man’s best interest to always search for the right lesson. Our own thoughts and biases can influence us for the worst, especially since God seldom speaks to man in a clear, easily understood way.

The third thing I found really interesting is that probably for the first time ever (at least that I’m aware of) a film has displayed — and taken seriously, I might add — the possibility of theistic evolution. As Noah recounts the story of Adam and the fall of man, he begins with “In the beginning, there was nothing” and works his way through the familiar creation story in Genesis. As Noah speaks, he uses the word “day” to describe the periods of creation. But what’s being displayed onscreen clearly interprets “day” to be thousands if not millions of years. Noah says that God created sea creatures “many of which still likely lure beneath this ark” and that after he created the sea creatures (we watch the sea creatures evolve as he speaks) God created the birds of the air. As he speaks about the birds of the air, we see some sea creatures evolve into birds. Then he says God created the beasts of the field. We see one of the fish climb out of the water with primitive but functioning legs. As the creature walks we watch it evolve. The evolution process follows a pattern I remember from science class: from fish, to lizard, to a four legged dog-like mammal, to a relative of the chimpanzee.

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The depiction of Cain slaying Able evoked the imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey.” Both films seem to have a lot in common. That might be a good blog post for another day.

 

Then, he says, God created man. However when man (Adam and Eve) is revealed, they appear celestialized. There is a golden glow around them. Aronofsky then walks us through the fall of man. It all reminded me of how B.H. Roberts understood the idea of pre-Adamites and dispensationalism:

That there were pre-Adamite races in the earth, and that man’s habitancy of it is of greater antiquity than the period which begins with Adam, is quite generally accepted by the scientific world, and for them, admits of no doubt; but if the account of things through the Bible revelations begins with Adam, and merely the opening of a dispensation of God’s providences with the human race on the earth since that time, then matters take on a form much more understandable, and makes possible the solving of many problems.

As a Mormon, the concept of evolution is a profound one to me. Mormon theology claims that man is destined to progress through the eternities, ever learning and growing in grace and understanding.  Joseph Smith, in the King Follet discourse explained a vision of the afterlife that included the continued growth of the spirit:

When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.

Growth, then, is a vital element of the gospel. There is something profound about understanding celestial growth as having begun in the simplest form possible to our understanding. That mankind began and ascended from prokaryotes isn’t profound to everyone though, and unfortunately a lot of people feel very threatened by it. I’m sure that’s one reason so many believe Aronofsky’s film to be atheisitic; any Bible film that suggests evolution could have played a part in creation must be Godless. But luckily, I don’t have to believe that. Brittany bought me Faith of a Scientist, Henry Eyring’s book on how he balanced belief and the scientific method, for Christmas.  In it, he pushes aside any notion that science’s modern understanding of how the world works organically isn’t consistent with faith:

The scriptures record God’s dealing with His prophets and they are as accurate as He, in his wisdom, requires. They are spiritual guides to religious questions and treat only incidentally scientific and other non-religious questions. In these areas, they should be be supplemented by all relevant information. Viewed in this light, most problems disappear.

So to me, “Noah’s” ambition is the real selling point. This is a film that almost belongs in an art-house as much as it does in the block buster file. It is about family, tribal conflict, and man’s relationship with God. All of those topics are very appealing to me. It’s just too bad the package wasn’t tighter.

“The Fountain” was also one of the most ambitious films I’d ever seen, and it too just didn’t live up to it’s own ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aronofsky eventually makes a third spiritual movie. It would have similar themes to both “Noah” and “The Fountain,” such as conquering death and achieving a sense of communion with  the divine (whatever divinity he chooses to tackle next time. “The Fountain” had plenty of Christian themes, but it also had pretty clear Hindu and Buddhist imagery). Then they can all be called “Aronofsky’s God Trillogy” or something like that.

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The shame of all of this — and my real beef with Glenn Beck’s new self-appointment as a culture critic —  is that people in religious communities constantly clamor about how cinema is Godless, but ignore films that attempt to explore religiosity. They want to see things like faith and spirituality have more of a presence in mainstream entertainment, but not just any faith and spirituality, a specific  brand that focuses not on man’s relationship with God, but on an us v. them mentality.

In theaters right now is a film about an evil philosophy professor who forces his students to sign something that says God doesn’t exist. It looks pretty awful. The acting, writing, everything. But the reason religious communities are so excited by it is because they see it as their contribution to an argument. Forget the fact that it’s probably a lousy film, what matters is that it’s a film that not only vindicates a certain worldview, but vilifies another. It doesn’t do it through parable or metaphor, it just comes right out and says it, lest anyone be confused.

Meanwhile, Daron Aronofsky, a self-proclaimed atheist, has successfully made his second spiritually themed movie, which despite what many critics have said, has overtly religious overtones. In recent years, Terrence Malick made two films, “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” that are also explicit in their religiosity. Roger Ebert called “The Tree of Life” “a form of prayer.” The same can be said for P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” and countless other films that go ignored by critics like Beck.

So was “Noah” perfect? No. In fact, it wasn’t even very enjoyable. There were a lot of things I didn’t mention here, like how the Rock People were an interesting idea, but really distracting and probably just should have been left out. But what I’m most interested in right now is how much “Noah” has me thinking. If nothing else, it’s got me interested in the Old Testament again, and that isn’t an easy thing to do.

We Can Thank Twilight for These 4 Awesome Songs

The truth of the matter is, great movie soundtracks are seldom accompanied by great movies. Batman Forever, Romeo + Juliet and even Garden State are all not that great. The first two are basically just long music videos. But they do have great soundtracks.

The same clearly goes for the Twilight movies, which deserve at least some credit for revitalizing the lost art of using movies to sell music. So here are 4 songs that I think are awesome and came from some of the twilight soundtracks.

Meet me on the Equinox – Death Cab for Cutie

Hearing Damage – Thom York

Heavy in Your Arms – Florence and the Machine

What Part of Forever – Cee Lo Green

The best music, the best movies.

While talking with a friend of mine, I realized that much of my musical taste is stuck in 2011. Finding new music is overwhelming and I’ve pretty much given up on looking. Over the course of 2013, there were a few albums that I managed to stumble upon that I loved, namely:

“Muchaco” by Phosphorescent

“The Civil Wars” by The Civil Wars

“Trouble Will Find Me” by The National

“Reflektor” by Arcade Fire

“Modern Vampires of the City” by Vampire Weekend

And for some strange reason 2013 was the year I finally began to come to terms with Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs,” but mostly just this song:

As far as movies are concerned, I loved “The Way Way Back”

“Mud”

and “Blue Jasmine”

I also saw “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the first time. It’s streaming on Netflix right now, and it’s amazing. It’s the best western I’ve ever seen, and possibly one of the best genre movies period.

I’m more than open to suggestion for other things to consume.

Bucket list

Like many folks of my generation, I do in fact have a bucket list.

Most of the items on the list are fairly reasonable.

In no particular order, I would like to:

Get a masters degree

PHD as we’ll

Own a house

Be paid to teach a class of some sort

Shake hands with Michael Keaton

Be published in either Dialogue or Journal of Mormon History

Actually finish reading “Sometimes a Great Notion”

Train all of my children to be embarrassingly enthusiastic Paul Simon fans, just like their old man

Own a beach house in either Oregon or North Carolina

Make a documentary

Learn to understand French cinema, because I feel like they just don’t know what they’re doing

Read “The truth, the way, and the life” in its entirety. Footnotes included.

Become a master at AP style.

Publish a nonfiction essay in The New Yorker (I feel like being published in TNY is something that should be on everyone’s list)

Visit Brazil again

Write a screenplay (it does not need to be produced)

Learn to garden

Learn to enjoy exercise, or at least deal with it

Reach a point where mixing up affect and effect is just something I wouldn’t do

Finish that Teddy Roosevelt bio I’ve been picking at for the last year

Live to see another bat suit on screen that includes the yellow oval

Have an office where I can hang all my movie posters

Of course there are other, more important things I hope to do, but publishing such things just isn’t what blogs are for.

Sincerely

Is sincerity necessary? Is it actually an essential characteristic of what is good? As in, is the value of something — a belief, a teaching, an action — higher or lower depending on the sincerity of the asker/commenter/performer?

I remember reading an essay in college on whether or not the truthfulness of Mormonism should be dependent on Joseph Smith’s sincerity.

“Joseph Smith Jr. is both more and less than the sum of how he has been memorialized,” the author wrote, concluding that “Mormonism as a
religious tradition works outside of the ‘sincerity box’ that has been built to contain it.”

I do tend to think that sincerity is important, especially when it comes to the foundations of my faith. I think that exploring what sincerity means to Mormonism makes it more powerful.

But at the late hour that it is, I’ve begun to wonder if the emphasis I often give to sincerity should extend past my religion. When I see a photo, for example, that I assume to be insincere — something that was obviously staged to elicit a response, not to capture something that was actually happening — I don’t like looking at it. It bothers me. Not family portraits and things, but staged events and moments.

But how can I ever actually know how sincere ( or insincere) any given photo is? Or poem? Or movie, or whatever else it is I’m enjoying. I can’t. When someone says something nice to me, how can I possibly judge the sincerity of the comment?

If I can’t actually know what is and is not sincere, should I just not worry about it? Should I disregard the whole notion of sincerity as an indicator of “good” or “quality”?

After all, my favorite form of storytelling is film. Films are full of actors. The nature of acting is falsifying sincerity. Is it the motivation of the actor that should be considered sincere then? Or is a performance only truly sincere if the actor is actually experiencing the emotion they are portraying?

Is the —what I believe to be — intrinsic value of art, conversation, etc. devalued by insincerity?

If someone raises their hand in church, or school or where have you and says something that is factually incorrect, but does so with sincerity, does the worth of the falsity increase?

I just don’t know.

But what I do know is that it is snowing outside, and it is beautiful. And I mean that.