INTERLUDE POST #1: The Curious Theology of Margaret Cho

[Alternate titles: Regular Sequence of Posting Will Be Continued Tomorrow, Interludes Will Be Posted on Days Other Than Tuesday/Thursday As the Thoughts Arise]

NOTE: Yesterday I made a brief post on Facebook, a rapid flare up of indignation that just as quickly burned out when my campaign manager marketing consultant wife pointed out I was probably setting the wrong tone. Here, I hope, is the right one.

The other day, comedian Margaret Cho tweeted the following:

“I do not believe in a God who would consider abortion a sin. God created abortion. As he did all of us. God created choice for all to DECIDE”

(I don’t want to link to the tweet as a matter of principle. I also want to assure readers that I will only be replying to the theological nature of this statement, not the political side. I won’t ever use this platform for politics, unless it’s a sigh of sadness about Donald Trump’s popularity. Like just then.)

To the point: I can’t imagine a more twisted perspective than the one presented here. It is a perfect example of Satan’s way of presenting one truth to make a monstrous lie more palatable. Yes, “God created choice for all to DECIDE,” but He also gave us labels of “good and evil” and commandments so that we’d know what we should “DECIDE.” Because God does indeed care about our choices. Agency is the most essential feature of God’s plan (without agency it’d be nothing but Satan’s plan), but that doesn’t mean He embraces anything and everything we decide to do with it. Ms. Cho’s way of thinking seems to be, “If God made abortion possible, that means he made it, and that means he endorses it!”

Wrongo bongo.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

…anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.” Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

It is probably the same in the universe. God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata-of creatures that worked like machines-would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.

And sadly, the risk has been a good one for Satan. We conflate our freedom to choose with encouragement to choose whatever we want. And too often in our day that means we believe in the God we want to believe in. “I believe in a God who approves of such and such, which is coincidentally something I support or enjoy doing. It’s not sin!” etc., etc.

How is that any less deluded than critics say we are for believing in any God at all? I find much more integrity in believing in a God that we don’t always agree with, because it shows that it is honest belief, and not just wishful thinking.

Again I appreciate (as I always do) the wisdom of CS Lewis, when he writes about the odd nature of Christianity. Here I quote Hugh Nibley paraphrasing Lewis, as I don’t have the actual Lewis quote on hand. (This is in Temple and Cosmos.)

As C. S. Lewis used to point out, the test of the Christian is not to conform with the commandments and accept teachings which are perfectly right and sensible to any normal way of thinking; if the gospel consisted only of such convenient and unobjectionable things, we could be quite sure that we were making it up ourselves. It is the very contrariness and even absurdity of the Christian teachings that provide, for him, the highest proof of their divinity—this is not man’s doing. In the efforts of every president of the Church to explain our position to the world… we see the admission that this thing is not the invention of those men—they are embarrassed by it, and they all pass the acid test for honesty when they refuse to put their own opinions forth as revelation—which in their case would have been an easy thing to do. They are all sure that the policy is right, but none claims to give definitive rational or scriptural justification for it, though they are not backward in putting forth suggestions and speculations. This put the Mormons in an embarrassing position, and why not? The Lord has often pushed the Saints into the water to make them swim.”

Truth isn’t truth because we want it to be truth. Just as scientific facts aren’t facts because we want them to be. They are what they are because, no matter how much we do not want them to be, all evidence points to them. And after we’ve determined that, we must conform our lives to them.

All this isn’t even to get at the ludicrous notion that God supports halting and aborting the most sacred and miraculous processes He created in the first place. But that seems too obvious to address here.

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A Confession of My Brokenness, Both Spiritually and Mentally

[Alternate titles: Who I Am and Why I Write, A Recovering Addict Shares His Light with Others]

Originally the blog was subtitled “A recovering addict shares his light with others.”

And that’s what it is. That’s what I am.

September is Addiction Recovery Month, a very personal thing for me. Though I’ll never delve into detail, I’m also not going to be shy about the fact of it on this blog. I’ve realized there’s no point in that. I want to be able to show you the journey it’s possible to make, from that kind of darkness to receiving the kind of light that makes you able and want to write a book helping others with the gospel. I won’t go into my personal story now, but in the near future I will share an excerpt from the book that tells it. It’s the centerpiece of the Atonement chapter, “With Healing in His Wings.”

I can’t claim to be perfectly healed. I’m a recovering addict, and always have been. That means I am prone to relapse. We all are. Like alcoholism, it never truly leaves us for good. But that doesn’t stop us from receiving Christ’s grace, and it doesn’t stop us from sharing that grace with others. The instances of my addiction have backfired on Satan. In binding me as he has in the past, he’s shown his cards, and I know his game. He seeks the enslavement of God’s children, the total deprivation of our agency—because that’s what he thinks being a god is. Control over subjects. So now that I know what it’s like to be a slave, I know that the gospel is true. I know it is because it seeks to free us, to let us loose from chains like addiction, where the world, the other side, actually encourages it, perhaps ignorant and but at the very least in denial of its sinister hold. Because of Satan’s influence on me in addition to the Savior’s, I see what is right and what is wrong, and can share that vision with others.

It’s also given me a much sharper perception of how the Savior must see us. Having gone through the hottest of hell’s fires Himself, including the fires of guilt (undeserved), He is the one Being among us qualified to be truly merciful. He knows what the worst of Satan’s temptations feel like, and He knows through the Atonement what punishment for giving into those temptations feels like, too.

Having experienced such things, He did not become self-righteous and haughty, saying, “If I had to go through it, you have to, too.” He understands our weaknesses and how hard to bear it all is, and He pities us. He looks on us with compassion! Knowing all, He is, remarkably, a forgiving creature. How, too, then, must we look upon our fellow sinners with mercy and love and a readiness to forgive. Too quick we are, I believe, to condemn the sinner in our minds and leave him or her to their own devices to succeed, and to believe that every bit of misery they experience was brought upon by themselves. Or else we look down on them as special cases or service projects rather than peers and brothers and sisters. This is all especially true when we have not dealt with mental health problems and emotional disorders, and don’t have an implicit understanding of how possible it is for some of us to simply break down and lose possession of ourselves. Struggling with bipolar disorder for half my life has taught me about that, too.

So in this blog you’ll see a lot of that side of me—petitioning for compassion for people like me, we recovering addicts with our good hearts and broken brains, those who recognize our weaknesses and, despite our being prone to wander, still do our utmost to maintain that attitude of repentance that others might take for granted. That attitude is what it’s all about, that broken heart and that contrite spirit.

Remember, Christ doesn’t command us to be perfect right now. The most frequent commandment He or any of the prophets have ever given, is repent. That means He’s not shocked when we sin, nor is He shocked when some of us mess up again and again and again. So as long as we repent sincerely, and come before God honestly, that is indeed keeping the commandments, and for those who do so, His grace is sufficient for salvation and even exaltation at the last day.

In my next post, I will tell you why, in my experience with it, I don’t believe in sin. At least, not how we usually think about it.

The Fun Part of the Book

[Alternate titles: The Hook, The Parables, The Christopher-Nolan-Is-a-Secret-Mormon Show]

I’ve explained the substance of the book, the purpose, but there’s a crucial element missing: the hook. The hook is something that may seem a bit distant from the substance, but I think you’ll see where I’m going soon enough.

The surface appeal of the book is that every chapter opens with a parable from hero pop culture. Examples: Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter, Ender’s Game, and others. Below is the tentative table of contents with the corresponding parable.

  1. The Eternal Arc [Star Wars] – Mirror
    The book opens by showing that the hero’s cycle, as mapped out to near perfection by Luke’s journey in Star Wars, is actually a stunning reflection of  our journey through the plan of salvation, from blurry-eyed intelligence to grand gods and goddesses.
  2. A Mirror of God [Harry Potter] – Mirror
    The climax of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sheds light on our relationship with our Heavenly Father and how learning of that relationship unlocks our own unending potential and obliges us to share that light with the world.
  3. More Precious Than Fine Gold [Ender’s Game] – Shield
    This life is full of pain, but God provides us a shield in the form of the Atonement and knowledge of what that pain is for, and if we approach the loneliness, rejection, and despair of this world the right perspective like Ender Wiggin did, and endure our fiery trials well, we, too, can be filled with Christlike compassion and love for our fellow man, and be multiple steps closer to godhood. 
  4. This Dream Shall End [Inception and Narnia] – Shield
    Grief and loss are unavoidable in this telestial world, but if we realize that this life is ultimately, like Inception, much more a dream to wake up from, we can look forward to that last day after the last battle with the forces of entropy, when we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, and every good thing that was ever lost to us will be restored.
  5. The Fruits of Repentance [Harry Potter] – Sword
    There is a duty associated with receiving the blessings of the Atonement, and that is the duty to spread its effects to others; in the story of a major Harry Potter character (spoilers galore) we see the unending potential consequences of a life, like Alma the Younger’s, turned from evil to good, changed by a single act of repentance after a lifetime of wickedness. 
  6. The Work is Not Yet Done [The Dark Knight Rises] – Sword
    The work is not complete when we alone are saved, nor was it done when the Atonement was complete, nor at any stage of the Plan of Salvation thus far, and the place where the work of the gospel needs our help consistently and always is the holy temple, where, like Bruce Wayne rising to the top of that prison pit, we can perform ordinances first for ourselves, and then, like him tossing the rope down to the other captives, perform it for the long-awaiting dead.
  7. A New Call for Consecration [Spider-Man] – Sword
    Our time, talents, and all that the Lord has or will bless us with—most especially our artistic capabilities, including our storytelling—are not ours for personal use or gain or boasting, but are to be used for the good of the work and the spreading of the gospel, for with great power comes great responsibility, and make no mistake: we have been given much.
  8. Healing in His Wings [The Dark Knight] – Shield
    As Batman’s sacrifice saved Gotham’s future from the Joker’s corrupting influence, so did the Savior rescue me from the depths of addiction, and here I bear testimony of His healing and raising powers for all.
  9. Holding Up that Shield of Faith [Harry Potter] – Shield
    In the final book of the saga, Harry must show an extraordinary amount of faith against an onslaught of opposition and doubt in Dumbledore’s mysterious plans, not to mention his own future and uncertain capabilities, but it is a faith rewarded, and even against Hermione’s skepticism, a faith that is proved reasonable, as ours will be, and in fact already is.
  10. The Answer Lies Above Us [Interstellar] – Mirror/Sword/Shield
    Celestial transcendence and rising above the dust of this world are impossible goals for us to achieve alone, and yet they are necessary for our spiritual survival, and when we turn heavenward for assistance, God is there, waiting to help us do just that, to rise to His station, for that is His work and His glory.

Given this emphasis on stories, much of the book is implicitly a testimony of the power of literature (I include cinema in that) to teach truths, including and especially the gospel. I am actually a storyteller at heart, but a Mormon first and foremost, and so I recognize how those two traits can and must intertwine (see Chapter 7). Given his pioneering example into this territory, Orson Scott Card is one of my heroes, and he is quoted several times in the book.

More frequently cited, you’ll notice from the table of contents alone, is Christopher Nolan. There’s something about that guy. I think he’s either a secret Mormon or he’s just waiting for missionaries to knock on his door. He just seems to get it. Besides the thrilling action scenes, gorgeous cinematography, and mind-blowing plots, there is truth, both theological and philosophical, at the heart of every one of his films. There are natural allegories to our own doctrine, and a core wisdom and morality that far surpasses any other filmmaker working today, almost always running parallel with Latter-day saint wisdom and morality. He awes me, and my dream is to someday sit down and talk with him, and maybe even share the gospel. I think he’d be open to it, given that he seems to know so much of it already.

Now, the details of what I think Nolan gets at are in the book. Before now and the launch I will definitely be giving more depth to these teases, but you might be able to pick up on some of it from your own experience with his films already.

Which is the perfect time to note that to get the most out of The Hero Doctrine, you’ll want to be familiar with the parables. You’ve probably seen Star Wars enough times that it won’t matter, but if you haven’t read Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, shame on you, and for Chapter 5 to work, you definitely want to have read through the entire Harry Potter saga and learned the entirety of Severus Snape’s character. And as we mentioned Christopher Nolan, please go watch the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar. Then, after reading the book, go back and watch them again. You’ll see what I mean.

This blog, then, will not only be about specifically LDS matters. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a storyteller, and a lover of stories, especially as vehicles of truth. So here I’ll probably be often writing about, well, writing, and story craft, and looking at narratives in ways a lay reader might not have before. In the play Shadowlands, writer William Nicholson gives C.S. Lewis the line, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Well, writers write to ensure we’re not alone. So what I’m doing here, with this blog, is attempting to show you how I view the world, how it makes sense to me. And whether it’s in pop culture, the scriptures, or the plot threads and symbolism I’ve seen in my own life, stories are how I make sense of the world, and of the gospel, so that’s what you’re going to see.

The Mirror, Sword, and Shield: Our potentials, duties, and privileges as children of God.

[Alternate titles: Symbols of the Hero Doctrine, Extrapolations from Coldplay]

Be my mirror, my sword and shield,
My missionaries in a foreign field.

(Get used to alloys of the gospel and pop culture like this. It will happen a lot here on this blog.)

A mirror, a sword, a shield. These three symbols lie at the heart of The Hero Doctrine. Yes, they were lifted from the Coldplay song posted above, but something tells me Chris Martin did not have these particular meanings in mind when he wrote Viva la Vida. But you know what? Maybe he did. Someday maybe I can ask him about it. Either way, they spoke to me, and I hope they can speak to you, too.

Okay, here we go.

MIRROR

Who we are, what we are, and who and what we can one day be.

We are children of a god. Like an embryo to an adult human being (who is then capable of producing more embryos and more human beings), we have the potential to become like Him. So why can’t we look up to God and see something like a mirror? Remember, He made us in His likeness and image. What else is a mirror but our own likeness and image? Yes, like Paul, we are God’s reflection only “through a glass darkly.” We are not yet grown, and yet we are still of the race of gods. Knowing that puts a whole new spin on life, and we can look at every single situation that comes our way differently, including other people. You might have heard that C.S. Lewis quote, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” How seriously, then, must we need look upon ourselves?

Hence, God is our mirror, but we also need to be mirrors of God. Christ said, “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold, I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do” (3 Nephi 18:24). We are to be examples—or reflections—of Christlike behavior—essentially, representatives of goodness itself. And in excelling in our chosen fields and living noble, enriched, full lives, we are to be examples or reflections of a people who know the potential of humankind and set out to achieve as much as they possibly can in this life, showing the world who God really is and dispelling the many misconceptions the world has of Him. As we look into the mirror of God, the Creator of the universe, we see that we are capable of everything.

SWORD

The work we are called to do with our time in mortality, both in our own soul and on the battlefield of the world.

President Uchtdorf has told us that we are God’s hands. In other words, we are the instruments, the tools if you will, by which God does His work. If we are living faithfully and according to the Spirit, then even if we are unaware, He is guiding us to the places and people He needs us to help with—though how much better is it if we are aware! In fact, the blessings we receive in the initiatories are given with the underlying assumption that we are actively doing the work of God. Notice the wording the next time you go, when we are called “to wield the sword of justice in defense of truth and virtue.” In holding up the light of Christ and the light we are personally blessed with—whatever talents or gifts with which we are born—we are indeed wielding that sword. And how do we slay enemies in God’s kingdom? We end their status as enemies—convert them into allies. That’s done with “the sword of the Spirit.” And that’s what we’re called to do with all other weapons and instruments and tools and gifts and talents God has blessed us with, or with which He may bless us, in this life.

As well, God has promised that as we are faithful, and as we work to do His will, He will act as our sword in turn: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up” (D&C 84:88). With God, nothing is impossible, and any one person, with God, is a majority. So what must we be willing to do? Anything.

SHIELD

The help and protection God promises us as we do the work of the sword.

In the temple the garment is described as a “shield and protection” to us. It was given to Adam and Eve as an emblem of God Himself when He could no longer be with them after their expulsion from Eden. In doing His work and wielding His own Spirit as a sword, God is our shield. And in using our swords in defense of truth and virtue, we are acting as shields for God and His gospel.

The doctrines of the gospel also provide shields of faith and knowledge and comfort apart from when we are fighting for His cause: when we are fighting for our own souls. In the book I show how God has given us shields against pain, grief, doubts, and sin, neutralizing the entropic effects of our fallen telestial world for those who turn to Him. The material all these shields are made of is, of course, the Atonement, for with it, we are protected from all of Satan’s weapons and therefore we fear nothing.

And so I call this blog a mirror, a sword and shield, because that is what I aspire most to be in this life. A reflection of God for the world to see. An instrument of influence in the hands of the Lord. A source of comfort and safety and faith for fellow saints.

I hope it’s something we can all aspire to.

Setting the Stage: The Hero Doctrine explained

[Alternate titles: Things That Will Eventually Go Into My “About” Page, The Plot, The Substance]

To begin with, let me take a couple of posts to explain my book. That will segue into who I am as a Latter-day Saint, as an author, and as a storyteller. That, in turn, will segue into my first real post: why I don’t believe in sin—at least, not in how we often think about it. These will be the first four posts of this blog. All major entries are planned to be posted Tuesday and Thursday of every week. That should be regular, so you can anticipate that.

The Hero Doctrine: A Mirror, a Sword and Shield is intended as a rousing cry to the saints (the original, unmarketable title, as a matter of fact). President Uchtdorf asked a few years ago in conference, “Are we sleeping through the Restoration?” and I think many of us are, especially too much of my own generation (millennials). Ignoring our gifts or using them selfishly, wasting our time and talents, letting our tongues be bound by the adversary, etc., etc. This world is at war, spiritually, and only by putting on the armor of God and knowing our eternal identities and destinies can we accomplish the work we are actually put here to do. So in the book I seek to remind readers of who they are as children of a god (the mirror), what their duties and obligations are as bearers of that truth (the sword), and that through the gospel there is nothing to fear (the shield). Together these spiritual artifacts/truths make what I call the hero doctrine.

We find these same symbols in the temple. Mirrors are everywhere—in the halls, in the changing rooms, in the sealing rooms…all as a way of reminding us who we are, helping us to notice where we can improve ourselves (especially those loose ties!), and showing us the possibilities of eternity. In the ordinances we learn we are to be out in the world “wield[ing] the sword of justice in defense of truth and virtue.” And the garment we are authorized to wear is given to us as a shield and protection until we have finished our work upon the earth.

But the temple is only a small part of what the book is about. This blog is named as it is—A Mirror, a Sword and Shield—because I believe that those symbols are meant to apply to us as individuals as much as abstract theological concepts. We are to be a mirror, a sword and shield—of and for God, and He is the same for us. In my next post I will explain how exactly that is.

The Harbinger Post

[Alternate names: Preamble Post, All Kneel for Neal’s Spiel*]

Thus launches the official blog of LDS author Neal Silvester.

(Wow, I get to talk about myself that way!)

On February 9th, 2016, my first book will be coming out: The Hero Doctrine: A Mirror, a Sword and Shield, published by Cedar Fort. This blog will be accompaniment to that book, parallel insights that reflect its contents. In my next post I’ll give a more detailed description of what that is, or will be, along with some biographical information about who I am and how this book came about. All subsequent posts will be more substantial and doctrinal in nature. In other words, like the dawn, the point is coming, and I humbly hope it can both edify and entertain when it does.

Do follow for all updates on the book and my other writing projects. Thanks for reading!

-Neal

*Thanks Dave Doering.