03 September 2006

In Defense of the English Major, Part II: Dealing with Evil

Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity--thou must commune with God.
-Joseph Smith, Jr.

"Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil and its consequences.
-Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 2:93-94
(In Defense of the English Major, Part I, is related to this post, but not necessary for understanding this post. It deals mostly with the issue of whether lit crit is meaningful or not.)

Some recent posts on Ben's blog have brought to the surface of my mind one of the other issues that plagues the image of the English major, which is that of the subject matter they are called to deal with in their literature. The English department is one of the more dangerous departments on campus when it comes to objectionable material. (Other dangerous departments include the fine arts and art history.) We often read material in novels which would be considered objectionable in recreational reading. How do I justify reading books filled with violence, crude language, rape, and explicit sexuality?

Well, this post originally started as an attempt to explain logically and definitively exactly what types of literature I consider appropriate and those which I don't, and why. And for the sake of being explicit, here's a quick and dirty (no pun intended) rundown in that direction:
  1. First, like Katherine, I believe there must be some meaning behind the objectionable material in order to make it appropriate. Books and movies that are violent or crude simply for the sake of such, of course I can't watch. They are idiotic and inane, and I have not part in them mostly because of their thoughtlessness and lightmindedness, and only secondarily because of their obscenity. But oftentimes portrayals of immoral things are used in order to make a valid and important point. Immoral things are often powerful life experiences, oftentimes evil, yes, but nonetheless powerful and important. They deal with real issues of real people. A person seriously seeking to understand life must seek to understand all its aspects, not just those that are pleasant or common.
  2. Second, I agree with Sean's comment in that I can't hold other people's expression to the same standard as I hold myself. Wait, I've phrased that incorrectly. I do believe things like swearing, violence, and sexual humor are usually immoral and not becoming to anyone. However, just because I don't like their method of expression does not mean I should ignore their opinion. Indeed, I can't afford to ignore their philosophy. I always look for the meaning behind what they are saying and doing. However imperfectly or offensively they may have said it, their thoughts, I eventually find, are not so different from ones I might have, and often mean the same thing as the truth I have arrived at some other way. As a result of understanding their lives, I can either build on my own store of truth or learn pitfalls in logic to avoid. I can learn from their negative example what is wrong, but I can also gather the grains of truth that provide meaning in their lives.
  3. Though it is true that even the portrayal of immoral things can get them stuck in your head, it's what you choose to do with them that is important. If my understanding of the Atonement is correct, the Savior has seen, heard, and experienced all these things, and additionally has a clear recollection of them. Yet do we say the Savior is evil because he has all of these evil experiences inside His head? Absolutely not, because we know he's not seeking to imitate them. He sees them for what they are and uses his knowledge of them for righteous purposes. To draw a more secular analogy, it's like the ridiculous people who want to ban Harry Potter because it portrays wizardry and some pretty evil things. Let's look at the message behind it, rather than the surface impressions. Some novels portray some pretty horrible things, but do so in pursuit of truth. Likewise, some novels stay in the safe zone as to crude things, but their final message is still one of evil and despair. Message matters considerably more than content, to me at least.
  4. That said, of course we should not take in more objectionable material than necessary to gain an understanding of 1) why these things are evil, 2)how Satan uses these things as tools to our downfall, 3) why humanity is drawn to these things, and 4) any truth that might be hidden behind these painful experiences. Again, we should seek the guidance of the Spirit in knowing which things are worth viewing because of the truth they express, and which are too filthy to be worth our trouble. Also, we should be wary of letting these worldly things hold greater sway in our lives than the truths we can learn from the gospel.
Now that those "spherical chickens" are out there for anyone to pop, let's get to what I see as the real heart of the matter. In thinking about this issue, I've realized that the real reason I feel comfortable reading and seeing things that others would find objectionable is not found in this logical train of arguments. The real reason I feel okay--actually, I don't just feel okay, but I actually feel a desire to read these things--is because of my uncle.

Alright, not because of my uncle per say, but because of the chain of emotion and truth that his story stands for in my life. Let me explain. I had an uncle who really lived what the world would consider the high life. He was a wealthy man working in the world of finance, closing lots of big deals and raking in tons of money. He went to wild parties, spent time with lots of beautiful women, took vacations often, lots of expensive clothes, sports equipment, huge house, etc. He had pretty blatantly rejected the religious values taught to him by my grandparents. Then, on 9/11, his business crashed along with the trade centers, sending him spiraling into a world of alcohol and depression. Our family lovingly worked with him to try to pull him out of both of these things, and at some times he really seemed to be doing better. But eventually, he died unexpectedly of alcohol-related causes.

Now, to your standard religious audience, his story could serve as a great example of how those who live the way of the world are living a lie and of how it will eventually come back and destroy them. And I feel sad to admit that I felt sort of vindicated when I saw what my uncle had become, because his success in spite of his immoral behavior had always rubbed me the wrong way. I felt that his downfall justified my righteous living.

But then I went to his funeral, and my whole perspective changed. All anyone could talk about at the funeral was how generous and considerate my uncle was. He was always giving his money away to those in need, and not in small quantities either. The story that touched me the most was from after his business had failed and he had lost everything. At this same time, one of my other uncles was laid-off and his family was struggling financially. One day, my troubled uncle showed up at their door and handed them a sum of money that he could ill afford, considering he was unemployed. Where I saw only immoral decisions and poor choices, these people had seen through to his good heart.

It hit me like a flash of lightening: no person is worthless. No person is without a moral compass. Even those who seem to reject everything that I would regard as true and good have some shred of the light of Christ in their lives. It's what keeps them living from day to day, gives them direction, and may eventually lead them to the truth. A person has to work extremely hard to be completely free from the light of Christ. (One of the nice things about being a Mormon is that I get to believe that very few people will actually go to hell.) As I see it, these small moral compasses within people are what will eventually draw them to the gospel. Conversely, to people at a higher level than me, it may look as though I have no morals, that I am so useless in the cause of good as to be hardly worth bothering about. We cannot divide people into good and evil because no person is wholely one way or the other. We all carry some measure of offensive, immoral things inside ourselves. Is your opinion completely invalid because of the imperfections you have?

You see, portrayal of evil is only a problem when we see at as something outside ourselves. From that perspective, we can safely say, "I already know how wrong those people are, so I don't need to see what they are doing to themselves and others. I wouldn't do it myself and it can only bring me down." But, when we realize that the people perpetrating this evil are actually part of humanity, part of us, then the reason for the portrayal of it comes to life: we must understand what led these people to become this way, and what redeeming qualities they have which might allow us to lead them out. When we come to see these people as our brothers and sisters, then we feel the need to read about them, to understand them, in order to see some way to keep ourselves out of their position and to find a way to help them to the better place we've found.

The Savior has seen and experienced all the evil in the world, both as the victim and the perpetrator. How can we truly become like Him unless we seek to understand the suffering and the malice and the ignorant mistakes of others? I do not believe that it is possible to gain charity for these people until we reach out to them with an understanding head and a sympathetic heart. This unconditional love does not deny that what it portrayed is evil, but it still loves the person underneath--the love of truth that is at the heart of each person. Then we can truly call out to them and say, "I understand your truth. Even underneath all those layers of immoral behavior, I can see your heart. Let me expand on it with what I have, and together we can progress towards that truth that neither of us have, until the brightest day."

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