A Thing to Grasp

March 14, 2010 | 15 comments
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“Whatever choice you make, make it the right choice.” — Dee Winterton

800px-Monument_Valley_2Havelock Ellis said, “It is only the great men who are truly obscene. If they had not dared to be obscene, they could never have dared to be great.” I think the word “obscene” here denotes not mere prurience or crudeness, but more generally the will to defy social expectations. It is in this sense that the title character in Cool Hand Luke is obscene, with his Nietzschean will to power.

Last week’s gospel doctrine lesson on Jacob and Esau reminded me that our great spiritual forbears did not have gospel blessings handed to them. Many of them were required to act obscenely in order to grasp the gifts of God. Jacob exploited Esau and deceived Jacob to obtain a birthright and a blessing when neither belonged to him. Was that sin? I cannot say. But it was effective in establishing his birthright? Yes — it is to the “god of Jacob” that we pray, not the “god of Esau”.

I see a similar situation with Brigham Young’s succession to the presidency of the church. Occasionally I will hear discussions about which of Joseph’s would-be successors was the “right” one. These discussions presume that God had preselected one of them to fill Joseph’s position and take over the leadership of the kingdom. Perhaps, however, the presidency was more like a fumbled football, and the right one was whichever one effectively grasped the role and delivered on it.

In fact, the pattern of the obscenely confident agent becoming a spiritual leader is repeated often in scripture. Nephi, Abraham, Elijah, Ammon, Joseph Smith, and many others acted in ways that are not easily justified by the moral expectations held among us rank and file adherents. They were ambitious. They were dangerous. They defy our milquetoast expectations of what holy men should look like. They lied, fought, and some even killed. And we revere them as exemplary moral characters.

Perhaps the archetype of the obscene prophet are Adam and Eve. They received a contradictory religion, yet rather than whine to God about it, they acted with confidence to interpret that religion in the light of wisdom and experience. And we, their children, thank them for it.

So why the pattern of the obscene prophet? Perhaps it ensures effective leaders. I’ve often wondered why Joseph wasn’t clearer about who should succeed him. However leaving the issue unresolved ensured that his successor would necessarily be an effective leader, since only an effective leader would be able to unite the fractured church. In this way, whether or not Brigham began the contest as the rightful heir, he became the rightful heir by successfully obtaining the position. Whether or not Jacob was the rightful son, he became the rightful son by obtaining the blessing. Whether or not Adam was the rightful father, he became the rightful father by his transgression.

15 Responses to A Thing to Grasp

  1. Dan on March 14, 2010 at 7:04 am

    I’ve often wondered why Joseph wasn’t clearer about who should succeed him

    Maybe because he really had no idea how to proceed on this matter. I haven’t read an account of his last year or so in some time so I might be wrong in it, but I cannot recall him discussing this. We’re looking at the beginning of this church from a very different paradigm, where currently there is no doubt over succession. And as you point out at the end, the current way our prophets are selected has never been done before. Maybe this is the right way. Maybe not. The wondrous thing is that we actually don’t know; we take steps in the dark into an unknown we’ve never seen before. It gives me better hope that our lives are truly free, that we truly set the world in a path not dictated by any God. He may see which way we go because of His omniscience, but our choices are not set in stone anywhere.

  2. Eric Boysen on March 14, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Your first paragraph made me think of Teddy Roosevelt who, after explaining his actions in creating the Panama Canal Zone asked his cabinet what they thought. One of that body said something to the effect of “Mr. President, you were accused of seduction and you have conclusively proved that you are guilty of rape.”

  3. American Yak on March 14, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I completely see your point about seemingly unorthodox methods. Such stories are the wonders of the scriptures, and require much prayer and sometimes fasting and sometimes dogged wrestling with God to discover just what it is he is telling us, or what makes something acceptable in one scenario or not in another.

    I’m afraid I find Dan’s take too liberal, even though I believe we are completely free to choose our course. But we are not free to choose a righteous disposition and destination, and free to choose to disobey God, merely on the merits of existence alone. The liberality that exists in our lives is afforded us by God, and he is, in every sense an arbiter, albeit perfect, but I also suspect quite arbitrary at times…but that might be another discussion…

    I think the first thing I would note, however, is that Jacob is more comparable to Cool Hand Luke in appearances than anything else. Rather, such comparisons seem dangerous. Luke is as complex a character as Jacob, and both had unconventional methods. But there are righteous ends and means, and then there is insanity. We are prone, for instance, to afford Satan more power than he truly has, hence he is an “angel of light,” but his only real power is anything we give to him – nothing else. God, on the other hand has all power, always, forever. This includes his overseeing (read: his complete love and approbation toward) our sometimes unconventional methods to do right things.

    I often think we misunderstand Jacob and Joseph and Nephi and the reasons “why.” They were not rebellious to God. They were not dangerous to just anyone or any one thing, without regard to higher laws. They were, in fact, ready to move the kingdom. We should probably be as careful in trying to rewrite the histories of our rough stone founders as we are the histories of the founders of America. I think, for example, Joseph Smith is still as inconceivable and misunderstood a character as, say, Jefferson or Adams (whose HBO mini-series bothered me greatly because I thought it came so close and then went so far past). We have so much less to go on with Old Testament characters. Eve transgressed, but greatly progressed: we figure this out because of modern revelation. What are we missing with Jacob? Words like “obscene” and “deceive,” regardless of semantics and senses, somehow seem inadequate, for I find in Jacob’s wrestles and endeavors something so much grander, something that requires the greatest parts of me to marvel and wonder.

  4. Cameron Nielsen on March 14, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I would think that the Brigham talking and appearing as Joseph experience would indicate that God had chosen him, and ordained him like Jeremiah.

    I really like your reasoning, though. To me, it is the only way for God’s will to proceed according to his infinite knowledge while allowing for individual agency. Many were called, and maybe fore-ordained to be chosen, but these individuals were actually chosen, because of their good choices and faithfulness.

  5. Iowa_Pilot on March 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Generally, I agree with the thesis of this article. What needs to be remembered is that we walk by faith, faith precedes the miracle (and the blessing), and that there are extremely few times in recorded history that God the Father or Christ have appeared to anyone ex-post Christ’s mortal ministry and removed all doubt. Leaders in the church are chose because, for the most part, they have outwardly exhibited a faithfulness and commitment that others may possess, but have not the power or inclination to share. I fully believe that Brigham Young was chosen to lead the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley…but remember, it wasn’t until they were IN the valley that the inspiration came to ordain him to the office of Prophet, seer, revelator, and President of the church. While successive ordinations to that high calling have been mechanical since then, it is no less a function of faith that we accept the person put forward to receive that sustaining vote, and that person has attained that station by service, commitment, and unwavering faith, as well.

  6. Aaron on March 15, 2010 at 8:50 am

    What about King David?

  7. John Hamilton on March 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Cameron, the incident of Brigham Young appearing as Joseph Smith is, unfortunately, not very credible. No one, as far as we know, wrote about it in their journals, letters or otherwise at the actual time. The earliest accounts we have are from several years after the event, as I understand it. Not saying it didn’t happen, but I think it was more a product of wishful thinking and later embellishment than actual fact.

    This just brings home the point made by Dane that it is sometimes what we do and how we actually act that decides these things rather than a declaration direct from God. Brigham Young became the leader of the Church BECAUSE he LED the church. Others could not. Of course God had a hand in it, like He does with everything, I suppose, but we always need to take the initiative, just like Adam, Jacob and the rest did. And not just the leaders, but the followers of those leaders as well.

    In my humble opinion, of course. I’ve been known to be wrong… on occasion.

  8. Clark on March 15, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    John, don’t you think the sheer number of people who claimed to have seen it is significant? Yes, one wishes they’d written about it earlier, but I find it hard to believe it’s all wish fulfillment. Just my take.

  9. Dane Laverty on March 15, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    My observation here (that God accepts those who go to the trouble of submitting themselves to His service) fits well with Brigham taking on Joseph’s appearance. It’s worth noting that Brigham did not take on Joseph’s appearance until *after* he had taken the initiative to take leadership of the church. Like Jacob’s blessing, it could be seen as God’s validating stamp of Brigham’s action — not that Brigham was the only one who could have taken that step, but that he *was* the one who took that step.

  10. John Hamilton on March 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Clark, you make a good point, but it is interesting that these accounts all sprang up at about the same time a few years later and grew from there. One could suspect that a “me too” mentality came to the fore and actual facts may have been forgotten or misremembered because of this influence. That said, I would still not dismiss their accounts out of hand, just saying it may not be something you want to base your faith on too much.

    By the way, I just read something last night that may adjust my view on this whole topic: Joseph Smith, not long before his death, gave all the authority and ordinances that he had to the Twelve. He stated something to the effect that “The Twelve now have all the authority to lead the people, and it no longer matters what happens to me.” So, Brigham may have had the actual right, being the senior member of the Twelve, to take charge, though how the details of authority would be worked out still needed to be resolved. Anyway, just something to think about.

  11. James Olsen on March 16, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    It’s interesting in light of Dane’s thesis that Brother Brigham did not in fact become the leader of the church until AFTER his successful trek to the Great Salt Lake Valley and back.

  12. James Olsen on March 16, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    p.s. Dane, you left out our great obscene women (even when your point is made by them, like with Rebekah leading Jacob, and Eve as our Mother through transgression). How about: Lot’s daughters, Tamar, Dinah, Asenath, Tsiporah, Myriam, Hannah, Ruth, Naomi, etc.. We tragically don’t get many stories about women; but those we do get are almost all obscene in your sense.

  13. American Yak on March 17, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Wait, tell me again why I should draw into doubt my ancestors’ testimonies?

  14. Kruiser on March 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    I could not decide whether to put this reply here or with your post on management. This mentions the “lengthen your stride” statement, but I have not read the book and maybe it has a different take on it. The Strengthen You Brethren priesthood manual of 1991 gives the quote by President Kimball at a Regional Representatives seminar on 3 Oct 1974 thusly;

    “I am not calling for flashy temporory differences in our performance levels, but a quiet resolve. . . to do a better job, to lengthen our stride. . .

    “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

    To me, that last paragraph is an obscene statement. Who is it addressed to? To the high-up leaders or also to the grass roots members? What is to be accomplished by it? If a sunday school teacher does a lesson on a message “outside the box” will it be taken as “non-spiritual?”

    I read the statement while teaching my HP Group recently and hardly got a ripple of a response. The main interpretation semmed to be to work harder at what we are doing.

  15. John Hamilton on March 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    American Yak:

    I don’t wish to sow seeds of doubt here, but I guess I did. The whole Brigham Young turning into Joseph Smith story seems highly suspicious when no one, absolutely no one, wrote about it happening at the time it happened. I think it was more than two years later that it was ever mentioned in any sort of writing. There were many there at the time and many of them were regular journal keepers. You would think they would have written something when someone transforms into someone else right before your eyes. In addition, one researcher (I think it was Richard Van Wagoner) found that the descriptions of the events that day seemed to get more and more elaborate as time went by. Logic would say that memories would get foggier after more time has past instead of sharper.

    I’m not saying our progenitors were being outright dishonest. They may have just allowed their memories to be embellished or influenced from some kernel of genuine memory pronounced by someone and, like a snowball, it grew from there. Case in point from my own life: I told my wife how I remembered falling in love with her outside the “red” brick chapel we attended church at and how the sun reflected off those brick on the green grass. She said, “Um, I think it was an orange brick chapel.” Next time we went back to that city, we drove by and checked. Sure enough, the bricks were orange. I could have gone to my grave swearing upon all that was holy that it had been a red brick chapel.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to apply legal “rules of evidence” to people’s testimonies. Just stating that for me, my testimony will have to rely more on other evidences and insights and not so much on this particular incident in our Church history.