Humanities Center Blog

Imago Dei and the Elections

Posted by on Nov 12, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Imago Dei and the Elections

Never in my life have I been so joyous to see the return of a CGI lizard selling car insurance or numerous ads selling unhealthy carbonated and caffeinated beverages than on Wednesday, November 7th2018 after the mid-term elections. The onslaught of ads for and against candidates seemed particularly onerous this year both online and on the television. However, I was touched by one story, which became the impetus for this blog post. I stumbled across a story about two Vermont politicians running for the Vermont House of Representatives in rural Lamoille County.  Lucy Rogers, a Democrat, and Zac Mayo, a Republican, both were vigorously campaigning to win the seat, with both of these candidates visiting almost all of the 2000+ homes in this small district. They both had significantly different views on the issues that they debated one evening in a small library in front of dozens of interested citizens. At the end of this vigorous debate, they both unexpectedly asked the moderator and audience for a few more minutes and quickly cleared out the tables to set up for something quite unexpected. Lucy on the cello and Zac on the acoustic guitar performed a duet together singing to the words of a song called “Society.” As their duet ended, the audience (and me at my computer after the event) were moved to tears by this act of civility in what has become an ever more contentious political world. This led me to reflect on one of the talks that I attended in September at the BYU Humanities Center’s Annual Symposium, “On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ & Transformation.” The speaker at one of the talks, Kevin Hart, mentioned the concept of the Imago Dei. As with most things with which I am not familiar, I quickly went on Google to see what this meant in the context in which he was talking. Imago Dei (Image of God) refers to the realization that we are created in the image of God and that our recognition of ourselves as being created in His image allows God’s plans and purposes to be actualized through us as humans. Moreover, since we are created in His image, this endows us with the freedom and ability to make choices both good and bad. I would add one element to this as well and it is that as we realize that we are created in the image of God and that we have been endowed with certain divine attributes, we are also capable of realizing that every other human is also created in His image and possess these same attributes. What would the political world be like if more people saw their rivals as not only political enemies to be destroyed but as beings who reflect the Imago Dei? Would how they treat each other change? Would politics take on a more civil tone? What would television commercials look like? Could people have differing opinions, debate those ideas, and yet at the end of the day go out together to buy one of the unhealthy carbonated and caffeinated beverages now available on the BYU campus? Would more touching duets be performed by candidates who looked into the faces of their competitors and saw the image of God? I would like to think this is possible as demonstrated by these two candidates from Vermont. Now, returning to these candidates, what was the impact of this sign of civility on the election? Throughout the region where they campaigned, lawn signs could be found supporting both candidates in front of the same house. During the elections, there was over a 60%...

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The Things That Matter

Posted by on Nov 5, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

The Things That Matter

In Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’sbeloved tale, Le Petit Prince, the little prince travels from his own planet of three volcanoes, a small sheep, and a flower in order to see what lies beyond. On the fourth planet in his journey, he comes across a red-faced businessman who rejects his attempts at conversation with a brusque, “I have so much work to do! I’m a serious man. I can’t be bothered with trifles!”1 In just a few lines, it seems that the ‘serious man’ captures the watchword that increasingly plagues our day: I’m busy. In recent years, being busy appears to have become a status symbol of our time. And interestingly, it seems that simply beingbusy, not what we are busy about, has become the focus. But is it really enough to be busy? Not according to Henry David Thoreau, who posits: It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The real question is: What are we busy about?2 What are we busy about, indeed. This can become difficult to answer, especially when considering the life of a college student who has the opportunity to construct a life by selecting from an endless array of service projects, clubs, sports, research opportunities, cultural events, etc., all while juggling school, relationships, and work, only finding small windows of time to sleep and eat. The world is full of wonderful and worthwhile endeavors—and the more we can do, the better we sometimes feel. But even in the pursuit of worthy endeavors, are we missing other things—things that the nature of our busy lives does not allow us to see? After his encounter with the busy man, the little prince, bewildered, continues on to earth where he is met with a similar response from a stranded pilot fixing his damaged plane: “I’m busy here with something serious!” To this, the little prince frustratedly replies, “I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman. He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all—he’s a mushroom!” It is notable that the precocious little prince declares that the red-faced gentleman is ‘not a man’. Perhaps the busy man is not a man because he has lost the qualities that make him human. Is there a chance that in our efforts to be busy, we are losing our humanity? Is it possible that choosing to reject the trap of busyness is where connection to our true humanity can be found? If we consider the little prince’s exclamations of what the red-faced man is not doing, which make him not a man, we find criteria of what it means to be human to the little prince. Human beings smell flowers. Human beings look at stars. Human beings love other people; and they live instead of just ‘adding up numbers.’ When was the last time we truly attempted to become the people we needed when we were younger? When was the last time we fought for real connection, addressed matters of the heart? Or took the time to sit with emotion—to actually acknowledge feelings like shame, sorrow, or joy rather than brushing them off as distractions? Perhaps it is through “busyness” that we are trying to escape our humanness. By piling in more of the good, we seek refuge from our doubts, worries, frailties, fears—even our joy, peace, and happiness....

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Why Support Research at BYU?

Posted by on Oct 22, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Why Support Research at BYU?

As an undergraduate I didn’t have much feeling for research, not as such, although I did have an affection for ideas and a deep gratitude to teachers who helped foster and allowed me to express them. At some point in my education I began to recognize subtle distinctions between “learning” and “research”—the former being, in my youthful experience, an activity associated with individual classes and the latter extending well beyond them, gathering into its orbit entire series of classes, large expenditures of time and imagination, and crafting through force of repetition—of disciplinary habit—the authority of specialization. Research represented a more intensive form of learning. Actually, it’s more than that: research involves not only learning, but also something like a professional identity. I’ve sported several such identities over the years: “I’m a theorist,” I said when I first began graduate school; “I’m an eighteenth centuryist,” I said when I was completing my PhD; “I specialize in Scottish literary and intellectual history of the eighteenth century and after,” I said as I was working toward tenure; “I consider myself a scholarly migrant, wandering between areas of specialization,” I now say. All the old specializations are still with me, but the identity has changed, and keeps changing. Of course, “learning” is a vaster category than my simple dichotomy suggests. But let me stay with that dichotomy as a way of making a larger point. If we reflect for a moment on professional identities we can probably agree that they are important if also problematic. In most cases, they’re cultivated from larger societies of which scholars are part—societies whose histories and exigencies exceed the parameters of individual institutions. What is “hot” or “important” in a given field, and hence what forms the center the gravity in a field that orients a scholar’s work (even in negative—in resistance to what is “hot”), often has little to do with the needs of a local department, the structure of its curriculum, or the life circumstance of an individual student. But these scholarly associations and the identities they nurture always feel large, usually much larger than what is afoot at any given university; connecting scholars to vaster worlds outside the university, they also, to some extent, wean faculty from identification with their home institutions. Indeed, these institutions often seem like platforms for the scholarly lives that transcend them. This is obviously the case at most research universities, which, for all their excellence, often seem interchangeable with each other (at least within a given tier). And the same is true closer to home: few scholars would be at BYU, for example, if their love for their job were rooted in the university itself. There is usually a “first love” behind a scholar’s appreciation for the institution: I am, first, a theorist, an eighteenth centuryist, a scholar of Scottish literature, or what-have-you. And if BYU were to close my department, my first inclination, therefore, would be to seek another academic job in my field. Certainly, I would more likely do that than apply for another position on campus (e.g., administrative, grounds crew, alumni association–all the things that keep a campus going) just to remain part of the BYU environment.[1] And this, it seems, is an ongoing source of tension for BYU, an institution with an outrageously outsized sense of its own identity. I’m not being critical; I love this about BYU. But what else does one say about a university whose stated mission is “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life”? My graduate institution, UCLA, always ranks as one of the world’s finest universities, and...

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Festival, Chaos, and Creativity

Posted by on Oct 15, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Festival, Chaos, and Creativity

During Halloween last year, I decided to dress to the nines. With the help of a friend, I donned a blue cardigan, a red cape, a few dyed cloth strips, and a pocket-watch-necklace in order to become Marvel’s Doctor Strange. (For those who know me, there was really no better option, and I’m discovering that it’s hard to find a similar match for my physical features and body type this year…maybe Gumbi…) However, there was one complication last year that I hadn’t considered: I was the only person who dressed up. I didn’t realize while at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, that it isn’t a cultural custom to dress up for Halloween at work—especially not as a popular film character who contained no element of gothic horror. Yet there I was, playing an American superhero among my perfectly proper British coworkers. Fun. (Okay, it really was; I had a great time.) As Halloween comes closer now, I can’t help but consider again those differences of festival culture; more importantly, I also find myself wondering why we continue to celebrate festival at all. What function does festival play during a time when harvest is no longer a direct part of life? Is it, as Guy Debord argues, an artifact of ancient cyclical time that has been simulated in our day with “travesty of dialogue” and “parody of gift” in order to commodify celebration (and time itself) in the service of capitalist structures?1 Perhaps. But we might cast a more generous light on it, if only to see what kinds of shadows are cast on the other side. In so doing, we might begin to see where time is still yet cyclical, and why it might be. But even during the proposed period of “cyclical time,” nature wasn’t always so kind with its timing. Although certain rhythms could most likely be counted on, any number of natural, viral, or even celestial disasters could negatively influence years of hard work and community labor. I have been attempting lately to trace this anxiety of cosmic influences in my Early American Seminar this year with Professor Mary Eyring. As I’ve done so, I have actually been quite a bit impressed by the Puritan worldview: that grand unknowable forces both good and evil could and would exert their influence on trivial, everyday matters such as chores around the house and spoiled milk. With an unknowable God as well as an unknowable devil, grand chaotic forces would be fitting categories for otherwise unexplainable daily phenomena: a kind of grease-trap to catch the boiled-over tension, no matter how small. Although the Puritans didn’t celebrate holidays as we know them today, somewhat regular natural occurrences would still have been a welcome reprieve from the unmitigated chaos that largely surrounded them. Accordingly, in an ancient world full of chaos, festival might have simply been a way to acknowledge that some things could actually be relied upon. In an unreliable universe, small things to count on would become much more meaningful. Modern festival, within this lens, might therefore expose the vestiges of a supremely optimistic gesture, one that says that we’ve made it through the mayhem of another year; that there are footholds among the shaky incline of community life and progress. If this is true, though, what exactly would that mean that we are celebrating today? Following the advent of the mechanistic universe, nature—both physical and metaphysical—has seemed to become much more intellectually attainable and even in some ways controllable. What need have we to hold onto the optimistic gesture that life has continued on despite the instability of the universe when...

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On Vulnerability and (Vicarious) Experience

Posted by on Oct 8, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

On Vulnerability and (Vicarious) Experience

On May 2, 2018, my view of life and my role within it was transformed when I received a phone call from the emergency room at Utah Valley Hospital. My 14-year old daughter had been hit by a car. The distracted driver had failed to notice her in the crosswalk. Though he only clipped her with his sideview mirror, the force of the impact was sufficient to break off the end of her femur. The injury has since required surgery and months of physical therapy, but the prognosis is good. Had the car been only a few inches closer, the injuries would surely have been more severe and potentially fatal. The first days after the accident I didn’t allow myself to feel. Instead I busied myself with the details—canceling our planned flights to Russia, researching the injury, finding doctors, trying to figure out the insurance. But once the “business” was settled, I was humbled both by the miracle of my daughter’s relative fortune and by this latest reminder of mortality and my vulnerability to it. How close I had come to losing my child! I admit that in the weeks following the accident, I often asked, “Why me?” But the question was meant neither as reproach nor complaint. Why had my daughter survived this accident when others have not? What had I done to deserve this miracle? And the answer was unsettling: I had done nothing. I could do nothing. In 2017, Chief Justice Roberts was asked to give a commencement speech at his son’s middle school. I was struck by the message. Instead of wishing the graduates good luck, he instead wished them bad luck: “I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”1 Bad luck, after all, will come into our lives whether we wish it or not. Yet too often we prefer to think that we have earned our positions in life, our health, our education. We downplay the role of circumstance or the providence of God, attributing our success to our own efforts and virtues. As Chief Justice Roberts reminds, however, becoming aware of our vulnerability is important. I’ve described how personal experience made me aware of my own frailty. But literature can also draw our attention to our vulnerabilities. As Joyce Carol Oates says, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”2 Literature has allowed me to do just that. With Anna Akhmatova I have grieved the arrests of loved ones. As I’ve read Chekhov’s “The Man in a Case,” I’ve faced up to the ways in which I am constrained by my concern for “propriety.” And, along with Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, I’ve contemplated whether my life has been meaningful as I’ve faced certain death. In these and other cases, I’ve slipped into the soul of another, experienced their tragedies and triumphs, and vicariously experienced their vulnerability and transformation. Vulnerability is a condition of mortality, whether we choose to embrace it or to ignore it. It is precisely our vulnerability, in the form of our mortality, that imbues our lives with meaning. Our choices matter because our time is limited. As Chief Justice Roberts points out, accepting our vulnerability allows us to experience compassion. When we recognize the reality that, but for our good fortune, we could be in the same situation as another individual, we can no longer judge him or...

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Literary Arboretum

Posted by on Oct 1, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Literary Arboretum

While visiting my longtime friend and former roommate Ella1 at her home in Folsom, California this past summer, her family graciously took me along with them to visit the nearby Muir Woods National Monument. Ella and I were catching a redeye out of San Francisco that night, but had quite a bit of time to kill, so her mom made turkey sandwiches for everybody and we all packed into their minivan, prepared with freshly filled water bottles and small packages of trail mix for the ride before of us. I should make a disclaimer here: I had been anxiously waiting to see a redwood tree since I was a kid, when my mom would sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to me while strumming along the melody on her acoustic guitar. The “redwood forest” of the song always seemed mysterious and primordial, mystical and untouchable. Sure, I had seen trees and loved being around them while growing up in my home state of Georgia, but now I was going to see Trees. I was about to behold one of the most renowned and revered species, the Sequoia sempervirens. When you enter Muir Woods, all you can really do is tilt your head upwards, where you look into eternity; the massive trunk of the redwood splits infinitely into smaller and smaller branches, unfathomably. As you walk through the forest, you hardly dare to whisper. The trees in all their vivid viridity seem to gently demand your reverence as you observe their spiritual magnitude—so vast and superior to your own. While I observed this holiness, from the soft carpets of illuminated clover and sprouting fern fronds erupting from the ground like green fountains, two literary moments regarding trees revolved around my head. The first comes out of The Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:9, which reads, “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul.” 2 To speak of trees being anything but “living soul[s]” seems improper and disrespectful to those beings that have remained rooted in the earth long before and will continue to be long after the natural cycles of thousands and thousands of human bodies. Sometimes, when I approach my friends of fellow faith about considering trees as beings, the idea seems funky or strange. I imagine this could also be the case for many faiths. And yet it remains an inherent part of the restored gospel to believe in the ontological reality of seemingly unemotional, unthinking entities like trees and plants. The second literary thought wasn’t of scripture, but of Sylvia Plath—though some make no distinction between the two. That day, I had just finished reading The Bell Jar for the first time and was astonished at the amount of tree references that Plath makes over the course of the novel. The famous fig tree vision comes to mind (you can listen to Aziz Ansari read it), but Plath’s character Esther Greenwood is also found “in the shelter of an American elm,” and notices a cicada “in the heart of a copper beech tree,” among other instances with various angiosperms. This observation creates a sort of literary arboretum that exposes the reader to a system of tree species that each carries its own separate meaning and significance. 3 The way Plath approaches trees may reflect how she perceives herself, a notion eminent in her aptly titled poem, “Elm,” which reads, “I know the bottom, she says I know it with my great...

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