09 October 2006

Refining "Refinement"

Even though I'm clearly way past the kairos for this piece, I'm writing it anyway because something definitely needs to be said. Here's my reaction to Elder Callister's devotional address, "Your Refined Heavenly Home," in three parts.

The Good:
In general, I liked the concept behind Elder Callister's talk. People outside the humanities/arts frequently underestimate their importance in shaping our souls. I was especially drawn to his ideas on refinement in speech. Not particularly the parts ostesibly about slang language. (Is he aware that the word "awesome" doesn't necessarily have to be used in an over-exaggerated way? Someone ought to hand him a copy of "How Great Thou Art," a great hymn that uses awesome in the way it was always intended to be used.)

What I really liked was his idea of good conversation. Too many times when I try to draw in concepts from great literature into conversations, I get blank stares before the talk turns back to the football game or who went out with who last weekend. It's sad that so few people actually want to discuss great things. To me, conversation and philosophy should run together, and anything you discuss in a paper can also be made into a great conversation. I'm so glad that I have CS Lewis Society and the Writing Center as good outlets for more refined conversation.

I also liked his discussion of music, partly because he agreed with my opinion. :D Music is a way to try to express the glory and power of certain words. I also liked that he pointed out the importance of seasonal music. Last year I had a roommate who hated Christmas music and it drove me batty. Certain songs are associated with the feelings of certain seasons, and playing them enhances the spirit of the season.

And finally, what English major worth her stuff wouldn't jump at the idea of good literature as the "minor prophets?" This is what I'm always trying to tell people about the importance of literature. Sure, their insights are not as profound and directly gospel oriented as the scriptures, but they offer insights into the human condition and human potential that we can get in no other way. Another good quote: "Refinement and spirituality are two strings drawn by the same bow." Learning about these famous books makes us more sensitive to other people, which helps us increase our charity towards them. And alternately, studying the gospel draws us to seek out more and better media. As we increase one, we usually increase the other.

The Bad:
A few points in his talk certainly rubbed me the wrong way, but I think these are common misconceptions about media, so I'm not surprised to see them pop up here.

The first thing that bugged me was, of course, that he throws out TV and DVDs as purely negative things in contrast to the supreme virtues of reading and music. Highly educated people seem to have this bias against film, which I hate. Film is simply a medium, a neutral way of communicating certain types of thoughts in certain ways. It has its limitations compared to writing, painting, and music, but it has its advantages as well.

What he really meant to criticize was not the medium itself, but rather the content thereof. But the same trashy content can be found in all mediums. Is reading some sappy chic-lit any better (intellectually speaking) than watching it? And how is watching a Nova series on string theory less edifying than the book covering the same material? It's very tempting for us to say "All reading is intelligent, and all movies and television are a waste of time" because this is a lot easier than going the extra mile to judge the actual content of the media. But those who dismiss film so off-handedly will certainly miss out.

On another note, the connection he builds between highly educated people and salvation made me a little wary. I'm sure he didn't mean it this way, but it implies that people who live the gospel can't possibly be worthy of exaultation unless they share his taste in music and books. In this way, his talk is alienating to the poor saints in other countries. Are they any less worthy of the Celestial kingdom because they had not time in their lives of subsistence to read the great works of literature? This talk is a little middle-class centric, something which the church needs to avoid.

The Ugly:
(This last section is doubling as my 5th progymnasmata assignment, which is to do either a refutation or a confirmation on something. Thus the slightly more formal tone and summary of the situation. Also, I realize it is disproportionately long compared to the other sections, but alas.)

Elder Douglas L. Callister's status as a seventy and a law professor might seem to put him beyond reproach, but no amount of respect ought to justify the offensive and inappropriate remarks found in his recent devotional talk. Either Elder Callister has been more careless about the implications of his words than most lawyers would allow themselves to be, or he is far more insensitive to the situation of women than most General Authorities. Whatever the case may be, his remarks on physical appearance were unbecoming of both his education and his station in the church.

During his devotional speech entitled "Your Refined Heavenly Home," Elder Callister addressed the importance of physical appearance in a relationship. He begins by telling the story of a young husband seeking to compliment his wife on her various talents and skills. After a few days, the husband is rebuffed by his young wife who says, "Don't say any of those things. Just tell me you think I am beautiful." He follows up this story with a statement that:

Every man has the right to be married to a woman who makes herself as beautiful as she can be and who looks in the mirror to tidy herself up before he comes home. Every woman has the right to be married to a man who keeps himself clean, physically as well as morally, and takes pride in his appearance.
I find the behavior of the wife in Elder Callister's anecdote quite difficult to believe. Although it is true that some women enjoy being complimented on their personal appearance, it would be a rare woman indeed who would prefer it to the exclusion of all other compliments. Compliments tend to mean the most when they are about our accomplishments earned by much effort. Skill in keeping house, cooking, raising children, and good conversation must be earned with much diligent work, but it not often noticed. Compliments in these areas would show the husband had a genuine awareness and appreciation of how much effort the wife put into the day-to-day running of the household.

As to the matter of beauty, much of what is being complimented comes simply from the genetic lottery. Unless a woman has spent an inordinate amount of time preparing her appearance, as for dates, formal dances, and other events, one might as well compliment her parents for her beauty rather than her, since they had much more control over the outcome than she did. Although the occasional compliment on personal appearance is wonderful, it is much like congratulating someone on rolling a twelve in a dice game, or getting a good hand in poker. Sure, it's wonderful luck, but what comes with little thought also merits little thought in the long run.

Even if we concede that the wife in the story might have really appreciated being called beautiful more than any other compliment, the conclusions that Elder Callister draws from this story are certainly poorly fitting to his audience. The students that constituted his primary audience are not to the point in their lives where they have "let themselves go," as he says, because they were already settled down with a family. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many, if not most, of those listening were not yet married, and are therefore still quite concerned about the ability of their personal appearance to attract a spouse. Rather than convincing these students to shape up there own appearance, Elder Callister's talk merely gave license to many to increase the importance of physical appearance in their search for a potential spouse. This is counterproductive to several other parts of his speech where he advises students to concentrate on the inner personality and appreciation of the arts as important points in a potential date.

Another problem lies in that Elder Callister's conclusions are not equal for both genders. His conclusion, that men have a "right" to a beautiful wife, contrasts strongly with his statement that wives deserve a husband "who takes pride in his appearance." Essentially, he states that women ought to concentrate on how their appearance pleases others, specifically their husband, but men ought to have pride in their appearance for his own sake. There is no mention of husbands trying to look handsome for their wives, only that they should be clean and proud of how they look for their own sake. His comments reflect an attitude now outdated by several decades of feminism, and thus inappropriate to a modern audience who believes that women should be valued equally with men, and not just for their "beautiful" appearance. Nearly all the women I've spoken to about his devotional were offended by the sexist nature of his remarks.

Certainly, our physical appearance has a large impact on how we act and think. We should keep ourselves clean and neat at all times. But Elder Callister's approach to this topic was poorly done, as it puts physical appearance higher in importance than one's personal achievements of character.

(A much better talk on the importance of personal appearane was given by Sister Susan W. Tanner, the Young Women General President, in October 2005 general conference. One line in particular stuck with me and has become my personal motto regarding the importance of appearance: "“You must do everything you can to make your appearance pleasing, but the minute you walk out the door, forget yourself and start concentrating on others.")


Nancy Sue said...

I enjoyed your insights and analysis of the devotional. It's never too late to look at what was best expressed and what could have been better expressed in such an address.

wanders said...

I just heard this speech on a podcast, and I appreciated your comments. I was relieved to hear that most of the women you spoke to about it (presumably at BYU) were offended by it. While I appreciated his teachings on the importance of language, music, art, and literature, I almost choked at his portrayal of the devoted little housewife freshening up in anticipation of her husband's arrival. I heard a similar comment 25 years ago made be Paul H. Dunn at BYU, and my wife and I have laughed about it throughout our marriage. First, my wife is so beautiful that no tidying up is required. Second, there are far more important things happening each day in our family than for her to worry about making a good impression on her husband of 14 years. And finally, my greatest concern differed from yours: I worry about the single and newly married men who heard his remarks and will have unrealistic and selfish expectations regarding their wives. When they come home and the laundry is piled high and the cereal boxes are still on the table, what will their reaction be? "My wife has really let herself go," or, "How can I help?" Hopefully the latter.