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“Widening Rings of Being”: Lessons in Humanity from the Holy Land

Posted by on Oct 14, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

“Widening Rings of Being”: Lessons in Humanity from the Holy Land

On a ledge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem lies a small wooden ladder called the “immovable ladder.” Legend has it that in the 1800s, an unknown person accidentally left the ladder there after performing some maintenance work. When it was discovered, the six Christian sects who care for the church (and who had divided the stewardship tasks with bitter dispute) could not determine who should remove the ladder because they did not know to which sect the unknown person belonged, and no sect wanted to anger another. Thus, the ladder remains to this day, a sad symbol of the inability of humankind to transcend pride and human folly, even in one of the holiest places in the world. This past summer, I was able to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams of spending a semester studying and praying in the Holy Land—a sacred space of profound meaning in the tradition of Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. Moved by the stories I studied in the New Testament, I had wanted to travel to Jerusalem since I was a child, and this desire had grown stronger as I grew in age and faith. It is no wonder, then, that upon my wondering disbelief upon arrival, I could only find expression in the words of Orson Hyde: My natural eyes, for the first time, beheld Jerusalem, and as I gazed upon it and its environs, the mountains and hills by which it is surrounded, and considered that this is the stage upon which so many scenes of wonder have been enacted where prophets were stoned, and the Savior of sinners slain, a storm of emotions suddenly arose in my breast, the force of which was only spent by a profuse flow of tears.[1] My first couple of months in Jerusalem were indeed overwhelming—but also in a way I had not fully anticipated. The Holy Land is arguably the most contested piece of land on earth in both ancient and modern times, and the tensions are tangible. At first, I could not find my way out from under the pressing weight of pain and hurt that pervaded the city. It was so strange to feel deep spiritual stirrings at sacred sites such as the sign of the cross while standing next to young Israeli soldiers hauling huge guns, scanning the crowds for signs of violence. The irony was heartbreaking and inexplicable. Often, riots would break out at the Dome of the Rock (a site holy to both Jews and Muslims), or a stabbing would occur just outside the city gates. At these moments, we would remember, amidst the beauty of transformative spiritual experiences, where we actually were—a land torn by sectarian violence. The longer we stayed in the Holy Land, the more we began to understand its brokenness: full of religion, but wanting in human connection. Immersed in ritual, but unable to extend hands of friendship across faiths, across cultures. Our compassion for the hurts and wrongs of the past deepened as we saw Muslim Arab youth suffer behind separation walls and Jewish mothers rock their small children and weep at the Western Wall for their lost temple. Stories upon stories of injustice, sorrow, and pain. It was, most acutely, a storied and wounded land. But the story that touched me most profoundly was that of Rachel’s pillar, which our professor related to us on a grassy hill just outside of Bethlehem. According to Christian tradition, Jacob and Rachel were almost to Ephrath (modern day Bethlehem) when “Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.”[2] After passing through the sobering...

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Seeking Meaning in Religious Art, in Rome

Posted by on Oct 7, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 6 comments

Seeking Meaning in Religious Art, in Rome

I just returned from ten days in Rome, a trip divided in two. During the first half, I attended and presented at the bi-annual conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality (SSCS), a scholarly organization I joined in 2016, when I had begun researching and teaching connections between spirituality and literature. I was moved by the organization’s purpose to convene all those “interested in reflecting critically on the life of the Spirit.”[1] What is more, I was touched by the conviction shared by scholars in the field that the study of spirituality is, or should be, self-implicating—that those who study it profess a personal investment in the subject—and that the ultimate aim of such study is not only knowledge, but personal transformation. As I imagined when I joined the SSCS, scholars who study spirituality desire more than to be good scholars, they also seek to be better people, with God’s help. Experience has proved this true, and it makes attending SSCS meetings a joy. During the second half of my stay I was a tourist. Rome has an extraordinary (and extraordinarily diverse) history, as everyone knows, and I tried to take in as much of it as I could. While I loved the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum, I found myself especially drawn to the troves of religious art in such institutions as the Vatican Museum and the Borghese Gallery, as well as in the gorgeous churches, dense with beauty, scattered across the city. Part of the reason why I found this art so compelling is probably obvious: I’m a religious person who enjoys religious things, which is why I joined the scholarly society whose conference had me in Rome in the first place. But there was also another reason. I had just learned the devastating news that Yolanda Thompson, wife of Greg Thompson, our dear colleague and one of the Humanities Center fellows, had passed away suddenly. I did not know Yolanda, but I love and admire Greg. He is an outstanding scholar and teacher, a warm and generous man, and a delight in the meetings of our Humanities Center fellows. I have come to depend on Greg’s keen insights, have taken joy in his wit (even when I am its object), and have been inspired by his convictions. He personifies so much of what I love about BYU. And the thought of his loss stunned and overwhelmed me, uncovering a familiar pit in my stomach. I say “familiar” not because I have lost a spouse, but because death has been its own kind of companion for much of my life. My brother died when I was seven years old. We were close in age and best friends. His death impacted every aspect of my being, and in complex ways. Most were unconscious and operated at the level of mood, coloring my perception of the world. Some effects of his loss were, surprisingly, beneficent: it deepened my convictions of a life beyond this one in ways that shaped my disposition as much as my beliefs; if life’s impermanence branded itself on my young psyche, so did its depth, mystery, and ultimate meaning. I grew to maturity, then, “in the valley of the shadow of death.” As a result, I reflect often, almost compulsively, on what it would mean to lose those closest to me. (When I run to the grocery store a half-block down our street, I sometimes tell my wife that if I never see her again, she should know I loved her. I say it in a deadpan voice so that it...

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Eternal Poe, Global Poe

Posted by on Sep 29, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Eternal Poe, Global Poe

As academic publishing becomes increasingly complex, many believe that single-author journals are on the decline. As newly appointed editor of Poe Studies: History, Theory, Interpretation, though, Professor Emron Esplin isn’t worried because “not every author is Poe; he is just that influential on world writing.” As a poet, fiction writer, critic, and inventor of the detective genre, Poe needs no defense or justification. In my interview with Dr. Esplin this week, he mentioned that Poe is highly relevant  for the current moment because “he’s a writer of horror and terror, and we live in a time of terror. Post-9/11, we live in a state of constant paranoia.” And it’s hard to disagree: entertainment today is full of detective stories (Sherlock, Law & Order, CIA), horror (it seems that a new scary movie lands in theaters every week), and explorations of criminal “madness” (Criminal Minds, Mindhunter). The footprint left by Poe’s work is undeniable, and that’s without even acknowledging the international effects wrought by this touchstone author. Dr. Esplin had Poe’s worldwide reputations in mind when he was deciding whether to accept the editorial position: “I thought, if I do this it’s because there are certain things that I want to see happening in Poe Studies. One of those things that is already happening, and that I would like to see more, is an analysis of Poe as a globally influential writer.” In his own work in translation studies, Dr. Esplin found that although Poe was and is a major figure in a multiplicity of literary traditions, most Poe scholars don’t have access to a majority of “foreign” Poe scholarship because it has only been published in the source languages of these scholars. To help more scholars read Poe in a global context, Dr. Esplin is introducing a new recurring feature to the journal called “Newly Translated Poe Scholarship,” which will contain one or more influential articles about Poe that have not previously been translated into English. The first articles featured will come from Dr. Esplin’s research, which has explored Jorge Luis Borges’s writings about Poe, but future translations will include articles from France, Romania, Japan, Spain, and any other literary traditions from which he receives submissions. As editor, Dr. Esplin has adopted a method that’s different from most academic journals. Rather than sending out a simple rejection when an article is not of a high enough quality to go out to readers, he provides specific editorial feedback to the author. “We use a mentoring model; it’s not required, but it’s something that the previous editor did that I like because it serves as actual peer review and feedback, even if the piece isn’t really ready to be sent out to readers.” Dr. Esplin’s mentoring methods don’t end with journal submissions, though. To help him take on the work of managing the journal, he hired master’s student Chelsea Lee to work as the journal’s editorial associate. Lee enthusiastically expressed, “Working for the journal has allowed me to be exposed to the intricacies of a side of academia that is not easily simulated in a typical classroom environment. It almost feels like I get front row access to some of the newest and most interesting ideas and theoretical approaches before they are even published.” Some of Lee’s duties include close citation checks, copy editing, and selecting book reviews and scholars to write those reviews. In this position, not only is Lee adding an impressive line to her CV, she is participating in exactly the type of work she plans to do in the future as a prospective academic. As Dr. Esplin emphasized, “This...

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Mean Parents, Doing Hard Things, and Learning Foreign Languages as a Life Skill

Posted by on Sep 23, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Mean Parents, Doing Hard Things, and Learning Foreign Languages as a Life Skill

All of us know that going to school can be tough—heavy backpacks to carry, loads of homework to do, enduring the awkward rituals of social interaction, and trying to stay awake during boring lectures are just a few of the familiar challenges. So why would anyone want to go to school in a language they don’t speak or understand? In some cases, such as that of my children, it might seem to be a sadistic trial imposed by mean parents on their unsuspecting offspring. When I got the chance to spend my sabbatical in Germany this year, I was delighted, in large part because I wanted my younger children (aged 9, 12, and 16) to attend German schools, even though they didn’t speak any German. We did a little weekly language study for the year or so before moving overseas, but it was hard for them to take it seriously at the time, so the first month of school came as quite a shock. Not understanding anything the teachers said was difficult, of course, but many other things were also unfamiliar, from the way class schedules were arranged (2-5 hours of various subjects strewn apparently at random across the week) to the kinds of pens people used (who knew that fountain pens with replaceable ink cartridges were a thing?). Only the youngest one cried on the first day of school (three times, as a matter of fact), but all three of them have had to tackle some hard things—like bicycling 3km each way to school every day after not having ridden a bike in ten years, taking French tests in German when you don’t speak either language, and trying to make friends with people who can’t understand your jokes (my 9-year-old, who has been in Spanish dual immersion elementary school since kindergarten, insists on telling people in Spanish that she doesn’t speak French). Given that all of these things would have been easily avoidable if we had just stayed in Orem, the question remains as to why I was so eager to bring my kids to Germany and throw them into the deep end of foreign language learning. I knew going in that it would be hard for them, even though they were (mostly) willing to take on the challenge, so why would I deliberately put them in a situation that would inevitably be intimidating, frustrating, and disheartening at times? Naturally, one major reason was to help them learn a foreign language more thoroughly and immersively than they’d get the chance to in the US—even dual language immersion isn’t the same as being surrounded by people all the time who think in different syntactic patterns, using words that you didn’t know existed. The deeper you dive into a foreign language, the more you realize that it isn’t (just) a matter of finding straightforward equivalents to your native language, a sort of linguistic fill-in-the-blanks exercise (with the help of Google Translate). What happens instead is that you gradually learn to think differently, to conceptualize things that your native language isn’t capable of, and to stretch your mind around new ways of seeing the world, other people, and yourself. Even more importantly, I wanted my children to have to do the hard things they’re doing precisely because they’re difficult and new and a little daunting. Whether or not my 12-year-old son ends up speaking German like a native, he will have gained valuable life skills from this experience, notably confidence in his own judgment and capacity for independent action. At this point, his favorite part of being in Germany is the...

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On Consolation and Explanation: Education at BYU

Posted by on Sep 16, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

On Consolation and Explanation: Education at BYU

During the last six weeks of this summer, I had the chance to participate in a study abroad program at Cambridge University. I was enriched and invigorated by rigorous lectures, stimulating conversations with scholars and academics, new friendships with students from universities across the world, and the beauty of Cambridge’s college grounds and countryside. While completing some reading for one of my courses, I came across a passage from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room, where Woolf drifts into a reflection and description of Cambridge University’s sublime, even spiritual characteristics. She writes: “They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying draw comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of a mystical tendency, consolation, and even explanation, shower down from the unbroken surface. But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast a brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, lighter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”[i] Though my initial response to this passage was to meander into my own reminiscences on the beauty of the chapel I walked past each morning, I became intrigued by Woolf’s transformation of Cambridge from an ordinary place into a kind of waystation, the meeting-point between heaven and earth. Woolf describes the sky, air, and oxygen of Cambridge as if from the peak of a tall mountain: “lighter, thinner” and more “sparkling” than any other place on earth. Yet the high elevation of Cambridge is of a “mystical” or phenomenological nature rather than literal, granting the university power to provide not only knowledge, but heavenly “consolation” or “explanation” for the difficulties experienced during the travels, journeys, and exiles of life.  Though common in religious practice or belief, receiving consolation or explanation regarding the ultimate is an overlooked, even unexpected, fruit of education. For me, the passage reveals a key difference between the access to transcendent knowledge provided by the normal “skies” of life and the uniquely transcendent access that a university can offer. However, if the sky of Cambridge grants a uniquely spiritual access to knowledge, what do we gain from BYU’s sky? A recent report in the Wall Street Journal ranks BYU, along with the U.S. Naval Academy, as the #1 university in the nation for being “worth the expense.”[ii] The usage of the word “worth” in the report is significant, for it indicates that the study did not operate wholly based on today’s prevailing definition of educational worth, i.e. a net-positive return on tuition costs thanks to high salaries, standards of living, or annual earnings of graduates. Rather, using the word “worth” indicates the report’s consideration of subjective, individualized responses of the polled students. I do not believe BYU achieved this ranking thanks to the economic benefits of Church-subsidized tuition alone. For me, BYU’s elite educational worth, as indicated by the usage of a word like “worth,” is equally bound up in subjective, intimate, and deeply personal experiences with the transcendent nature of education, much like Woolf’s sublime experience with Cambridge This poll, combined with Woolf’s words in Jacob’s Room, demonstrate the way in which seeking and receiving divine consolation and explanation are foundational facets of BYU’s academic and educational worthwhileness. Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Maxwell Institute and associate professor of history, spoke of this unique spiritual environment in a recent campus devotional, explaining that at BYU “there is no secularizing retreat . ....

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Vulnerability Together

Posted by on Sep 3, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Vulnerability Together

As I write this, the Amazon is burning. When I mentioned this to my mom the other day, she looked puzzled and asked, “Which location?” to which I responded, “…the rainforest?” She assumed I was talking about an Amazon Company warehouse, and looked relieved when she learned it was not a potential warehouse fire, but rather a run-of-the-mill natural disaster happening in Brazil. Only it’s not “natural”—the fires were started by cattle farmers looking to clear land for more cattle, their own livelihood likely dependent upon the extra revenue. It’s this week’s Exhibit A of the Anthropocene. When I type in “Amazon” to Google, the first result that pops up is Amazon.com. When I search “Amazon Fire,” Google eagerly directs me to the Amazon Fire stick, a TV-streaming device that provides instant escape and entertainment—which feels particularly dark, given the current status of its namesake. It’s a strange parallel happening right now between Amazon the Company and Amazon the Rainforest, between extreme capitalism (and subsequent waste[1]) and the Anthropocene—two increasingly unnerving events that I, as a grad student in Provo, Utah, can do almost nothing to improve. Sure, I can choose to abstain from beef or give my money to local stores instead of Jeff Bezos, but even my most extensive individual efforts will make no marked difference. Even so, I’m continually drawn to learn about the catastrophes of the world that are far beyond my control, all of which are delivered each morning to my iPhone via podcasts, news headlines, and social media posts. In fact, the news of the Amazon was obscured at first, coming on the wake of mass shootings, the immigration crisis at the border, international conflicts, and constant political chaos. To choose to expose myself to this onslaught of news is at times painful and frustrating. It reminds me that I am vulnerable in a way that I have no power to change. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino illustrates the ability of the internet to overwhelm and incapacitate in her recent book Trick Mirror[2]. Reflecting on her feelings at the end of 2016, after an especially rough barrage of bad news, she writes: “It seemed to me that this sense of punishing oversaturation would persist no matter what was in the news. There was no limit to the amount of misfortune a person could take in via the internet…and there was no way to calibrate this information correctly—no guidebook for how to expand our hearts to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience, no way to teach ourselves to separate the banal from the profound. The internet was dramatically increasing our ability to know about things, while our ability to change things stayed the same, or possibly shrank right in front of us. I had started to feel that the internet would only ever induce this cycle of heartbreak and hardening—a hyper-engagement that would make less sense every day.” And yet, she notes in the same essay that “the internet already is what it is. It has already become the central organ of contemporary life…Even if you avoid it completely, you still live in a world that this internet has created.” In other words, the internet has not only begun to merely influence the world; it very nearly sets the terms for life in the twenty-first century. Tolentino has a gift for articulating the calcification process I see in myself and my generation, a process which leads us to speak and engage with the world in a way that is, for the most part, cynical, ironic, berating, even hopeless. It’s easy to feel suffocated...

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