My injunction here is to give reason of the hope that is in me, which hope I apprehend as a patchwork of light and dark memories. The scriptures about opposition say there is no pleasure without pain, no joy without sorrow, no hope without despair. So I find myself focusing on the seams of my being and of the universe, fault lines, where one thing becomes another. One reason for hope: I am grateful that Jesus Christ fulfilled the law of the Old Testament.
I’ve been reading the Book of Judges recently. Many of the stories show how women were not valued beyond their ability to procreate or give pleasure to men: Jeph-thah swore as he returned from a successful battle that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his door to greet him. His only child, a daughter, emerged and he rent his clothes in sorrow but sacrificed her anyway. The writer of the passage uses the story to show the daughter’s nobility as she says, “My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth” (Judges 11:36). I think he was a double fool for making a rash promise and for valuing abstractions more than he valued his daughter.
In Judges 19 an unnamed Ephraimite, a houseguest in a city of the tribe of Benjamin, protected himself by allowing his concubine to be offered to a mob surrounding the house. The men abused her all night, injuring her so severely that she died with her hands on the threshold. The Ephraimite cut her body into twelve sections and sent the pieces to the borders of Israel. Israel, outraged at her rape and murder and probably at the threat to her husband, declared war on the tribe of Benjamin. Still the first evil act was when the master of the house opened the door and offered her to the men, valuing her safety and life less than the life of his guest.
The stories go on and on. Women also killed savagely: Jael hammered a nail through the temple of Sisera while he was sleeping. The violence is horrific, not just in Judges, but in much of the Old Testament, and it wasn’t just women who were treated cruelly. The Children of Israel seized Canaan by force and believed God commanded them to destroy many cities of their enemies—man, woman and child. There are exceptions to this cruelty against women and foreigners, which seem connected to the strong tradition of hospitality to strangers. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh allow the Canaanites to dwell in Gezer and serve under tribute. Boaz is courteous to Ruth. Throughout the Old Testament some men treasure their wives, some consider that they are not the only child God respects.
So for me the love of God shines only periodically or even sporadically through the history of the Old Testament. This light is especially strong through the words of the prophets. Isaiah prophesied of the Savior, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. . . . For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9: 2, 6). In a voice like Jesus’ voice Jeremiah wrote,
For among my people are found wicked men. . . . As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great and waxen rich. They waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.” (Jeremiah 5: 27-28)
Earlier Elijah discovered God’s love for his children, and did so on the rack of his apparent failure to motivate Israel to keep covenants. His voice is mournfully lonely as he complained, “I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (I Kings 19:10). In response God commanded Elijah to stand on the mountain and observe:
And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)
In that small voice even mournful Elijah found hope in the love of God.
Despite these glimmers of hope, as Israel discovered and defined itself against covenants made with God, many of the Israelites didn’t seem to fret much about those destroyed and killed in God’s name. I understand that judging a former time by my own light might be anachronistic. I also understand that sometimes death isn’t the worst that can happen, that sometimes killing someone is the best available option. But I don’t have to like it. I don’t believe in the virtue of letting war and killing sit comfortably in my head.
All of which leads me to admire to the core of my soul the revolution that Christ embodied. His attitude toward women and foreigners was nontraditional: He treated the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well with courtesy, asking her for water, divining details of her life but not insulting her for them, telling her about the living water constituted in his being. He said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee” (John 8:11). He spoke respectfully to the Greek woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit. When she suggested that, while the Jews might get served first, others might gather crumbs from under the table, he doesn’t rebuke her. She has the confidence to engage in a witty battle with him, using his own metaphor to get him to consider her position. He said to her, “For this saying, go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter” (Mark 7:29). When the woman with an issue of blood, unclean by traditional law, touched the hem of his garment, he turned and said, “Daughter, be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole” (Matthew 9:21). He also respected his mother’s wish when he transformed water into wine. Jesus was a man who loved all—women and foreigners, those without power, not just those who were fellow citizens. He gave respect to lepers, sinners, publicans, Samaritans, and working people like fisherman. He didn’t even have a prejudice against truth seekers from the higher echelons of society.
Down to our day the world says might is right or the strong will conquer. His Sermon on the Mount reverses this order of power, gives us the very machinery to learn empathy for others: Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit. He overturned our basic instinct for survival and domination, redefining it as less important than purity of heart. He told his followers that we are the salt of the earth, a light to the world, a city on a hill, but what gives us these qualities is our compassion for others, our ability to become like children in our openness and respect for God and all his children. He said he had not come to destroy the law crafted with Israel through centuries of mixed obedience to covenants, but to fulfill. He overturned without overturning: “Ye have heard, thou shalt not kill, but whosoever is angry at his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matthew 5:22); and “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). He opened/opens our hearts, breaks us, so that we can feel and live. The road to perfection is forgetting ourselves, paradoxically. He taught his disciples: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth; Lay up treasures in heaven; For where your treasure is there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye. Let thy body be full of light. Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink. Consider the lilies of the field and trust God. (Matthew 6) His lectures to his disciples are instructions in how to see ourselves and each other without the base desire to compete, to vaunt ourselves over others, including women, strangers, and foreigners. He taught us to live without bigotry.
Still he transformed the world only as we allow him to. Many throughout history have ground down the weak or the foreign in his name: the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, those who burned the martyrs in England, those who perpetrated the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Many Christians have mistaken virginity for value, foreignness for evil, difference for worthlessness. Without forcing us to obey, he opened the door to a new way of seeing that can fundamentally change the way we think about ourselves and other people.
My hope is that he would have me do today what he did then: respect those who it is easy to hate—anyone who is different, weaker, who doesn’t think the way I do. This includes the gay person, the immigrant, the person of a different religion. He would have me love the tyrant and the rich man. He would have me urge employers to pay women the same as men, would fight against child pornography, would enable the impoverished sick to get care, would work to end such practices as female castration, child slavery, prostitution, and other kinds of cruelty and inequity.
My experience with prayer coincides with what I know about Jesus from the scriptures. As I pray to God, the Father, somehow Jesus is there also, mediating, helping me bridge or breach the gulf between me and God. We know, as Mormons, that God and Christ both have bodies, and this may make us guilty of an odd kind of anthropomorphism, believing that God sees the universe as we do. I don’t think this belief is supported in the scriptures. We are told that we see through a glass darkly and that God’s ways are mysterious. Mormon, reviewing the history of the Nephites, wrote, “Oh how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth. For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God” (Helaman 12:7-8). I also think it’s clear that while our vision falls short of God’s vision, as we strive to see humanity and the universe as Christ does, we grow to be more like him (1 John 1:3).
How do we see? One metaphor is that we see the universe the way a poor writer of fiction sees his own characters, as stock stereotypes revolving around one central complex story, our own. Or we see others as we see the moon, which also has only one face toward us. We have difficulty imagining, as Roger Waters put it, the dark side of the moon. We see in stereotypes, as bigots, narrowly. We often see others as one-sided or even malformed beings.
There is a man in my ward who doesn’t see Muslims this way. If I’ve ever met a warrior, this man is one, and he studies the people he fights against. He never makes the mistake of thinking that all Muslims are the same. He has read their holy texts, talked to them extensively, and is as patient as a fisherman with people he’s met from Iraq and Afghanistan. He spends time finding similarities between his own beliefs and theirs. I’m not interested in violence and I never thought I could learn Christianity from a man capable of killing another human being, but to his core this soldier is a Christian.
As happened with my neighbor, I occasionally get glimpses of the way God may see the universe. One was when I stared at the bone yard at Dinosaur National Park, which is located at the bend of an ancient river. As animals died and floated down, they became caught where the water slowed and turned. Through the ages sediment built on sediment, bone on bone. Then an earthquake tipped the whole section of earth on its side. Once scientists had made a horizontal cross section, they had cut through all the ages. They left the last layer half exposed, for anyone to examine. As I looked at those giant femurs, massive pelvises, larger than any land animal living today, I was struck with the massiveness of the universe and the majesty and complexity of God. It felt the same as I feel looking into the immensity of space. God is just larger than we can easily imagine.
Another experience: I was irrigating in the desert before leaving on my mission. I carried 3×5 cards in my back pocket so I could memorize them as I worked in my father’s alfalfa fields. I walked down the lane, in the middle of small green field in the middle of a high desert valley, and I read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). At that moment I knew God’s love for me. I felt the God of the universe condescending to me. During that time in the desert and during many other periods of my life, I felt unprepared and haphazard, as if I stumbled forward into the darkness, but at that moment, I felt God’s individual, specific love for me.
Christ’s vision seems complex, not in any way simple. How does he see? A metaphor: perhaps the way an insect eye sees reality with multifaceted or compound vision. He sees as man and as God, both at once, our mediator. Another metaphor: perhaps he apprehends reality from four, six, or infinity dimensions. So how do we grow to see as Christ does? I believe that it’s a little like writing fiction. We imagine. We imagine the dark side of the moon, the faces our friends give to others. We imagine someone else’s perspective and feel it in our gut as strongly as we feel our own being.
George Eliot, who didn’t believe in Christ’s divinity, nonetheless understood the basic tenet of Christianity, trying to understand another person as they understand themselves. She wrote of a character who realizes that her hopes and dreams are not those of her husband:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier for her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” (Middlemarch)
Last night we drove to Grantsville to watch my niece perform in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. My sister had invited us to have dinner in honor of her daughter before watching the play. We were late and could only quickly say “break a leg” before my niece had to leave to put on her costume and makeup at the high school. Later, as I sat in the dark, watching my niece’s face as she sang and danced, I imagined her being crushed by the world, that her innocence could become disillusionment, her hope despair, and her happiness sorrow. Her pure face will become wrinkled and eventually she will die. Then I knew, despite the likelihood that many of these things may indeed happen to her, she can hope and I can hope because of Christ’s life and sacrifice.
After the play was over, in the middle of the crowd congratulating the performers, I saw my sister weeping as she spoke with a man. I didn’t know him but discovered that he had taught another of my sister’s children, a son, in high school. My nephew was killed in an auto accident twelve years ago. Before his death, while he was still in high school, my nephew had done something wrong, harming this teacher. Soon after my nephew’s death, my sister wrote the teacher a letter, expressing her belief that her son was sorry for his mistake. The letter was misplaced somehow and not found until now. My sister wept as this man told her he had just read the letter and had forgiven her son. My sister still mourns her son, especially on the anniversary of his death. She will never forget this loss. So she wept because of gratitude and grief, happiness that this man had forgiven and sorrow that he couldn’t say so to her son, face-to-face.
I know through my study of the scriptures and through personal experience, that Christ has not forgotten my sister and her children, alive and dead, and I know he has not forgotten me. This is my hope.
Born in 1953 in Salt Lake City, I grew up in Vernon, Utah, a village of about 200 people in the southern end of Rush Valley. I attended elementary school there and worked on my father’s ranches at Greenjacket (6 miles south of town) and Riverbed (40 miles west). I completed junior high and high school in Tooele and went to BYU for a year before being called on my mission, which was to the Navaho reservation. I learned to speak only a little Navaho, mostly in connection with religious subjects. When I returned, I finished my undergraduate degree in English with a certificate to teach secondary classes.
I met Karla and we married on 10 June 1977. We lived in Logan through the summer and moved to Mt. Pleasant, where we lived while I taught English, journalism, and art (for which I was not qualified) at Sanpete Junior High. Much of what I know about pain I learned in those classrooms, because I was a horrible disciplinarian and an inadequate teacher. We soon moved to Karla’s father’s farm near Mona, and I transferred to Juab Middle School, where I taught for three years, meanwhile getting my MA degree at BYU.
In 1982 I quit and we moved to Logan where Karla finished her Masters Degree in psychology. In 1984 we moved to Houston, where we lived for 5 years, while I completed my doctorate in Literature and Creative Writing. In 1989 I was able to get a job at BYU, where I have taught ever since. Karla completed her doctorate at BYU and now works as a psychiatric therapist.
We have 5 children, all married but one. One is a lawyer, one a jazz musician and agent for Delta Airlines, one works at the Utah School for the deaf, one is an artist, and one is just starting college.
I write novels, essays, and short fiction about the western Utah desert and the people who inhabit that forbidding country. I have published a collection of short fiction, Breeding Leah and Other Stories (Signature Books, 1991), and a novel, Falling Toward Heaven (Signature Books, 2000). I have published short work in Ascent, AWP Chronicle, English Journal, Utah Holiday, Journal of Experiential Education, Sunstone Magazine, Best of the West II, Black American Literature Forum, Journal of Mormon History, The Hardy Society Journal, and others. I have written two historical mystery novels (not yet published), Avenging Saint and Ezekiel’s Third Wife. I am currently working on a young adult mystery, The Hidden Splendor Mine. As an associate professor at Brigham Young University, I teach creative writing and the British novel. I have made a special study of the late Victorian and Modern writer, Thomas Hardy. As a teacher, I specialize in experiential writing and literature programs, including Wilderness Writing, a class in which students backpack and then write personal narratives about their experiences; and England and Literature, a study abroad program during which students study Romantic and Victorian writers and hike through the landscapes where those writers lived. A documentary The Christian Eye: An Essay across England covers the 2007 tour.
I currently teach the Gospel Doctrine class in my ward.
Posted May 2011