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.

May God bless the Rose Park second ward

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Last Sunday I picked up a free book from our ward’s library. It’s a shared library, of course, between ours and the 10th, 5th, 8th and I believe 1st ward. The book was a fancy gold leaf edition of The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter. The kind that makes you cringe a little because a book with such humble teachings seems misplaced in such gaudy packaging. Nevertheless, it will look great on our bookshelf, which is clearly what the book was actually designed for in the first place.
I took the book for two reasons: I am curious what the teachings of Howard W. Hunter actually are (since I’ve almost never heard anything said by him quoted in church. Probably because he was only President of the church for less than a year) and I wanted a keepsake from the Rose Park Second Ward.

You see, Brittany and I have just moved to a new place in Sugar House. It’s quite the contrast to our experience in Rose Park, for many reasons, but mainly because we aren’t afraid to go for a walk at night.

But this blog post isn’t about what I didn’t like about Rose Park. It’s about what I know I will miss. Our ward there was so good to us. Everything that a ward should be, and more. Our congregation was diverse, in lifestyle as well as ethnicity. We were welcomed in with open arms, given callings that made us feel like we were an integral part of the ward family, and most of all, we felt that on Sunday people were glad to see us.

When I told my Sunday School class (youth, age 14-18) that Brittany and I had found a new place outside the ward boundaries, they actually seemed upset, which was a surprise to me. I’ve only held the calling for a few months, and they never seemed to be paying attention most of the time anyways.

On our last Sunday, I walked into the room where Brittany taught gospel doctrine and saw her hugging the sweet old ladies that took care of me before Brittany got here from Virginia. Every Sunday they asked me when my wife was going to get into town. They sat by me, whispered comments to me during the lesson, and even hugged me now and again.

There were two Joe’s in our ward. One dressed like a Hell’s Angel and struggled to read during Elder’s quorum. I remember during one lesson on the Word of Wisdom the teacher asked “what would you say to someone who told you they didn’t see any harm in drugs like marijuana, and they used them responsibly, so what’s the harm?” He mumbled under his breath. “I’d say, good for you.” I sat by this Joe during Priesthood opening exercises almost every Sunday. From what I recall, he never missed a Sunday.

The second Joe is a plump and jolly chef from southern California. He has a goatee sans mustache, and I heard him say “damn” in Elder’s quorum once when he got a question wrong during a game of “Get to know the quorum Jeopardy.” He helped us move a love seat in his truck one evening. And by helped us, I really mean he did it all by himself. I bothered him during dinner hour to see if he could help us get the thing from a sister in our ward who was giving it away for free. He showed up at our apartment complex 15 minutes later with the seat in already in the back of his truck. “She lives right around the corner from my house,” he said.
Joe also co-taught Sunday school with Brittany. I got to sit in on one of his lessons, the one about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. He briefly mentioned Joseph Smith’s relationship to Freemasonry, which lead to a pretty hearty discussion by some of the senior citizens in the class about Joseph using Freemasonry as tool to give structure and order to his revelations. One such sister, who must be in her late 70’s to early 80’s, also commented two weeks prior in her testimony that we all have such a great opportunity to study the gospel in an academic sense, deepening our faith and our intellect at the same time. There are so many great conferences, such as Fair and Sunstone, she said, that allow us to explore our faith as well as our doubts, that it would be unfortunate for us not to take advantage of them.

Brother Blake — the first counselor in the bishopric — and I once bonded over our love for the teachings of Hugh B. Brown. He once taught a lesson in priesthood about unconditional love and the duties of the quorum to look out for one another. It was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had in a priesthood meeting. He loves literature and he loves the gospel. A solid combination for great lessons.

Our experience in the Rose Park Second Ward came at just the right time, too. It seems like more and more, members of the church are having a hard time getting along. I can hardly get on facebook (or twitter for that matter) without seeing someone posting something that I would consider to be unnecessarily judgmental. As Mormons, we certainly love to call those who disagree with us to repentance, which is rather unfortunate.
Being in the Rose Park ward helped me feel less of a need to judge others. Probably because I never felt judged there. People were just happy that I was trying, that I was there. I couldn’t help but feel the same way.

Our home teacher, Brother Otterstrom, was another great example to me. Not only did he go out of his way to help me move our couch out of our apartment (there were some pretty killer stairs) but he was always willing to share his true thoughts and feelings during Elder’s Quorum. I remember during one lesson when the teacher said, “i’m sure all of us have doubts now and again,” brother Otterstrom corrected him. “I have doubts all the time,” he said.

He said it so matter-of-factly that it didn’t come across as contentious. The comment cut through the prideful air that sometimes accompanies priesthood lessons. Everyone was too busy nodding their heads in agreement to consider casting stones at him. Right before we left, he was called to be the second counselor in the Elder’s Quorum.

This past week, as we’ve been moving, for some reason I’ve been seeing a lot more talk on the internet of “good” and “bad” Mormons. You see, we get very offended when people suggest we are all alike, but also tend to get all hot and bothered when one of us is different, which is of course, not only a waste of time but of spiritual energy.
Every time I see a pithy blog post aimed at cutting down those with questions, or a facebook thread that not only dismisses the opinions of others, but chastises them for even having them, I think of Rose Park. I think of how much more effective, and spiritually gratifying it was, to be around people who accept you on your own terms. A concept that for me defines The Savior’s earthly ministry.

May God bless the Rose Park Second Ward. If for nothing else, because they let us in and cared for us the best they could for the short time we were there.

 

 

Because it’s Sunday: My favorite quotes on Mormonism

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I had a particularly good day at church today. Good lessons all around. When Brittany and I came home from dinner at my aunt’s house, I cracked open B.H. Roberts’ The Truth, The Way, The Life (my sunday reading of choice right now) and started reading.

Then I got the urge to blog. But because it’s Sunday I thought it might be best to blog about my faith in some form or another. I’ve purposefully avoided doing that in the past, but I decided today I might want to dabble a bit in expressing my religious thoughts on the internet. So, I began to write about a bunch of stuff I’ve had on my mind this week pertaining to God and faith, etc. But I ultimately decided to take the lazy way out.

So here, in no particular order, are three of my favorite quotes, or teachings, or whatever you want to call them, that have helped me shape how I view my relationship with God and my Mormon faith:

The first one actually comes from Roberts’ The Truth, The Way, The Life, and if you are interested in finding it in the book itself it’s on page 15 (that is, in the edition released by the Smith Research Associates, not BYU Studies).

It comes while he is discussing the nature of “truth”, and might just be one of my favorite explanations of the expansive possibilities within Mormon theology.  He explains that truth, as Mormons see it (or at least as we should see it, according to our theological foundations) must include the “knowledge of things as they are to come.”

“This presents a view of truth seldom, if ever, made. With it is given the idea of movement. Truth is not a standing pool but a living fountain; not a Dead Sea, without tides or currents. On the contrary, it is an ocean, immeasurably great, vast, co-extensive with the universe itself. It is the universe, bright-heaving, boundless, endless, and sublime. Moving in majestic currents, uplifted by cosmic tides in ceaseless ebb and flow, variant but orderly; taking on new forms from ever changing combinations, new adjustments, new relations — multiplying itself ten thousand ways, ever reflecting the Intelligence of the Infinite, and declaring alike in its whispers and its thunders the hived wisdom of the ages.”

——–

Next is a Hugh Nibley one. One of my favorites, though there are many. It’s from an interview that ran in the collection Eloquent Witness: The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple. The very first Nibley book I ever bought. It’s basically just Nibley telling it like it is.

“We’re just sort of dabbling around, playing around, being tested for our moral qualities, and above all the two things we can be good at, and no two other things can we do: We can forgive and we can repent. It’s the gospel of repentance. We’re told that the angels envy men their ability both to forgive and to repent, because they can’t do either, you see. But nobody’s very clever, nobody’s very brave, nobody’s very strong, nobody’s very wise. We’re all pretty stupid, you see. Nobody’s very anything.” 

——-

And here’s the last one. This one’s a quote from John Taylor, but I didn’t find it from digging through his journals, or even reading a book about him. I read it in an essay in Dialogue titled “Seers, Savants and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface.”

“Our religion … embraces every principle of truth and intelligence pertaining to us as moral, intellectual, mortal and immortal beings, pertaining to this world and the world that is to come. We are open to truth of every kind, no matter whence it comes, where it originates, or who believes in it … 

A man in search of truth has no peculiar system to sustain, no peculiar dogma to defend or theory to uphold; he embraces all truth, and that truth, like the sun in the firmament, shines forth and spreads its effulgent rays over all creation, and if men will divest themselves of bias and prejudice, and prayerfully and conscientiously search after truth, they will find it wherever they turn their attention.” 

In the essay, this quote comes just after another great quote by J. Taylor. I wouldn’t rate it as one of my favorites, but it’s still really good so I might as well mention it here.

“I do not want to be frightened about hell-fire, pitchforks, and serpents, nor to be scared to death with hobgoblins and ghosts, nor anything of the kind that is got up to scare the ignorant; but I want truth, intelligence, and something that will bear investigation. I want to probe things to the bottom and to find out the truth if there is any way to find it out.” 

So there you have it. Three (four-ish) quotes that charge my spiritual battery.

What I think of Utah (So Far)

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My identity is divided between two states.

I grew up in the great state of Oregon. The Beaver State, home to rocky beaches, Elliot Smith, and Nike. I have an odd relationship with that state. Born and raised there, I always felt the need to defend it, like the brother/sister you can tease but can’t stand to see teased by others.

I defended her because I’ve always felt like where you live defines your identity more than anything else in your life. I had invested a lot of time and energy into figuring out my own identity, and I knew it would never happen without embracing where I grew up. So I did exactly that: I embraced the fact that I grew up in Oregon, and not somewhere more interesting like Chicago or even Seattle. I really learned to love that friggin state, even with all of its rainy days.

My senior year of high school things got a little more confusing — identity wise that is — and it reached a point where I felt I had to run away. Cut my self off from the root, so to speak. So I did, to Virginia.

Since the summer of 2006 I have considered myself an adopted son of Virginia. I absolutely fell in love with that state. Orange leaves, college towns, summer thunder storms, fireflies, all of it. I also fell in love in that state. I love the East. Sometimes it’s hard for me to say that I love it more than the West, but I do.

But now I live in Utah, and it’s been a surreal experience for many reasons. Of all the places in the whole country, I never ever imagined I would live in Utah. I used to joke with my wife all the time that we would end up in Wisconsin or Wyoming, but Utah never even crossed my mind. I had avoided Utah, I thought, because I didn’t go to college at BYU. Because, you see, that’s why people move to Utah, because they went to school at BYU.  I didn’t, therefore there would be no good reason for me to move to Utah.

Wrong.

I’ve been fascinated by this whole “journalism” thing for some time now. When I got an e-mail offering me an internship at the Deseret News, my wife and I decided this was the right move for us. So here we are. Salt Lake City. Utah. And now I have a third place to try to fit into my heart and soul. Somewhere new to help shape my identity, even if it’s only for a short while.

I have been surprised though, because both my wife and I have loved being here. The first thing I noticed when I landed at the SLC airport was the beautiful mountains that surround the valley. I can see why the saints thought it would be safe here. It feels so cut off from the outside, like there’s a giant wall blocking Salt Lake from the rest of the world.

We have met wonderful people here. I work with some of the most delightful people I’ve ever met, and both of us have connected (or reconnected) with family out here, which has made it easier to adjust. I’ve even had the chance to meet up with one of my old mission companions, which was something I’ve looked forward to since the day I came home from Brazil almost four years ago.

I love seeing the Salt Lake temple every day. It just doesn’t get old (or at least it hasn’t yet). I love church history, but I was always more interested in the earlier years before the trek west. Being in Utah has piqued my interest in the Utah period though, which has been a delightsome distraction from my usual historical meanderings.

The West is so wide, so open. The streets here are huge which makes Salt Lake the easiest city I’ve ever had the pleasure to drive in. Absolutely everything (that wasn’t built by the pioneers) looks like it was built in the ‘70s. It brings back some weird memories from my childhood, especially the look of the apartment buildings. I can’t explain it, but I can say that Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs hits a different spot emotionally out here than it did in the East. There is something about the hazy dream of the western suburb that I think people who grew up in the East can’t relate too. I may be wrong, but that’s how it feels.

Salt Lake is a very inviting city, and it’s done a great job of welcoming us. We both work downtown so we’ve grown pretty fond of it. I think more so than any other small city I’ve heard of, SLC does a lot to keep it’s young poor people occupied. Free movies projected at the capitol, big name concerts for only $5, and two great outdoor malls within a mile of each other. We stay pretty busy.

Brittany and I talk a lot about the unfortunate stigma that Utah has, you know, because when you grow up outside the Mormon belt you get a little tired of people talking about how great Café Rio is and bragging about growing up in a neighborhood full of Mormons. I think Mormons outside the Wasatch Front can be a little harsh though. This really is a beautiful state, and SLC is really a great city.

Brittany and I had the chance last week to visit her hometown in Southern Utah. I never knew the desert was so beautiful. Big, red rocks that look like they fell strait out of The Searchers. I drove home by myself through those canyons (Brittany stuck around an extra day to be with family but I had to get back for work) and I listened to Joshua Tree. I could swear I had never really heard that album until I listened to it as I weaved through the canyons of Southern Utah.

Besides my appreciation for the history and beauty of the area, I can’t say much about the people. I still haven’t had the chance to get to know many people, besides the ones I work with. They are all great, so If I take them as a representative sample this place is full of kind, intelligent people. We did have a rough experience at a Flaming Lips concert, lots of lame-o’s there, but I hardly think they speak for the state of Utah.

Having said that, I do feel like I’m borrowing all this. It might be a feeling that will go away with time (if we do stay here) but deep down I still feel like an Oregonian son adopted by the good graces of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Utah, to me, feels less like home and more like a fun stop on the way to somewhere else. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

What I said at the senior banquet

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For anyone who couldn’t be there, here’s what I said at the senior banquet:

While speaking to a group of BYU students in the late 1960’s, Hugh B. Brown–a counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church for many years–invited them (and I believe, all of us) to think a little more. “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind” he said. “Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.”

During my time here at Southern Virginia, I have come to value thinking very much. I think that the most important thing that we have to offer is our unique potential to cultivate “more thinking” in an LDS environment. That is what is so beautiful about a Liberal Arts education: it forces you to think in ways foreign to your instincts.

It is that very spirit of Liberal Arts that attracted me to this university. I came for the small class sizes and Latter-day Saint environment, but I stayed for the Liberal Arts. There have been times when I wondered “why am I required to take this class?” I’m not a biology major. I am not a theater major. I’m certainly not a philosophy major. So why take it? Why place value on information that I will likely never use?  Are we just jumping through hoops? No, we are not. We take these classes because it’s essential for us to know that there are many facets to truth. I may like history more, but that doesn’t lessen the value of math. If my pursuit is for truth, then I have to learn the importance of all its angles.  Recognizing our own lack of understanding is certainly an important part of our earthly experience. As  President Brown also said in the same address:

“We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers–that we in fact have a corner on truth, for we do not.”

That pursuit of truth, I believe, is worth something. In a world where information is constantly at our fingertips – literally – it’s become harder to decipher what’s true. What makes sense. What makes us better people. We must avoid falling into the mentality that our education exists only to “train” us, or reinforce our own ideas. Especially if we accept the challenge to become Leader Servants.

Hugh Nibley, a lifelong educator and great Mormon thinker once made a distinction between “leaders” (or what we would call Leader-Servants) and “managers.”  Leaders, he said, are “movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace.” They combat the bland ideas of the manager, who are “safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men.”

“[L]eadership” he continued, “is an escape from mediocrity. All the great deposits of art, science, and literature from the past, on which all civilization has been nourished, come to us from a mere handful of leaders. For the qualities of leadership are the same in all fields, the leader being simply the one who sets the highest example; and to do that and open the way to greater light and knowledge, the leader must break the mold.” That is exactly why I think the Liberal Arts are so vital in preparing future leaders; they help us see things differently and break the mold.

I’m grateful that I belong to a faith that values education. Not everyone at Southern Virginia is a member of the LDS church, but I think at the very least we can all agree that “the glory of God is intelligence.” What a rich idea. God not only wants us to be happy, but he wants us to be smart as well. Of course he also wants us to be productive, not just sit around and wonder about the mysteries of life all the time. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss them.

Brigham Young, the great Pioneer Prophet who urged the saints to model their lives after the productive habits of the honey bee was also quick to remind them to sit, and think every once in a while. “This people have embraced the philosophy of eternal lives,” He declared “and in view of this we should cease to be children and become philosophers, understanding our own existence, its purpose and intimate design, then our days will not become a blank through ignorance. God has placed us here, given us the ability we possess, and supplied the means upon which we can operate to produce social, national, and eternal happiness.”

I am proud to say that Southern Virginia will forever be my Alma Mater. My nourishing mother. In a way, I was born here. I think many of us could say that. She taught me the skills to think like Brother Brigham so earnestly advocates. Here, I have learned the value of hard work, of diligence, but also of truth. I am pleased to say that I am not the man I was 4 years ago. In fact, I am not the man I was 6 months ago. A liberal arts education will do that to you. Hopefully, if I apply what I’ve learned here, 6 months from now I will have changed even more. Such is my hope for all of us.

Thank you.