Ken Jennings is the trivia whiz who won 74 straight games on Jeopardy! in 2004 (racking up $3,000,000+ over his total time on the show).
Ken also maintains an excellent blog. Which you should read.
On a personal note, when he was in the middle of his Jeopardy! run, I sent him fan mail with a little request… he granted my wish. I was sent back a signed paper that said, “Hemant, I’m so glad I didn’t have to go up against you!”
This is why we like him
He graciously took the time to answer questions covering topics such as his Mormon faith, the new book, and Mitt Romney:
Hemant: You’re a Mormon, but I’ve rarely heard you say much about your faith outside of its name. Do you ever talk about your faith publicly?
Ken: I’m always happy to talk about Mormonism when it comes up — Alex Trebek and I discussed topics like tithing and Mormon dietary taboos (cigarettes, booze) on-air, and many interviewers since have been oddly interested in the possible connections between faith and game show success. I think I only seem reticent about my faith when you compare me to a certain kind of bumper-sticker Christian, full of proselytizing zeal. I love my religion and am always happy to share it, but it’s also very personal to me, and I don’t know that trotting it out incongruously in secular situations is always appropriate (or, from a conversion perspective, very effective). Mostly, I’m just happy for the chance to shatter any remaining stereotypes of Mormons as insular weirdos. So I try to pick my spots and appreciate it when others do the same.
Hemant: You’ve said in interviews that a six-month mission trip you took in college strengthened your faith. What was it about the trip that changed your life?
Ken: It’s actually a two-year mission that young LDS guys serve — I was in Madrid, Spain from 2003 to 2005. Missionaries help out with local congregations and perform community service, but the bulk of their day is spent looking for and teaching people who are interested in hearing more about the Mormon church. Almost any Mormon who’s served a mission will talk for hours on end about what a formative, landmark experience it was in their lives. A lot of that is just timing and circumstance: you’re 19 years old, you’re far from home, you’re living an incredibly demanding lifestyle (missionaries work upwards of twelve hours a day, six days a week, and even their non-working hours are tightly regimented for study, chores, etc.). But there’s more to it than that.
For believing people — even very devout ones — religion tends, by necessity, to be a sidelight in our lives. We talk a good game, but we still spend much more time and effort on our careers, family, even hobbies than God gets. It was eye-opening to actually be able to put my money where my mouth was, for a change, and think about spiritual things full time, and act accordingly. That kind of focus really shows you the power can religion have in someone’s life — my life, as well as the changes for good I saw in a lot of the people we taught. A lot of atheists probably assume that a dramatic increase in religious devotion leads inevitably to fanaticism, but believe me, there’s an enormous potential for good in that kind of focus as well. I lived a completely distraction-free, self-examined life for two years, considering nothing but Life’s Big Questions. Those medieval monastic orders were on to something.
Hemant: Have you ever doubted your Mormonism? If so, how did you deal with that?
Ken: I think doubt is an essential part of faith. I don’t like the absolute conviction of a lot of religious people, even when it doesn’t lead them to blow up buildings or whatever. Mormons like to say “I know…” rather than “I believe…” when they testify of their faith, and I know they mean well, but the formulation rankles. It sounds complacent. Ah well, you know. That’s all sorted out, then.
I feel like a livelier, stronger faith is the kind you have to fight for regularly. The man with a sick child in Mark chapter 9 said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I feel the same way a lot of the time. My faith isn’t just the one I happened to be spoon-fed as a child. By this time, it’s based on a lot of very real life experiences — times when I feel the principles and organization of my church brought me closer to the divine. But it’s a chaotic world out there, and sometimes you have to fight to remember those experiences amid all the other distractions.
Hemant: How do you reconcile your faith with your knowledge of science where there is contradiction between them?
Ken: This is an easier question for a Mormon than it is, perhaps, for an Evangelical: there’s no specific LDS doctrine on issues like evolution, so none of that has ever been problematic for me. Brigham Young taught the early Latter-day Saints that “Mormonism embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical.” As a result, there’s an open-minded, questing, Enlightenment spirit to the Mormon pursuit of truth that I’ve always liked.
Science has been known to be wrong about scientific questions, but it certainly has a much better track record than organized religion does in deciding scientific questions, so I prefer to keep the two magisteria non-overlapping. I also don’t like it when the maple syrup from my pancakes gets on my sausage at breakfast.
Hemant: Outside of your church (which was tithed, correct?), where did you donate some of your winnings?
Ken: Yes, a tenth of my winnings was tithed to my church, but I’d like that to be just the beginning of the good I do with the money, not the end of it. It’s nice now to be able to write a generous check when some worthy cause pops up, Katrina or a friend’s fun run or a public radio pledge drive, and not have to worry about whether I can still pay the bills that month. But I’ll confess that I’m still paralyzed by indecision when it comes to the bulk of the money. I’d like to do one big, substantive thing rather than ladling it out piecemeal, but it’s hard to know where it would do the most good. So for now, I mostly dither.
Hemant: A lot of religious parents raise their children in “the family faith.” Most atheist parents (perhaps in response) prefer teaching kids how to think, not what to think. How are you raising your kids Dylan and Caitlin?
(Quick note: In this question, I meant to ask Ken what his thoughts were on the idea of teaching critical thinking instead of simply believe-it-because-we-said-so religion. In the process, I came off sounding rather douchebaggish. Ken rightly called me out on it with his answer.)
Ken: Wow, if there an emoticon for self-back-patting, you forgot to use it there. This question, with its imagined crazy religious brainwasher parent and its benevolent, tolerant atheist one, doesn’t strike me as very accurate. You’ll be shocked to hear that even religious people would like their kids to know how to think, and I’m sure a Hitchens-style atheist would be just as unhappy to see a child convert as any believer would be to have a child “fall away” from the faith. I would like to see my kids’ lives blessed by their religion in the same way that mine was. We take them to church with us. They’re four and one years old, respectively. Should we open the Yellow Pages to “Churches” every Sunday morning and have them throw a dart?
That said, of course our love for our kids — or anyone else — isn’t contingent on them sharing our religion, no matter what path they choose. But, in the meantime, my wife and I are going to give them a head-start in the only tradition that we know from personal experience has brought us greater truth and happiness.
Hemant: Do you think Mormons ever get an unfair rap from society? Is there any stereotype in particular that annoys you?
Ken: I almost don’t know where to begin here. Until recently, I thought the LDS Church had pretty effectively mainstreamed itself over the last fifty years. Being Mormon made you an interesting oddity at a dinner party — like being a raw-foodie, or a unicyclist, or a Canadian — but it didn’t elicit any lip-curling scorn. Then Mitt Romney decided to run for president, and now I can’t go a week without reading a clueless blog post or Sunday-paper think piece in which it’s 1850 and apparently Mormons are sinister, secretive outsiders. Thanks Mitt!
Dear mainstream media: there are twelve million Mormons in the world today. The majority aren’t Utah-based Osmond clones. In fact, the majority don’t even live in the US anymore. We are not a monolith. The clueless stereotypes (Mormons are chin-bearded polygamists) are as useless now as the slightly more clued-in ones (Mormons are teeth-grindingly wholesome, whitebread, green-Jell-O-eating suburbanites with eight kids apiece). I myself do not have a chin-beard or any multiple wives (though if they actually looked like Ginnifer Goodwin on Big Love, I could maybe be persuaded). I don’t have eight kids. I don’t own a single pitchfork. I’m not (by my own estimation here, of course) a complete moron, a close-minded nutjob, or a humorless tool. I’m not a Republican. I enjoy high culture and pop culture alike. Mormons are regular folks, just like anybody else, not a spooky cult in any way.
Atheists, you should be the ones taking the lead in ending the Mormon-bashing! After all, LDS doctrine may seem kooky to you guys, but at least you don’t think it’s heretical. You should be the first to realize that the founding LDS narrative — Joseph Smith, an angel, golden plates, etc. — isn’t any more or less sensible than the origins of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. It just doesn’t have a few millennia of distance to give it the patina of authority.
Hemant: What trivia don’t atheists know about the Book of Mormon?
Ken: I don’t think non-Mormons know much of anything about the Book of Mormon, so this is a pretty wide field. How about: the word “Deseret,” the Mormons’ 1849 name for their proposed western state, doesn’t derive from the word “desert” at all. It appears in the Book of Mormon, where it’s translated as “honeybee.”
Hemant: Do you only stay in Marriott hotels?
Ken: I’m so ecumenical, I’ll stay anyplace with free wi-fi. No matter what kind of godless heathen owns the joint.
Hemant: On your last episode of Jeopardy!, Did you throw the final question *wink wink nudge nudge*?
Ken: Yes. I was so sick of a job where I was making $60K+ an hour that I decided to abruptly quit. That’s exactly right.
Hemant: Is Marie Osmond going to win Dancing with the Stars?
Ken: I hope not. I’m a Jennie Garth or Mark Cuban guy myself.
Hemant: How was the writing of your new book compared to the work you did for Brainiac?
Ken: Brainiac was a tremendously challenging narrative book (at least for a clueless novice author like me), since I was trying to interweave my own TV experience with a look at American trivia culture as well as ask bigger-picture questions about what the trivia urge says about the way our brains work. It was a juggling act. I figured the Trivia Almanac would be a breeze by comparison — just write a lot of trivia questions, right? — and a way to get out of my system all the trivia I accumulated writing Brainiac. But then the scope of the almanac sort of crept out of control: I ended up having to write nine thousand trivia questions in about six months. I think it’s the largest U.S. collection of trivia questions ever released in any form.
Suffice it say, I’m pretty much done with trivia now. As aversion therapy, it totally worked.
Hemant: Mitt Romney. Your thoughts?
Ken: He’s not my favorite candidate — not even my favorite Republican candidate — and as I said above, his run has made it a media open-season on Mormons. But all the hype about a Romney win putting the Oval Office under the thumb of a shadowy Mormon hierarchy is ignorant fear-mongering of the kind that should have gone out with JFK in 1960. Mitt’s certainly the best-looking candidate, though, you have to admit. John Edwards? Are you kidding? That guy looks like John Ritter. Mitt is a hottie.
[tags]atheist, atheism, Mormon, trivia, interview[/tags]