28 December 2007

I can't keep up....

While I have been in my exams and over the past couple weeks of vacation, it seems like every day brings a new news item on the Romney campaign front. First there was the Huckabee "Jesus-Satan are brothers" insult, and the subsequent apology, and all the commentary that followed. Now there is a story out that seems to suggest that Romney does not believe that God has spoken to man since Moses, with the exception of a few others.

I don't want this blog to become a wholly political one, and so I will not even try to keep up with all the daily happenings on that front. Although I hope that Romney makes a good showing in order not to embarrass the Church (though I do not want him to win), part of me wishes he would just get creamed in the primaries and drop out so we can all do the requisite post-mortems on what went wrong. I have to admit that I am a little surprised that he got this far, but I am still confident in my earlier position that there is no way he can get the GOP nomination, much less win the presidency. However, I am aware that some bloggers on other sites are more positive about his ultimately receiving the nomination. Anyone want to take the odds on the month that Romney drops out? My bet is for February, after Super Tuesday.

If Romney does in fact drop out after not receiving the GOP nomination, it would be a shocking indictment of how much the Republican movement has been taken over by the Christian Right. Romney is getting many of the important endorsements, even from those candidates who are dropping out of the race, like Tom Tancredo, from important conservative publications like the National Review, and from other conservative luminaries such as failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. If he can't win with those, it will be all about the Christian Right.

25 December 2007

Mission nostalgia

Preface: Mark Twain once said "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated." Some of my own readers may have started such rumors about this blog. Let me assure you that the blog is still active and I will still post here regularly. A little over a week and a half ago, I finished my next-to-last set of law school exams, and then almost immediately left for Utah where the wife and I are spending the holidays with my in-laws. It has been a hectic couple of weeks and I have not been keeping up with the blogging (mine or that of others) as I ought.

One of the sweetest experiences of this Christmas season has been seeing a convert from my mission in Mexico. Since I returned home in 2003, I have seen a couple of my old companions (both American and Mexican) and a couple of other housemates and missionaries, but have managed to keep in touch with converts only by e-mail. So I was delighted when one of my first converts from my mission contacted me in late November with the news that she was going to be in Salt Lake City over the holidays and wanted to see me.

Z was a 16 year old girl whose investigation and baptism seemed to be the most random circumstance. My trainer and I had taught the first discussion to her older sister F, and had returned on several occasions for a follow-up second discussion, but never found her at home. (for those of you who served missions in Latin America, you will realize that this is nothing out of the ordinary. No one has a phone so you cannot really call ahead.) On about the third or fourth try, we cynically decided to teach a discussion to whoever we ran into at the house who was willing to listen (in order to have something to show for our time). And thus we found Z, who was more than happy to listen to a first discussion and invite us back for more. Being an American on a Mexican mission, and having heard many of the missionary horror stories, I approached the teaching of a Mexican teenage girl with a sizable dose of skepticism about how this would end up; but in the end, you don't choose your investigators, they choose you.

Z was extraordinarily bright, far and above most of the other people we had tracted into on my mission, and for me, it was a breath of fresh air. She was smart and very ambitious. She kept appointments, fulfilled commitments, and seemed prepared at every turn for whatever we taught or asked her to do next. I guess that I saw a great deal of myself in her, only having recently joined the church myself, under somewhat similar circumstances.

Z participated in a YW New Beginnings program even prior to her own baptism, and went about it as if she had been a member her whole life. She was baptized on a freezing cold day in January 2002, in an unheated font (unpleasant for the both of us). I guess I was still somewhat skeptical about the ultimate prospects of her conversion based on her age and the lack of support in her family. Nevertheless, her behavior gave me no other reason to doubt her sincerity or conviction.

I stayed in the area for another 3-4 months and subsequently moved to another city in the opposite side of the mission. We stayed in infrequent contact by letter, and everything seemed to go well. Soon after I left, two of her other sisters were also baptized (and they remain active to this day). Z too moved away to attend a university in another city outside of the mission, and is only infrequently in the city where we initially met.

This December, Z came to SLC to meet an American boyfriend she met over the Internet. We made plans to meet on Temple Square and later went out with both her boyfriend and my wife for dinner. There was plenty of catching up to do, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude both for the experience of having taught and baptized her, but for the chance to see her once again. My first area and my first companion (where and with whom I had encountered Z) were the best of my mission, and many of my fondest memories of Mexico are in that place with Elder C. Generally, the rest of my mission was difficult, draining, and discouraging. I never attained that level of success (measured in terms of baptism and teaching) at any other point in my mission, and I left Mexico wondering how much good I had really done for anyone (even myself). Those doubts have stayed with me in the 4+ years since I returned home. But for the past few days it has been a true blessing in my life to recall those powerful moments that my companion and I shared with Z and to witness how the Gospel has blossomed in her own life in my absence. Life has become ever so much more complicated since returning home from my mission, and I am grateful for experiences such as these which hearken back to a simpler time.

09 December 2007

Movie quasi-review - "The Golden Compass"

I first want to say that I was interested in seeing and reading "The Golden Compass" long before I heard anything about its anti-religious sentiments, as I had heard that it compared favorably with C.S. Lewis' Narnia books and the works of Tolkien, of which I am a fan. So this is not something I did just out of rebellion. Also, I have not yet read any of the books yet, so my comments will be restricted simply to what I saw last night in the movie.

There was nothing objectionable about it, well, other than the fact that it just was not an great movie. It will excite little kids and teenagers but once you have seen The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia on screen, this will be no revelation. So if you don't like it, then don't like it for the same reason you should not like The Da Vinci Code (book or movie), not because of its ideas or content, but because its poorly written and executed on screen.

As for the movie's ideas, it has some interesting ones. You could miss the anti-religious rhetoric or some of the invocation of the authoritarian nature of Catholicism, if you are the single person on the planet who has not received an e-mail about how evil these books and movies are. I went in there looking for it and so I found it, but it was far from unmistakable. Furthermore, the Catholicism that it invokes is hardly Pope John Paul II's version, but more the Spanish Inquisition and the persecutors of Galileo. Other than that, no mention of deity (of any kind, unless you count the allusions towards the "Authority," which could be God or the Magisterium- it is never made clear who is being referred to). I am aware that the books are supposed to be more virulently anti-religious, and I will see for myself.

The movie's cosmology is also interesting, if a little muddled. Every human has a companion creature which holds their soul, called a "daemon" (but pronounced predictably as "dee-mon," which I am sure is getting the evangelical hackles up, even though a "daemon" is a Greek/Latin word referring to supernatural beings (which can be good or evil) that are intermediate in level and power between gods and humans, whereas "demon" is a Judeo-Christian usage that is reserved solely for malevolent spirits. Do your homework! Sorry for that etymological aside, but I feel that making that particular word into a controversy is petty, since it is so easily explained. Anyway, back to the cosmology. "Dust" is a substance of unknown provenance which allegedly infects children as they grow up and enables them to choose to do evil. Dust comes in contact with humans through their daemons as they grow up. The Magisterium seeks to sever the human-daemon connection in order to prevent a new generation from being "infected" with Dust, and thus being able to choose to reject its teachings. The Dust issue is a little confused, mainly because at times it seems to fit the Catholic idea of original sin, except that kids don't get it until they grow up, and at other times it seems to fit the Mormon idea of agency, except that kids don't get it until they grow up. So as I said before it is all a little confusing since Dust does not fit neatly into a little allegorical box. I find it ironic that Mormons are so up in arms against the movie mainly because it seems to be a defense of agency (one of the characters refers to the coming war with the Magisterium as a "war for free will itself"- sound familiar?). The plan of the Magisterium seems to be to deprive humans of that capacity to choose evil, which was Satan's plan from the beginning, right? Of course, the books might clear this up, but that will have to wait.

Last week, a substitute Sunday School teacher in my ward (with whom I am friends and whom I generally think to be someone with a reasonably open mind) got up before class and went on a tirade about how nobody should see this movie or read the books. I was shocked to hear about this (especially from her) even though I had received the standard e-mail warnings from friends and family. I remarked to my wife last night that there would be many people who would not go see the movie or read the books because they genuinely feared losing their beliefs or harming their kids. However, there would be another segment of the population who would not go see the movie, even though they really wanted to, because they did not want other people at their church to judge them for having done so (I can think of a couple of my friends who might fit into this group). I imagine that happens both with Mormons and non-Mormons alike, but nevertheless I think that Pullman would find that both somewhat ironic and self-affirming.

My take on "the Speech"

I'm not dead, just in the middle of my next-to-last semester of exams. I did make time, however, on Thursday to watch "the Speech." More complete reviews and commentaries on Romney's speech are up at the other major venues in the Bloggernacle and I left comments on several of those. I will add only some brief thoughts here and point you to my able colleagues at other blogs.

Mostly, my concerns echo those expressed elsewhere. I found the bit about the oath of office being potentially Romney's highest covenant with God a little troubling. I guess I don't seem to be as troubled by it as some because I don't think he really believes it, but that is troubling in its own right. I think that he knew that he had to say that, or something like it, in order to mitigate evangelical hostility towards his candidacy. For someone who claims that he will not distance himself from his religion in order to win the election, I think the early signs should be worrying. Romney may be never renounce his Mormonism, but he is presenting himself as a a believer in a watered-down, Protestantized Mormonism with no controversial theologies and no historical issues.

As far as the speech's purpose, I cannot say with surety what Romney hoped to achieve. I do not think he achieved any great victory with the speech other than to present himself as a fine orator with an important knowledge about the history of religion in America. As far as I can tell, what troubles many Americans about Romney is not his views on religion as part of American public life, but his views, particularly a personal belief, on a particular religion, namely Mormonism. It would seem to me that the best antidote for that kind of feeling is disclosure and more information, since I think most people merely hate out of ignorance and fear. However, the tack he seems to be taking is to ask people to simply not look at it. I also think that he wants people to focus on it so little that he only mentioned being Mormon once and the rest of the time talked about "my faith" or "my beliefs."

The other part of the speech that seems to rile people up a lot is his emphasis on the necessity of religion for freedom and an apparent vision of an America with no use for atheists or the impious. I guess I don't find this particularly controversial because I could envision it coming out of the mouths of any of the other major Republican nominees, with the exception maybe of Giuliani.

Generally, I thought the speech was pretty vanilla. I was disappointed he did not talk more about what it meant to him to be Mormon, but I realize that others (most prominently Richard Bushman) believe that he should have steered clear of too much mention of his Mormonism. I am certainly no more likely to vote for him after seeing the speech, but then again there is very little he could have said to change my vote in the first place. I think that I acquired even further distaste for Romney after reading the profile of his mission years in France a couple of weeks ago in the NYT. He just seems like someone with a great deal of charisma, flash, style, and a great sloganeer and cheerleader, or in other words, the perfect businessman, but who lacks substance or conviction behind his words.