“A God Is Born”

You people know I love seeing spiritual parallels between fiction and the gospel. Movies, books, games—the world sometimes inadvertently illustrates God and the gospel in its images and stories and characters. I’ve devoted a lot of this blog to the pop culture parables I see that move me in powerful ways. Heck, I wrote a book on that premise.

You don’t need to watch the entirety of A STAR IS BORN to see what I saw here. You just need to watch the video for the Oscar-winning song “Shallow.”

 

Bradley Cooper plays an aging (and alcoholic) country music star who happens across Lady Gaga’s character’s unknown and undiscovered singing talent and gives her an opportunity to sing on his stage. Watch the video and then watch it again.

As Lady Gaga’s voice and talent break free from their cage, as she is fulfilling her godlike potential and hearing the massive crowd roar in approval, look at Bradley Cooper’s character. Look at the joy HE feels as he watches her! Look at him swing around that guitar in happiness as he sees someone else experience what he once did. He once had that dream of being successful and he achieved it. Now he gets to help someone else achieve the very same thing, and he radiates gladness for her. He is bringing her up to his level, and there is no greater feeling.

No greater feeling. No greater motivation. No greater love.

This is God. And it is us. The great plan of salvation.

(On a personal note—maybe part of what attracts me to this story is my own personal hopes and dreams. The desire to be “found” has haunted me for years. Like Lady Gaga’s character, I’ve been working and hoping for that chance for my entire adult life, never giving up all the way but still never finding that success. In my mind’s eye, I believe God wants those hopes and dreams to come true—He wants me to get what I’ve been working faithfully towards. He’s just waiting for the right time, like Lady Gaga on that stage. And it’s going to make HIM as happy, or even more happy, than it will make me, to see those desires fulfilled, to see my progression and development. He will feel joy because I will feel joy. That’s the hope!)

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Where Would You Be Without the Book of Mormon?

I found this question, among a few others, on a little piece of paper that I think was a Relief Society invitation to share testimonies. The paper was between the couch cushions, and I was about to throw it away when my mind started racing against my will. That’s mania for you.

Anyway, I’ll start.

Where would I be without the Book of Mormon?

You might as well ask me where I’d be if Nyssa hadn’t shown up to Leading Edge that day with a tupperware full of red velvet cupcakes that she’d made “for her birthday to share” but really to try to impress me with her baking. (It worked, although ironically I do pretty much all the baking in our household these days.) Would other opportunities have shown up? Probably. But I’m really not talking about alternate paths to an eternal companion. I’m talking about my brain, my mind, my heart, my soul, the immaterial parts of my identity. In some ways I am still the Neal that hadn’t ever gone to Leading Edge, sure. But over the last eight or nine years, my soul has been braided with Nyssa’s. We are spiritually intertwined to the point where I really don’t see her as another person. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true: I am half a person and she is the other half and together, in my head, we’re one soul. I couldn’t tell you where I end and she begins. We are simply sealed.

The Book of Mormon is the same way. Where would I be without the Book of Mormon? I wouldn’t be me. Not because the Book of Mormon is a list of doctrinal points that I read once and gained that information like you would out of a textbook in history class. It’s never been like that for me. The Book of Mormon has been a part of my life forever. The words on those thin leaves are only part of the story. I have read them, all of them, at different points in my life and together they braid with who I was at that point, and what God was telling me, and what I was feeling, and—this is the important one—the extent of what I knew about God and about my life at that time. I don’t think I’ve ever read the Book of Mormon to learn doctrine. The truths are interwoven in the text, in the sermons and writings and personal journals of the authors, and even in the histories and the descriptions of war and politics. That in turn informs my own life and meets me at my varying levels of understanding across the timeline of my spiritual growth. What I have felt and thought and pondered, what varying truths and insights and theories suddenly connect in my great big web of understanding, have been just as important as the words in the Book of Mormon itself. The Book of Mormon has been perhaps the greatest catalyst for the evolution of my worldview, even if the words on those pages aren’t always the exact source.

And that’s what’s fascinating about the Book of Mormon: it’s not a list of doctrines. It’s not a creed. It’s not numbered canonical truths. It’s the experiences and insights of real people dealing with real troubles in a very real world—and the things, truths, doctrines, that they learn and preach and ponder along the way.

In other words, it’s a lot like this blog. Or your blog—except usually written by the hand of a prophet. But not always! Enos, for instance, was no church president. He was just a guy out in the woods hunting for his food—and for a connection to God.

The undeniable thing is, the Book of Mormon feels so real to me. For that reason it is truly the anchor of my faith. As a writer of novels and eons better educated than Joseph Smith was in his mid-20s (and yet still have failed to produce even a single publishable novel in all the time I’ve devoted to taking care of my craft) I can uniquely appreciate the aspects of the writing and elements of the storytelling that would simply be impossible for that farmer to concoct himself. It’s too much for me to lay it all out here, but check out an address Orson Scott Card gave to the Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium back in 1993 (“Book of Mormon: Artifact or Artifice?”):

If you attempted to produce something like the Book of Mormon today, using the best science fiction writers, fully aware of all that we know about the culture of Meso-America, fully aware of everything that we know about how you create a fake document, it would still be obvious, if not immediately, then within 15 or 20 years. The cultural assumptions behind the book would reveal themselves, showing clearly exactly when the book was really written. But the Book of Mormon has been around a lot longer than that, and believe me, folks, I really do understand a lot about how science fiction is made and I can’t find anywhere that it’s done wrong. Search all you like through that book. I have, and I can’t find a flaw. Yet we should expect to find a consistent pattern of getting it wrong. Not just one example, but thousands of examples within a book that long, but — they are not there.

Now, does this mean that I’ve proved the Book of Mormon true? Obviously not. You can always still suppose that perhaps Joseph Smith or whoever wrote the Book of Mormon was the greatest and luckiest creator of phony documents from made-up alien cultures ever in history. The Book of Mormon only matters because it’s a life-changing book.

Where would I be without that life-changing book? To be cynical and real, I’d probably be an alcoholic. History tells us lots of stories of artists who quite likely had bipolar disorder and how they sought peace from the bottle. As my wife can attest, I love drinking juice in all its varieties; I am a thirsty person and one who needs escapes once in a while to unwind from stress and frustration. It would be only natural to become intimately acquainted with all varieties of liquor, too, without that connection to God.

I like to imagine, too, that I’d be overwhelmed with existential questions and in Enos’s kind of hunt, and at some point remember something I’d heard once about religion, and perhaps be on the lookout for truth. And maybe I’d even have a deep and inexplicable spiritual experience and set out on the path that would lead me to Christ. But I’m afraid my natural arrogance might make me spit upon religion the way so many learned people do—and rationalize away the odd coincidences that seem to crop up so often.

And so I’m grateful to the Book of Mormon. I’m grateful for that anchor of my faith. Whenever I face questions or feel doubts creep up, it doesn’t take me long to remember how undeniably true the Book of Mormon is, and that, as Jeffrey R. Holland said, I’ll have to crawl over, or under, or around the Book of Mormon to willingly abandon the theology and philosophy that have given my life so much joy and meaning.

I close with his words, which I charge to you:

If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that is the case, then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit.

The Promise of the Resurrection: Too Good to Be True?

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The picture above represents this mortal life. There is great beauty and sunlight. There are also rocky parts, jagged walls that scrape and repulse. There is a handrail to help us up or down a set of stairs. A hard stone floor that can hurt the feet and also fragrant flowers in hand-crafted pots. But inevitably our eyes are drawn to the gaping black hole on the left. It is inescapable. All we see inside it is uncertainty.

Yesterday was Easter. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ because it means the rest of us—and more pertinent to the living, our loved ones who have passed on—can also be resurrected. It is on this day that Christianity celebrates the transitory nature of death. Death has been conquered! Life goes on! It is the greatest victory in the history of this entropic universe. Without it, everything crumbles. Goodbyes are permanent. Corruption and decay are irreversible. Nothing could ever matter because ultimately existence itself is doomed. But because we have a Savior who entered that tomb dead and left it brimming with life and spiritual power, life has meaning again. And we will see each other again.

For many of us, this doctrine is strictly theoretical. We don’t know anyone close to us who has died. Our friends and family are all still around. The need for this doctrine, this victory, hasn’t hit home. It’s all an abstraction. We know we’ll need its comfort eventually, but not right now. For now, it’s a really good thing! But nothing personal.

Which is why I have a little skepticism about it.

My father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I have witnessed the decay of his memory. It’s still relatively early, but I know where it’s headed. I know I’ll need the fruits of that Easter morning two millennia ago, that knowledge that Christ has made it possible for the end of this life to be simply the end of a chapter, not of the book. I will need it terribly, because it’s not just my dad, but everything. My whole life. I look back into my own memories of my dad, my mom, my family, my brothers and sisters, all of it as I grew up, and I see that it’s gone. The joys and pleasures of youth are swallowed up in that irreversible death that is the past. I can’t have any of that old life and old happiness ever again. It’s part of the decay of the universe, too.

But the resurrection, tied with the doctrine of restoration, tells me I can have it back! That joy can be returned tenfold, and there will come a point where I never have to say goodbye again, never even have to leave home. And we will have a never-ending happiness, and my father will be in his prime and all the sickness and disease and every other thorn of mortality will be gone forever. Even our hairs will not be numbered less. That’s a pretty amazing promise.

Doesn’t that seem just a little too easy? A little too happy? A little too good to be true?

I’m not denying my testimony. This church is true. But I struggle, just a little, with doctrines that would be absolutely no different than me making a wish for whatever I wanted to be true. I want the resurrection to be real; I want restoration to be real. And you’re telling me I can have it? I can have never-ending happiness?

How would this doctrine be different if I had made it up myself?

There are so many messages today promising us everything. Some, like these, are sent by prophets and other spiritual leaders. But many others are sent by conspiring men in the last days, eager to take advantage of our naivete or our honest good faith. They tell us what we want to hear. And we want that validation, we want to be told that our deepest desires are good for us and will be fulfilled if we would just put down a silly little signature on the dotted line. You see this in politics on both sides of the aisle. Flattery and promises and salesmanship, all in the game of treating you like an object, a thing to be obtained, a customer, a voter, a rabid supporter of something totally irrational and contrary to your better self.

And maybe that’s the difference between the messages, or one of them: the gospel is there for our benefit, not for the benefit of some salesman or politician—the church treats us like agents where the world treats us like objects, trophies to be won.

I think the answer to my struggle is in there somewhere. The church isn’t trying to seduce us with promises. What do the church leaders get out of sending these messages? There are no commissions in this system. No royalties. Tithing, I guess? But who benefits from that? Is Henry B. Eyring running this massive global scam so he can live on his $80,000 a year stipend, or whatever it is he’s gifted so he can devote the rest of his life to the good of others?

We are beings defined by the ability to choose—and the church wants us to choose good, but it doesn’t try to trick you into it. I remember that there are other doctrines besides those promises of everlasting joy—repentance, to name quite possibly the hardest. Change and humility and sacrifice.

It has always bothered me when people say religion is a crutch. That the hope and happiness we get from the doctrine of the Resurrection is just a drug that makes life easier. And perhaps it would be, if that’s all there were to religion. But no—our religion is not a crutch, but a mountain to be climbed. It offers us a crutch; the Savior through the Atonement offers a helping hand—but with the intention that we use that help to scale steep slopes. The end goal of our religion is not mindless bliss, but godly accomplishment. As “I Believe in Christ” notes, we are meant to obtain!

And as the natural price of this ultimate destiny, we are asked to deny ourselves of things that, ironically, the rest of the world uses as crutches! We are commanded to abstain from alcohol, from drugs, from pornography, and to live by chastity, consecration, and selfless service. Does that sound too good to be true? Does the commandment to be therefore perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect, sound like some fantasy to dream of for the rest of our deluded lives? If we live that way, if we overcome our animal impulses and deny the natural man and achieve a degree of godliness, how does that benefit the men and women promising us salvation? How do the general authorities benefit from our living a life patterned by Christ? They do not—hence, the people who promise us these sacred blessings treat us as agents, where the worldly men who promise everything treat us as objects. The devil collects souls; God seeks to break the chains that bind ours down.

If this gospel isn’t true, it’s still the greatest philosophy that you can find on this planet. At its foundation is the idea of bonding to your family, to your friends, to your ancestors, to the entire human family from time’s beginning in an eternal bond that connects and encases our souls forever. It gives meaning to the hardships of the world: to grow and become like unto gods in a system of everlasting growth and progress—a pattern mirrored in evolution and nature itself. Experiences in mortality aren’t merely meant to be gained, but to be learned from and consequently become something more and totally different from the little beasts we start out as. The gospel graces every single aspect of our lives with meaning, infuses every conflict and problem we face with potentially cosmic significance.

It also crafts people that are kind to one another, patient and long-suffering. It engenders love and makes us want to reach out, to not forget the lonely, to lift up the hands that hang down and live in happiness and love with all those around us. Is every practicing member of the church happy and fulfilled? Perhaps not—but we are yet promised peace even so, and somehow, in some trick of a randomly evolved brain chemistry, those who suffer are visited with that peace, warmed by the fires of hope for happiness in the future.

So what if it’s not true? What if we die and it’s just blackness and emptiness and we cease to exist? What if there is no resurrection? What if it’s up to our own efforts to prolong physical death as long as possible, because no one else is ever coming to rescue us?

Then it still engendered hope and happiness in us to the end of our days. What happiness can be achieved under the belief that it all simply ends? Pleasure is all. Nihilistic Epicureanism. Party hard while you’re alive because your choices don’t matter. Live your life just skipping across the pond until your stone sinks. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

True, happiness isn’t impossible without the promise of the Resurrection. There are plenty of people who live in the middle, living seemingly meaningful lives as they happily admit to being stranded on this polluted rock hurtling through space towards an inevitable fate. Human beings can save themselves, either through science or therapy or some other redeeming philosophy of men. They are strong, and can find refuge in their own way as loved ones die and leave them behind. Utopia can be found on this planet; hope for a heavenly world that seems too good to be true just isn’t necessary to them.

Right now.

But it is all going to end. And everyone will face that eventually if they haven’t already. It has confounded the great minds of history for as long as human beings have had massive-enough brains to ponder their own existence. And no one has ever, ever solved it—except for a Jewish man who lived two thousand years ago.

Optimism for humanity to right the ship after so many millennia of failing to do so? Some claim to have it, but human nature hasn’t varied in all that time, and no scientific advancement will change that. Indeed, oftentimes modern technology encourages, amplifies, proliferates the worst of human nature. The world has never been more prosperous and yet human beings have never been more angry or depressed or both. Is the answer a return to religion in conjunction with science’s achievements? No, religion will only lead to ignorance and oppression.

So why not take up those crutches that Church of  Jesus Christ tells us to deny? Live your own way, your own truth in your own world, and have fun while you can, because humanity. Forget hope and happiness in a world to come, and just go for what you want while you still can in this one. Prop yourself up on that crutch because there’s nothing beyond this mountain. Feel terror over climate change. Worry yourself sick about overpopulation. Despair at what humanity has done to the planet and to ourselves, and the seeming inability to correct the course. The end of everything is before us. Extinction. Darkness. Death.

As much as we try, nothing will work. Humanity’s just got no chance. There will be no immortality and thus the universe is without meaning or absolute truth.

But…that perspective. It seems a little too bad to be true, doesn’t it? Just the opposite of what the church teaches, and precisely what a being like Lucifer would want us to believe.

We are thus faced with diametrically opposed choices: A world where everything has meaning? Or a world where everything is actually meaningless?

Both require some sort of faith to believe in. That’s the genius of this mortal life: nothing relating to God can be proven true, even if there seems to be evidence both ways. And so it comes down to that choice. Which world do you want to live in?

Only one can be true. Only one can be real.

And in only one of them does this choice even matter.

The Roles of the Agent and Object in God’s Plan

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(This all came out in a stream of thoughts, so don’t expect an essay here.)

In closing our eyes and saying our prayers (whether out loud or in our minds), we are building a bridge to God. Sometimes it is so He can cross it, so He can come to us and do us favors and grant us tender mercies and bear our burdens. But other times it is so we can go to Him, and bear the burdens He asks us to bear, and accept His will for our fate, and agree to the timeline He has put in place. In the former situation, we are agents, expressing our free will as we approach God and formally request a blessing. In the latter, we are objects, putting ourselves entirely in His hands.

To restate it:

  1. We are directed to pray to God, despite His knowing our desires and concerns and anxieties already. Why? The answer given is agency. God can’t or won’t give us answers to petitions we haven’t brought before Him. We need to make a firm choice: yes, this is what I ask; please grant it unto me. Prayer is that act of agency.
  2. We must approach God surrendering our will to His and finding out what He wants us to know and what to do as we seek to become instruments, or objects, in His plan.

As agency is our deepest defining nature, to become an object, to be used as an instrument in the hands of the Agent, we must choose it. We must use our agency to give up that agency. This is obedience to God’s commandments.

An odd dichotomy there.

So in what way are we supposed to be true agents? At what point in the plan of salvation are we meant to really choose our destiny and path for ourselves, independent of all else? Sure, we can do that in this world already. We can go down any path we want to. But there is only one path to God! We can’t choose what is right. I mean, we can’t decide what’s right or wrong; that truth is already a fixture of the moral universe that God governs. There is either God’s path, or the highway.

By freely choosing to go down that path that God has set up for us, we sacrifice our free wills, our agency, the highest possible virtue in this world that God has created. Giving His children the power of agency was more important than their eternal salvation and exaltation. But then He asks us to give it up to attain that salvation and exaltation? The choice to either obey or not (“not” meaning any of the trillion billion other things we could do instead) seems to be the only practical choice God ever asks us to make, and thus, the only purpose to our agency.

Okay, I admit it, that’s actually a juvenile perspective. And I mean that in two ways: 1) it’s petulant and whiny; 2) that use of agency really is a juvenile one, meaning it is a lesser law that has not yet matured into a higher law: it fails to include the eternal perspective, wherein we start by crawling on all fours and end up walking, running, bicycling, automobile-driving, and, hopefully, flying. (I hope that’s literal someday.)

The brother of Jared is my inspiration here. Did God tell him to bring those translucent glass stones, and that he would touch them and make them emit light? No, he did not! The brother of Jared had an idea. A crazy idea. A stupid idea. But an idea that he himself came up with. And he brought that idea to the Lord, and asked for His blessing in implementing it. He exercised his agency to provide a solution—God probably had better ones in mind, but what did He do anyway? God went along with it! He agreed to Mahonri Moriancumer’s plan! God let the brother of Jared decide for himself how he was going to go about solving this problem, and when the time came, He sanctioned that choice.

This, I believe, is the grander vision of agency. The vision wherein we grow in power and perspective; wherein there comes a time when God, having seen enough of our righteous choices to obey, and seeing we can be trusted not to abuse the power or talents He’s given us so far (see Nephi, father of Nephi in Third Nephi), grants us more power over our own worlds. When suddenly, our righteous use of agency really turns us into something like gods, something like God, in using our array of abilities to solve problems for ourselves while holding to eternal principles that serve as our metaphysical foundation.

Isn’t that what we do with our children? Do we really want them to stay infants forever? They’re cute, yeah, and it’s fun to cuddle them, and we might miss that stage, but do we really want them to be forever dependent on our abilities? No. What’s the point of that Children are not pets! We want them to learn and then, once they understand the reasons for obedience (keeping us safe and cultivating healthy habits), let them make choices and let them live their lives independent of us.

So yes, we sacrifice our agency at times. It’s really the only thing we ourselves own, and thus the only thing we have a right to place upon the altars. But in God’s kingdom, every sacrifice is an investment.

To close, Screwtape writes some pertinent things to Wormwood (emphasis added):

Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve.

He 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.

Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best…. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

How BIPOLAR DISORDER Affected My Storytelling

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If you read any of my fiction, you might notice—as I just did, for the first time—that the most pressing problems for all of my main characters are really all in their heads.

I don’t mean they’re imaginary. Just that the problems they face come from inside.

I can only suppose that’s a direct effect of my living with bipolar disorder—an emotional disorder that can sometimes lead to poor choices we in the church call “sins.” I don’t know the exact level of accountability I bear for some of those choices—in this life I’ll strive to resist them and let God settle the difference in the end. But that’s probably a whole ‘nother blog post.

The point is, my battles are invisible. I have been blessed with relative financial security all my life. I haven’t had to deal with the unexpected death of a friend or family member. There have been no great tragedies, no backstabbing friends, no threats of violence from nature or people. All the deepest fights in my life have been spiritual, emotional, abstract. Pornography, depression, loneliness, obsession—all in all, a broken, shame-drenched, misshapen mind warring with itself.

And so physical battles just aren’t as interesting to me. In my stories, a physical fight or action sequence goes exactly how I, the author, intend it to go, with the outcomes I, the author, have pre-decided. I’ve planned far in advance that Character A dies in Chapter 8, etc. I can manipulate any physical sequence to come out exactly how I want it to. And I believe it’s the same way with the Author of heaven and earth—He has our end in mind and knows when it will come. He is in control of all of that.

But spiritual battles, emotional battles—those remain very much in our own power. Everyone’s going to die someday, but not everyone will win the fight over their soul. That, I believe, is a far more pressing concern in our latter days and therefore what motivates me to write them.

(It doesn’t help that I have no great gifts when it comes to great action sequences. One of the questions I ask my writing group all the time is, “Does this scene make sense?” because usually it barely makes sense even to me.)

My main characters aren’t necessarily aware that their worst problems come from inside. But the climaxes of my stories are moments that finally elicit recognition of that problem—followed by the choice they make in how to deal with them (which are, in my authorial opinion, the first moment they are truly “heroes,” if they make the right one; see Duckman for a character who chooses the opposite, i.e. choosing not to live up to his full powerful potential). In my stories, spiritual battles are weighted far more heavily than physical ones. The true onslaught of evil takes place in people’s hearts and souls more than on any geographical battlefield.

In No Romance, this is all very concrete and clearly the point. Jack McDowell is an adventure hero like Indiana Jones, constantly leaping chasms and winning gunfights versus bad guys and henchmen. His survival is never in doubt, as he discovers that his life has been written by the “gods of pulp fiction” who manipulate his soul to tell action stories. His quest is to find the power to take back his soul and write his own story. All very metaphysical and metafictional.

It’s not as immediately apparent in The City of Broken Wings because our protagonist Roc is striving against severe temporal struggles. He’s a starving orphan on the street who’s just trying to survive the harsh city of Oshana. Older kids want him dead for one reason or another. But the stakes aren’t whether he can battle the streets and arrive on top in the end. It’s about what the city has trained his little sprout of a soul to be, like a broken leg healing without a splint. And about the moments in his story where he is given the chance to choose something other than the natural man.

Later books in the Sea of Chaos saga center on the characters of Salvane and Terry Jacobs. Salvane has a lot of layers to him that I won’t spoil here, but I will say he is ultimately based on me and my struggle with pornography. A theologically-minded man in a city of hell, he is consumed with the great duality, the natural versus spiritual man. Terry Jacobs is a gangster who recently survived an attempted hit and goes into a kind of existential crisis; his brushes with Salvane open his mind and heart to things he’d never before considered, and finds himself in a struggle for his soul that eventually becomes brutally concrete.

Bestsellers, perhaps not. But these are the stories that matter to me. Survival is up to God, and meaningless without salvation. Salvation, though, is up to us. 

People Want Their Worst Selves Justified

In March 2016 (back when this situation was still avoidable), former presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a speech on the subject of the GOP primary candidate Donald Trump.

…We’re blessed with a great people — people who at every critical moment of choosing have put the interests of the country above their own. These two things are related. Our presidents time and again have called on us to rise to the occasion. John F. Kennedy asked us to consider what we could do for our country. Lincoln drew upon the better angels of our nature to save the union.

I understand the anger Americans feel today. In the past, our presidents have channeled that anger and forged it into resolve, into endurance and high purpose, and into the will to defeat the enemies of freedom. Our anger was transformed into energy directed for good.

Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.

This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.

A thought struck me recently that called this quote to my mind. It might sound simplistic, but I believe human beings, on the individual level, are essentially divided creatures, torn between good and evil on a daily basis. Or really, between what they want and what they ought to want. Above, Romney references JFK and Lincoln as encouraging the latter side of humanity. And the best presidents, the best leaders, have always done this. Make people, make human beings, better, and you’ll make the country better too.

But that’s a hard path. And it’s very hard to campaign with a message that you, Joe Voter, need to be a better human being. Because the truth is that people want to be their worst selves.

Face it: we want to be told we’re already good and it’s others who are bad. We don’t want to have to change. We want someone to tell us that those desires, prejudices, and hidden thoughts that we fight against daily—are actually right. That our violent impulse is righteous, that our paranoia of foreigners is justified, that our political enemy is also the enemy of all that is good and holy and must be destroyed at all costs.

On the campaign trail Donald Trump gave voice to every evil thought that ever passed across a conservative’s mind. It felt good to know you weren’t alone in your feelings. At first you may have been innocent; you weren’t racist, you explained, you just wanted law and order in the land. And that isn’t unreasonable at all. But as the war waged on, you doubled-down again and again until Trump and his triumph became paramount, and that required more radical rhetoric, and those prejudices, whether justified or not, grew against the opposition until, for far too many, they escalated into outright bigotry and genuine hate.

Three years ago you would be ashamed of such feelings, but not anymore. Now you can spew it all out and you’ll still have friends, allies, people who will back you up and whose very existence persuades you that there is no need to feel shame. You are so angry you cannot see that you are angry anymore. Everyone else is to blame.

It makes life a lot easier, to feel that way. It feels so good to unleash those inner demons without worry of reproach or societal condemnation. Trump has let people feel it, let people express it, even given them a place to find others who feel the same way. Remember, Trump campaigned not on facts, but on feelings. He told people a narrative, and his supporters wanted it to be true so badly they lost their capacity to reason. The essence of the great con.

The right is not alone in this spiritual quandary. Both the left and the right draw out this state of mind in their preachings. The left justifies their moral anarchy with relativism and blanket tolerance for any and all deviant personal behavior and warnings of dystopian oppression if they fail to win. The right does it with Whataboutism and nationalism and warnings of end-days-level apocalypse if they fail to win.

Together these mindsets feed each other, ironically creating the very endgame they each warn against. Fueled by a like-minded opposition, they grow exponentially and create a fierce tribalism that will likely never fade away, perhaps even in the case of large-scale global tragedy.

The events of 9/11 brought us closer together for a time, but these days if North Korea ever launched its nuclear arsenal, do you think we’d all hold hands and pray (or “send out good thoughts” as the current trend goes) and embrace each other as brothers and sisters? No, it would simply ignite the fiery darts of the blame game, and when such conflicts are waged against the backdrop of something as horrible as a nuclear attack, it will seem entirely justifiable to finally do what you always wanted to do: attack your opponents with physical violence.

Some of our leaders still attempt to invoke those better angels of our nature and remind us of what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do. But so often in response to pleas for maturity and decency and personal responsibility, they are condemned for the social media crime of “virtue signaling” by people who for some reason prefer to signal their vices. Like the demons that pilot their souls, these people spew hatred at genuine righteousness, gnash their teeth at actual virtue, because light hurts the eyes of those that dwell in darkness.

This is what you want to be when you don’t have to try to control yourself anymore. You can vomit it all up, and it will only encourage your allies and enrage your enemies—and that is the only point of tribal warfare such as ours.

No happy ending lies in wait for a society split into tribes that hate each other. Did the Civil War end racial strife? Of course not. It is even rising up today, a century and a half later, ugly as it’s ever been. No, our modern conflict won’t end until both sides make an honest evaluation of their own souls and decide to change on a spiritual level. It’s a sad thing that honest religion is fading away, with deep partisanship and worship of mortals growing in its place. It’s one of the only reliable bridges to a change of heart.

But no, we don’t want religion and we don’t want to be told what we ought to do because we don’t want to be judged. Instead we want our demons justified. We want our baser natures accepted. We want our hidden hatred encouraged.

We want someone else to blame, even as we plunge headlong into the abyss.

Voiceless – Folks, we need beta testers!

https://github.com/bryantk/Voiceless/raw/master/static/Voiceless%20-%20Theft%20Demo.exe

Click on that link to download a demo of Voiceless, our 8-bit JRPG/stealth hybrid! In the demo, you’ll have the opportunity to play through three different kinds of heists.

  1. Sneaking past guards to get to the loot – take as long as you need, but don’t get caught!
  2. Smash ‘n Grab – Get in, get it, get out – with a time limit
  3. Social heists – interact with the crowd, collect clues, don’t be seen doing questionable things and solve the puzzle in the end

You’ll be utilizing pickpocketing, tumbler locks, window-peeking, and delightful secret passages, and more to accomplish your tasks. (Also please enjoy two of our brand new musical tracks!)

While you’re playing, see if our concept of sneaking/heisting works for you, and if it feels incomplete or there’s something we can do better. Then get us feedback! Just chat me up on Facebook (public or private, don’t care). We want to know how much of our vision for the stealthy aspect of our game makes sense to the player.

“Worlds Without Number Have I Created”

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“If True, This Could Be One of the Greatest Discoveries in Human History”

The article is about a very mysterious thing drifting through space in a very mysterious way. Very interesting stuff. Inside, a direct quote from Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department:

Today, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, we know that there are more planets like Earth than there are grains of sand on all the shores of all the seas.

Curious phrasing, isn’t it? Reminds me of something else from nearly 200 years ago.

27 And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the spirit of God.

28 And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the seashore.

Moses 1

As a latter-day saint, I completely believe in life on other planets. Was it Stephen Hawking who said, if there weren’t other alien life forms, it would be a terrible waste of space?

I’ve thought about that idea, all that space. Why did God create so much distance between worlds? Why is it all so massive?

We are close to developing the technology to visit the nearest star system: Alpha Centauri, only 4 light-years away. Interestingly, we are only doing it once we’re in the latter days, so close to the second coming of Christ.

Could these plotlines converge? As Christ’s appearance becomes imminent, does contact with others of God’s planets, and others of God’s children? I don’t think it’s a coincidence these ideas are becoming more and more real at the same time.

After all,

If you’re not ready to find exceptional things, you won’t discover them. (Avi Loeb)

Indeed. And perhaps we’re ready, in God’s timeline, to discover His other children, and our own magnificent potential.

Questions I Have for God (Part 1/x)

I am long past the doubting stage. But I have a billion questions for once I reach the other side.

One that’s been pressing on my mind as of late:

Why homosexuality? Why is this biologically a possibility? How does the phenomenon of same-sex attraction—a nature that seems to arise spontaneously in human beings through no fault of their own—fit into the plan of salvation?

My heart aches for latter-day saints who wrestle with this issue, and who otherwise are faithful disciples of Christ. Adherence to doctrine and living worthy of the temple requires a total denial of this part of themselves. If they want to live faithfully, they face an entire lifetime without a soulmate, a romantic partner, a family of their own. I count that as the greatest challenge God could give any of His children. And I wonder why it’s there at all.

Why would God create a system that sometimes imbues His children with core natural desires that are directly antithetical to His hopes for His eternal family? Chastity! Fidelity! Romance! Children! Family! All the great doctrines and spiritual institutions of the church leave the faithful gay saint out. God created people who could not enjoy His choicest blessings or partake of the greatest fruits this world and His church have to offer.

This isn’t just a matter of learning to control the body like it is for heterosexuals. Straight people can bridle their passions now and look forward to driving them full throttle later and for the rest of their lives. But faithful gay latter-day saints never have that opportunity. Their hope is cut off, their salvation in mortality never to be. Through absolutely no fault of their own.

Why would God set things up that way?

I don’t know.

What I do know is they are all children of God. And they deserve every ounce of support you and I can muster, because they’re fighting an impossibly hard battle—and probably will be for the rest of their lives.

After a general conference that I understand was quite challenging to my gay friends—it reaffirmed certain doctrines that as of now seem to exclude them and once again neglected to reach out directly to this struggling community—I wrote the following. I post it here as an addendum in hope that it helps:

After Christ’s death and the destruction of the Book of Mormon lands, He spoke and His voice pierced the darkness to reach every single soul. Many in that darkness were injured, wounded, hurting, in one way or another—but his words did not address that pain. He did not bring up the physical ailments and emotional devastation suffered by the survivors of those great storms wrought by His own hand.

And yet…

And yet when He finally came, and visited the Nephites in person, He took the time to heal each and every one of those suffering souls individually. He knew their names. He knew their pains. And he healed them in the unique ways they each needed healing.

God may not always address each and every problem we face from the pulpit before the world. But He still knows us, and one day every thorn in our side will be removed personally by His consoling hand, and we will remember what it is to embrace our elder Brother and weep into His shoulder, and know that those thorns, whether psychological, biological, or spiritual, will never return again.

Don’t give up hope. General Conference is not the only way God speaks to us. He also speaks to us through the people and friends directly around us, and comforts us by the same. Until that glorious final day, let us who do not suffer as much, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort, for that is our prime covenant and the entire aim of Zion, the Kingdom of God on the earth.

Hmm. I thought about revealing something about my JRPG “VOICELESS” here. I think I still will, but I’ll be brief.

VOICELESS is about a motormouth prince who’s called to save the world and four silent warriors that accompany him in his journey. The plot twists and turns, but ultimately it’s about the prince learning the true depths of the sacrifice the four voiceless heroes have made for the greater good of the world.

Really, it’s about gay Mormons, though only symbolically. I wrote this game to champion those heroes and that sacrifice—the real ones.

Check out the game here: voicelessjrpg.com

(but it’s really not even close to completion)

Or you can check out the short story collection that I wrote about these characters—and how they each found their voice—here: When Once They Had Voices (three bucks on Kindle, but if you don’t have access to e-books let me know and I’ll just email you a PDF).

The Brandersonian Magic System of Bipolar Disorder

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“That is the boundary, and the price, of immortality.”

In the fantasy genre, nobody has crafted better magic systems than Brandon Sanderson (hereafter referred to as “Branderson”). His characters perform amazing feats that go against the ordinary laws of nature—but not the laws of his worlds. For whatever magic his characters perform, there is always a specific cost, almost to a scientific degree. In the Mistborn trilogy, for instance, there’s allomancy, magic based on metal.

Allomancy has many widespread effects, such as enhancing and dampening emotions, Pushing and Pulling on metals, and even temporal effects. Each Allomantic power has its own metal, which must be ingested and “burned” to activate. Source

And later: “Weaknesses and costs alike make a magic system more interesting.”

Take a look at this here article:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/19/intelligence-creativity-and-bipolar-disorder-may-share-underlying-genetics

It’s hard not see bipolar disorder as a kind of superpower or magic, one that amplifies certain abilities at great cost later on.

I suppose I am more creative than the average person, though I don’t generally think of myself that way. My creativity doesn’t come up spontaneously; I don’t care for art as self-expression; I don’t like to make something up just to see what happens. I’ve always used what creative inclinations I have for some other purpose; I suppose I channel it like a tool to be used for more important causes than my own pleasure and satisfaction. I am darned jealous of creative people who find the creative process “fun” and do it as a hobby. For me it’s deadly serious, and you’ve probably caught a lot of that self-seriousness in my voice on this very blog.

Nonetheless, I am indeed sometimes cursed/blessed with a flight of ideas. When I’m on a roll, when my brain is in full manic mode—or, when I am praying for a solution on my knees—new things just pop into my brain. New connections to things I’d written previously, new layers for a reader to uncover, new meanings to mundane happenings. Or new ideas for essays or chapters or moments in a story. When I’m in the right frame of mind, it can be an exhilarating experience—and one I chalk up wholly to God, not me. When it comes to my best ideas, I’m just a messenger, a medium.

Here’s a horror story for you: one time I was lying in bed, tired but not sleepy, and utterly relaxed on a soft pillow—and bit by bit, a fantasy trilogy trickled into my mind. The precise narrative beats of each book, how they were going to end and start, what truths were going to be revealed and when, the exact hidden relationships between every character and how they were going to learn about each other, the plan and identity of the villain(s) and the story magic that would pull the reader through each book to the end—I had all of it, the whole, floating there in my head. It was complete.

I decided not to write it down just then. Sometimes when I start writing ideas down, I concentrate too hard on how to word them and I end up forgetting the larger aspects of them, in the end leaving only the words on the page, and the feeling and passion behind it all unspoken. I was afraid something similar might happen. I didn’t want this feeling, this sense of wholeness, reduced to scratchings of ink on a notebook page!

A few hours went by. I continued to not write it down. Same with the next day. And the next. And soon I found that I’d forgotten almost every detail. A total gift from God! A full and complete story that was beautiful and exciting and deep, WASTED, because I didn’t take the time to work it out on the page. I remember a few things, but none of the brilliance: two of the three titles were: “The Book of Empty Pages” and “The Book of the Last Chapter,” or something like that. “The Book of Endless Pages” might have been the middle book. Man, I wish I had that again.

Can any of my fellow writers relate?

Anyway, the point is that having bipolar disorder can lead to some amazing powers. Mania can be like a drug, especially when it’s coupled with the Spirit (boy that sounds blasphemous, but I don’t mean it to be).

But it all comes at a cost.

One of these, for me, was delusions of grandeur at a young age. It started with Troy Dunn’s talk, “It’s Okay to Be Young and Successful!” In the talk he shares stories of famous men and women who made their mark on the world at a young age, as teens or even preteens. But this drive to be like them metastasized in me only when I read Ender’s Game. Particularly the chapter, “Locke and Demosthenes,” when young Peter and Valetine Wiggin essentially take over the world via political essays on the internet. Peter and Valentine told me it was possible to obtain greatness as a child, and that message ignited the bipolar in my brain, convincing me that I, too, could absorb books on history and science and politics and write convincingly as an adult. They wrote, and I was kind of a writer, too. If they could change the world, I could too. So I began to think of myself as this great writer who knew exactly what he was doing and was an authority on all relevant knowledge.

This eventually turned into writing fiction, especially after reading Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky and imitating their styles and thinking I was writing as powerfully and profoundly as they did. I completely believed that my first attempt at a book (the very first “Sea of Chaos”) would be published. (It was, but only because I paid a self-publishing company to do it.) Then the second book came, and it was going to be a masterpiece and bring me great success, because it was so deep and exciting and full of truth and beauty. (That was Metagopolis Book One.) I started writing Book Two and I got 95,000 words in before I realized I’d only written about 1/4th of that book’s story and set it down. I never picked it back up, but I became sure as all heck that Book One was going to be accepted for publication and I would finally achieve that elusive success.

It didn’t.

Bear in mind, I was now an adult, just married, and had never taken a single creative writing class. I didn’t need one, of course!

I wrote another book the next year (the first version of No Romance). This one I was sure would get me an agent, get me published and well-known. I actually queried several agents. My good friend Kevin Haws (bless him) read the book as I was writing it, finishing the last chapter just a few days after I did. Kevin was so nice, and said the book really spoke to him, and when he said that, I squeeled for joy, knowing my success was right around the corner. Then I decided to get it edited and critiqued by my friends at Leading Edge—and this, this, was the first major time that my brain broke. Brandon Jones (bless him, too!) led the critique and delivered the devastating news in the comments of that document: this was not a great book, or even a good one (my translation). I was crushed—and I needed to be.

I was in some creative writing courses at college by now. I was learning a few things, but mostly using the peer-editing parts of class to try to show off. I will say right now that it wasn’t like I had no talent at all. I had a few literary gifts that others didn’t have, a penchant for symbolism and imagery that I think I possessed from the beginning—thus fueling my delusions. I could pull off the kind of thing in my stories that they talk about in English and literature classes, and I was proud of that. But there was still so much I didn’t know, though by now I was definitely learning along the way. (And that’s an important thing to keep in mind—I was improving.)

So it’s the last year of college, and I’m doing my thesis, and I get approved to write a novel—the second version of my very first book, Sea of Chaos. This time, I’ll do it right. I’m a much better writer now. I know how to do things.

And it’s better. A lot better. Fueled by a comment made by my faculty adviser, Scott Abbott, who looked at the first five or ten pages and said in stark surprise: “This is a first draft?” That kept my ego fed for a long time to come.

I apparently had the ability. I had the ambition. (Sea of Chaos has always been hugely ambitious, and that hasn’t changed in the last five years. For instance, now it’s six books long.) And by the end of the year, I’d written it—191,000 words over the course of about ten months, while doing school full time and working part-time. I know it needs some changes. I know it needs editing and several parts need rewriting. But give me a couple months where I’m free from the burdens of school or work and I can take care of it!

I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it for No Romance, either. I wrote a second version of that book and it was…better…than the first. But still kind of lousy. And I realized later on that Sea of Chaos needed much more work than I thought, and put it off for awhile.

Then I got a book published! The Hero Doctrine, put out there by Cedar Fort. I was, and am slightly to this day, proud of that book. It didn’t help me curb by ego, though, when the person who accepted it called it “genius writing.” It DID help me curb my ego when the book flopped in sales and I got a lukewarm-at-best review in the Deseret News. That crushed me, and still crushes me to this day. Nonetheless, it had a humbling effect.

I wrote a fantasy novella this same year that like three or four people read (and was rejected by Tor during their big novella contest). I wrote yet another draft of No Romance that again ended in failure, and then I wrote a script for a video game that I was proud of, and am still working on producing with my good buddy Kyle. I wrote an anthology of short stories to accompany the game that as of now only about two or three people have read. I wrote an 80,000-word novel that was originally meant to be a 20,000-word prologue to the third version of Sea of Chaos, and the year after that (this year) I spent writing 100,000 words of a more fully realized vision for that little story that I realized just a couple months ago needed drastic rethinking—all of this done with the highest of literary ambitions in mind, all with the utmost surety that I would, that I will, get my work recognized by someone, somewhere, and it will lead to success and the realization of my dreams and my own self-conception…

Inevitably, after the crest comes the trough. This is when, in allomantic terms, you’ve burned all your pewter and suddenly you collapse, totally devoid of not just super strength but normal human ability, and you lie there. Empty of everything. No energy or motivation to move. A black cloud enshrouding your emotions. Nothing is worth it. Your great ideas were worthless. You’ve written a million and a half words but people don’t really care. Your problems will never be solved. Every doubt or fear you’ve ever felt about your friends, your own abilities, your potential, are all confirmed. There is no hope, there is no light, and you even feel that there is no God, because He’s not saying anything, He’s not lifting the cloud from your eyes, He’d not doing anything whatsoever to help you. The Holy Ghost can’t even touch you when you’re in this cloud, behind that wall. It is dark and you are utterly alone.

And death doesn’t seem so bad. Maybe people will appreciate you better after you’re gone. Maybe this is how you can finally get it in their heads that you matter, that you had needs and they didn’t fulfill them. Maybe this is how they can be punished, and how they can feel the misery and hopelessness you feel. Maybe this is the best way to communicate. Maybe God should have to pay for this sickness He’s put you through.

You see people like Branderson finding success. You see their writing, which is flawed, getting raves and publishing contracts and…and fans. And it’s just not fair.

This is my experience with mixed state bipolar. It’s not just a depletion of energy for me. It’s a combination of the depressive (sad, hopeless) with the manic (a mind that cannot rest). It’s hell.

But it always passes. And hope returns.

Do you know that feeling when you’ve been clenching your teeth for a really long time, and you finally notice and loosen your jaw? Or when your body has been tensed up and you finally notice and you relax and breathe again? And you get that feeling, that question, of Why was I doing that?

That’s what it feels like when the black cloud drifts on and your mind can take in sunlight again. You remember yourself! You feel normal! You are again a rational human being capable of good thoughts and charitable feelings and deep wells of happiness! You can do that project you set your mind on; you can fulfill that potential others see in you; the feelings of envy that once gripped your brain have faded away and you bear no one ill will. The crazy thing is, you can’t predict when this will happen. You can’t know what random stimulus

This is my experience, anyway. The glory of it all is that the pain and depression truly do pass. Sometimes by itself, but sometimes by the outreach of others. We who suffer the black cloud need evidence in our lives to refute the demons whispering in our hearts. We need those who can reach into the darkness to pull us out with a helping hand. Because that darkness is just like the Brandersonian magic system. It needs negative stimulus to give it life. It needs fuel to burn. It craves justification. Positive stimulus, love from those around us, can make it burn up quicker. And when it’s all used up, the depressive effects dry up too. Be the allomantic metal pulling in the opposite direction! Be that for someone you know who’s having a hard time, whether they’re diagnosed with a mood disorder or not. We’re all fighting hard battles, and we need the fuel of love to keep at that fight.

My bipolar disorder has given me delusions of grandeur. But it’s also given me the energy, the work ethic, the absolute belief in myself and in what God has given me to literally one day attain those dreams, that success, that grandeur. If I never had that surety, I would not have worked so damn hard for so many years. Because I’m better now! Maybe it’s just yet another delusion, but my writing has improved so much over these last ten years. I know what I’m doing, I know what tools and techniques to use, only because I suffered that heartbreak and learned from it and because that high, those dreams, that mania, has given me an everlasting hope that it’s still possible. That hope has never fully died. The depression cannot vanquish it for good. I will not stop working, or dreaming, because what I see, the vision I have for these six books of Sea of Chaos in particular, is so real to me, and I need others to see it too.

And maybe THIS time, the realization of that dream is right around the corner. I’ll keep working as if it does. And in the meantime, I ask of you some pewter—some fuel to burn and produce positive energy. And I ask that you provide it to others, too, if they need it.

And really, we all need it.