Mormons and Basketball in the Philippines

“There are good Mormons, rogue Mormons, drunk Mormons, polygamy Mormons. But one thing they all have in common is basketball.”
-Rick Majerus, former University of Utah head basketball coach

LDS Meeting House, Kabankalan, Negros Occidental.

Mormons have a unique love affair with basketball, as Matt Bowman has deftly analyzed elsewhere. From the pickup games and (slightly) more organized local leagues sponsored by Mormon stakes and wards to 2011’s Jimmermania, and from LDS Prophet Thomas Monson’s casual backslap of former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan in 2009 to the oddly inspiring story of deaf fundamentalist Mormon Lance Allred’s brief tenure in the NBA, Majerus’s comments seem on point. [Read more...]

Ghost Stories

I’m revisiting Judith Richardson’s Possessions: the history and uses of haunting in the Hudson Valley as I start thinking about nineteenth century spiritualism for a new book project, and this time I’ve been struck by her emphasis on place.  The tangled and broken landscape of the Hudson Valley, full of cliffs and culverts and sharp bends in the river, makes for an ideal habitat for the unquiet dead. But just as powerful is the cultural landscape, marked since the seventeenth century with the sudden rise and fall of cultures and peoples, so rapid that the monuments and homes of previous generations still stand: the Dutch landscape silently accusing the British and Native Americans still lingering in the spaces between American-built roads and factories.

Jared Farmer’s wonderful On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American landscape is a ghost story, in a sense, exploring the long afterlife of the Native American tribes the Mormon settlers clashed with in the minds of contemporary Utah Mormons – but equally true, it’s a ghostbusting story, recounting how those Mormons domesticated, rehabilitated, and laid to rest their memories of that clash.  The Mormons even invented a ghost, in a sense, the fake Indian princess Timpanogos, whose entirely typical (for a ghost) behaviors – wailing in the night, mourning her lost love – are decidedly harmless. [Read more...]

Dan Brown’s “Inferno”: An Eternal Return

I just finished reading Inferno, Dan Brown’s latest book. I’m no expert on Brown, though I have also read The Da Vinci Code. He is justly derided as a bad writer, but he is a good storyteller and sets his attractive characters in compelling locations. I think that Brown’s popularity also comes from his ability to touch on big cultural issues and questions—sometimes overtly and sometimes more indirectly—in familiar, reassuring ways. He touches on them, but doesn’t resolve them for the reader. He reviews them with simple, literary, ritual precision. In my research, I spend a lot of time in the nineteenth century and it strikes me that Brown is very comfortable in this era. Brown considers our unresolved cultural issues with familiar, nineteenth-century tropes and assumptions. He doesn’t talk down to his audience. Elements of high culture—art, literature, and their interpreters—become instruments of illumination, even revelation, not exclusion. In The Da Vinci Code, we begin with a strangely murdered man and end with the assertion that Christianity was built on a lie, the self-conscious suppression of the divine female. In the U.S., Americans increasingly discussed female divinity in the nineteenth century. This was due, in part, to the enormous influx of Catholic immigrants who worshipped Mary and other female saints, as well as to homegrown American groups that championed a divine female figure: the Shakers, Mormons, Christian Scientists. But not far beneath the surface of Brown’s conspiratorial plot lie larger, Reformation-based questions about the importance of individual religious illumination and questing for truth against the stagnation and corruption of tradition and organization. And all of this is mixed with fears of terrorism coded in Brown’s interpretation of Opus Dei as a dangerous, secret conspiracy of violent men.

Inferno begins with the now familiar art historian and “symbologist” Robert Langdon waking up injured in a hospital bed with no memory of the past few days. It ends with a third of the world’s population rendered infertile through an act of global bioterrorism and with larger questions about the balance between individual and social good and the ethics of scientific, genetic manipulation. Similar to the Code, the plot unfolds through a mash-up of Romantic notions, metaphysical magical tradition, anti-Catholicism, and a new entry from the nineteenth century—Darwinism. Recalling the tradition of the Grand Tour, Brown makes Europe the center of action, a treasure map that can be read to unlock the location of a bioterrorism attack that will change the world. Dante’s “Inferno” and Botticelli’s artistic interpretation of that work serve as keys to reveal the way to world salvation. As in nineteenth-century Romanticism, in Brown’s literary world artists, writers, and their intellectual interpreters like Langdon know how to get to the truth. They are able to connect to the wellsprings of divine connection. Brown’s Langdon operates as an attractive leading man version of Joseph Campbell—or, pushing it back further, Carl Jung—reading culturally specific symbols as transcultural, perhaps trans-conscious revelations of universal truths. Like a secular magician, as a “symbologist,” Langdon has access to secret knowledge of such importance that the head of the World Health Organization calls on him to help her avert this act of bioterrorism. Langdon races across Europe with his companions, the Campbellian wise crone Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey and the younger princess/goddess figure, Dr. Sienna Brooks. Echoing the treasure-hunting and elite hermetic practices that were common in America since the Puritan era, Langdon jaunts through Florence, Venice, and Istanbul finding hidden meaning in St. Mark’s Basilica or in a re-purposed head of Medusa. Brown re-enchants not just Europe. The human landscape as a whole whispers deep secrets to those in the know.

Langdon is battling the dead biologist and terrorist, Bertrand Zobrist, and the Consortium, the powerful, secret group that protected Zobrist. The Catholic Church comes in for critique from Langdon and Sinskey because of its opposition to birth control. Yet it’s really in the treatment of the Consortium that Brown taps into long-standing veins of anti-Catholicism that run through American culture in often transformed guise: anti-Masonry, anti-Mormonism, anti-communism and, most recently, anti-Islam. This is a fear of secret, hierarchical groups that are seen as intent on attacking the democratic American way of life. Wealth and power allow people like Zobrist to impinge on the individual’s right to control their own reproduction: an overt story of bioterrorism, a coded discussion of abortion and reproductive manipulation, perhaps? How much can and should governments interfere with reproduction for the greater good? When do the actions of the government or its agents cross over into the authoritarian control of the Catholic Church?

Brown also sounds nineteenth-century themes within Social Darwinism. Transhumanist Zobrist argues that humans have evolved to the point where, with their knowledge of genetics, they can speed up and control the process of natural selection and evolution. This was a common assertion among earlier reforming Social Darwinists, though they were focused on human moral and cultural, rather than biological development. At the end of the book we realize that Zobrist is not unleashing another Black Death, a violently painful, “natural” method of human population control. Rather, he has created a kinder, gentler involuntary virus-activated infertility. Brown leaves us with no clear answers as to how the world will or should deal with this, but he seamlessly marries together religion and science, a pairing that the media today hypes as antithetical but that had a much easier partnership in the past. Saint Lucia’s relics could miraculously prolong people’s lives; they had given way to genetic engineering, humans playing God. In Brown’s story, science and religion perform the same functions and carry the same mysterious power.

Brown tells a good story. But he also tells old and comforting stories, cogitating on big questions with familiar tropes. Critics may skewer him for his writing, improbable plots, and cardboard characters. Still, Brown has an ear for unresolved issues plaguing modern Americans and he knows how and how much to talk about them in order to draw readers into his fictional world. He is a literary Langdon uncovering the anxieties of modern Americans and, perhaps, relieving them for a short, escapist, regressing moment.

The Illuminated Mundane

Venus and Jupiter, March 2012 (Credit: Brian Neudorff)

In Washington, DC, I didn’t have a good view of the Venus Transit. It was cloudy until sunset, so I pulled up NASA’s livestream from a telescope in Hawaii. For close to an hour, I flipped between the last tasks of work and the flickering image of a tiny dot sliding across the surface of a giant, shaggy circle. The light from the window, still warm and gray and pink at 7:30, hurt my eyes when I looked away from the screen. The transit won’t happen again until 2117, a year that even our children would need to be very healthy indeed to see. It was very special, and extremely rare, and totally boring.

We’re rarely surprised by events like last night’s. The work of scientists, cataloging our galaxy with diligence and wonder, ensures that we civilians can lay out our picnic blankets for any old meteor shower or eclipse, and find out what sort of welder’s glass we’d need to look at the sun directly while a planet passes in front of it. And it’s not just the astronomers and astrophysicists: my Android has an app that allows me to point the phone at my feet at noon and see what the night sky looks like over the Indian Ocean. (Without the internet, I would have needed a globe to find my exact antipodal, but there are probably also apps for that.) Our ability to map and predict the world around us is increasing at such a rate that we have a much harder time absorbing it all than we do accessing it. So, it’s the unexpected experiences that stick, the surprises, the sudden enlargements of our understanding with which rarity might be only incidentally related.

Three months ago, I went running in Rock Creek Park. I get this urge only about twice a year, when the weather warms, which means I’m so out of shape that the word ‘run’ is aspirational at best. Regardless, I was out in my running shoes, taking frequent breaks to catch my breath while pretending to be captivated by a daffodil. I moved south towards Georgetown, at the tiniest sliver of the park, right before it hits the Potomac. The trail winds along the east side of a branch of the river, under several road bridges, before dead-ending under a highway. The underside of each of these bridges smells like piss, and they are decorated with old, lackluster graffiti and the evidence of Red Bull-fueled trysts. It’s not an unsafe area to run, but it’s not overly lacquered, either. I’d been down here many times, and never seen a soul. I like it for that reason.

I stopped at the last bridge. There was a welcome darkness underneath where the river ran over a shallow bed of broken cement and rocks. I bent down to adjust my shoe, and when I stood up, my eyes had adjusted just enough to see a man, crouched behind a short wall in front of the bridge’s spandrel. It was so dim that I didn’t realize I’d seen him until I was no longer looking. He was naked and thin, and probably young, with long, dark hair. He didn’t move. And I, determining that the most polite thing to do was to pretend I hadn’t seen him–what else do you have to offer a nervous stranger, after all, but politeness?–so I stretched my arms out, did a lunge or two, and left the way I came. I’ve thought about his face, indistinct and pale, every day since.

It’s the most common of sights: a man in some stage of down-and-out, in an isolated fringe of the urban environment, where it was sheltered and warm and the sound of the water may have been, for all I know, soothing to him. I pass the homeless and the addled on the street every day. But this white blur under the bridge stays with me, an illuminated piece of the mundane. It’s a plotless story, conclusion-free– the mere ‘is’ of this planet.

It’s those moments that I find the best language for in religion and in literature. Any field of human knowledge and rigor can offer its own explanation for the man under the bridge: he was under the influence of a substance, or he was mentally ill, or maybe he just had a girl back there with him. (Biochemistry, psychiatry, and evolutionary psychology, respectively.) Neuroscience could describe my rush of adrenaline, and the corresponding clarity with which I remember that particular 20 seconds of my life. But none of it could describe for you the combination  of pity, curiosity and self-consciousness I felt, or why that memory tugs at me still, or why I now compare long-haired passersby to this person I saw by a river one time. To capture our experiences remains as difficult as ever. So I think to scripture, particularly the deliberate bendiness of the phrase “in the world,” which tell us that we are strangers here, products of earth as much as the horseshoe crab, and as little as an asteroid. I think of Adam Zagajewski, who wrote, “A blackbird appears in the void, / perfect, full of pride, as all living / creatures are proud of /  their endless warm / virtues.” I think of a photo I saw on the web this morning, of a crowd in front of a Manhattan Forever 21, everyone looking up at the sky as if this weren’t all the most normal thing in the universe.

A Mormon Massacre Site and Places within a Space

The LDS church has purchased the site of the most infamous event of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri—the site of the Haun’s Mill Massacre. The previous owner of the site, the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), announced the sale of the historic ground in an April 3, 2012 e-mail. Originally approached by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation about the purchase over a year ago, the Community of Christ eventually sold Haun’s Mill and three other historic properties to subsidiaries owned by the LDS church for $41.5 million. [1] The news of the Haun’s Mill sale has generated a fair amount of interest from the members of the many churches descended from Joseph Smith, Jr.’s restoration movement. [2] While the physical site of Haun’s Mill now resembles a rather unremarkable farmer’s field with several small memorial markers dotting its landscape, as a massacre site, it constitutes a piece of  America’s “shadowed ground,” or a place of violence and tragedy that has been “sanctified” by a community. [3] A piece of shadowed ground, like a massacre site, invites any number of narratives about it as people try to make sense of the events once enacted there. Due to the “surplus of meaning” that people assign to it, a massacre site may occupy the same physical space but be a very different place for varying groups and individuals. The Mormon churches in particular have “created” very different Haun’s Mills as they have used the site to illustrate strikingly different church teachings.

Take two recent examples. In 2008, LDS Apostle and First Counselor in the First Presidency Henry B. Eyring recounted [Read more...]