The Secular as Sacred

March 18, 2008 | 8 comments
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the seemingly secular things that I’ve come to hold sacred, whether they be songs, books, films, works of art, or even places. My spiritual regard for these things is often rooted in my own experience, yet, I also believe that I’ve come to appreciate many of them in a spiritual sense because they broach truth in their own right. Brigham Young once said “The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this church” (JD 11:375). That’s a pretty remarkable insight that I think, at times, is lost on us in the Church today. Sometimes we as members seem more focused on identifying the ‘bad’ in the things of the world than the ‘good’ that beacons to us. Perhaps that’s because there is a lot of bad out there, but I also think, for me at least, that it might say something about our attitudes.

I guess that’s why I’ve never really liked the “brownie” analogy that got kicked around in during my years in seminary. A lot of variations on it exist, but the gist of it is this. You wouldn’t eat a brownie, pie, or cookie if the person baking it had slipped manure (or anything else similarly revolting) into the batter, so you should likewise avoid entertainment, literature, etc. that the creators have slipped ‘manure’ into. My problem with the analogy is this… with my obsessive compulsive tendencies, I’m someone that can find ‘bad’ in pretty much anything if I try.

Now I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t seek to avoid corrosive things. It’s just that I came to the realization years ago that I’m a much happier person if I focus on looking for the ‘good’ in things instead of the ‘bad’… which leads me back to my ruminations on the secular as sacred. I’ve noticed in my life that there are a lot of non-Mormon and sometimes seemingly non-religious things that I, for one reason or another, have come to hold sacred. While others may not be touched in the same way by the things which move me – in fact, they may not find them spiritual at all – I don’t think this really lessens their claim as truth for me. I’m not convinced the Lord even meant for us to always hold the very same things sacred. On this note, I thought it might prove interesting to share a few of my ‘sacred seculars’ and see if anyone else had a few of their own kicking around I might have overlooked or missed.

(1) Several years ago, I faced a very difficult challenge, one that seemed so daunting to me that, in spite of all of my prayers, I doubted my ability to navigate my way though it. In the midst of this ordeal, I sat one night listening to a live version of the Fleetwood Mac song Landslide. I remember pausing as I heard Stevie Nicks’ croon during the second verse “Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life?” After which she softly whispers “Mmm mmm, I don’t know.” I had listened to this song often in the previous weeks and months and the uncertainty of this verse always struck at me at my core. It could just as well have been me singing it. On this particular night, however, I distinctly remember a calm reassurance wash over me as I heard the familiar lyrics. I was literally overcome with the impression that I was going to be able to sail through my changing ocean tides, and that, all of my apprehension aside, I was up to handling the seasons of my life. At that moment, somehow I just knew everything was going to work itself out. That in spite of all my fears, my worries, and my inadequacies… my future was going to be full and rich with meaning. It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve had. So powerful, in fact, that I still get overwhelmed when I hear any version of the song, whether I’m in my car, at the dentist’s office, or in line at the supermarket.

(2) I’m not sure if it says more about me or the entertainment industry, but movies rarely impact me deeply enough that I could say they’ve changed me as a person or affected my outlook on life. The film Dead Man Walking is one of the glorious exceptions. For me, it’s one of the most profoundly spiritual films I’ve seen in my life. For those who haven’t seen it [warning: spoilers ahead], it’s the true story of a Catholic nun who ministers to a convicted murderer awaiting his execution on death row. She works to help this young man acknowledge the magnitude of the crimes he denies committing and take responsibility for his actions before he is put to death.

In reaching out to both this man and his family, the nun ends up angering the families of his victims, who perceive her efforts as ‘siding’ with the man who had brutally turned their lives upside down. (It also didn’t help matters any that, as a Catholic, she opposed his execution). Heartbroken, the nun struggles to somehow find a way to succor everyone: the families coping with the vicious murders, the young man who has committed the terrible deeds, as well as the young man’s family, who in a very real sense are victims themselves. The film is very even-handed, but still manages to delve meaningfully, and without superficiality, into heavy issues like love, forgiveness, the rippling consequences of sin, and our continuing search for peace in this life. The closing scene, in my mind, is a poignant work of art; it’s understated, but that adds to its impact.

After the execution and funeral of the young killer, the father of one of the victims confides in the nun that he is struggling with a great deal of hate. The murder not only had deprived him of his child, but it tore apart his marriage, and has left him increasingly bitter. Before parting ways with the nun, the father says that he wishes he had the nun’s faith. She responds that it’s not that easy, that it’s not just faith, that finding a way out of the hate takes work. He tells her that he doesn’t know if he can do it. The movie then cuts to a shot of them, through the warbled glass of a Church window, kneeling in prayer at some later point in time. It’s a tough film to be sure, but I can think of few other movies that have so vividly crystallized gospel principles for me. In a very real sense, it helped to shape my view of forgiveness. No matter how justified we might feel we are in our anger and hatred toward others, we still have to forgive. Retribution and justice, though they may be called for, won’t bring us peace… only forgiveness can do that. And often, the only way we’re going to find that ability to forgive — or that peace — is by working on our knees.

(3) The last one I thought I’d share is a place I would escape to occasionally during my first year of law school. My campus was literally just blocks from the National Mall and, sometimes, when I’d just about had it with the Erie Doctrine, promissory estoppel, or the reasonable person standard, I’d slip away and wander around the monuments. Now the whole Mall area is sacred in my view, I love gazing out over the reflecting pool from the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial or meandering around the Cherry Blossom trees that surround the tidal basin (whether in bloom or not), but my favorite monument is tucked away in a grove of trees just north of the Vietnam Memorial. It’s a larger than life statue of Einstein, sprawled out lazily on a series of steps that overlook a dais which showcases constellations and astronomical objects. Because it’s a lesser known monument and is somewhat secluded, during the day it’s nearly always deserted. I used to love having it all to myself. You can slip up onto Einstein’s lap, lean back against his famous theorem, and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Perched there, you can almost see into the eternities. Law school has a way of sapping your creative energies, draining the very life from you… but a few minutes in Einstein’s ‘sacred’ grove always seemed to put everything back into perspective for me.

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8 Responses to The Secular as Sacred

  1. Dan on March 18, 2008 at 5:47 am

    Well before Joseph Smith showed up, was there anything special about the Sacred Grove?

  2. CraigH on March 18, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Great idea, Marc, and nice examples. It reminded me of my son’s farewell talk, on the theme of holy places, when he related feeling this tremendous spirit in a place he wouldn’t have thought holy at first glance, while listening to Aerosmith, a band he wouldn’t have thought particularly holy. As one of my friends put it, probably the band’s first conversion. Maybe the surprise lies in how we conceptualize “secular.” The word’s root meaning is one of time, specifically this-worldly time. But maybe we tend to put it on certain people, or places, or subjects incorrectly. Einstein’s physics, for instance, were not merely about this-worldly time at all, nor is much art, nor was the sort of thing done in Dean Man Walking. On the other hand, even some things at church can be “secular.” I can think of few things more secular than a dress-code, for instance, which are always completely time-bound. Thus the form or activity isn’t inherently time-bound or sacred; it depends on what’s being done with it.

  3. GuyC on March 18, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Beautiful write up Marc. Love the idea.

    Sometimes I’ve wondered if, in the pursuit of separating spiritual from secular, we miss out on the good side of secular and the positive impact it can have on our lives. Your examples reinforced my own beliefs that there is good in secular things and they should not be so easily dismissed.

  4. Jon E on March 18, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Marc,

    Excellent, excellent post. First, it brings to mind the 13th article of faith. Anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy is something we need to seek. I can think of many song and many movies, like you have. “The Mission” is one of my greatest examples of Gospel principles of repentance and forgiveness along with a dichotomy of defending oneself and one’s faith and carrying the cross to a certain death.

    One source of frustration is the argument which arises concerning what is more important, gaining the secular or focusing on the spiritual. My opinion is told by you in this post. We engage in secular all day, every day. Hopefully we have a spot at the end of the day where we can engage in putting all our wondrous into its humble perspective in the universe of truth.

    Again- wonderful, thought-provoking post.

  5. Kevinf on March 18, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    There is a scene in the otherwise not-at-all spectacular Travolta movie, “Phenomenon”, where there is a rather poignant, at least for me, analogy of the Sacrament and the atonement. As Travolta’s character gives a slice of an apple to a young boy that he has befriended, and that he knows he will be leaving soon (spoiler avoided, hopefully), he spoke a few words about remembering. I had a very real spiritual confirmation of what we mean in the Sacrament prayers when it is said “…that they may always have His spirit to be with them.”

    But more commonly, I find sacred space in mountains, woods, and deserts, both alone and with friends and family. That wilderness experience has a long traditional place in our culture and our religion. Referring to the temples as “the Mountain of the Lord” is a pretty apt comparison for me.

  6. Mark M on March 18, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Elder L. Tom Perry gave a General Conference talk titled “In the World” (about 5 to 15 years ago?) that emphasized the word “IN”! It was so refreshing to hear him speak about the reasons we are *in* the world and the good that is to be found here.

  7. Jonovitch on March 20, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I also saw Dead Man Walking, and came away with a similar assessment of its message.

    The one example of finding the spiritual inside of the secular that I can think of is from the recent movie “Children of Men” (directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also did Harry Potter 3). The movie is rated R, for very good reasons, but the context and storyline make it much less objectionable (in my mind) than many lesser-rated films, and I would recommend it to any emotionally mature adult who is willing to see such a movie. (To those emotionally mature adults who are not so inclined, I recommend not seeing it. And it is certainly not a film for adolescents.)

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    Toward the end of the film, the scene is in a hotel/hospital/apartment — I couldn’t quite tell what kind of building it was because it was being shelled so heavily by the army (tanks and all) from the outside, and the rebels were shooting back from the inside. The realism of the war scene was on par (perhaps even surpassing?) that of Saving Private Ryan. It was intense, loud, frightening, chaotic.

    Inside the building, the protagonist (caught in the middle) had found the woman he was trying to rescue from the rebels who had kidnapped her. She had just given birth to a baby — the first pregnancy anyone had heard of in more than 20 years (this was the main premise of the film and what made her so valuable). As the soldiers stormed the building, they discovered the man and the woman and her child — as soon as they heard the baby’s pitiful cry from above (a sound they had not heard in so long, they didn’t recognize it at first) they called for a cease fire. They yelled out to each other and to the others below to hold their fire.

    Everything went silent.

    The soldiers, dressed in their fatigues and clutching their automatic weapons, stopped in their places and stared at the baby in its mother’s arms. What they were seeing was a miracle. They didn’t know what to make of it, so they just watched in silence as the man and the woman and the newborn child slowly walked past them in the hallway, down the stairwell, and out the door past the infantry and tanks. It was an incredible scene, and for a moment the world was at peace, collectively witnessing the miraculous birth of the first baby they had seen in many many years.

    As the man and the woman and the baby left the building, a shot from a rebel came from above, and the war and chaos and noise exploded again throughout the building and the rest of the city as the man and the woman and the baby ran for safety. For a moment, the world had paid tribute vicariously through the soldiers eyes, and then suddenly went back to doing what the world does best: destroy itself.

    The parallels with the virgin mother and the miraculous birth and the surrogate father figure are obvious. I just didn’t expect to see such a profound imagery in the middle of this film that had been portraying a society that had become so run down and degraded and defiled in all imaginable aspects. (If you see the movie, you’ll notice how the entire world has seemed to lose all sense of hope, as is reflected in the language, the lifestyles, the cities, the news — everything has grown old and tired and worthless, including life itself.) The contrast of the silence in the middle of the climax of this degradation (the war with the rebels in the middle of the man-made city, now being destroyed by man) was jarringly stark and surprisingly spiritual. I might have even actually gotten a little choked up.

    It was a movie (especially that scene) that left a deep and lasting impression on me, as you can tell. Again, for those who are willing to see such a film, I highly recommend it.

    Jon

  8. Jonovitch on March 25, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Re: #7, I just remembered yesterday, Children of Men was released in the U.S.A. on Dec 25, 2006, which was apparently intentional, given the themes of hope and redemption and the interspersed scenes that reflected the birth of Jesus Christ.

    Jon