The Author and the Congressman

The Author

In my childhood, I watched my evangelical classmates devour the Left Behind series, curious what a Mormon analogue would look like.

Lo and behold, in 2003 Deseret Book published a novel titled The Brothers. Befitting his history as a military pilot, the author had previously focused on military techno-thrillers, and the book series to which The Brothers was a prologue — The Great and Terrible — was mostly of that genre. 

While it turned out that The Great and Terrible was not exactly comparable to Left Behind — it wasn’t about the end of days — The Brothers did not disappoint. I unironically love the book as a ingenuous crystallization of a certain moment in Mormon political theology, projected back into a narrative set in the premortal, pre-Earth life.

The author prefaces the book with an Author’s Note, in which he admits that he “was forced to take author’s license in many of the details presented in this book. The simple fact is that we know very little of what life was like for us in the premortal world, and the war in heaven is a mystery we know even less about. Yet any literary work, especially fiction, requires some sense of time, location, conflict, and description in order for readers to allow themselves to be pulled into the story.” Without these, he says, “the story turns out to be little more than a series of conversations.”

He has added aspects “to help provide a setting and an atmosphere,” as well as close relationships between characters. “If there are details, symbols, or descriptions with which you take issue,” he implores the reader, “I ask for your understanding.”

All this is fair: the average Deseret Book customer probably doesn’t have Plato’s appetite for philosophical dialogues.

Most conspicuous, though, are the absences in his disclaimer. The author worries that a reader might object to buildings, geography, trees and parks, and “families” in a depiction of the premortal life, but he is silent about the theology he presents.

He concludes his Author’s Note by admitting, “though my primary goal has been to entertain, it has always been my hope that I might provide a greater sense of our purpose and place in this world.” Given this careful statement of intention, as well as the book’s habit of nigh-didactic exposition, it’s reasonable to conclude that the settings, interactions, and ideologies in the novel reflect the author’s basic moral and theological worldview.

Therefore, here are some theological notions that the author apparently thinks aren’t matters of artistic license, drawn from a single chapter (Chapter 11):

  • Jesus is the “oldest spirit child of God” (the question of “spirit birth” is, by contrast, doctrinally vague)
  • Heavenly Mother, only ever referred to by pronouns (she/her), stands “off to the side of the throne,” “every person… was aware she was there, though few dared glanced toward her and, out of reverence, none held her eyes”; “she was the most magnificent thing to grace eternity”
  • In “a well-established pattern that would be followed on the physical earth,” the council that casts out Lucifer from heaven is composed of 12 men, six of whom spoke in Lucifer’s defense, and six of whom “were assigned to represent the interest of God” (the procedure of the events formerly called “disciplinary councils”) 
  • Peter, the future apostle himself, was the chief of these twelve
  • Some words “seep into the next world to be held as the standard around which great nations would rise,” including: “we hold these truths to be self-evident: All of God’s children are created equal, and all other endowed by our Father with certain unalienable rights.” Thus paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, Peter begins to read the charges against Lucifer.

(Lucifer, meanwhile, is depicted as an angry, bitter, wily, effete elitist, with a streak of gray hair tied back with a ribbon and a tendency to whip stadiums full of followers into a frenzy.)

The author does not seem to notice the splintering thinness of the theological ice onto which he confidently marches — or the highly variable danger of each step.

 

The Congressman

In December 2018, a member of Utah’s congressional delegation came to speak to close a semester of Institute classes. Somewhat understandably, he began his remarks with a disclaimer: he was not present as a politician, and would not discuss politics; he would prefer that they did not come up.

Partway through his presentation, he ventured into unquestionably non-political territory. He expressed his dismay that more people aren’t proud of America, and said that people should acknowledge America’s true exceptionalism among the nations. He said, “I think God still cares about our country. If we stumble, the world crumbles. I think God expects us to lead.”

Speaking to that group of American Latter-day Saints, he also wished to drive home how blessed we were to have been born members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States of America (or having come to join that group): a tiny, tiny percentage of the world’s population. 

He continued: it wasn’t as if we had drawn our earthly destiny from a hat that Adam held out to us in the premortal life. (You know I’m interested in popular theologies of premortality. My ears perked instantly.) “Was it luck? It couldn’t be luck.” After all, Doctrine and Covenants 130:21 tells us that “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” 

“You don’t get blessings without obedience,” the congressman declared. Since we didn’t do anything on Earth to merit the circumstances of our birth, our circumstances of birth must be consequences of our actions in our premortal lives as spirits: “You earned this blessing” — the blessing of being Latter-day Saints in the United States — before birth.

(Please ponder what all this implies about non-Americans, non-Latter-day Saints, and people who are barred from coming to the United States.)

(Please ponder as well how “people blessed on Earth earned those blessings in the premortal life” is difficult to distinguish, fundamentally, from “people cursed on Earth earned those curses in the premortal life.”)

(Please ponder how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have most frequently employed talk of premortal cursing and how such reasoning proved so poisonous — to individuals, the body of Christ, the nation, and the world — that the Church has specifically denounced it.)

(Please ponder how we outsource our theological reasoning to merely hypothesized merits or demerits from premortality.)

(Please ponder how culturally inherited theology, untempered by serious reflection and epistemic humility, can contort our politics.)

(Please ponder, finally, how we cannot disclaim responsibility in these matters.)

At the very least, for the congressman our nobility implies noblesse oblige: “You have a responsibility because of [this blessing].” Concluding his remarks shortly thereafter, he repeated his request for “no political questions.”

After the presentation, and with deliberate dramatic irony, I presented my copy of The Brothers to its author, the Congressman himself, so that he could sign his name to his words.

9 comments for “The Author and the Congressman

  1. Left Field
    June 6, 2020 at 10:07 am

    Apparently, the high council is no longer required for a stake “membership council.” However, neither the Doctrine and Covenants nor the previous handbook ever required half of the council to “speak for the church.” The requirement was that 6 would be appointed to speak on behalf of the accused. The others were under no instructions as to how they would speak. It has been a common assumption that those drawing odd numbers were supposed to speak for the church, and there is no doubt that they were often so instructed. But that was not in the handbook or in the scriptures.

  2. Michael H.
    June 6, 2020 at 10:39 am

    Left Field: yet another bit of theological/ecclesiastical overconfidence, then, that I didn’t realize because of my inexperience!

  3. Chad Nielsen
    June 6, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I remember reading the book series when I was a teenager. They were entertaining, but I can’t say I retained any of his presentation about premortality in The Brothers. It’s interesting to see it discussed.

    As far as the idea of being born in the Church = righteousness in premortality, I always think of a general conference talk where President Henry B. Eyring talked about a grandmother who was a righteous woman, but her grandson was a criminal. When she asked God why she had to endure the tragedy of a grandson who seems to have destroyed his life if she had lived a good life, the answer she received was that: “I gave him to you because I knew you could and would love him no matter what he did” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/to-my-grandchildren?lang=eng). The implication about premortality in this statement seems to me that some people are born into a family in the Church because they were not doing so hot in premortality (i.e., did not earn a reward as the honorable Chris Stewart says) and need the extra help.

  4. Marrissa
    June 6, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Hate this depiction of Heavenly Mother, although it agrees very well with common Mormon imagination. This tells me that women’s *best* eternal possibility is complete eternal isolation, never speaking to, touching, or even making eye contact with our family members? How exactly is that different from what we may expect in hell? Honestly, I’d prefer hell, since at least it wouldn’t have the extra insult of being supposed to pretend that being tortured and shunned forever is good.

  5. GEOFF -AUS
    June 6, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    At this time it should be appearent that America is not that great an example of anything God would find special. There are many more Zion like countries. Look up the world happiness report. USA is 19 th behind much of Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report
    The countries that are better are because the citizens vote for/ value different freedoms than enough Americans do. Perhaps the pandemic, the protests, and Trump will cause a change of heart?

    I realise Americans may be struggling to come to terms with reality, but there is so much about civic and daily life that is done better by other countries, even before Trump destroyed your reputation abroard.

    Agree Female God would be/is equal in power and authority. Though not in America obviously.

  6. GEOFF -AUS
    June 6, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    Most of the countries above America on the happiness index have had, and probably half presently have female leaders.

    There are a group of young female leaders who not only do fiscall budgets, but related also HAVE wellness budgets, where other considerations re the well being of the population, and especially the less wealthy are taken into account, and funding allocated to improve particular problems.

    What might such a leader need to look at in America? Would the country need to be more united, or could it unite the country, to work together to make life better?

    I have been disturbed how the dow in America has not been affected by either the virus, or the protests. How the wealthy are not concerned, or affected by lesser mortals.

    The exact opposite of the approach above

  7. Jon Miranda
    June 7, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    Marissa
    Honestly, I’d prefer hell
    I don’t suppose that we’re going to be forced to do anything that we don’t want to do. But why you would prefer hell is beyond me.

  8. Taiwan Missionary
    June 8, 2020 at 1:21 am

    As to the blessings of bring born into a Church family in the United States and having “earned” such blessings in the pre-existence, and conversely, being cursed in premortal life. I consider these concepts to be part of Mormon folklore, and agree that people who espouse these ideas are skating on thin doctrinal ice. And, yes, Church leaders have denounced the idea of premortal cursing.

    But these ideas are still out there, and are part of an ingrained sense of Mormon election that is only very s-l-ow-l-y fading away.

    Last year, in my Gospel Doctrine class, a dear old sister piped up and said that she felt that American Mormons were more righteous in the pre-existence. Well, it does no good to tell a 75 year-old sweetheart that she has just trashed Dieter Uchtdorf and Ulisses Soares, as well as Talmage, Widtsoe, and many others, but fortunately the rest of the lesson was devoted to many good class members helping to clean up the crime scene. It was one of the sourest notes I have ever heard in Church.

    Who says that we don‘t use the Rameumpton in the Church?

  9. Jon Miranda
    June 8, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    she felt that American Mormons were more righteous in the pre-existence

    And does that matter now? It matters what you do now. How you act now.

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