Friday, March 21, 2014


Illustration from Dante's Divine Comedy
by Gustave Gore
First Published March 20, 2014 at Modern Mormon Men

In the October 1964 General Conference, Sterling W. Sill made this bold assertion:
"Certainly the greatest problem of our generation is its titanism, as shown by our enmity toward the Almighty."
I have to admit that I had never heard of titanism prior to reading his talk (which immediately made it into my General Conference Classics file). In classical Greek mythology, the Titans were a race of giants with enormous size and strength that sought to rule heaven. They made war with Zeus and the other Olympians, but were ultimately defeated and thrown down. Titanism has therefore come to represent the tendency to be at defiance and revolt against tradition, convention and established order. Elder Still used titanism to represent "our unfortunate human inclination to fight against righteousness ... [and wage] war against God and his purposes."

The parallels between the War of the Titans and the War in Heaven (Revelation 12:3-14) are hard to miss. Similarly, we can't make it through an entire day without being confronted by the ferocity with which the world takes the fight to the gates of Heaven. But Elder Still wasn't talking to the world as much as he was talking to the church. The Church has always known it's share of conflict from within; perhaps the most unlikely titans that battle God do so from within His Church.

With the Priesthood Session of General Conference just around the corner, battle lines seem to be forming once more. The Ordain Women movement seems determined to press it's case, and the Church equally determined to hold the line. Not only was their petition for tickets denied, but their premise was labelled as "contrary to revealed doctrine". They were asked not to protest, but given maps on how to find "free speech zones" if they insist on doing so.

Let me be clear that I am not redefining titanism as the OW movement or any other movement in the Church. Any attempt to compile a list of offenses constituting titanism would be presumptuous; it's manifestations are highly individual anyways. Fundamentally, titanism is a state of mind that puts us at war with God on a individual level: our priorities become more important than God's priorities. Though we may agree with Him on everything else, even one point of disagreement is enough--if we feel strongly enough about it.

Though his talk was given almost 50 years ago, Elder Still's words resonate surprisingly well for us today (shades of President Benson's Beware of Pride). As a result we may immediately think he was focused on [insert the vocal iconoclast you find yourself most at odds with here]. But after reading this talk I had my own Robert De Niro-talking-to-himself-in-the-mirror moment. I realized that he is talking  to me. The rest of you might want to listen up as well. His words are not just descriptive of what ails us today, they also offer specifics on how to cure it:
"The greatest miracle ever performed by Jesus was not in controlling the angry sea but in disciplining his own will ... What a tremendous benefit we could bestow upon ourselves by calling off the war and learning to live at peace with God, not only in obeying him but also in agreeing with him."
God's requirement that we surrender our will to His, is asking a lot.  C. S. Lewis and Neal A. Maxwell have both weighed in on this with their usual eloquence.  But though the Lord asks everything of us, He has promised us much in exchange.
Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days. (D&C 64:34)
Periodically we all find ourselves in defiance with God. Though we may find ourselves surrounded by many like-minded souls, ultimately it's how much we share in common with God the matters most. One of the first steps in creating a lasting peace with God is deciding to "lay down the weapons of [our] rebellion" (Alma 23:7) and surrender to God. It is not sufficient to just walk away like some Zerahemnah. The gesture must be accompanied with a willing mind and followed by humble obedience. This may take a while.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Enduring Wisdom: Rudyard Kipling

Portrait of Rudyard Kipling
by John Collier, 1891
I have posted on Rudyard Kipling before. He's right up there with Ben Franklin on the quotability scale.  

On Self
“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” 

“Take everything you like seriously, except yourselves.” 

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."

“Everyone is more or less mad on one point.”

“We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.”

On Others
“I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble.”

“All the people like us are we, and everyone else is They.”

“It's clever, but is it Art?”

On Words
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

“He wrapped himself in quotations - as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.” 

“We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” 

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.” 

“Gardens are not made by singing 'Oh, how beautiful,' and sitting in the shade.”

On Women
“A woman's guess is much more accurate than a man's certainty.” 

“The silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.”

“An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.”

On Travel
“I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago. The other places don’t count. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages” 

“San Francisco is a mad city - inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of a remarkable beauty.”

“Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old.”

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”

“Down to Gehenna or up to the throne, he travels the fastest who travels alone.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Atavism and the Lithuanian Holocaust

1941 Nazi propaganda poster in Lithuanian language.
Top: "A Jew is your eternal enemy."
Bottom: "Stalin and Jews -- one big gang of scoundrels!"

I'm excited about our trip to Lithuania this Spring and having been trying to come up with a bucket list for our time in Vilnius. In doing so I read this book: The Hill, by Antanas Jonynas. It is the story of the murder of Dr. Schmidt and his family by his patients and neighbors during the Lithuanian Holocaust. Though he was the only physician in Kraziai and had served the people well, he was a Jew. That was enough.

In June of 1940, the Soviets occupied Lithuania and initiated a redistribution program that seized the land of local farmers, and exiled 36,000 Lithuanians to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. When the Germans displaced the Soviets in June of 1941 they disbanded the unpopular Soviet programs and won a measure of support from the locals. In place of Soviet programs was a pogrom of ethnic cleansing of Jews in Lithuania.  During the 3 year Nazi occupation 200,000 Jews were murdered with the complicity of the Lithuanians themselves.  This represented 94% of Lithuanian Jews, the highest percentage of any Nazi-occupied country in Europe. When the Red Army returned in 1944, the details of the suffering and injustices heaped upon the Jews were veiled and minimized behind the iron curtain and the Soviet oppression resumed in earnest.*

Antanas Jonynas makes no excuses for the good Christians of Lithuania and the role they played in the murder of their neighbors.  But he did describe the ease with which the nation slipped into complacency and complicity in one of the greatest horrors of the modern era.
Some dark forces were so terribly strong that, once awakened, they created waves that were nearly impossible to resist. If only all people would rise together and say no to violence then everything would stop--the live and burning hearts would restrain and subdue the bloody force all at once. Yet for some reason, the hearts fearfully crouched down and shrank, and people got swept into that wave. A paralysis of conscience, and attack of fear took hold of people and they were unable to resist any longer--and they fell, downed by the wave, or helplessly allowed themselves to be swept away by it. 
This wave of dark violence must have had something devilishly tempting, poisonously attractive, that lured many people and befuddled their minds. What was it? An atavism of the human animal, the revenge of the animal instincts against the centuries-long self-liberation of humanity from their terrible rule? Was it avarice? Was it an orgy of passions that yearned for the most bestial satisfaction and self-defilement?
The Lithuanian Holocaust is hauntingly familiar to the horrible violence that destroyed Nephite civilization at the end of the Book of Mormon. Mormon looked on helplessly as his people were similarly swept away 1500 years earlier:
And it is impossible for the tongue to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of carnage which was among the people, both of the Nephites and of the Lamanites; and every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually (Mormon 4:11).
It can be very discouraging to look around today and realize that these dark forces still remain strong. The poisons are more attractive than ever. Just as in times past, these forces use the alluring dark arts of fear, intimidation, violence and greed to paralyze conscience. Today people are still being swept away by violence, but also by other atavistic traits of the natural man: lust, idolatry and pride.  King Benjamin's beautiful description of how to halt the degeneration towards godlessness gives me great hope:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).
Mormon went on to describe how King Benjamin's people succeeded in putting off the natural man and "had no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually (Mosiah 5:2). Though Mormon's people refused the Balm of Gilead that would heal their wounds, Mormon himself remained optimistic. This unfailing confidence that good will triumph over evil has been fundamental to the message of every prophet that has spoken since. Several years ago when President Hinckley was asked by a Protestant minister about how he felt about things he said:
I feel optimistic--guardedly so, yes, because of the extent of evil in the world. But, on the basis of what I see, goodness is gaining, and the work of the Lord is growing in strength and power.
I hear this optimism burst forth in every General Conference and in every Sacrament Meeting. As we incrementally beat back and subdue the natural man through the atonement, we come to feel this optimism in spite of the carnage all around. It's arguably the only way we can hope to attain peace in a terribly evil world.

* see an the Preface of this book by it's translator, Yuval Lirov, for an excellent summary of the Lithuanian Holocaust 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lessons in Fauxcabulary: Embiggening the Soul

Jebediah Springfield
Originally Published at Modern Mormon Men
February 28, 2014

I recently came across a couple of neologisms (newly coined words) that expanded my vocabulary in a good way. It certainly isn't the only time that The Simpsons was the source of my inspiration. The words are: "embiggens" and "cromulent".

As it turns out, the town motto for Springfield comes from Jebediah Springfield who said: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man". When Mrs. Krabappel said she had never heard the word embiggens before moving to Springfield, her fellow teacher Miss Hoover said “I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.” I therefore can't resist waxing eloquent about other cromulent uses of the word embiggens.

The first thing the word embiggens did for me was make me miss George W. Bush who had a penchant for inadvertent neologisms and malapropisms (here for an old post on Bushisms).  This longing is undoubtedly heightened by our current political woes.

But secondly I thought of Alma's great sermon on faith in which he likens the word of God to a seed. When planted in our hearts and nurtured by faith, a good seed enlarges our soul and enlightens our understanding (Alma 32:28). As we cultivate the word, we may expect to see the seed yield fruits that include gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness and pure knowledge. These will "greatly enlarge the soul" (D&C 121:41-42; see also Alma 5:9). When we taste this fruit, it is delicious, satisfying and ennobling. We could cromulently say that we are embiggened.

If he would aspire to greatness, a man must plant in his heart the word of God. Then, as he carefully cultivates it, he will be embiggened as God ennobles his spirit.

How is that for a fauxcabulary lesson?