Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stories from My Mission: The Spirit of Discernment

This story is perhaps a little different from the others that I have so far shared. It is a little more personal and deals with the spirit of discernment. The spirit of discernment is one of the spiritual gifts listed in D&C 46 (actually more properly the discerning of spirits) which in my experience is the ability to discern the disposition and unspoken thoughts of any spirit, both embodied and disembodied spirits. It is a rare and powerful gift that should not be taken lightly.

This story took place in the city of Barranqueras, my last area of my mission. It was perhaps my second or third week in the area since I was just getting to know everything but I was not yet familiar with all of our investigators. There was one particular family that we had visited maybe once or twice, always very late in the evening when it was very dark out. In order to get to their house we would walk down the levee that kept the Río Paraná from flooding the city, and then just past the local soda pop bottling plant we would drop down into a very dark neighborhood (the same one where I later met and taught the local crime boss).

My companion had been teaching this family for some time before I got to the area, and when I arrived we had had one or two visits with a minimal amount of teaching. We then had a period of time where we could not find them at home because of illness and other things, until one day we managed to set a date to visit with them and have a real charla (missionary lesson). We arrived at their house at about 8:00 at night. The husband was finishing up something in the back room and said that he would be right out. We chatted with the wife and their kids for a few minutes while we were waiting for the husband to join us.

My companion was excited about this family since they were a complete family (with the parents actually, legally married, which was a rare thing in Argentina). They seemed like great people and I was happy that we had a complete family to teach. For my companion I think it was a point of pride that he had found and had spent so much time carefully teaching this family and that they were receptive to our message. He was hoping to extend to them that evening the offer to get baptized and was hoping for the best. I did not know them very well so I couldn't say one way or the other how they would react to the offer.

While we were waiting I remember sitting there at their kitchen table letting my companion do most of the talking not focusing much on anything. That is when I began to feel different. It felt almost like Déjà vu but without the feeling like I was remembering anything. It was more like I knew what was about to happen, and my sitting there listening to the conversation was like listening to and watching a replay of an event that I had already seen. I remember distinctly the husband coming into the kitchen and hesitating at the door way for a moment and then returning to check that he had actually turned off their washing machine in the back room before coming and sitting down with us.

As I sat there and looked at him I began to see what was about to happen. We chatted for a few minutes before my companion began the charla. I knew that it would not get far and indeed it was only three or four minutes before the discussion changed into something else. The husband was not vocally expressing any doubts and my companion still had great confidence that they wanted to get baptized. Even though I did not know them very well I could discern that they would not get baptized, and there was nothing that I could do about it. As my companion continued to talk and teach them it came to my turn to teach. At this point the feeling I had been having became even more intense to the point that I could discern everything in the room with perfect clarity. I still recall every detail of the room as it has been burned into my memory.

As I sat there with this intense feeling washing over me the conversation came into such sharp focus that in an instant I was able to discern the entirety of the conversation from the point that I began to speak to the point that we left the house. I knew everything that would be said before it was said. I knew the reactions of each person, including my companion. When it was my turn to teach I began by asking the husband what he thought about what we had been teaching him. He answered with a rather non-committal answer.

From this point on it was like I was merely reading a well rehearsed script rather than speaking to them. I knew the questions I would ask, and the answers that they would give. I knew their reactions, the reaction of my companion, what he would say to them and how they would respond. It was literally like watching a movie where I had already read the script. There were no surprises. There was no uncertainty. It happened just as I had seen it, down to the very last word.

In response to a further question the husband informed us that he was not really interested in continuing with our discussions. My companion made a plea to get him to change his mind. When my companion had exhausted all his options he looked at me. I continued with the script that I had already seen in my mind. To every question and comment the husband responded exactly word for word how I had seen it, and politely, but firmly turned us down. The wife also expressed her doubts but noted that she enjoyed discussing the scriptures with us. After a time we had nothing left to discuss so we said our goodbyes and we stepped out into the night.

I had only seen to the point where we left the house and that is where the spirit left me. It was a powerful and energizing feeling, but also one that took a lot of my stamina. As my companion and I walked along in silence, I marveling at the incredible and unique experience that I had just had, and my companion rather shocked and saddened by the rapid and unexpected change in their willingness to hear our message. After a while I felt that I should say something to my companion since he was on the verge of tears. Here was a family that he had invested so much time, effort and emotion in and they had just told him that they didn't want to hear our message any more. It must have been quite hard on my companion, and made harder by the fact that it was unexpected for him.

For me nothing that happened that night was unexpected. As we walked I tried to figure out if my companion had felt the same thing that I had felt. I asked him if he had any idea that we were about to get shut out. He said that he had no idea, that it was the most unexpected thing for him. I asked him if he had tried to notice or see anything (i.e. discern anything) when he look at the family. He looked at me like I wasn't making sense and asked if I wasn't as surprised as he was. I told him about my experience and about how I could clearly discern everything that was going to be said before it was said.

His reaction, at the time, surprised me. He got angry with me demanded to know how I could be so uncaring about what just happened. I didn't know how to explain to him that I did care about what had happened, but that it did not come a surprise. I again tried to tell him about my experience and how I had clearly experience the gift of discernment, but he would have none of it. He reacted with anger and accused me of being arrogant and unfeeling. I was just flabbergasted.

Now as I look back on the event I realize that the reason why my companion had not felt anything was because he had closed himself off from the idea that this family that he cared so much for were unwilling to listen to him. The Spirit could not get through to him to tell him what he needed to know so in the critical moment it revealed to me what was to happen so that I could be a part of it and witness the event, and give testimony of it because my companion would not. It was something that needed to happen, even though I have no idea why, and the Spirit needed me to know what was going to happen so that I could testify of what had happened. I pray that that was not the final chance for that husband and wife to accept the gospel.

I did go back another time with a different companion but there was never any more interest to talk about the gospel and our doctrine. The wife was kind and respectful but they had made their choice.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review: Four Cultures of the West by John W. O'Malley

When I first heard about this book I thought it sounded interesting. The basic premise is that there are four separate and distinct cultures that cooperate and compete with each other in Western Civilization. He likens these four cultures to four streams (like the Gulf Stream or a jet stream) that are embedded in our larger culture. They twist and wind their way through our history and shape the way we view and interact with the world. I admit that I approached the book with a slightly critical attitude, intending to give it a thorough consideration. So when reading the book I had a perpetual thought of, "Is this right, or is he just trying to squeeze history into his own private interpretation?"

Because I had this attitude for much of the book when I finally got to the Epilogue I had a rather interesting realization. I realized that he was right, and because of how he had written the book, and how he approached the subject matter he could not be proven wrong, because any attempt to prove him wrong would by its very nature prove him right. I will explain this a little more after I give a summary of the four cultures that he is talking about.

The four cultures are: 1. The Prophetic 2. The Academic 3. The Rhetorical 4. The Artistic.

These are not the names that he necessarily assigns to them, though in the case of cultures one and two he does refer to them frequently as "the prophetic" and "the academic". The other two cultures are never given succinct names. I did take exception to his use of the term "prophetic" for culture one. A better term I think would be "The Proclamatory" but that term doesn't have the same zing to it as "The Prophetic" though I think "proclamatory" is closer to what he intends to encapsulate culture one. But there is no need to get hung up on definitions since he does spend several hundred pages explaining the four cultures. I will now give a brief breakdown of how he describes the four cultures.

1. The Prophetic: (The culture of proclamation and reform.) This culture deals with right and wrong, not with proof and argument. That is key to understanding this culture. The reason why he calls it prophetic is due to the nature of the prophecies in the Old Testament where the prophets proclaimed the wrongs and the sins of the people and told them to repent. There was no argument or persuasion. There was simple statement of impending judgement. The modern archetype of this culture can be found in Martin Luther. It should be noted that O'Malley does not place any one person in a single culture and stresses that someone as complex as Martin Luther cannot be subsumed under a single culture. But the most distinct elements of Martin Luther's work can be thought of as typical of culture one.

2. The Academic: (The culture of proof, logic, argument, professions (legal, technical etc.) and academia.) This culture deals with proof through argument and the proliferation of technical definitions and fields of study. It is the driving force behind both modern science and law. Since the end of World War II this culture has become the dominate culture in Western Civilization. It dominates in our schools, our jobs, our economy and our politics. This culture contains the idea that right and wrong can be argued and proven through presentation of evidence. It is the dry boring culture of academia where it is more important to be technically precise than it is to be interesting.

3. The Rhetorical: (The culture of poetry, persuasion, and the common good.) If culture two is the culture of proof and argument, then culture three is the culture of persuasion and cooperation. In culture three the members do not strive so much to prove a point, as in culture two, or to declare someone in the wrong, as in culture one, but to persuade all involved to come to a consensus. This is properly the culture of the consummate politician, well versed, well spoken, well mannered, well bred and well read. Those who partake of culture three are more interested in packing an overabundance of meaning into a poetic statement than giving a technical definition. If culture two tries to fine tune the meaning of terms then culture three prefers to proliferate meanings in a single term. The ideal education of culture three is the "Classical" education where the students learn to read the classics of Greek and Latin literature (and later the classics of more modern literature). The education of culture three involves rhetoric, grammar and a grounding in literature and philosophy. Up until the beginning of the 20th century to have an education meant to have a classical education in the style of culture three.

4. The Artistic: (The culture of art, museums, pageantry and show.) This culture is inherently non-verbal, but still very important. It is the culture of music, dance, sculpture, art, pageantry and processions. If there is a set pageantry that requires the motion of those involved to be a certain way then that is a demonstration of this culture. Major examples of this culture can be found in the show and pageantry that can be found in major weddings, coronation ceremonies, parades and catholic mass. The mere fact that art museums exist demonstrate the existence and distinct nature of culture four. Up until a few hundred years ago the concept of having a designated building to hold art, where people went to view art, was unheard of. Art was usually found in churches, in schools, in the houses of rich people or in public places. The concept of collecting, preserving and displaying art in its own "artistic" space is a result of the growth of culture four. The fact that you do not find the concept of an art museum unusual indicates that you at least accept the existence of culture four, even if you were not aware of the existence of culture four.

These four cultures do not work in a vacuum and neither does O'Malley imply that they are the only elements of our society, but rather they are like the Gulf Stream, a major movement embedded in the larger ocean of our society. There are other currents and cross currents but these four cultures constitute a major part of our society. They sometimes work together and sometimes against each other. At times they move without interaction and at other times they are in direct competition.

If culture one strives to make people holy, culture two strives to make well tuned professionals, culture three strives to make well rounded individuals who can work well with others, and culture four strives to make people emotive and expressive.

When I finally got to the Epilogue I was still a little unconvinced, not because O'Malley did not make his case properly, but because the subject matter is very complex and I was still keeping a skeptical attitude. But when I read his Epilogue I had a sudden epiphany. O'Malley was right, and could not be proven wrong. The reason for this is because, as he begins his Epilogue,
"The genre in which I have tried to write this book is the epideictic genre of culture three. The genre has as it purpose the heightening of appreciation. With that end in view I have held up for you the accomplishments of my four cultures." (p. 235)
It was at this point that I realized that he was never trying to "prove" anything, because that was a symptom of culture two, which he was astutely avoiding when writing his book. And furthermore if anyone took it upon themselves to prove him wrong then by the very attempt they would prove him right, because by so doing they are exhibiting the characteristics of culture two. If someone proclaims him wrong with no argument then they are exhibiting the characteristics of culture one. Thus any attempt to prove him wrong automatically proves him right. And this is because he was not proving anything other than making a simple statement and observation for us to see no different than saying that the Mississippi River flows south, and the Gulf Stream flows northeast. So the entire time I was taking a skeptical attitude but by so doing I was proving him right.

So why should you care about this? This all seems rather academic you may say, but if we understand these different cultures then we can begin to understand the society we live in. I will give a couple examples of how these different cultures manifest themselves in a very real way in our society today.

A few months ago the governor of the state where I live went onto a live radio show to talk about his plan for the state. One of the things he mentioned was the inefficiencies in the education system in the state. Specifically he said that there were some majors or fields of studies that were basically worthless since they would not help anyone get a job and pay off their student debt. Specifically he took issue with certain liberal arts (emphasis on the liberal) and suggested that if people wanted to study those things then they should do so at a private university, not at a public university, where those types of things are a waste of time. The backlash was rather harsh from some segments, most without argument (culture one on display) and motivated by political considerations. There were some people who wrote letters to the editor of various newspapers who insisted quite strenuously that the purpose of a liberal arts education was not so that they could get a job, but rather so that they could be a more well rounded and "educated" individual. They were not looking for job training in their degree but rather to gain an "education", something that cannot be quantified by a paycheck.

What we had here was a clash of cultures. The governor, taking the position from culture two, insisted that education had its purpose in training individuals to do a specific task so that they could get a job and achieve that which is most valuable to culture two, the quantification of human life, in this case in the quantification of a large(r) paycheck. But this clashed with culture three which holds that education is not for specific training but to enlarge a person so that they have a greater more well rounded understanding, even if none of it is quantifiably practical. Thus there were two cultures divided by a common language and they fundamentally failed to communicate. Ultimately both sides concluded that the other daft and had taken all leave of reason because obviously they have no idea what the word "education" means.

So where else do we see these four cultures? Here is a list of a few possibilities:

  • Street protests (culture one)
  • Art museums (culture four)
  • Promotion of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) research and education (culture two)
  • Home schooling parents who want to give their children a "good" and "classical" education (one and three respectively)
  • Anti-GMO, anti-government, anti-global warming, pro-GMO, pro-government, pro-global warming fights, disputes, internet comments and Facebook posts (culture one)
  • Expressing dismay that children don't read good literature, and read trash like Twilight (mixture of one and three)
  • People saying that whenever there is a political dispute we just "need to sit down and talk about it rationally and 'have a dialogue'" (culture three)
  • The people who think the people from the previous list item are crazy and willing to compromise with the devil (culture one)
The thing to remember is that each of the four cultures have a different set of values and things that they consider to be "the good" (though "the good" is more indicative of culture three). Because each culture measures value differently there are disagreements over the things that our society should place emphasis on and what should be encouraged and what should not. It should be emphasized that not all aspects of our society fall into these four cultures, just as not all parts of the ocean are in a current, but they are major players in our society and determine how many of our current political and social conflicts and triumphs work and come about. As a final note I should point out that while these cultures may determine the form and function of disputes and cooperative efforts alike in our society, they do not determine the content. These cultures are about form not content.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Don't forget what it means to be Christlike

As I was sitting in church today one of the speakers mentioned how she was continuously working on being more Christlike. As she said it my mind immediately began to turn and to think about the term "Christlike" in an analytic way (it's just the way my mind works). I thought about how it is a very nebulous term that is at the same time very specific and intuitive while being fraught with difficulties and misunderstandings. I recalled how I had heard people use it in such a way that it was basically reduced to a platitude, i.e. their interpretation was so wide just about anything could be considered Christlike.

My train of thought wandered back and forth considering all the ways that I had heard people refer to being Christlike. I remembered people telling me (not me personally, but to my Sunday School class or Seminary class) years ago when I was a teenager, "Jesus spent all his time going about and talking to people and helping them, so that's what you need to be like, and that is being Christlike." Effectively what I heard was "Jesus was a big time extrovert, like me, so if you want to be Christlike then you need to be an extrovert, like me!" (For some reason extroverts tend to think that everyone should be an extrovert like them. I'm sure that there are many introverts who also think that everyone should be introverts, but because they are introverts they don't tend to go around telling people about it.)

At one point during my train of thought I decided to write a blog post about what I was thinking. My initial thought was to title the post something like, "When being Christlike becomes meaningless" but then I quickly realized that I would probable spend most of my post explaining that I am not implying that we should not be  Christlike, but that we should not use the term "Christlike" in a way that it removes all meaning. That's when I decided to change my approach and settled on the current title.

The term "Christlike" is rather simple in its meaning but complex in its application. If you look up the word in a dictionary you might get something like this, "resembling or showing the spirit of Jesus Christ". Unfortunately too many references to being Christlike focus more on personality than on specific acts of kindness or forgiveness. Sometimes we spend too much time saying that we need to be Christlike but fail to identify specific examples of how we might be Christlike. Perhaps if we realize that we are getting caught up in the trivial we should reorient our approach and think more on our relationship with Christ because after we have recommitted ourselves to Christ and his atonement, then being Christlike comes more easily and the attributes of living a Christlike life will flow easily to us. First come the Christ and then be Christlike. It is something that we must do again and again. It is not a one time event, but a continual process.

If at any point we feel that "being Christlike" has become a trite saying that is said because it needs to be said we must first come unto Christ and that will remind us what it means to be Christlike. A good place to start is to return to what has been called the Constitution of a Perfect Life, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. The key is to remember that I should not become a platitude to say that we are working on being Christlike.
This comes from a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland back in 2006.