Category Archives: education

Books and Mormons

Whenever I meet someone who is adamant that the pluralization for “The Book of Mormon” is “The Books of Mormon,” I cringe a little inside. It can be a perfect storm of smug self-righteousness and grammatical sloppiness/ignorance.

If you aren’t a long-time Mormon, this introduction probably doesn’t make sense. There has been a silent war within our culture about the pluralization for “The Book of Mormon,” the keystone piece of devotional scripture and literature within the Mormon tradition. The often used quick-fix is to just slap an “s” at the end, such as “I just got a shipment of fifty Book of Mormons.” However, there is now a very vocal minority who demands that we atone for our past mistakes and realize the error of our ways. “Book of Mormons” isn’t grammatically correct at all! Obviously, the correct way to pluralize The Book of Mormon is by saying “Books of Mormon.”

The problem is, that way is wrong, too.

The main mistake in pluralizing The Book of Mormon into The Books of Mormon is treating “The Book of Mormon” as a phrase, not as a single unit of information. The Book of Mormon is a title, and thus a proper noun. This method of pluralizing the main noun in a phrase that has become a proper noun does not carry over in other instances. For example, if I meet five different people at a convention dressed up as Harry Potter, I wouldn’t say that I met five Harries Potter. For another example, if I have two copies of The Game of Thrones, and I wrote on my English paper that, on my bookshelf, there sits two Games of Thrones, my professor will probably laugh and then let loose yon red ink pen. To take an even more famous fantasy novel example, hopefully nobody will ever say “At my house, we love Tolkien! In fact, we have seven Lords of the Rings!” After all, there is only one Lord of the Rings, and he does not share power, nor does he approve of erroneous pluralization.

A caveat — should you be referring to simply a general collection of books that Mormon wrote/edited, and not The Book of Mormon itself, then the “books of Mormon” pluralization works. However, I would venture to guess that 99.99% of the time, when Mormons say Books of Mormon, they are not talking of a general collection of individual books that Mormon can take creative ownership or credit for, but The Book of Mormon. And so, pluralizing a proper noun in such a way is erroneous and misleading.

The proper way to pluralize The Book of Mormon because it can be such a confusing proper noun to pluralize would be to write or say “copies of The Book of Mormon.” This is, in fact, how we pluralize most titles. If, for example, you are buying some copies of The Scream to pass out to your children for whatever reason, you will probably go to the store and ask the clerk, “I need two copies/prints/whatevers of The Scream.”

The really big irony is that the original pluralization, while not totally correct, is passable, understandable, and acceptable in everyday vernacular English. If you went to the store, you could say, “I need to buy five The Screams,” and the clerk will probably understand you okay (You could probably even drop “The” before “Scream” and still make some sense). If you tell your friends, “At the convention, I saw five Harry Potters,” your friends will probably ask for pictures instead of adjusting their glasses and saying, “Excuse me, you mean five Harry Potter impersonators,” or worse, “Excuse me? You mean five Harries Potter.”

The very concept of a proper noun is to insinuate that there is only one of these proper nouns, and if there are multiple versions of these proper nouns, that these proper nouns are at least some kind of important thing. For example, we say The White House, not because it is the only house painted white in the world, but because it is a very important house painted white. The name Kate Middleton is certainly not unique to just one person, but it is an important aspect of some people, a vital part of their identity. Thusly, we refer to a collection of scripture as “The Book of Mormon” to designate that this collection is very specific and important. That way, we don’t have to say, “Did you pick up that crate of fifty copies of a collection of texts including writings written by Nephi, Alma, Abinadi, Mormon, Moroni, et al, edited and compiled by Mormon?” We have assigned a title to that. Instead we say, “Did you get your fifty copies of The Book of Mormon?” or, if you’re feeling kind of lazy or hurried, “Did you get your fifty Book of Mormons?”

So people who say Book of Mormons, the next time someone tries to correct you, shrug it off. You are more right than they are, and hopefully we can quell this budding grammatical apostasy out of love, compassion, and persuasion, not through more harsh words and smug condescension.



Filed under education, religion, wordsmithing

Designing modesty

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupry

Recently, there’s been a lot of hullaballoo surrounding an article in the June issue of the Friend magazine. I’m not going to discuss the virtues of whether or not you should allow four year old girls to wear sleeveless sundresses — that has been discussed in the Bloggernacle ad nauseum. My main concern about the modesty issue (concerning the Church) is how convoluted our stance on modesty has become (especially for girls). Here are some rules (though they are not limited to this list), as codified into our culture by the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and the hallowed Honor Code of BYU*:

– No sleeveless anything, whether it be tank top, spaghetti strap, or otherwise. Halter tops are right out.

– All shorts must cover the knee

– No more than one pair of earrings for girls, no more than zero pair of earrings for boys

– Do not wear tight-fitting clothes

– Always cover your stomach

– Avoid extreme styles and colors (I’ve always wondered what they did in the 1980s with this rule, what, with the preponderance of lime green and hot pink)

– Guys should have well-trimmed, non-shaggy haircuts, no facial hair, and, if mission standards are to be followed, a part in the hair as well

– No tattoos, even if it’s like, a totally radical tattoo of a Chinese character

– Clothes should not be low cut in the front or back

– One piece swimsuits for the ladies

– And now, apparently, no sleeveless for little girls either

I’m a big believer in simplicity. Though I fail at it many times, I try to live as simple and as modest a life as possible. I believe that ultimately, a well-lived, modest life will have trimmed away the gluttony and excess and spend its time doing that which has the greatest and most value. I believe this concept applies in many situations, including my spiritual and religious life.

The modesty rules we have currently today are anything but minimalist. In fact, most of the rules we have concerning modesty are reactions against cultural trends of which we disapprove. Few, outside of the more vague ones, such as “avoid extreme styles or colors” or “no tight-fitting clothes”, contain any kind of gospel principle (and even then we’re stretching it); rather, they sound similar to the edicts of Cosmo’s fashion section, a list of do’s and don’ts to stay “in fashion” with the latest LDS style.

I like to think that Jesus is the prime example of a minimalist. When asked which of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) were the greatest, Jesus boiled them all down (all 613 of them!) into two great commandments:

Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

The minimalism behind this is breathtakingly beautiful. Yes, commandments and standards are important, but instead of creating a “modesty checklist” (which the Friend also did), couldn’t we instead emphasize that our bodies are gifts from God? If we love God, we will respect and cherish that gift. Empowered by the love of God and a perspective of our place in the universe, we would refuse to abuse and exploit that gift when propositioned to do so by others. Such thinking would allow the flexibility and breathing room for cultural fluctuation but still provide concrete understandings of what is right and wrong. Rather than measuring ourselves against a list of rules, we measure ourselves against our worth prescribed to us by God. We use personal revelation to guide our way. Modesty, like all other commandments and standards, hang from those two great edicts.

Rules are more comfortable precisely because they are so specific and inflexible. We can hide our ignorance of the gospel, our insecurity in our faith, and our anxiety before God’s presence behind the wall of man-made law. We can be mean-spirited, bitter, judgmental, rude, spiteful, proud, back-biting, or all of the above, but as long as we pay our tithing, attend Church services, and do our home/visiting teaching, we’re still “righteous,” even if the love of God is not within us. It is easier to teach and instill skirt length, sleeve length, midriff coverage, one-piece swimsuit expounding, and one-pair-of-earrings exposition in 30 minute bite-size increments in Sunday School than either the love of God, or the love of others. Yet it is exactly the latter that saves and has eternal worth.

So what would Jesus say? Suppose a faithful disciple approached him and asked, “Master, which of these modesty rules are the most important? No bare-midriff? No knee-cap flashing?” The great thing is that deeply embedded in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, we already have such a minimalist statement that Jesus could possibly make:

Ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable with my appearance if I were in the Lord’s presence?”

I propose that we eliminate all else in the “Dress and Appearance” section of the For the Strength of  Youth pamphlet and teach our youth this one basic principle above all else when teaching modesty. All in favor, please manifest in the comments. Any opposed do so by the same sign.


* I’m not sure if including the BYU Honor Code in our list of unofficial official cultural standards for modesty will garner controversy or not, but BYU is possibly the single greatest exporter of Church culture, and so I have included it as most Mormons would probably agree to the standards espoused in the Honor Code anyway concerning modesty.


Filed under education, parenting, religion

Mostly Correlation Friendly Prayer Alternatives

During one memorable Sunday School lesson, the instructor proudly spoke on how our Church discourages “rote and memorized” prayers. He emphasized that we encourage prayers to come from the heart instead, spontaneous and sincere. “Except in important instances, such as in the priesthood ordinances like baptism and the Sacrament, we don’t use memorized prayers.”

“But we do,” one student responded. “’Please bless this food so that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies,’ even when we’re eating ice cream for refreshments.”

“How about ‘Please bless us that we’ll all drive home safely’?” another student said.

“Or ‘Please bless those who are not with us today that they may be with us next week,’ when we don’t even know who they are, or have any intention of encouraging them to come,” said another.

It’s clear that even though the Church does not give out prescribed prayers for every instance of the day and night, we still fall into the trap of rote, memorized prayers that we recite out of habit, but not from the heart. Prayer, at least prayer available in the lowest common denominator of Church culture, just hasn’t been cutting it for me the past few years. I’ll admit, my prayer practice began to fall apart over time, until it was almost non-existent. This isn’t to say I had nothing to discuss with God, nor that I had grown cold and unappreciative of life. My life was actually getting better in every single way. But I didn’t know how to communicate with God sincerely when I found myself saying the same phrases over and over again. I didn’t know how else to communicate.

Of course, receiving the news that we were expecting changed my lazy dynamic. When the kiddo came around, what family traditions of prayer did I want to teach? I didn’t want my child to suffer under the same lackadaisical, stiff, boring prayer traditions I had found myself mired in. I needed to change the routine up while still keeping true to the spirit of what prayer is supposed to be. And so, I began to experiment.

Prayer of Thanksgiving – I picked up this practice during my time in the Missionary Training Center, and I sadly only practiced this sporadically. We often make a lot of demands in our prayers; in fact, I would think that often our demands outweigh our praise and gratitude in our prayers. We always need something to go well – to find a job, maybe for someone to get better, or for just general safety and wellness. We want to be happy, for our friends and family to be protected, for whatever we’re eating to magically become nutritious and nourishing. But often times, we don’t thank enough. I know for me, I make really general blanket statements of thanks – thanks for this food, thanks for this Sabbath, thanks for the opportunity to be with family, or if I’m in a real rush, thanks for all of our blessings, whatever that means.

The adage to count our blessings really does help lift moods and bring appreciation for everything we have. In a prayer of thanksgivings, lay off on the demands for a while. Only thank God in the prayer. And when you do thank him, thank him individually for everything. Thank him for every friend and family member by name. If there’s a particular favorite food you like, thank him for that. Thank him for the sun, the sky, green grass, a song you heard that especially touched you. Sometimes I find myself thanking him for things that I might never have otherwise brought up in prayer – (thus far) mostly proper DNA replication in the body, or maybe for that really great deal in potting soil to start our patio garden. I have no idea if God made Costco give a great deal on potting soil; I have a feeling he actually doesn’t really care about the market price of potting soil (then again, he could?), but I’m grateful for potting soil and I’m grateful for the ability to grow a garden on our patio, so why not? It can’t hurt.

You’ll be surprised how powerful a periodic prayer of thanksgiving can be. Sometimes we feel like God isn’t really looking out for us. And though times certainly get really tough sometimes, I think the vast majority of us still have an incredible lot to be thankful for (especially if you live in the States!).

Meditation – My first encounter with meditation was during a world religions class in high school. My friend Kim sat next to me, still, silent, serene. I, however, couldn’t tame my highly active monkey mind for more than a minute; my mind kept getting distracted by, yes, shiny things, among other distractions. Over the years, I’ve never developed as strong of a meditation practice as I should, but I’ve noticed the benefits whenever I do it.

I know of Mormons – and Christians, for that matter – who get wary around the idea of meditation. Recently, meditation has come to the American cultural spotlight as a mostly Eastern religious practice. However, Western religions also have a strong meditation practice, especially in the all-important monasteries. One of the activities we are told to do with the scriptures – along with praying, pondering, and reading – is meditating. Meditation is simply the practice of sitting down and clearing the mind. Many focus on a mantra, a phrase or word to repeat over and over in order to train the mind to clear out all distractions.

If any word could aptly describe our fast-paced, post-industrial, modern life, it’s “distracting.” We have a million distractions vying for our attention, and it takes a toll. Meditation is a way to step out of those distractions and focus on the divine. Combine meditation with scripture memorization. Pick out a verse that brings comfort, and use that as a mantra. Many people don’t know how to start. Others are embarrassed that when discovered, people will make fun of them. But meditation is easy. Just sit down, try to clear your mind of thoughts, and be still, and know that God is God. If you’re afraid people will make fun of you, literally take the advice Jesus gives – meditate in a closet. Sometimes I’ll lock myself in the bathroom. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon meditation session. Try meditating for just a minute. Then two minutes. Then five. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes, and how often times, how reluctant you’ll feel to leave that peaceful meditative bubble. Sometimes, words are clumsy and fail in communicating to the divine. Wrapping yourself up in the present moment with meditation can help us interact and experience the divine when words don’t seem to come.

One extra benefit from meditation is a new-found ability to forgive myself. It’s nearly impossible to try to clear your head of thoughts, just as it’s impossible to muck through this life unspotted from the world. In meditation, when a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge its presence, then dismiss it and focus on the mantra. It’s unproductive to self-castigate or flagellate yourself for your failure. This practice of self-forgiveness has spilled into other parts of my life, where if I make a mistake, I acknowledge it, then continue on, refusing to dwell on it. Focus on the larger goal and move on. It’s a nice feeling.

Hymns and psalms – a hymn is a prayer to the Lord, as the saying goes. If you don’t feel like praying (and who doesn’t feel like this from time to time), just sing a hymn. If singing isn’t your thing, try reciting a psalm instead. The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry, originally used for singing. When on the Cross, Jesus quoted Psalms. Many Christians memorize their favorite psalm to recite when feeling distressed.

Sometimes, we don’t know what to say. My wife often feels that she doesn’t have any pressing demands, nor is she really bursting and overflowing with gratitude every minute of the day, and so she often prays to simply “check in,” like a college student calling her parents once in a while to make sure they know she’s not dead. But she doesn’t like doing that with God. We’ve decided if we ever feel like we’re shortchanging him, or feel like we’re just simply “checking in” with words, but not with our hearts, we’ll either sing a hymn, or if we’re too tired, recite a psalm. And maybe it’s just years of conditioning from the Church, what, with hymns usually preceding prayer, but sometimes singing hymns just helps you get into that prayer mood.

Change up the time – During the mission, I struggled making the transition from night owl to early riser. The mission schedule is brutal to night owls, with its daily 6:30 in the morning wake up call. Often times, I struggled just to flip over onto my stomach, push myself up, and pray with my face pressed into my pillow. Often times, I’d fall asleep mid-prayer and just lie there, in some kind of twisted, bizarre Child’s Pose, for fifteen minutes or more, sleeping under the guise of prayer.

One of my friends on the mission hated this; I wasn’t the only one who did it. He eventually told me that what I should do is get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then get down on my knees for my morning prayer. God appreciates a clear head and a sincere prayer, not half-mumbled phrases I can’t distinguish from my dreams the night before. I tried it, and it helped a lot. Not only did my prayers make more sense (I remember sometimes praying for help from the bears that are trying to eat me), but I found my prayers to be a little bit more…different. More real. More about what I was about to do, and less about vague generalities (or man-eating bears).

Sometimes all you need is a break from the routine. The general times of praying are in the morning, at night, and before meals. However, praying outside of those times can help break the monotony. Instead of praying right before bed, try meditating a little in the evening. Instead of praying right when you get out of the morning, try praying in the car right before taking off for work. Often times, limiting ourselves to certain times when we must pray makes prayer start to feel like a chore, our predetermined times as some sort of quota. If we want to make prayer spontaneous and sincere, more of a lifestyle rather than a commandment, we must also break free of the idea that prayer should be done at specific times in the day, an idea that quickly becomes a prison. If you don’t pray immediately in the mornings, but pray during lunch for help in the unexpected things you must finish that day, I wonder if God cares much about the time discrepancy.

Hugh Nibley once wrote that “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.” We could also amend that to say “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to say a bad prayer than to get up at nine o’clock to say a good one.” This is a dangerous attitude to have about prayer, one that holds us back from any real spiritual progression.

Prayer, and communion with the divine in general, helps us develop a deeper appreciation not just for what is in store, but also for our lives now. One of the greatest blessings of Mormonism is its celebration not only of the future afterlife, but also the nitty gritty, dirty, dusty, mortal life we live today. True, sincere communication can help us secure a place in the next life, but it can also bring love and joy in the now, despite its difficulties and heartache.


Filed under education, life stories, parenting

Pronunciation wars

Alternative subtitle: Why All the Grammar Nazis Are Wrong, but You should Learn Your Grammar And Pronunciation Anyway

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays (dare I say, all time favorite?!) is Love’s Labour’s Lost. On top of being a hilarious comedy with a subverted trope ending and puns (lots and lots and lots of wonderful, delicious puns), the basic theme is a loving lampooning of sheer intellectual snobbery, a vice of mine I hold dear to my heart.

In the play, Holofernes, a pretentious school teacher, begins to mock an equally pretentious Spaniard who has learned English, about his pronunciation:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument. I abhor such fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and point-devised companions; such rackers of orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt, – d,e,b,t, not d,e,t: he clepeth a calf, cauf; half, hauf: neighbour vocatur nebour; neigh abreviated ne. This is abhominable, – which he would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of insanie: anne intellegis domine? To make frantic, lunatic. (Act V, Scene I)

“Wha-?” modern readers will exclaim. Who the heck pronounces debt with the actual b? Or actually says “ab-hom-inable?” (We should totally bring back that pronunciation. It just makes you sound so haughty. Try saying it out loud sometime).

This made me scratch my head, too. Is Holofernes totally wrong and Shakespeare is making fun of pronunciation Nazis or elitists at his expense, or was this actually how they pronounced words back then?

Robin Fox, in “Pronunciation: Shakespeare, Oxford and the Petty School Question,” says:

He was taking a position on a great intellectual issue of the day: the correct pronunciation of English and the classical languages. For Holofernes (“the Pedant”) English should be scrupulously pronounced as spelled. In the grammatical language of the day Prosodia should conform to Orthographia. But to such luminaries as William Bullokar, Richard Mulcaster and William Kempe, redundant consonants should be ignored, and their advice (and Armado’s practice) has prevailed.

Who knew! The history of the English language is, as always, absolutely fascinating. Still, this brings up the question — how does one act Holofernes on the stage? Should they pronounce all of his words so that the Prosodia conforms with Orthographia? Fox says:

Should he then be pronouncing words like this throughout the play? Only at the cost of being totally unintelligible.

I am, at heart, a grammarian who invokes Godwin’s Law far too often for his own good, but even I understand that language is rarely static but constantly evolving. Times change and languages change with it, and if we continue to hold to the “true” way of writing and speaking English, we would be “totally unintelligible” to anyone, thus canceling out the very purpose of language — to communicate. One could hold to the old, true rules of English (true according to their own view, in any case), but it will be a very lonely world indeed.

Still, don’t take this as an excuse to not learn the comma rules. Until we come up with something better, the basic comma rules are incredibly important and if you continue to neglect them, so help me I will start to ignore you because your text has been rendered illegible. And just like the grammar Nazis, you pose the threat of miscommunication.

And people say my writing looks like a giant wall of text.

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Filed under education, wordsmithing

Ethos and the Mormon hierarchy of quotational worth

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

So my friend Beth said on my last blog post:

I think I would like to see your treatises include more source material. I only mention it because it seems you like to use your blog as a forum to encourage sch0larly discussion, but you don’t include, for example, what Hugh Nibley had to say on the subject.

Same with your discussion on polygamy. It’s mostly your thoughts and opinions, but since you’re wanting to incite greater theological discussion I think actual quotes from the Manifesto would have been warranted.

I took this as pretty good advice, and so for the last entry on our Mormon version of American exceptionalism I set out to find quotes of varying opinion to present to you, the wonderful reader. Immediately, I ran into a problem — which quotes were “good” and which were “not-so-good”?

By good and not-so-good, I’m talking about a complex metric system that involves relevance, accuracy, and authority. Everyone has their own metric system to determine what somebody said is actually worth anything. Generally speaking, this metric system is pretty consistent within subcultures and the arguments they use. For example, in an academic setting, using your little brother’s opinions to back up your own in a paper will net you with a big fat zero, while using an anecdote of your sweet little brother’s kind actions will net you big rhetorical points with a talk during Sacrament meeting.

The Mormon Quotational Worth Hierarchy, or, who said it matters most

Mormons, too, tend to have a hierarchial system of “quotational worth.” It generally trends in this direction (the more important ones listed before the least important ones):

1. Anything Joseph Smith said
2. Current general authorities (i.e., Thomas S. Monson)
3. Old general authorities (i.e., Brigham Young)
4. More recently revealed scripture (i.e., Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants)
5. The Holy Bible (note: JST counts as #4)
6. Non-members we like (i.e., C.S. Lewis, whenever the Pew Forum has something nice to say about us)
7. The Founding Fathers (i.e., Thomas Jefferson, Mormonism’s favorite deist)
8. Non-members we’re neutral on (i.e., Emerson)
9. Other scriptures, sort of (i.e., Qu’ran, the Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls)
10. Academics (hissssss)

Your mileage may vary. For example, some liberal Mormons I know would say that academics are definitely at least higher than the Founding Fathers, while other more Constitutional Mormons would say that what the Founding Fathers say has more clout than the Holy Bible. And some people I know might say that the Qu’ran is a pretty neat piece of scripture and will put it around #5 or #6. My own hierarchal system does not match the one I just listed; this one is more of my very general guess of how a “standard” Mormon might grade quotational worth.

To illustrate, let me show you these quotes:

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Gloria Steinem, prominent feminist

Show this quote to a good, orthodox Mormon, and they would say, “Ugh, so typical of a feminazi,” and they would dismiss it without further thought. But who really said these quotes? Brigham Young.

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Brigham Young

Ah! Suddenly, this quote becomes worthy of discussion for our Church. Mormons would sit together and ask, “What does Brigham Young mean? What does education constitute? Why do daughters need education more than sons?” Why? Because of who said it.

How Important is Ethos compared to Pathos or Logos?

For those who need a refresher course on classical rhetoric, Aristotle argued that there are three modes of persuasion — ethos, pathos, and logos. Pathos and logos are pretty easy to understand — pathos deals with the emotional aspect of the argument, while logos deals with the “logical” side of the argument. Ethos is slightly harder to understand, but the basic idea of ethos is the rhetorician’s “moral authority,” or how much the audience trusts and believes the speaker.

A good argument will consist of all three of these modes — it will make sense, it will have emotional weight and impact, and the speaker is trusted and respected by the community. If you don’t have ethos, no one will listen to you in the first place. Without logos, your ideas will not make sense. Without pathos, there is little drive or motivation for action. But when you rely solely on pathos, your arguments become emotionally manipulative. When you rely solely on logos, your arguments become dry and weak. And when you rely solely on ethos, well, you have what many people call “blind obedience.”

Do we as Mormons accept arguments solely on ethos? This is not to say that ethos is worthless, but rather that a good argument utilizes all components of a classical argument (pathos, logos, and ethos). Do we put too much emphasis on ethos and ignore the others (though longtime members might say we go overboard on the pathos, too)? We are taught (some would say conditioned) to follow what the prophet says, no matter what. We are taught that who says what very much matters, but just how much does this matter? Should we and do we as a culture consider quotations (or teachings, or ideas) on the merit of their actual content instead of who said it?

Quotational value fluctuation

Of course content does matter, and ethos cannot always carry the day in our culture. I’m reminded of a talk given by Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 titled “Strengthening the Family — The Basic Unit of the Church” in which he recounted a hymn we once had called “Don’t Kill the Little Birds,” and then gave a very anti-hunting anecdote:

“I had a sling and I had a flipper. I made them myself, and they worked very well. It was my duty to walk the cows to the pasture a mile away from home. There were large cottonwood trees lining the road, and I remember that it was quite a temptation to shoot the little birds ‘that sing on bush and tree,’ because I was a pretty good shot and I could hit a post at fifty yards’ distance or I could hit the trunk of a tree. But I think perhaps because I sang nearly every Sunday, ‘Don’t Kill the Little Birds,’ I was restrained.”

According to those who remember that talk, many said that the Mormon hunting community hated this quote, and would even openly mock President Kimball’s reading of the verses. Ethos did not matter as much this time as content (though it is important to note that those who witnessed such mocking behavior were severely disturbed and scandalized). At the same time, if you mention this to someone who is rabidly “anti-environmentalist” (whatever that means), they may do this uncomfortable shuffling of feet and attempt to reinterpret what President Kimball really meant, or perhaps will introduce another quote from a (take note) General Authority that contradicts this statement and trump that as somehow “more true,” because again, we as Mormons are uncomfortable with the idea of rejecting an argument out right from an anointed servant of God.

On top of that, note that many Mormons joke that C.S. Lewis is the “Thirteenth Apostle” because he’s the most quoted non-member in General Conference. Why? Because so many of what he says could have come right out of an apostle’s mouth:

“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 163

And, content again plays in part when C.S. Lewis says something like this:

“I am afraid I am not going to be much help about all the religious bodies mentioned in your letter of March 2nd. I have always in my books been concerned simply to put forward ‘mere’ Christianity, and am no guide on these (most regrettable) ‘interdenominational’ questions. I do however strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes teetotalism [abstinence from alcoholic beverages] a condition of membership.”

– C.S. Lewis, in a letter replying to a woman he corresponded with in Salt Lake City, quoted by Marianna Richardson and Christine Thackeray in “What C.S. Lewis Thought about the Mormons”

“Well,” Mormon C.S. Lewis fans would say, throwing their hands up in the air, “I’m sure he accepted the gospel in the next life.” And when asked why this information is not as good as the previous quote from Mere Christianity, they would probably respond with, “Well, he’s not the prophet or anything.” Again, ethos takes precedence (even though C.S. Lewis introduces a very strong argument that “teetotalism” has very little scriptural support). Once again, the ethos argument comes out.

Ethos — what is it good for?

So again I ask, how important is ethos in an argument for Mormons? Does it trump pathos and logos? Is who says it more important than what is being said or how it makes us feel? Is “[insert priesthood office here] So-and-so said it and that’s good enough for me” really good enough?

“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

– Brigham Young

But what if Hugh Nibley said the above quote instead? Or Billy Graham? Or Martin Luther? Or Ralph Waldo Emerson? How does that change the value of the quote, for better or for worse?

And yes, I’m still digging up stuff on Mormon American exceptionalism. Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten.


Filed under education, religion, wordsmithing

Too long

I was talking to my wife today about how my friend wants to give me a thorough crash-course on programming so I can help him start a business that we both came up with one night while drunk off of insomnia and soy milk. I said I’d be up for learning programming, but that I was wondering how long would it take me to be able to contribute.

“What?” he asked.

“How will I know when I can program? Do I have to study for like, six months or something?”

He looked at me quizzically. “You’ll know you can do it when you can do it.”

“But how long will that take?”

By now, he’s laughing amusedly. “As long as it takes.”

My wife at this point is just shaking her head. “What kind of question is that? ‘How will I know when I can do it?’ What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s not my fault,” I protest. “I’ve been in academia too long. Your performance and skill is based less on what you can actually do, but on what requirements you’ve filled, which classes you’ve taken, which tests you’ve passed, which certifications you’ve earned.”

To be honest, I’ve been in academia for so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be graded simply on what you know rather than on a curve in comparison with everyone else. What I can do is not relative to what my classmates can and can’t do. I compete only with myself.

This is weirding me out to the max. I tell my wife that.

“You can be so pathetic sometimes,” she says, rolling her eyes.

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Filed under education, life stories

The Shackles of BYU

At the moment, one of the goals in my life is to get into the University of Washington. This has been somewhat of a life-long dream of mine – ever since I was a kid, I felt a tug towards UW instead of BYU. I chose to go to BYU anyway, and though there were…struggles, I guess I came out a better, more wise, more experienced, more compassionate person, and I ended up finding my True Love down there so all’s well that end’s well.

Though I still hold a little bit of angst towards BYU, I actually really admire BYU-I. According to my friends, their student government actually has teeth. They have instituted a program that requires every student to get a laptop and all textbooks are now electronic. Yeah, their rules are kind of harsh (no shorts, no flip flops, that kind of thing), but everybody there just seems so…happy. I have never met anyone who has come out of BYU-I with a bad experience. I came home my first first summer at BYU and my BYU-I friends would only gush about how much fun they had up there in the frozen tundras of Rexburg. I wondered what they were doing there that was so right – BYU left me frazzled and exhausted. My dad is Rick’s College alumni and when he heard about my troubles at BYU he wanted me to transfer to BYU-I. I didn’t, and I’m kinda glad because I met my wife later, but after I got married, I considered transfering up there at one point. I’m actually pretty sure I would have probably done pretty well.

So yeah. I actually like BYU-I. A lot. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it pretty well.

Which is why I cry for BYU-I. What an unfortunate name. Brigham Young University – Idaho? Really?

The problem is that damnable suffix. Why did you have to rename it after the original Brigham Young University and then suffix it? Why did BYU-I become a satellite school?

We have a satellite school here. It’s called the University of Washington – Bothell. I live close to Bothell. I once mentioned to my mother that I thought maybe I should apply there. She laughed. A lot. Because it’s a satellite school. If people see BYU or UW on your resume, they think, “Oh, nice.” When they see BYU-Idaho or UW-Bothell, they think, “What, they didn’t get into the real school?”

Which is a shame because BYU-I is a real school. It’s a pretty decent school. It’s not the same stature yet as BYU, but give it a time and I have a feeling that someday, they’ll surpass it for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into yet.

We have plenty of prophets, guys. Couldn’t we have renamed it something else? Named it after another prophet or another dead famous person that happened to be Mormon? It started out at Ricks College. Why not Ricks University?  Why not Joseph Smith University, or Hyrum Smith University, or Pratt University or I dunno, something besides a name that is already taken? I’m not sure what was going on in the meeting when they decided on the name, but I can’t help but wonder if some greedy BYU representative saw it as a power grab, to make sure that no other Mormon school would ever rise to challenge their supremacy in the Western Inter-Mountain Region.

I just hope they throw off the shackles of BYU soon. Otherwise, they’ll never really be taken seriously. And that makes me really sad for some reason.


Filed under education, religion