Voldemort vs. The Joker: Obvious and Non-Obvious Evil in Fiction

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I’ve always hated Voldemort as a villain. Even though he does not bear a mustache, you can practically see him twirling it as he cackles, “Hahahaha. I am EVIL!” He murders casually, feels no remorse, speaks of himself in the third person, and has no real specific goals except to kill our protagonist and take over the world by becoming de facto Minister of Magic. Unlike Tom Riddle, his former identity, Voldemort lacks much, if any, nuance, and we can see it in the climax of Deathly Hallows. I think the low point comes when he reports to the gathered students and teachers and other good guys in the courtyard at Hogwarts that, Harry “‘was killed while trying to sneak out of the castle grounds’” and “there was relish in his voice for the lie” (731). Such a childish lie! Such simplistic, obvious evil!

Then there’s the substance of evil in the wizarding world: racism. Racism is the cause which unites the Death Eaters more than any other. They’re called “Death Eaters” because they supposedly want to destroy death, but this is never cited as an article of faith by any of them, and Voldemort himself only references it occasionally. Sad, because that could be wonderfully complicated. Racism against muggle-borns and power over them are the Death Eaters’ real passion. Essentially, grown-up bullies looking for prey to push around.

Racism is also obvious evil. There’s nobody (worth talking to, anyway) that will disagree with its status as evil. There’s no complex way of looking at the Slytherin cause. It’s as obviously evil as Voldemort’s most frequent crime, murder. It’s an easy target, and the way it’s portrayed teaches us almost nothing that we can take away into the real world. We just know it has to be defeated. The trick is figuring out how to take it down, not wondering, as in the real world, if it should be taken down at all.

There’s a way you could make it more subtle and nuanced. There’s a way you could even make it believable and worth writing about, if you were to show how an ordinarily good person can be susceptible to strains of prejudice that might lead to inter-ethnic hatred, but in the world of Harry Potter, you’re either a racist supporter of Voldemort (and hence in Slytherin) or on the good side. This even as Sirius Black tells Harry, speaking explicitly about Dolores Umbridge, that “The world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.” Then in Book 7 Umbridge becomes exactly that: leading the persecution of Muggle-born wizards and taking pleasure in her sadistic torture of them. Evil in Harry Potter is almost always plain and obvious—and dare I say, boring.

I say “boring” not because I think it should be more exciting, per se, but I think evil in fiction, especially in a book series as otherwise amazing and incredible as Harry Potter (I love it to death, if you didn’t know), needs to teach us something about the evil it portrays. Because sure, there are a few complex characters in there who grapple with evil in the kind of complex way our heroes never do—I’m thinking of Snape, of course, but also Draco, and ultimately his parents, and maybe slightly Peter Pettigrew, if he had been given more page-time—but…well, let’s put it this way: the primary villain and his organization never present a personal challenge to Harry Potter’s soul. There’s no courage in standing up against him except for bodily harm. We are never confused about who is right and who is wrong. Recognizing evil in the wizarding world—unlike in the real world—is easy, and standing up to it, while taking a kind of courage, is the obviously right thing to do.

Now, looking at the title of this post, you might be thinking: Neal, how the heck can the Joker be the main example of non-obvious evil? He’s dressed as a demonic clown! He murders people slowly and savors it! He admits himself he’s an agent of chaos! He…makes us laugh? And makes audiences in the theater clap and cheer? His performer wins an Oscar because he’s so enrapturing to watch?

Yikes.

Yes, his evil is obvious, in a way. But it wasn’t obvious to Harvey Dent! Dent was persuaded by the Joker that all this stuff happening, it’s not the Joker’s fault. It’s the system’s fault. I didn’t kill your fiancee, Harvey. I am no devil, for there is none. Even staring evil personified in the face, Harvey Dent was seduced by his words and ideas, and he proceeds to let the Joker live when killing him was in his power, and goes on to shoot others who are only tangentially mixed up in this horrible business that the Joker, of course, started.

His evil wasn’t obvious to the people of Gotham! They blamed Batman for their troubles. Barbara Gordon cries out to Batman, after learning that her husband is dead, “You brought this craziness on us! You did!” The reporters and public and police at Harvey Dent’s press conference call for Batman to be arrested and convicted rather than focusing on stopping the true evil. If it wasn’t for someone standing up to evil, their cowardly reasoning goes, evil never would have risen and adapted to the challenge! Therefore no one should ever stand up to evil at all. That seems to be their perspective: bitter, sweet, and sweet, bitter.

And, as I intimated, the Joker’s evil is not even as obvious to us as it should be. We celebrate that character like none other. Some of us watch the movie just to be entertained by him. We’ll call him evil, and know it on some level, sure, but as has been said, if we laugh at the Joker, he wins.

This is presented visually in a profound way. In the final images we see of the Joker, he is literally hanging upside-down. From his perspective, Batman sees him this way, the correct way. But Nolan, perhaps in anticipation that the audience would find the Joker electric to watch, turns the camera upside-down to match the Joker, and to us, he looks rightside-up. Even though it should be obvious that he’s evil, we still can’t help but enjoy it. Our worldview turns upside-down with him.

This is why The Dark Knight is so much more than a superhero movie. Ultron, Loki, Obadiah Stane, whoever Mickey Rourke was, the Nazis, Robert Redford, whoever that villain was in Guardians of the Galaxy—all obvious villains who only needed to be, in layman’s terms, punched really hard in the face.

The Joker wasn’t just the bad guy because he killed people and blew up hospitals. The profundity—and REALITY—of his evil is that he’s a corruptor. Corruptors are by nature subtle and obvious. They make good evil and evil good. They can deflect blame for themselves onto others, often on larger targets like “the system” or “the establishment.” Amalakiah is one of the greatest villains of the Book of Mormon. But what was he to the Lamanites? Frankly, Trump-like. He worked over that whole nation by degrees, and changed them without them even knowing it. Because of his flattery and seduction, few saw him for what he was, which is why he was able to gain power over the soul of the Lamanite nation.

“You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?” the Joker mocks Batman, laying out exactly what his purpose was. Not to destroy bodies, but to destroy souls. The stakes of souls are so much greater than the generic quest to save the world, because one of those battlefields is realistic and the other is not.

That’s why the climax of The Dark Knight is so profound: it all comes down to an ordinary man looking inwards, and deciding not to give in to the evil inside him. This nameless man makes a choice to reject the devil’s designs on his soul. (BUT—his choice would not have made a difference if Batman, the Christ-figure, had not intervened to take away the Joker’s power to kill/damn all those people anyway. But that’s a subject for another post.) That businessman probably doesn’t even know that he and the rest of the ferry-goers were led into this kind of spiritual trap by the Joker. The Joker doesn’t care. He doesn’t need to be recognized. Like the devil, he’s got no ego. He doesn’t need to be recognized for his masterworks. He’s perfectly content to be absolutely invisible, pulling the strings without anyone ever knowing it.

There’s hard reality to non-obvious evil. We know murder and racism are wrong, and every reasonable person agrees that we should imprison or execute murderers and shun racists. There’s no genuine dispute there. The real kind of evil is the kind that not everyone agrees over. The ideas and attitudes and perspectives that seem reasonable to some, even if it is destroying their soul and the soul of society inwardly.

That evil is much more frightening to me than a big bad guy killing people indiscriminately. We all agree that that man needs to be stopped. We all cheer in the theater when he’s killed or otherwise defeated (usually in a very entertaining way). Non-obvious evil, though, doesn’t usually do that. When it’s defeated, we don’t stand up and cheer, because at first we’re not quite sure what is really going on. We have to think about it, digest it, and recognize it. Do we clap when that nameless bald businessman decides to put the detonator back in the box? No, and most people don’t even see the depth of that moment. They just consider The Dark Knight a great comic book movie, and don’t really think about why. Instead, they clap at the “magic trick” scene, where the Joker uses a pencil to kill a man.

The point is this: we don’t notice non-obvious evil very often, but it is critically important that we do so. Because it’s the kind of evil that encroaches upon our own soul without us knowing. It’s the kind we’re least aware of because we more often than not fail to recognize it as evil at all. It’s the kind that the ordinary person, like you or me, in the ordinary realm of ordinary events, is most susceptible to without ever being aware of it. Non-obvious evil needs to be portrayed more and more in fiction because it’s the kind that teaches us about ourselves.

Voldemort’s style of evil is easy to recognize, so the only challenge is, essentially, beating it up. Non-obvious evil must first be recognized as evil, which is much much harder because usually it involves confronting something within ourselves. And that is the point of its portrayal! That is why it’s so important. Those are the stories that don’t just stick with us, but, ideally, CHANGE us. Those are the stories we need to write and patronize.

The question is, can we write that kind of story and still make it viscerally entertaining?

I think Christopher Nolan has proved that we can.

[Credit for Voldy with a mustache goes to Wafflepal at deviantart.]

Guest Post: “Rey is the hero, but Anakin must still be the main character.”

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Some highly perceptive and insightful commentary on Episode VII (and the third trilogy as a whole) from my insoluble good buddy, Gordon Goesch:

Okay, after literal months, I finally have my thoughts on Star Wars sorted out. If you haven’t seen VII and are still avoiding spoilers, well then, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but I figure courtesy can’t hurt. Proceed no further.

TL;DR at the bottom.

Rey is the hero. I can hear everyone in the world saying, “duh,” as they read that, but let me elaborate. Rey is going to undergo a Hero’s Journey, just as Luke did. She has already received her call to action, attempted to refuse it, found and lost a mentor (Han), and now has crossed the threshold and sought out a second mentor to help her on her road of trials (Luke, of course). (Kudos, by the way to my friend Neal Silvester‘s newly released book, The Hero Doctrine, for providing me with the terminology I needed to articulate this.) That’s one of the reasons that TFA so closely mirrors ANH. They’re telling the same basic story. Which is fine. Given the Archetypical nature of Star Wars in general, I’d be upset if the structure were much different. More on this later.

Related to this, I am mostly convinced that Rey is a Skywalker. This comes down to one very important decision the film-makers made. The decision to use Anakin’s Lightsaber as the representation of the Hero’s Mantle. The lightsaber represents the heroism that Anakin exemplified when he was at his best. (And he WAS a hero, tragic fall notwithstanding. Anyone who isn’t convinced is referred to the excellent Clone Wars TV series, which made me actually LIKE Anakin. Anakin’s awesome guys.) It represents the same heroic destiny that Luke accepted when he left Tatooine. It’s pretty much the perfect symbol to show that the role of hero has passed to the next generation. Then comes what I call The Elder Wand Scene. Kylo and Rey both attempt to use The Force to pull the lightsaber to them. Kylo, though injured, is by all accounts the more powerful and better trained of the two. But what happens? The lightsaber flies not to the one with greater mastery of The Force, but rather to the hands of its TRUE MASTER. Forced to pick between two (presumed) direct descendants of Anakin, the weapon flies to the one who exemplifies the heroism it represents. Now, it’s possible that the filmmakers are going in another direction with this. Perhaps they are instead going to make it a point that one does not have to descend from greatness to be a hero. Perhaps Rey simply has huge potential that she managed to tap in that moment. Perhaps she’s not a Skywalker after all, merely a coincidence. They could do that, though I feel that if they did, the use of the lightsaber was a mis-step, though not an insurmountable one. They would need to make their intended message clear from right out of the gate in the next film. What they should NOT do is continue to foreshadow Rey’s lineage and then suddenly reveal that, “Oh, she’s not a Skywalker after all, whatatwist.”

Okay, so Rey is starting on a Hero’s Journey, and is probably a Skywalker somehow. This is completely appropriate, because Star Wars has always followed very strong archetypes in its story-telling and it would be weird if it suddenly did otherwise. Viewed in this light, this new trilogy seems set up to tell a great story. What’s your point, Gordon? My point is: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzVmPsqHDDQ).

These films cannot be viewed in a vacuum. This is not a new story in the Star Wars universe, this is the continuation of the main story! If episodes I-III are the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, and episodes IV-VI are his redemption at the hands of his son, then VII-IX MUST be about his legacy. The impact his life had on the galaxy, for better or worse. Now, VII is off to a good start on this front, so far showing that despite his redemption, Anakin’s mistakes continue to haunt future generations. Ideally, the movies are about Anakin righting the wrongs he caused, either through his son or more directly. Regardless of wether he acts on behalf of his father, Luke cannot be a simple mentor figure. He must come back to correct the mistakes he made when he ran away. He has to show that a single triumph is not all it takes. He has to represent the hero who endures to the end. He cannot be THE hero of the trilogy, but he must still be A hero.

Just as the original trilogy means something different when considered on its own or as part of a larger series, so too must episodes VII-IX. They must stand on their own as films, that’s true. But they also must be part of the same story as the first six. Unless the films work on both levels, they cannot succeed.

TL;DR: I ramble a bit, but the point is that Rey is the Hero, but Anakin (yes, posthumously) must still be the main character.

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Book Signings this Week

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This week I will be signing books at two Costco locations: in Sandy on Thursday, 2/25, from 2-4pm, and in Salt Lake on Saturday, 2/27, also from 2-4pm.

Costco in Sandy is located at 11100 S Auto Mall Dr.

Costco in Salt Lake is located at 1818 S 300 W.

Hope to see at least one familiar face at each location! And if you don’t live there, but know someone who does, do let them know!

You can find out more about my book, The Hero Doctrine, at the link above. And you can find out more about that handrawn secret symbol in the lower-right-hand corner of the photographed page if I see you in person at a signing. Mwahaha.

Thank you, Emily!

I have a friend who, comparatively early in life, hit what I consider the high point of any literary career I could ever want.

You see, Emily Harris Adams was literally quoted by the prophet himself as he closed General Conference in April of 2011. It was a poem she had written and published in the New Era called “Empty Linen.”

The linen which once held Him is empty.
It lies there,
Fresh and white and clean.
The door stands opened.
The stone is rolled away,
And I can almost hear the angels singing His praises.
Linen cannot hold Him.
Stone cannot hold Him.
The words echo through the empty limestone chamber,
“He is not here.”
The linen which once held Him is now empty.
It lies there,
Fresh and white and clean
And oh, hallelujah, it is empty.

 


HOW AMAZING IS THAT? And where do you go afterwards? What higher mountain can you climb? The poem itself is beautiful in its simplicity, frankly in its humility. It’s not trying to be flashy and clever with words, it’s not trying to be overpowering. It’s as simple and serene as that day must have been—Easter, after the Savior was resurrected. As I read it I can see the gentle colors of the garden, and hear the birds sing, and everything is at peace. And that’s probably why President Monson liked it so much. There was no ego involved with this poem, and there’s no ego involved with Emily.

Well, Emily went on to write a book about her experiences with infertility: For Those With Empty Arms. Just a short time and a major miracle later, Emily gave birth to twins! Twins that came to share a birthday (exactly one year before) with my little Dagny. It was late last year, when Emily was somehow managing the beautiful blessed chaos of twin crawlers, that I happened along and, apparently assuming she had plenty of free time, asked if she would be willing to read and endorse my book.

And you know what? She did. She’s that wonderful.

She actually wrote me a few different blurbs they could use. The people at Cedar Fort wanted to use all of them. Unfortunately that meant it was now quite a long blurb, and I found out after the fact there wasn’t room on the back cover for all three of the endorsements I had solicited, so Emily’s was relegated to the very first page inside the book.

To make sure the time and effort she contributed do not go to waste I’m going to relay the entirety of her endorsement here.

Originally it was like this:

“With a perfect mix of pop culture, scriptural, and prophet references, The Hero Doctrine is a great Family Home Evening resource—especially for families with older children.”

“Using appropriate references to pop culture, The Hero Doctrine is an inspiring call to spiritual heroism.”

“The Hero Doctrine is the perfect book for anyone who has quoted Dumbledore in Sacrament Meeting.”

“Silvester has created a book that appeals to those who enjoy finding gospel parallels in the books and movies we know and love. He references such works as Star Wars and Harry Potter, and without either apology or flippancy, enumerates the gospel principles within each. The Hero Doctrine manages to be both a serious spiritual discussion and an  entertaining read.”

Cedar Fort amalgamated them into:

“With a perfect mix of pop culture, scriptures, and prophet references, The Hero Doctrine is the perfect book for anyone who has quoted Dumbledore in sacrament meeting. Silvester has created a book that appeals to those who enjoy finding gospel parallels in the books and movies we all know and love. He references such work as Star Wars and Harry Potter without apology or flippancy, enumerates the gospel principles within them. This book manages to be both a serious spiritual discussion and an entertaining read. It’s an inspiring call to spiritual heroism and a great family home evening resource—especially for families with older children.”

Emily, I am honored to be your peer and be endorsed by you. Thank you!

The Gospel According to Dagny: Tummy-Time

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“I’m sorry Dagny. I’m sorry—”

My wife paused.

“No, I’m not. I’m not sorry for tummy-time.”

That was after tummy-time, when my one-month-old Dagny was crying up a storm. She had already been scooped up, embraced, comforted, but she didn’t like what we had put her through. Not at all.

Tummy-time is what we (cleverly) call it when we put her on her tummy…wait for it…for a time. Not long, just a minute or so.

She hates this. Not only is she utterly alone (she’s not), but it forces her to use her own strength to lift up her own head to see what’s going on! And that’s uncomfortable, because her neck starts off ridiculously weak. You have to hold her head very carefully for months after she’s born because otherwise her head will just roll around, subject to whiplash and inertia and other injury. She’s a delicate thing, and she needs lots of care. She needs our support for the places she is weak.

But Dagny, do you want to be weak, to have us hold up your head the rest of your life? Follow you around with my hand behind your neck, making sure you don’t teeter forward or loll around? I’m your father and I love you, and I don’t want you to have to experience any pain at all. But my wants—and your wants—are not your needs. And both you and I need you to practice lifting up your head, even putting you in situations where you feel alone and you are compelled to lift up your head, painfully, yes, uncomfortably, yes. Because you’d gain absolutely no neck strength otherwise. And you wouldn’t have the power to look around on your own merits, to see the beautiful world and move and walk and run in it. All the beauties and glories to be found in the world rest on you learning to hold up your own neck.

C.S. Lewis:

[God] is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.

We only do it periodically. You might gain more strength if we do it more often, or even all the time, but you’d feel less love that way, too. We are not cruel. We do not leave you alone. But we let you work on your own strength as much as possible because that is how you most increase it. Because someday you’ll be big like us, and so you need strength like us.

And afterward, we pick you up and hold you tight and let you know you’re not alone, and say, “Well done, my good and faithful baby. You have been faithful over a few things, soon you will be ruler over many things.”

Soon you will be big like us.

(Too soon, I already sense.)

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Roman Empire? In ruins. Christianity? Not so much.

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Today was the first time I’ve been to Elders Quorum this year! There’s a good EQ secretary for you.  All the usual excuses apply—week-long sickness early in the year, then right after that a newborn baby, and so on and so forth.

Anyway, that’s not really the point. President Clark gave the lesson today and he told about an experience he had just the other night when he was arguing with people on the internet. He’s a big-time political junkie with strong opinions on things, and someone was being wrong on the internet and he needed to correct them, as usual. Of course, such people are never open to being corrected, which he admitted later on in the lesson, and that’s why, though I am also a political junkie with strong opinions about things, I do not rush to intervene. It usually just makes me angry at people, and that anger is hard to shed. My brain doesn’t let go and stop arguing—even when I’m completely alone and sans computer—for hours and hours on end. So I just leave things be.

But that’s not the point either. The point was, he was arguing with some ardent atheists who were asking mockingly, Why Jesus of Nazareth? There were tons of “Jesuses” around the same time, many men claiming messiah-ship, including the infamous Barabbas whom the Jews voted to be pardoned in place of Christ. Barabbas means “Son of the Father,” after all. So why not him? Why not the other Jeshuas?

The answer is actually not too difficult to grasp. Brother Clark invoked a sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, who pointed out that here we are, 2,000 years later, and which Jesus are we talking about? Which Jesus survived two millennia? Which Jesus survived the persecutions and tortures and horrible public deaths at the hands of a hostile Roman government? By which I mean, which Jesus survived in the minds and hearts and souls of those who heard of him, who knew and testified of His divinity, even against the wrath of one of the most powerful empires of all time? Which Jesus even went so far as to overtake that empire a few hundred years later, until the two became synonymous? When we speak of “Rome” today we speak of a Christ-centered church. And even though the Christian church has gone through many forms and iterations and interpretations over the centuries, its core belief—that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised messiah, that He suffered and died for our sins, and that He was resurrected the third day—survives.

Perhaps that’s not why we worship Jesus of Nazareth. But it’s pretty indicative of the true reason: that Jesus was the Messiah. He was indeed the one who was prophesied to come. He was the real thing, and it penetrated people’s minds and hearts and souls so deeply that they died for it and lived for it. No other Jesus did that. When the false messiahs trying to raise up a revolution were killed by the Romans, their followers realized what was really going on and went their separate ways. They didn’t last. Jesus of Nazareth did.

I think we, as a nation, are tempted by such false messiahs now, promising revolutions and mighty changes in the political and social and moral landscape of the nation. But political revolutions don’t change the nature of human beings, do they? The only thing that can really change humanity in a permanent way is the true messiah. Just Jesus of Nazareth.

(So-called “progress,” without God, is just change. That’s because without universal standards of truth, without a canon of values that we all share, there’s no way to collectively measure the growth of a nation or society. And today America is split into so many violently opposing factions—including opposing Christianities—that sharing a common core of ideals, even among the religious, is no longer possible.)

But even that wasn’t quite the point of what Brother Clark was getting to. His overall point was that we can see the exact same dynamic with Joseph Smith.

In the time of the great religious revival of the early 19th century, there were countless numbers of self-proclaimed prophets and others starting their own religions, claiming their own version of God, and leading vulnerable followers into their own twisted renditions of Christianity. “Lo here!” and “Lo there!” they said. After Joseph Smith died, even the church itself was divided, with many of the leaders, formerly loyal to Brother Joseph, now taking the mantle of leadership upon themselves, trying to lead the uncertain Saints down their own paths out of (or remaining in) Nauvoo. Lyman Wight, James Strang, Sydney Rigdon, Emma Smith with little Joseph the Third, and many others all convinced earnest believers that they were doing what the Prophet wanted them to do. They all split off, and led their own branches.

So what happened to all those other religion-starters? What happened to the branches of the church that weren’t led by Brigham Young? Why do we believe Joseph Smith among all those crying “Lo”? Why do we believe Brigham Young was the proper successor?

Because the name “Joseph Smith” is known today around the world, and “Nancy Towle” isn’t. Because Joseph and his Golden Bible are still the subject of vast discussion and fierce debate; because Brigham Young started a city in a desert that not a few years ago was the center of the world for a time; because we are still talking about them and we are not talking about the rest.

Well, again, this isn’t the reason we believe Joseph and Brigham, but it is indeed indicative of it. Joseph Smith was as true a prophet as Jesus Christ was the messiah—and their fruits prove it. The fruits that are the testimonies in the minds and hearts and souls of those who have come to know them. That’s the power of truth, and in one form or another, it will always prevail.

“An Infant Crying in the Night”

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[From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”]

O, yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroyed,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;

That not a moth with vain desire,

Is shriveled in a fruitless fire,

Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last – far off – at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream; but what am I?

An infant crying in the night;

An infant crying for the light,

And with no language but a cry.

 

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That which we dare invoke to bless;

Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;

He, They, One, All; within, without;

The Power in darkness whom we guess —

I found Him not in world or sun,

Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye,

Nor through the questions men may try,

The petty cobwebs we have spun.

If e’er when faith had fallen asleep,

I heard a voice, “believe no more,”

And heard an ever-breaking shore

That tumbled in the Godless deep,

A warmth within the breast would melt

The freezing reason’s colder part,

And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answered, “I have felt.”

No, like a child in doubt and fear:

But, that blind clamor made me wise;

Then was I as a child that cries,

But, crying, knows his father near;

And what I am beheld again

What is, and no man understands;

And out of darkness came the hands

That reach through nature, molding men.

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The Temple, Divine Nature in “Interstellar”

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All three emblems of the mirror, the sword and shield are found in the House of the Lord and the ordinances therein. Mirrors are everywhere, constant reminders of who we are as well as symbols of eternity as they reflect back on each other. In the initiatories we find both the ability to fight evil as we wield the sword of justice in defense of truth and virtue, and a shield of greater protection from evil through the blessing of the temple garment. And of course, the endowment ordinance contains all three symbolic powers in every moment as we learn to take our first steps in our ascension into heaven and arm ourselves with power from on high.

I found a curious parallel to the temple in Interstellar that I think is enlightening. If you have seen the film, I wonder what you think about the similar role NASA plays in the work of saving the world? It too is serving a semi-sacred purpose in its mission to save humanity, a mission the rest of the world would pointedly not understand. Like the temple, the details of the work within is kept secret from the world—not out of covetousness or paranoia, but because the world would not appreciate it. “Public opinion won’t allow spending on space exploration,” Professor Brand reminds Cooper when he asks about it. “Not when we’re struggling to put food on the table.” Similarly, some might criticize the Church for building such lavish, elaborate structures when many in the world struggle to escape poverty and hunger continues to rake the world. But like NASA’s project, the temple is about something more than any given temporal struggle. Is a little extra food more important than the raising of humanity, God’s sons and daughters, to celestial heights? So great a cause is both essential and global, no matter the economics of the soil beneath one’s feet. In worshiping and doing work in the temple, we shake that dust from our shoes anyway, and for a time, leave all such problems behind as we take our first steps onto celestial ground.

As David O. McKay said, the ordinances of the temple represent “the step-by-step ascent into the eternal presence.” The pattern of godly growth, from intelligences to spirits to souls to gods to eternal lives, as presented in premortal life—the eternal arc. We are organized first as spirits—in a way, as ideas. Theories. Spiritual creations. But that is not enough. We must apply those ideas, realize those spirits in corporeal form. Amelia, when confronted by the horrible effects of relativity on Miller’s planet, confesses, “I thought I was prepared. I knew all the theory. Reality’s different.” Yes, reality is different. And we need to learn it. Experience the physical world, the feel, the touch, the pleasure, the pain, the good, the evil, the right, the wrong. That is a necessary step to becoming like God. But through those purging experiences, God is forging a veritable sword. Like Cooper repairing that surveillance drone that had been floating aimlessly in the sky for years, God takes something useless and makes it useful.

Murph protested to her father, “Couldn’t we just let it go? It’s not hurting anyone.”

A kind, non-judgmental view, but in a way—if I may be this bold—satanic, for it squanders the potential of a device capable of soaring through the heavens. Keeping us grounded in the dirt is the adversary’s entire goal, after all, and even doing no harm is wasting the greater heights we can attain to if we choose to take flight. As Edmund Burke is claimed to have said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I might add that in this case good men doing nothing is the very evil that is attempting to triumph! The earth was made for us to take our first steps on, the dust made for us to plant our feet, where we begin our eternal journey to explore the endless expanse of the universe’s possibilities. Without a little pain, without some discomfort, and without God’s distance, we’d never even want to take those first steps away from where we started, never want to reach upwards with aspiration.

I’ve seen the more evangelical atheists proclaim publicly their distaste for a God who makes a world where bad things happen. These same atheists will just as loudly argue for science to replace religion as the answer to man’s dilemmas. I want to shake them by the shoulders and point out the hypocrisy: science would not exist if there were no problems in the world, I want to shout. What cause would we have to explore the marvelous mysteries of the human body if disease did not necessitate it?

It takes painful shaping, a hard physical press, to craft us out of clay. The core of all crafts—all creations—is an idea, the theory behind it, and then it must be clothed in material form. Craftsmanship must be behind both of these skills. A musician must compose the music and then use his fingers to play the instrument to make it. A novelist must dream up a plot and then know how to put the words together to show scenes and sequences. A warrior must plan out a strategy for a fight and then use his discipline and physical training to wield that sword and shield to actually wage it. It is in the union of these two forms that we find true, godlike Creation, a beautiful, almost magical process where the thing becomes more than the sum of its parts, ultimately unified by sealing ordinances and priesthood. That is the creation of souls, the creation of gods—the very work of God’s temples. That is the means and end of the hero’s path.

No Romance – Prologue (Brand new)

With The Hero Doctrine officially on store shelves, I thought I’d briefly expose the other side of my writing. No Romance is a novel I’ve been working on for over four years now, but I only just wrote this prologue in the last few weeks. I’m going to decline any explanation of the book and let this prologue speak for itself.

Ahem.

——

No Romance

Prologue

If there was one thing our hero was terrible at, it was dying.

But now lay before him an epic expanse of a sun-painted canyon that was sure to spell certain doom. Certain, wonderful, blissful doom. He’d rev the engine, give the bike a kick, maybe even wheelie forward, and let gravity take him down the sheer face. There was nothing—and nobody—else for miles around him that could interfere.

He had come all the way out in the forgotten deserts of the American southwest for solitude, and for once in his life, he felt it. He could sigh contentedly as he surveyed the happily godless country. No invisible voice whispering in his ear. No tap of the shoulder to alert him to an idea. No external motivation, seen or unseen, poking or prodding him, pushing or pulling him toward a pyrite cup of glory. He was alone, truly alone, and about to drive his motorcycle over a canyon cliff.

“Yes sir, this should do the trick,” he said confidently, daringly, as if still not totally aware of the void he’d be facing should he succeed.

It was to be his sixth suicide attempt.

As it happened, the other five attempts also included motorcycles. No one could call him particularly imaginative, the unfortunate consequence of solutions always being given him without real effort. The previous bikes had all exploded into spare parts and sound-effect springs, leaving him with his life and five respective and attractive scars like tally marks across his chest.

But this bike would be different. Its shrapnel in the inevitable explosion should kill him pretty effectively. Either that or it’d fall apart somewhere in the downward plunge and he’d meet the smooth face of the canyon floor in a very personal way. He knew this because he had acquired it specially from a custom dealer a few states over, a place called Mercy Motors, and they promised him the moon in exchange for a few simple payments of several hundred dollars. Money was no problem.

Sure, some might say it would be more convenient to just put a bullet in your head. But with his track record, the gun would probably misfire. And personal experience had taught him that death by freefall alone could not be relied upon.

The sun had at last begun its dip below the horizon: the moment was here. The hero drank in the dry canyon land a final time, his feet planted on the ground on either side of the bike. Then he rolled forward ever so slightly, feet paddling back and forth, the front tire inching towards and finally over the edge, spilling a few grains of gravel. His eyes followed the rocks in their fall down the smooth wall a thousand feet below. He’d join them soon enough.

He took a deep breath and let the motorcycle roll backwards, down the gentle incline that led up to the cliff’s edge. About fifty feet back, he paused to once more take in the feeling of peace, gleaned especially from the tall blue sky above him and all around. No clouds whatsoever, no heavens to be seen, and thus no gods to fear.

He revved the engine. His boots went up. He twisted the gears. The motorcycle leapt forward, rumbling then roaring.

Sixth time’s the charm, he thought.

Mercy. Mercy Motors.

His eye couldn’t help but catch the words emblazoned on the bike’s handlebars, even as he departed from the cliff’s edge, out into the blue…

Wait, what was he doing? He’d found himself alone, truly alone out here. He could stay, and They wouldn’t bother him. It was quiet! Desolate! Free!

Free to soar, at least for a moment. Up at the apex of his leap, he forgot his hesitation, for he felt that familiar thrill that comes when gravity is temporarily neutralized, when the force of going up cancels out the force pushing down. That feeling of freedom from all pressure…was it his to keep?

Not for long. For he was free, yes. Free, alas, but free to fall. And so he began his plummet, the canyon mouth open like a cosmic whale ready to swallow him whole. For a moment he felt like Jonah of old, attempting to escape his divinely ordained destiny but finding an even worse fate in its stead.

The canyon floor drew ever closer. Adrenaline had replaced every other sensation in his body. Flashes of other falls he had made in his adventuring exploits filled his mind’s eye: from the top of a greyhound to the windshield of the fake cab driver in London. Leaping from one plane to another to catch the fleeing ex-president’s daughter’s alleged assassin. Pushing off from the twelfth girl he couldn’t save as he fell into the sea.

This would be the last. No gunshots driving him here. No sudden epiphany as to how to survive the fall. No threats made to friends and family to coerce him into a suicidal jump. No, this would be his choice. Entirely his.

If he could manage it this time. He registered the motorcycle’s presence just a few feet below and to his right, and remembered that if the fall didn’t kill him, he’d need the bike to finish the job. To land on top of him, and crush him. And, if he was lucky, explode.

His body contorted, limbs twirling in their own orbits against the rush of wind, he reached out to grab one of the handlebars. His hand grasped at the rubber but couldn’t get a grip. Again he reached, stretched, but this time he got it. And once more he saw those words emblazoned, this time alive, shining, flaming:

Mercy Motors.

That was when he felt it. A massive gust of wind—what else could it have been?—so large, so billowing, that he felt like he was being carried. Carried through the sky. Still falling, still heading toward that flat stop, but somehow his speed was slowing. He could feel, in a very physical sense, an invisible resistance against his body. As if…as if some unseen giant hand was cushioning his fall, each of its cosmic fingers threaded between his arms and legs.

“Are you kidding me?” he shouted into the ether.

Now he wasn’t even facing his doom head on. His body had spun to face the blue sky. His own hand, slick with sweat, was slipping from the motorcycle’s handlebar. The motorcycle itself was drifting away, further and further out of his sight until—

He landed. Then, crunch.

“Aughhh!” cried the hero, and it was the kind of cry he’d never uttered before. It wasn’t a grunt or a wince or a grimace. Those he’d made when a bullet grazed his arm, or when he took a punch to the gut, or when he’d suffered a superficial knife wound. No, this was the cry of serious pain.

Which meant…

———————————————

I’m alive. Pain, pain, pain.

———————————————

What pain! No other word appeared in his brain. No other word to describe all the agony he was feeling. Not even a curse, muttered gruffly, could do it credit, and he had done that a lot in his time.

Where was it coming from? What torture device was wracking his body up and down? What depraved act was digging this much into his psyche? He could feel the signals singing fire up the nerve lines, so vividly his whole body might as well have been one massive pain receptor.

The throbbing, it screamed at him. It didn’t relent. He knew nothing else. Even the shock that he was alive registered only in the background comparatively. But he was finally able to trace the pain back to its ground zero.

It was his leg. Still attached, obviously, for he could feel it, and feel it acutely. But…broken. Probably. He had never broken a bone before. Had never seen evidence of his skeleton before, either. But that was definitely the bone sticking out…

And that was definitely the motorcycle on top of him. Pinning his leg against a rock about the size of a football. Around him he saw no other such rocks. It was just lying alone on the canyon floor, and he had happened to land on it. The motorcycle, not a part broken or bent or out of alignment, and the C4 it was packed with totally inert, had in turn landed on top of him, and forced the shin to break the skin.

The sense of awe at it all quickly receded back into the agony, like a surfer swallowed up within a wave.

But…what if that wave were fresh water? As much as it overwhelmed, it also rejuvenated. He just had to open his mouth.

Some people might lose their sense of self in such a moment. Some might pass out. But our hero did not. Drowning in pain, his perception heightened. He started sensing other things just as vividly. The blue sky bearing down on him like he was watching an ocean about to crash. The parched colors of the canyon burning with such heat he could feel his own skin begin to flake, and his lips with them. The dark lines of every crack and crevice in the cliffs and crags stood out to him in high definition, like he had just put on a new pair of glasses.

But beside this hyper sense of things, he could not move. His head could swing back and forth, but he had no strength with which to move the motorcycle, and certainly none to stand up and get moving. That was strange for him. Whatever wounds he’d gained in sequences before had always allowed him—in some moments more dramatically than others—to be tough, get up, and keep going.

Not this wound. A leg so broken, a pain this indescribable, now turned out to be his greatest impediment. The solitude he so sought was now his enemy. He’d die out here, withered and broken, if no help showed up.

All in all, not the simplest or most painless method to commit suicide with.

The pain didn’t die down, even as the sun fell and the moon rose. But delirium did begin to set in, synchronized with the razor edge of this new reality. At least, he thought it was delirium. He’d never been out in the desert at night before, and his sharpened eyes started counting every star he saw up there among the pink and violet swathes of interstellar dust. As he arrived at a number he would later forget, his eyes fell back down to the canyon, which, even with only the light of the glorious night sky, was perfectly visible, and settled on the only written words for miles and miles around.

“Mercy,” he coughed out. “Mercy.”

And his pain began to fade away…

————————————————-

Everything from then on was a blur of colors and shapes and sounds. The night seemed to pass, yes, and dawn seemed to break, and someone seemed to arrive on the scene (no one he knew, though his mind was in no state to recognize faces), and he seemed to remember a loud fan being blown and a great black beast with a great bulbous glass eye descend out of the sky, and he remembered being up in the air again, carried to some destination far away, though this time he could see the hand that did it, and it wasn’t a hand, but the belly of that great black beast with a giant spinning intersection on its back, and then a horizon chopped up into various flat rectangular shapes, and down into a white-lighted dwelling with many women in green attending to him and a few men in white occasionally overlooking him and then blackness and then suddenly he was awake, but the colors had settled down and the pain was fully gone and it all seemed blurrier than it should have been, but he quickly got used to that and really forgot all about the memories that were now just stories he had experienced, like everything else, and his vision finally coalesced into two people, who he could vaguely recall as being his mother and father, and out of his mouth spilled the words of existential crisis and self-doubt and a lack of ultimate knowledge that had often driven good men and women as lonely as he into an early grave with a self-inflicted wound.

But he, he had survived, and was finally sharing his thoughts and feelings and cinematic experiences and the bizarre fact of his very survival with the two people who he thought would care, and hoped would understand.

Little did he know how much they really did understand.

At the end of his speech he found tears trailing down his unshaven cheeks. Such despair could have been from the words that had just poured from his mouth. But if it was, it was manifesting itself to his own brain through something more sensory. It was something about this hospital. Everything was so…mixed together. Blurred together. Compounded together. Every machine, bed, desk, instrument…all felt bound together like they were a part of some painting, all made of the same material. The whole world was like that now. He supposed it had been before the incident, as well. The pain of his broken leg was gone, almost forgotten, and…he missed it.

No, that couldn’t be right. There was no explanation for that. It certainly wasn’t the self-harm he enjoyed. It was something else that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. But that thought was now mixed in with all his other distress and, like paint, it couldn’t be unmixed.

He looked up at his mother like an anguished child would. She in her fifties, still beautiful and mysterious with black hair that curled around her face like obsidian, and turquoise eyes that glowed like a subterranean lake.

His father, with his hooded Italian eyes and lined gruff grin that must have masked much, but still communicated a fatherly air.

Together they looked first at each other, exchanged a little knowing nod each, a little twinkle in their eye, and finally looked kindly on their thirty-year-old son, who had just been hospitalized for a severely broken leg gained in an apparent suicide attempt that otherwise produced no discernible injuries.

Then his mother opened her mouth to speak, and her voice was as gentle as if she were about to teach him the birds and the bees.

“Son…it’s time you learned where you really came from.”

Published and On the Shelf: A Photoblog

So today I went on a tiny little adventure. In case you didn’t know, today my book officially came out. I wanted to see if the bookstores were REALLY going to sell my book or if that was just some sort of misunderstanding. Turns out…well…

Turns out I found FORTY-FOUR copies of my book in the stores I visited. That is a pretty cool thing.

Orem’s Barnes and Noble, where I found three copies of my book on the shelf. (They weren’t that fuzzy and shaky in person.)

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I had to correct the placement, slightly. As a friend of mine recently intimated, Daddy’s gotta get paid.

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The bigger picture:

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Then, on to Deseret Book! Four copies here (I had my knee to balance the phone when I took this picture). Aaaand on the bottom shelf (you can see the carpeting) where it’s very likely to be noticed and sold! Yeah, a bit cynical, but I was grinning, pretty amused, when I said it to myself in the store. My cynicism melted slightly as I noticed I was just a few books over from Brad Wilcox, one of my heroes.

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And it was there, on the carpet at Deseret Book, that I remembered my secret plan. Every copy of any book I ever write that physically passes through my hands (such as the ten I found in the first three bookstores here) will have that little symbol in the corner handwritten into the book. Hopefully I’ll have some fans someday that will care about secret stuff like that.

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Seagull Book next. It’s kind of a sad little place. So quiet, and right across the street from Deseret Book. But I made my little symbols in these books, too, on the off chance somebody, someday, will somehow find my book among all the other dusty treasures and DB-priced trinkets.

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And then, WHOA, COSTCO.

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That’s two stacks of 17 each, as the next photo shows a little more clearly. Also, they’re priced at $10.99. I don’t know who’s losing money on that, but it’d better not be me. Also, for some cool reason on the price sticker it also says “bestseller.”

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I marked only the top books in each stack. Didn’t want to get caught, in case what I’m doing there is somehow illegal. I tend to think it’s just adding value to the books, but who knows if management disagrees. If you ever want to know what that symbol means, just ask me! Don’t get your hopes up for something intellectual, though. It’s just personal.

So, it wasn’t all just a dream. My book is officially out there, on the shelves. At least 44 copies of it. Go out there and buy some!

Toodles.