"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In the Burned-Over Bloggernacle

You listen to old Mormon Stories podcasts...

...the way your coworkers binge on new seasons of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. For you, every Sunday night has become like a General Conference Sunday. But instead of MoTab and the Brethren in Salt Lake City, it's high profile ex-Mormons and trendy "Middle Way" types guest-starring on podcasts, played in and out by hip LDS recording artists. You hope Mormon Stories podcasts will help you work through the whole "What the heck happened to my faith?!" thing. Nevertheless...

You feel like you've missed the party...

...which, according to the gospel of anecdote, started around 2002. Thoughtful, inclusive, helpful websites sprung up, all with the mission of assisting people doubting their Mormon faith. 

By 2005, the Bloggernacle was a thing, a dynamic community of thinkers, advocates, and mentors. In 2005, if you found yourself struggling with your faith, suffering severe stress, lost sleep, bouts of dread, lonely moments in locked bedrooms and bathrooms crying... well, if you were feeling all that in 2005, you no longer had to feel it alone. An unusual excitement on the subject of Mormonism was general among all the sites in that region of LDS culture. By 2005, you had the Bloggernacle. 

But 2005 was 10 years or more after your crisis of faith, and 3 or so years after you transitioned out of LDS Church activity. So you missed the party. 

And by 2008 or so, when a well-meaning Home Teacher finally introduced you to the Bloggernacle, you'd already gone through your research phase, written your courageous letter to Church leaders, come out to your loved ones, lost your fiancé, and declared yourself agnostic. By 2008, when the Bloggernacle was in full swing, fellowshipping there seemed like a step backwards. So you didn't bother.

Lo and behold, your old Mission President apostatized and...

you were taken aback. He was someone who only Joseph Smith and your parents could claim to be more significant than, in shaping your spiritual development. 

So you grab a 4-pack of Starbucks frappes and stumble home after dark on a Sunday night. You take yourself back to 2002. Back when you binge-read hardcover Mormon history books into the wee hours. Back before you started drinking coffee, when you stayed awake by pacing back and forth in your dorm room while reading Arrington, Brodie et al. That was what? 15 years ago? That was the last time you'd needed to know so badly where Mormonism stood with you. 

Now it's 2017, and you're older. Now you have to drink coffee AND pace in your apartment to stay awake as you binge on the Bloggernacle. Yet, now you want to be at the party, to revel in the excitement of 2002, when doubting Mormons began crying "Lo here!" and others, "Lo there!" Something for everybody. Devout? Doubting? Defending? Destroying? Pick a pseudonym and raise your Title of Liberty .org. But...

...the Bloggernacle isn't a party anymore.

Now it is full of seasoned bloggers, trained advocates, and non-profit networks. It's no longer Pentecostal Kirtland. Now it's bureaucratic Nauvoo. It's still a place with lots of good people and good opportunities. But the party is over. And you missed it. Or worse yet, maybe the Bloggernacle still is a party but...

You'll never do more than sit in the corner of it, having the occasional awkward conversation. And maybe you can't blame it on your old Mission President. Maybe you're only on the Bloggernacle because after a decade or more of being away, you still haven't found a new "right place" that's a better fit for you.

Granted, you know as much about LDS Church history as any given guest star on Mormon Stories, but you lack trendiness or novelty. You're not divorced, never even married. You don't have a cool career. And nothing you've ever posted online about the LDS Church has gone viral. What is more, you haven't spent years setting up an organization that truly helps people through crisis, or at least gives them comment threads on which to vent via pseudonym. (I wonder if DarthKimball1836 is taken.) Bottom line: even if the Bloggernacle is still a party, you aren't worthy to be the life of it.

Does the Bloggernacle feel burned over? Or just you? Either way, the bonfire that started it all, with the fellowship and the marshmallows, that party's over. You're just another unremarkable apostate. Regardless, you slam back some coffee, press play on an archived Mormon Stories podcast and start pacing your apartment after 11 PM on a Sunday night. You listen to an episode where audiences discover that feminist Kate Kelly didn't die from excommunication. She survived. And she's back with a cool new career, fighting for Planned Parenthood, which you admire. What can you say? Eat your hearts out Netflix fans. Even so. Amen, and Amen.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Revisiting a 'Natural Born Seer'

Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830 by Richard S. Van Wagoner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a recent visit to the historic Kirtland Temple in Ohio, I noticed a new biography of Joseph Smith in the gift shop. My eyes, my nose even, is drawn to displays of fresh hard-bound books. Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830, is a thick volume. A stately green band runs over the dust jacket, like a podium beneath the grayscale bust of Joseph. At a glance, I knew this would be an irresistible treatise on the founder of Mormonism.

The late historian Richard S. Van Wagoner does something compelling with this work. Instead of a birth-to-death biography, Van Wagoner focuses on Joseph’s first 25 years of life. The book ends with Joseph formally organizing the church. Given its origin story approach, the book deals with the least adequately documented, but arguably the most critical, years of Joseph’s existence. As Van Wagoner’s book suggests, it is also the most misunderstood era of Mormonism.

Natural Born Seer comes with all the unflattering revelations one should expect from scholarly biographies of Joseph. Was the aspiring prophet a peep stone using, treasure hunter? Yes. Did he knock back his share of liquor, right alongside his likely alcoholic father? Indeed. Was the Smith family a bunch of lazy, disreputable types? … It’s complicated. Suffice it to say the finances of Joseph’s parents were intensely problematic and unfortunate. The open wallets of eager followers were much needed when the time came to found a religion.

In its candid and diligent rehearsal of the available facts, Natural Born Seer paints a less than endearing portrait of Joseph Smith. Yet, Van Wagoner stops well-short of denouncing Joseph as a true spiritual leader. Ostensibly for the pure sake of getting facts in front of readers, the author all but debunks Joseph’s purported translation by “spectacles” (aka Urim and Thummim), and he goes out of his way to undercut the hindsight primacy LDS Mormons give to the First Vision. Yet he also, along with some of Joseph’s detractors, credits the prophet with achieving something remarkable through charisma and other talents.

Personally, I found my devout skepticism about Joseph Smith validated by this book. Intriguing, but also dismaying, is the frequent use of eye witness accounts supplied via interviews performed years, even decades, after the prophet’s death. However, the author greatly increases this book’s value by beefing up the context of Joseph’s early years. The role of Methodist revivalism comes vividly alive through Van Wagoner’s copious research.

For me, the most unexpected and deeply valued element of the book was getting to know Joseph’s older brother Alvin. I confess I had never given Alvin a lot of thought. He died just as Joseph began bringing forth the Book of Mormon. In a perfunctory way, I understood this to be a tragedy for Joseph. In Natural Born Seer, Alvin’s death is depicted for the seismic shock that it was to the Smith family. Van Wagoner studiously shows just how significant were Alvin’s contributions to the household, and his anticipated critical role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. During the brief span of manhood Alvin lived, he seems to have truly been a beloved son and big brother.

For readers considering a first foray into biographies of Joseph Smith, I strongly recommend back-to-back readings of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. If you have already read those, then I recommend Natural Born Seer for a closer look at Joseph’s early years. Also, know that this book contains two must-read Appendices: 1) Accounts of Claimed Supernatural Visions; 2) Meanings of Lamanite in Mormon Culture.

Rest in Peace, Richard. And thank you.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

'Waiting for World's End' the Woodruff Way

Waiting for World's End: The Diaries of Wilford WoodruffWaiting for World's End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff by Wilford Woodruff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What was Wilford Woodruff’s deal? Pay attention to the title of this abridgment of his lifelong diaries: Waiting for World’s End. Literary scholar Susan Staker, who also indexed all nine volumes of Woodruff’s journal, edited this book for folks curious enough to read a book’s worth of the diary (in lieu of the whole record). As she decided on which entries to include, she zeroed in on Woodruff’s preoccupation with end times, and his hope of being alive to help usher in Christ’s return.

Waiting for World’s End, as a sampling of the LDS Church’s fourth President, assumes readers are already familiar with Mormon history and theology. Readers looking for a primer should consider other resources. Staker’s editorial style is, as much as possible, to get out of Woodruff’s way. This means few background footnotes and minimal tweaking of the text. Things like spelling and punctuation go largely uncorrected. For example, some of the book’s great offerings are chances to experience Brigham Young’s voice, as recorded copiously by Woodruff. However, the text lacks standardized punctuation. For me, it was sometimes taxing to track who was speaking: Woodruff, Young, or some other early Mormon leader.

Being a former practicing Mormon, well-read (albeit rusty) in the religion’s history, theology, and lore, this was quite a satisfying read. I felt myself experiencing 19th century Utah vividly and intimately through Woodruff’s eyes and mind. He is a far more colorful and potent personality than I ever experienced through official LDS publications. His world travels are impressive and worthy of envy. His love of family and fellowship is profound and often moving. However, his overt eagerness to see the United States enveloped in war and natural disaster, for the sake of prophecy fulfillment, is troubling. Regardless, letting Woodruff and his scribes tell the story should ensure this is engrossing reading for both practicing Mormons and secular folk.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Two Centos for Byron

1.
Once more through all he bursts his thundering way—
It is not ours to judge,—far less condemn;
The gift—a fate or will that walked astray—
For stories,—but I don’t believe the half of them.
(He made the church a present by the way);
Why doth he gaze on thee, and thou on him?
A heavy price must all pay who thus err,
Beating for love as the caged birds for air.

Lord Byron, Image Credit: NYPL

2.
For my part I say nothing—nothing—but
For me who, wandering with pedestrian Muses,
Pythagoras, Locke, Socrates—but pages
And they were enemies; they met beside
A noble wreck in ruinous perfection!
But something of the spirit of old Greece
Would still, albeit in vain, the heavy heart divest.
Why, I’m Posterity—and so are you;
Give thee back this.—Now for the wilderness.
The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind;
The Arbiter of other’s fate
Obeys thee; thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.
Your next step may be fatal!—for the love
White, cold and pure, as looks a frozen rill,
Death’s a reformer, all men must allow.
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon—
‘That good but rarely came from good advice.’
‘Gainst such belief, there’s something stronger still
And if you had it o’er again—‘twould pass—
An arrow for the heart like a sweet voice.
The fair most fatal Juan ever met,
His spirit seemed to dare you to forget!


Poet's Note:

The above centos are the poetic equivalent of playing with LEGO pieces. Think of each line as a block stacked on top of other blocks. These two poems are comprised of individual lines taken from several different Byron works. Why play with a dead man's writing in this way? Firstly, because my current poetry mentor, Stephen Fry, told me to as an exercise. Secondly, as Mr. Fry accurately promised me, centos "provide a harmlessly productive way of getting to know a particular poet's way with phrase and form." (The Ode Less Travelled, p. 262)

Here are the Byron poems from which I borrowed lines: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Epistle to Augusta, Beppo, Manfred, Cain, Don Juan, Darkness, The Giaour, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Online Poetry Trip to Scotland

When you grow tired of where you are, but lack the time and money to travel today, google your way to someplace else.

Scotland and northern Ireland as seen by the Aqua satellite in 2011,
the red dots mark fires being monitored,
Image Credit: NASA

Throughout the 2016/17 winter, my reading and writing focus has been poetry. Today, I visited Scotland with the help of the Poetry Foundation. In addition to Google Search, I find the Poetry Foundation's search engine to be quite helpful at turning up great samples of poetry past and present, native and exotic (depending on who you are).

So I am happy to have encountered the work of the late Norman MacCaig, an Edinburgh-based poet with Highland roots. Try one of his poems. Here's one that took me in. It's a stopping-to-smell-the-roses kind of poem:


For a short biography, additional poetry samples, an article he wrote on Scottish poetry, and a good old-fashioned bibliography, head to his About page.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Salient Pessimism 9

I will bring our needed surcease and the quiet for which we all are longing. Believe me.

But to do so, first I must shout the loudest.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Poetry Drills with Stephen Fry ... oh my.

I am currently working my way through The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry. This book wonderfully combines the usually disparate styles of textbook and leisure reading. I'm so glad I found it while browsing the shelves at my local Barnes and Noble.

Lord Byron, Image Credit: NYPL

Every chapter covers specific styles or techniques of poetry and includes an exercise that the reader must try before proceeding further in the book. Stephen is very clear about this from the beginning. You must do each exercise without exception. If you do not, you miss out on the learning and the fun.

Yesterday, per Mr. Fry's instructions, I tried a couple of venerable English forms: Ottavo Rima and Spenserian Stanza. Lord Byron championed these forms in works like Beppo and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (note my blog's name). I am including my exercise output here. Please keep in mind these are not polished pieces, just poetic drills. But I do like them and hope you will too.

Ottavo Rima

(Meter: Iambic Pentameter; Rhyme scheme: abababcc)

Embark upon Ottava with some dread,
The path of old Romantic's laureate.
Lord Byron with this Rima my soul fed,
And with the rhyme scheme Beppo's story set.
With alternating lines of a/b wed,
The octave thrice will wage a hoary bet:
That readers new, like old, are wont to smile
At couplets that with assonance beguile.

Spenserian Stanza

(Meter: Iambic Pentameter except a final line of hexameter; Rhyme scheme: ababbcbcc)

You'll note the rhyme scheme like an unchecked king
Dictating what is said and how it ends--
Enticing poets like poor Frodo's ring,
Exalting craft but gaining no dear friends.
On prim but labored turns this form depends.
It's elegant enough to read like French,
But cannot hide its English bumps and bends.
You'll find that writing in it is no cinch.
It works. That's true, but drops into your themes a wrench.