Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.


I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Two Roads Divergent

DivergentOne of the most hopeful signs for culture is the quality of young adult fiction on the market. Since I’m now in the book industry, Publisher’s Weekly is required reading. I always take a look over the fiction lists as well as the non, and over the past several months a couple of “teen fiction” books have been near the top for regular bestseller lists as well as for demographic-specific ones. (That is, adults seem to be reading them too.) One of those books is Divergent by Veronica Roth. While movie tie-ins certainly don’t hurt, as many of us opine, it is difficult to do justice to a complex story on screen. Divergent is one of those books that stays with you after you’ve closed the cover, and that suggests to me that something deeply meaningful is going on. What about dystopias is so compelling?

I’m not indulging in any spoilers to say that Divergent is a dystopia. Set at an indeterminate time in the future, civilization still exists—at least in Chicago—as society has fallen into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation. Each group has its own beliefs as to why civilization collapsed, based on philosophical dispositions. Abnegation, the self-deniers, are the leaders of government. And clearly, the idea of Abnegation is a form of quasi-monastic Christianity. In fact, among the factions, Abnegation is the only one that seems to mention God. The other groups, stressing bravery, intellect, honesty, and peacefulness, don’t really have much need for the divine. To deny oneself, however, requires a powerful motivation. Even the protagonist’s name, Beatrice, is taken from its favored status among early Christians. I know little of Veronica Roth, but I have to wonder whether Dante is in the background here.

In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roth first gives thanks to God. As a high school convert to Bible-based Christianity, I suppose that’s only natural for a writer who is, at the moment, only twenty-five. Writers for young adults often have their religion close to the skin. Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism translates into moral vampires. Orson Scott Card provides Ender Wiggin with values from the same faith tradition. People are, despite the logical implications, inherently religious. That doesn’t prevent Divergent from being a page-turner. Full of action and personal development, the first book of Roth’s trilogy bristles with self-sacrifice and belief in something better to come. Even if it’s a world we have to make ourselves. And like most human enterprises, it comes out as a well-meaning dystopia that underscores the value of reading for us all.

Fighting God

Quoting Orson Scott Card, P. W. Singer notes in Wired for War that two of humanity’s “primary occupations” are war and religion. These two aspects of life are simultaneously very distant while abutting each other. While analysts cite many causes of war, there is no agreement concerning why we seem to be constantly belligerent. As a species we are keenly aware of small differences, perhaps like ants, and use those minor points to excuse the exercise of violence. Yet we are also a profoundly religious species as well, believing in supernatural powers that sometimes deliver us from, sometimes into, war. The Bible, just by way of example, contains many accounts of war. Often they are undertaken at the behest of deity. Religion and war coexist a little too comfortably.

Although Singer’s purpose in this book is to analyze the impact of robotic technology on the practice of war, he also finds indications about the origins of war itself. In today’s affluent world, dominated by technology, we should expect that armed conflict would be on the decline. Instead, it would be difficult to find any historic era when unfair distribution of basic goods has been more pronounced. As Singer notes, social disruption today tends to begin in cities, places where those in squalor daily see the opulence of their neighbors’ lifestyles. Our culture awards the aggressive—those with bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger payrolls. To these we defer. At the same time, the vast majority have difficulty finding enough to survive, let alone thrive. Still, we offer tax breaks to those who don’t need them and remind the poorest of their social obligations. This is often done in the name of religion. God is the ultimate capitalist.

The sum result, it seems, is not to lessen human hopes for religious deliverance. The belief in fairness, biologists inform us, is deeply embedded in primate evolution. We believe in fairness, and when it is elusive we thrust it toward the heavens, trusting in divine justice. Millions have died awaiting that justice that isn’t forthcoming. Again, another quote from one of Singer’s sources, “Amid galaxies of shining technologies there is a struggle to redefine human meaning… Half the world is looking for God anew, and the other half is behaving as though no god exists” in the words of Ralph Peters. Although the reference here is to technology, it could just as easily be to money or war. It appears as though we have an actual trinity of casus belli that are inseparable: technology, money, and God.

Some of our earliest technology

Ender’s God

Some time ago a colleague recommended Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, ostensibly because the protagonist is named Ender Wiggin, a surname suspiciously close to my own. I have generally been a reader of literary fiction rather than science fiction, but I enjoy a jaunt into the genre now and then. Set in a distant future, Ender’s Game occasionally references how religion is permitted but frowned upon, in that day. Those naïve enough to accept such old beliefs are relegated a less honorable social status. So far, so good; this is common enough in futuristic stories. Then Orson Scott Card came onto my personal radar screen again. I gave my wife a novelty quote book with feminist sayings as a stocking stuffer. One of the sound bites was from Orson Scott Card, a rare male figure in this tiny book. Then my wife pointed me to religious predictions for 2011 on CNN’s Belief Blog. Once again, Orson Scott Card was present, here classified as a Mormon.

Such convergences are somewhat unexpected in a short space of time. The revelation of Card’s religious orientation was a kind of epiphany to me as well. Considering the contempt for religion in his fictional future, I was surprised to find a faithful author. Then I began to see Mormon theology throughout Ender’s Game. While not an expert in the Latter Day Saints, their belief system was included in several courses I took as a religion major in college. As I read of Ender’s progress through the novel, to the point where he achieves a limited apotheosis, I could see elements of Card’s belief system playing out. The protagonist becomes the deity-figure of his own planet. It was suddenly all very familiar.

I suppose that an entire literary discipline exists where the religious outlooks of authors are extrapolated from their writings. Deeply held values are difficult to mask, even in fiction. When I read for relaxation, however, I don’t look for such information. I must admit that my view of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard’s fiction nevertheless forever changed when I learned of their belief systems. This is, I suppose, a danger of compartmentalized religion. As a youth I believed everyone should wear their religion on their sleeve. As an adult I know how divisive and dangerous this would be. Whether in the far distant future or in the right now, we take care to hide our religion. Not only does it keep us safe from those of other religions, but often also from those of our own flocks as well.