Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Remembering Tennesee

Off the Beaten Path: Tennessee by Tim O’Brien &
The Tennessee Handbook by Ed Speer

For those of you who are not here in the Salt Lake Valley with us we have had an extraordinary rainy month so far! In fact we have already passed 300% of our average precipitation for June, and there are more storms on the way. All of this rain reminds me of my mission in Tennessee. I remember one day after a particularly long and monotonous series of storms spontaneously coming up with the lyrics

In our lovely Deseret,
Where not everything is wet
You can walk around
And not be ‘fraid to drown!
There the skies they are blue
And the people cheery too
‘Cause they get a daily dose
Of the sun!

I must admit that the one thing I could never find myself liking about my mission was the climate. The people, however, have left a lasting impression on my way of thinking and on the way I view the world. I served as a Spanish language Elder in the Knoxville Tennessee Mission from 2003 through 2005. I therefore had a chance to meet lots of people from a startling variety of backgrounds and in a very wide array of situations. If there is one thing I took home from my mission it was that there is something I can learn from everybody if I am humble enough and let the spirit guide me.

I have been remembering my mission an awful lot lately. Perhaps it is because I am in regular correspondence with Sister Pomeroy (Missionaries love letters, so everybody be sure to write!), and maybe it is because I have just realized that I have been home from my mission now more than twice as long a period of time as I was out there. Whatever the case may be, a sense of nostalgia prompted me to get these two books from the library and read about what they had to say.

The Tennessee Handbook by Ed Speer is really just a compact history book. It has a brief chronology of the State’s history, a copy of its various constitutions, demographic statistics, and trivia about Tennesseans who have served their State in congress or who have served as national leaders. It also had a list of geographic features and favorite recreation areas.

The book is a very handy reference and useful if you are looking for specific information, however I have to admit that it was a bit of a dry read. There were really interesting things to read about, though: like the Tennessee Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves which was founded in 1814 (of course in East Tennessee!) There was also a lot of information that I was very happy to see about Chattanooga (a place that was a very big part of my mission experience- both by virtue of the amount of time I spent there and the spiritual experiences I had there) and the Battle of Chattanooga from the Civil War in particular. In the end I didn’t learn a lot of new information from this book, but it was a very pleasant stroll down memory lane and I wish that I would have found out some of this information before or during my mission.

Tennessee Off the Beaten Path is one in a series of tour guide books. It lists a lot of events and attractions from various areas that I was in during my mission, some of which I recognized and some of which I wish I had known about in order to take advantage of! It is a more condensed book arranged in geographical areas, making it easy to read just the sections about Eastern Tennessee. I was especially nostalgic reading about the old Walnut Street Bridge and Coolidge Park. When and if I make it back to some of the backwoods areas of Tennessee I will defiantly consult this book!

In the end both of these books were really just a nostalgic high. I would have loved it if my friends and family back home had checked out books from their local library and told me more about the areas I was serving in. One of the difficulties missionaries have sometimes is really becoming part of the people they are with, and all too often missionaries either come off as completely uninterested in the local culture, or only as a tourist who happens to wear a tie and tag. So all of you out there who have a missionary friend out: find out something about the area they are in and then write to them about it!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Respecting the Earth

The Quiet Crisis by Stewart L. Udall

To my way of thinking one of the greatest tragedies of modern American politics has been the increasing polarization on a wide range of issues which focuses more on who is right rather than what is right and in the public interest. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of environmental policies. We endlessly debate issues which have grave importance for the future only paying heed to the demagogy of the left or right and ignore the true moral, historical and scientific issues at hand

The author of this book is Stewart L. Udall, a distant cousin a couple times removed from me on my father’s side. He was a Democrat (I know! I have relatives who are donkeys!), and JFK’s Secretary of the Interior. This book has had a profound impact on the way that many Americans think and feel about the environment. For this reason I am writing a review of it by itself rather than with a companion book like usual for my blog. I think it is important enough that it needs to be considered on its own

The book chronicles the history of the United States from the perspective of the land. The first period is the era of contact between Native Americans and the European settlers and the contrast between their respective views of the land. To the Natives the land was something owned by everybody in the same way as the ocean, air, sky and stars were the property of no single individual. To the Europeans, however, land ownership was the entire basis of their society and, for the English especially, the entire reason for their being in America.This land ownership, however, was fundamentally at odds with the Native concept (and indeed the older medieval concept of land ownership in Europe) which stressed the claim of future generations on the land and allowed for the use, but not abuse, of the resources available from the land. I could elaborate on the late medieval/early modern shift in concepts about ownership, but I will spare all of you this lesson for now!

This new concept of land ownership was coupled with a new idea arising from the sheer size and overwhelming wildness of the American continent which Udall calls the “myth of superabundance.” In short the idea is that there are so many buffalo, beaver and deer, so much fertile soil and forests and so many mineral deposits that conserving them was counterproductive and uncompetitive. The final critical element added to this mix was the rugged individualism which helped to create the essential elements of American democracy but also contributed to a lack of civic mindedness among some classes. Thus the few who made massive fortunes at the public expense were often seen as good examples rather than the pillagers of the future that they were.

Gradually some people began to see that this system was unsustainable and ethically lacking. Diverse characters like Davie Crockett, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Boone, and other began to see the effect on the land that our unthinking policies were having. Eventually as we began to have massive extinctions on our own soil (there were more than five billion passenger pigeons in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but shortly before the start of the twentieth century the last surviving member of the species died in a zoo in Ohio), and people like Audubon and other conservationists and scientists began to take action. Eventually people like Teddy Roosevelt were able to make political gains in breaking up the Iron Triangles (a political science term for the relationship between business, regulation agencies and congressional committees which all deal with a particular subject and often scratch each others backs) which had allowed so much of this legal pillaging to happen.

Now as a country we have made a good start, but there is still a lot to do. The balance between using resources and preserving land is a delicate one (one person quoted in the book says that the boundaries between the workshop and the temple of nature is inevitably going to be a contentious issue) and has not been fully resolved. However the scientists, politicians, farmers, hunters, activist, philanthropists, and voters of the last century have done some wonderful things to try and help preserve for us large areas of wilderness.Now we have challenges involving overcrowding, littering, pollution, and a lack of planning- all brought on because we still lack a sense of reverence for nature and our environment. As the author put it:

The quiet crisis demands a rethinking of land attitudes, deeper involvement by leaders of business and government, and methods of making conservation decisions which put a premium on foresight. With the acumen of our scientists we can achieve optimum development of resources that will let us pluck the fruits of science without harming the tree of life. Once we decide that our surroundings need not always be subordinated to payrolls and profits based on short-term considerations, there is hope that we can both reap the bounty of the land and preserve an inspiriting environment.

I wish that we would all take a step back and reevaluate our opinions and activities in light of an increased respect for the earth and for the future generations that are going to inherit it. Maybe this is all a little too utopian and impractical, but if we are only thinking about here and now how can we claim to be any better than the people who came before us? It is easy to be critical of the slaughter of the buffalo as a short-sighted policy, but are we any better? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rereading the Early Roman Empire

People often ask me why on earth I want to study classical history. Generally those who are most confused fall into one of three groups: those who don’t get Ancient History because they don’t see how something so distant could be relevant to them; those who think that there is nothing new and exciting to gain from studying ancient sources that have been used for centuries; and those who can’t grasp that History is more than just the a long list of names, dates and places.

Usually I give short answer to the people who ask me these questions and let them decide for themselves whether or not I am wasting my time and energy. However after having read these two books I am very tempted to give people in at least the first two categories (I don’t really know what to say to the last group!) the challenge to go and read one of these books!

Now, I am not saying that I would recommend them without reservation as a scholarly source: however both of the authors do a very good job of combining and interpreting the various sources available on the subject into a very readable and accessible narrative. You really don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate these books, and those unfamiliar with the time and place that the events described in the book take place in won’t get too lost.

One of the major advantages of books such as these are the way in which they are able to combine, compare and contrast the narratives of these events that we have from the surviving sources. Naturally this does mean that the authors tend to get caught up in some of the same lines of thinking as the original sources (either to reinforce or contradict them) and this means that you get a lot of analysis of the personalities and quirks of the individuals involved in the events described. Likewise when the sources disagree it becomes inevitable that the author has to make a choice for better or worse which source to trust (Morgan, for example, usually defends Tacitus as the more reliable source, with good reasoning). However the discussion about the sources and the ways that they complement and contradict each other is perhaps the best aspect of these books from a scholarly point of view.

Ok, so for you non-specialists out there who are probably bored to tears by now here is what the books are about: Matyszak’s book is about the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (aka. Caligula), Claudius and Nero), so named because they came from the union of two prominent Roman families, the Julians and Cluadians. The book offers a personal sketch of each emperor and their personality and ruling policies and styles, as well as some context about what we know about what was going on at the time.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the book is the way that the author seems to be almost consciously disagreeing with the main sources regarding the character of each emperor (he pretty much attempts to revive Caligula’s reputation and he is less than flattering towards Augustus, the usual favorite out of this group). Another aspect of this book that seemed startling to me was the author’s argument that the shift to Empire from Republic was both far from inevitable and represents an almost moral failing on the part of the people of Rome. The continual talk about the loss of democracy is clearly aimed at a popular audience, and seemed a bit out of place in a scholarly book.

Morgan’s book is about the transition between the Julio-Claudians and the Flavians that occurred around the year 69 A.D. Nero committed suicide once a rebellion against him in Gaul and Hispania seemed likely to succeed and a governor from the area named Galba became Emperor. However, Galba had made enemies while assigned to the provinces of Upper and Lower Germany and as soon as they found out he was emperor they proclaimed their general Vitellius as the new Emperor. Meanwhile one of Galba’s associates named Otho had assassinated Galba and taken the Empire for himself. Otho and Vitellius fought a war in the spring of 69, which lead to Vespasian (the commander of Roman forces in Judea who were putting down a Jewish rebellion) throwing his hat into the ring. Vitellius won the fight in Italy, but didn’t get much news about Vespasian until it was too late (the winds during the summer blow from the West making news from that area plentiful, but news from the east sparse). Anyway, after a whirlwind campaign Vespasian wins the war towards the end of the year and becomes the fourth emperor mentioned in the title.

As I mentioned above the best academic feature of this book is Morgan’s treatment of how the various sources depict the events associated with this period. Indeed we have a lot of sources, but really don’t understand everything that they tell us. One weakness I noticed in the book was a tendency to downplay the military aspects of the subject and portray the battles as almost foreordained outcomes with little strategy involved. I am sure that many other scholars disagree with this point, but I’ll leave it to them to sort it out.

I really enjoyed some of the little biographical snippets included in the book. For example the characterization of Galba by Plutarch as a “man who did not so much have virtues as lack vices” is a profound moral statement that I have already discussed with friends and coworkers, perhaps more than I should! I also enjoyed the leadership lessons found in the book. Perhaps it is training from reading the scriptures from an early age and applying them to my own situation, but I find some of the lessons in Vespasian’s success (aside from the tremendous amount of luck that he had) where Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius had all failed as being particularly universal in their application.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Spirituality, Law and Politics in the Book of Mormon

I remember hearing an apocryphal story about Brother Hugh Nibley during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Apparently he was among the first wave of American soldiers to go ashore and while he was wading up the beach he said he realized how magnificent a book the Book of Mormon really is! (Not only, of course, from a religious and spiritual perspective, but also as a historical document of profound importance if it really is what it claims to be). This shows the mindset of a scholar like Brother Nibley who never stops thinking- especially when under stress! But this is a profound challenge for all of us as members of the church. Too often we are content to look at the Book of Mormon as only an abstract spiritual guide and we don’t really understand that these were real people with real challenges who lived in a society that was very different from our own and yet lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ the same as we have.
These two books by John W. Welch (one was written by him, the other was edited by him) were extraordinarily satisfying to me- both intellectually and spiritually. I would like to briefly outline the books contents and some of the things that I particularly enjoyed and then tell you what I thought about it.

The first The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon is a description of the transcripts of several trials found in the Book of Mormon (Abinidi, Sherem, Alma, Korihor, etc.) and discusses these cases in the context of the Law of Moses and other Near Eastern legal traditions. Aside from these interesting bits of evidence and analysis there are some interesting things that we often miss when we read the text because we don’t understand the context (Brother Welch’s explanation of Sherem’s demand for a sign is particularly enlightening).

It was really awesome to see how a specialist views some of the important cases in the history of the Book of Mormon, both from a totally legal point of view and from a LDS point of view. In particular the far reaching effects of the reforms of King Mosiah that altered the law so that a person could not be charged with breaking the law only because of his belief was very interesting to me. I must confess that this seems a bit strange at first glance in an ancient book, and nothing could be further from the Law of Moses than some of Mosiah’s reforms, but with additional analysis the author points out how the change was both consistent with ancient Near Eastern (but not biblical) law and with the needs of the Nephites in this period of history. There are so many political and social things in the Book of Mormon that are only hinted at in the text but which fit together so perfectly with what we know of Lehi’s Jerusalem!

Furthermore the way that these trials fit together consistently to show the gradual evolution Nephite legal traditions is remarkably consistent- if, for example, we were to switch the trials of Korahor and Sherem chronologically then the entire thesis would fall flat on it’s face. But set in their respective time periods they make perfect sense!

There is no way that a twenty something farm-boy in nineteenth century New York could have produced a book that is that consistent with itself and with the evidence of the ancient world! In fact I don’t think that a modern professor could write something that nuanced and consistent!

The second book King Benjamin’s Speech is a much more focused study of the famous discourse by the Nephite king found in chapters two through six of the Book of Mosiah. There are fourteen different chapters in this book which represent a wide variety of scholarly interpretations of King Benjamin and his discourse. I was particularly delighted by the comment found in the introduction to the book that “apologized” to the reader if it took them more than a day and a half to read this book, but then reminded the reader that it only took Joseph Smith about that long to translate this entire section of the Book of Mormon

Perhaps most interesting to me is a literary analysis of the speech as a classical farewell speech (see Ch. 6 Benjamin's Sermon as a Traditional Ancient Farewell Address) in the context of other farewell speeches. Using a rubric set up by a non-LDS scholar for the tradition of Hebrew, Greek and Roman farewell speeches, the authors analyze King Benjamin’s speech and find that it is perhaps the BEST example of a farewell speech in ancient literature, conforming to nearly all of the set pieces of this traditional literary formula.

Another interesting analysis of this speech is in the context of the Ancient Israelite festivals surrounding the Day of Atonement and Feast of Tabernacles. Just read Nehemiah 8-13 and compare it with the first part of the Book of Mosiah and you’ll see many of these similarities for yourself.

Aside from the literary and historical analysis of this text, however, it is important to keep in mind its tremendous spiritual power. Indeed a nuanced reading of the text suggests many of the same principles of covenant making and revelation that are the basis of the sacramental prayers and even of the temple ceremonies of the Latter-Day Saints. Elder Maxwell aptly pointed out in the first chapter of this book that the best interpretation of Benjamin’s speech is as “a manual for discipleship.”

I am profoundly grateful for the authors who worked on these two books for the spiritual insights, intellectual stimulation and added measure of testimony that I have gained by reading these books. I would highly recommend the books to people, particularly those who could use a spiritual boost delivered in an academically sound way.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Welcome friends, family and people who I have never met to my little blog. This is not my main blog about what is going on with my life, which can be found here. This is a bit more of an intellectual blog, mostly focused on book reviews. I am not presumptuous enough to suggest that I should be taken seriously as a book reviewer. Nor am I going to presume to dictate if a book is good or not. Rather the purpose of this blog it to give my impression of some of the books that I am reading or have read and to share some of the information and ideas that I have found interesting, informative, thought provoking or just plain useful.
Generally I am going to try and write a little review of two books at a time. The reason is that I tend to go through phases in what I am reading and so I usually have at least two related books that I am reading at any given time. Besides, this way I can use the old “compare and contrast” method to write about the books and avoid having to do too much boring analysis!
Hopefully you find some of the things that I write about on here as interesting as I do. If you don’t at least you won’t have to listen to be talk about these books endlessly at social gatherings! Anyway, I hope you enjoy the blog!