Monday, September 29, 2008

A Response to Richard Dutcher

Richard Dutcher, the father of Mormon cinema, wrote an article for the Provo Daily Herald and shared his parting words regarding Mormon cinema. One particular quote seemed to jump out at me and although I have little or nothing to say in response to the issues raised by Mr. Dutcher, I felt that this particular idea needed a rebuttal of some sort.

Mr. Dutcher implored Mormons to "put the moronic comedies behind [them]. If [they]'re going to make comedies, at least make them funny. Perhaps [they] should leave the mockery of Mormons to the anti-Mormons. They've had a lot more experience and, frankly, they do a better job."

While reading Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, I happened upon a few short stories regarding traditional Christmas celebrations in Yorkshire, England that are rather lighthearted in nature. At the conclusion of the final story, Mr. Irving makes the following observation.

But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in this garrulity. Methinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers, "To what purpose is all this? how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?" Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens laboring for its improvement? It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct--to play the companion rather than the preceptor. What, after all, is the mite of wisdom that I could throw into the mass of knowledge! or how am I sure that my sagest deductions may be safe guides for the opinions of others? But in writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil is in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub
out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself--surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.
Life is too short to be fed a constant diet of 'serious' movies. Sure, we all like to watch a serious, thought-provoking drama sometimes. But for all the bad things that go on in the world, people sometimes have to step back and have a good laugh at themselves. Every once in a while people need brainless, meaningless fodder to put life into perspective. To argue otherwise, as Mr. Dutcher did, makes one come across sounding like a Puritan or a Debbie Downer.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

On Alma 30-34

Sometimes when we read the Bible or the Book of Mormon because the books are separated by chapter and verse we have a tendency to read each chapter independent of the other chapters around them. This occurred to me suddenly today while our Sunday School class discussed Alma 32-34. Last week we discussed Korihor and Alma 30.

In the past, whenever I read Alma 30, I couldn’t help but wonder why Alma gave a few passing answers, but didn’t really respond to any of Korihor’s allegations. I think that for many people, the refutations are less than satisfactory. The major points that Korihor raises are the following:

1. Leaders of the church teach Christ and the atonement to get money from their congregations.

2. No one can know of things to come and be sure of them.

3. There is no atonement and each person fares according to his own strength and genius.

Alma basically testifies that these things are not true and gives a few examples, but he doesn’t really examine any of these above points in detail. Further on, Korihor admits that he knew the truth all along, but that he was deceived by the devil.

I don’t think that Mormon (or Joseph Smith, depending on your view of who wrote the Book of Mormon. The level of insight either way indicates a prophetic calling of the writer of the chapters regardless of who the actual author is.) was arguing that all atheists have met angels of light or that despite knowing the truth they cling to atheistic teachings because of their appeal to the ‘carnal’ mind. I think that he was trying to clearly establish that the three ideas above are in opposition to the true plan of God.

In Alma 32-34, however, we see a detailed response to Korihor’s teachings. These chapters act as a rebuttal to the false teachings of Korihor. Alma 32 starts out with a group of indigent individuals who have been prohibited from worshiping in their place of worship even though they built it. Alma teaches them that worship doesn’t occur in a holy sanctuary alone. True worship occurs in a believer’s heart. And it is a response to Korihor’s first point.

One thing that impresses me about the Mormon church is that, temple worship excepted, you can participate to your heart’s content without contributing one red cent. You can go to Sunday worship services, you can send your kids to weekly activities and you can go to church socials all for free. Of course, if no one contributed any money, none of these could occur. But the church doesn’t require you to donate anything to enjoy almost all the benefits that it offers.

Also in Alma 32, we get the much-maligned parable of the seed. Although it is written as an invitation to accept Christ into your life, I see it as a response to Korihor’s second argument that you cannot know of things to come and be sure of them.

Alma goes through the steps that one can do to come to a knowledge of religious truths. It is not a scientific test in that it is capable of repetition regardless of who attempts. It is a discourse on how faith under the right conditions can transform into knowledge. Those who have gone through this transformative religious journey know that Christ lives, not through the scientific method, but through the feelings and spiritual experiences they have encountered. Spiritual experiences aren’t merely good feelings, they are feelings that begin to expand your understanding of the world and fill your soul with happiness. Anyone who has had a spiritual experience could not misidentify it as mere emotion. Spiritual experiences are too transcendental to be limited to mere human emotion. And through these spiritual experiences, our faith is slowly replaced with knowledge. And so Alma is able to answer Korihor’s allegation that you can’t know of things to come and be sure of them. Alma teaches that you can know that Christ will come because seeking Christ causes the spiritual experiences discussed above.

Korihor’s third argument is that the atonement is not necessary and that to teach people that they are fallen causes them to seek religious instruction which allows the leaders of the Church to get money in exchange for those teachings. He thinks that people fare according to their own strength and genius. This argument is the one that tries to cut down the fundamental pillar of Judeo-Christianity.

The key tenant of Christianity is that we are all equal before God. As humans, we all have imperfections and weaknesses. God is not a respecter of persons, not so much in that He ignores our individuality and winks at our sins, but in that He has provided a way for everyone regardless of what their particular weakness or imperfection may be to become like Him. The atonement is just another way of saying that, whoever we may be as an individual, as a human being we are in the same boat as all of our fellow human beings.

The one who teaches that a person fares according to his own strength and genius teaches something that is very harmful. I won’t discuss the obvious form of this idea, but I will discuss a more subtle form of it. Among the laity in the Mormon church, there is an idea that unless you did everything you can do, you won’t achieve the highest level available. I don’t like this idea because it is in clear contradiction to the teachings of the scriptures and the prophets. It also requires a self-knowledge beyond that of a mere mortal. Can any one really envision judgment day where a wise and just God in pronouncing judgment on some poor soul would say, “Sorry Brother Jones. Your entrance into the celestial kingdom is denied. Although your record is exemplary, I find that you could have been a little bit more diligent in being kind to other people. In particular, there was an instance where you donated $20 to a charitable cause when $25 was the best that you could do. You didn’t repent of that adequately. Best of luck to you in the terrestrial kingdom. Next, please.”

Alma 34:15 says that salvation comes to all who believe in Christ. It says nothing about whether your actions will enable you to obtain salvation. And who are those that believe in Christ? People who believe in Christ seek him. Christ invitation to “come and see” in John 1 remains. And those who seek Christ repent of their sins. They do good works to feel his Spirit, not to curry favor in the afterlife. They desire everyone to feel the interconnectedness that blesses those who have the Holy Ghost within them.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Contract Law and Disney's "The Little Mermaid"

I recently had the opportunity of watching Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” after having not seen it for years. Although it was still a touching coming-of-age story with a great soundtrack and a host of memorable supporting characters, I noticed that there were some glaring plot holes that anyone with a contract law background would have noticed.

For those who have yet to see the movie, I will give you a brief synopsis. King Triton is King of the Sea with several daughters, the youngest of which is a precocious sixteen-year old who has a penchant for getting into difficult situations. Her name is Ariel. Her partner in crime is a flounder aptly named Flounder. After showing a complete disregard for her father’s rules (and missing her musical debut), her father assigns Sebastian, the royal composer, to keep an eye on her. Sebastian ends up being completely hopeless at the task and before long Ariel is back at the surface where she becomes enamored with a human prince named Eric.

Her father discovers her infatuation with the human prince and his daughter’s love for ‘surface’ things and in his anger destroys her collection of artifacts from dry land. Not surprisingly, this act, rather than endearing her to her father, drives her to seek help from Ursula, the Sea Witch. While there she signs a contract trading her voice for her legs. To make the trade permanent, Ariel has to have Eric fall in love with her and give her the “kiss of true love.” If she fails to do so, she will belong to Ursula. And thus begins a legal plot hole so large you could drive a truck through it.

Ursula and her henchmen (hench eels?) do whatever they can to stop Ariel from kissing the prince. The eels knock over a rowboat when Ariel and Eric are about to kiss and Ursula disguises her self as a princess and bewitches Eric. Right before Ariel and Eric attempt a second kiss, Ariel transforms back into a mermaid and Ursula grabs her and dives back into the ocean in a bid to take Ariel back to her lair.

En route, they meet Triton. Ursula pulls out the contract and Triton tries to destroy it with his trident. He is unable to do so and Ursula taunts him by saying that the contract is binding and legal. Triton sacrifices himself by agreeing to shoulder Ariel’s legal obligations.


First of all, Ariel is a minor and all contracts, as I’m sure that several video rental stores have eventually found out to their chagrin, signed by minors are voidable. All Ariel had to do was repudiate the contract. There is no way that Ursula could have enforced that contract. On turning eighteen, I’m sure that Ariel could have ratified the contract and been liable under it, but there is nothing in the movie to indicate that in the three days from when she signed the contract to when its legality was challenged that she turned eighteen. Part of the reason that contracts with minors are voidable is because teenagers make foolish decisions like Ariel did and sign away their freedom in the proverbial deal with the devil.

Second, Ursula had a duty of good faith and fair dealing, something that is implicit in every contract. Even an evil villain is not exempt from it. Ursula had an obligation to allow Ariel to act unimpeded in her quest to win over Prince Eric. Ursula failed to do this because she and her agents set up obstacles precluding Ariel from fulfilling the terms of the contract. It was her eels that tipped over the row boat right before Eric and Ariel were about to kiss. And Ursula herself bewitched the Prince to stop Ariel from kissing him. I’m just surprised that she took off after Eric and Ursula instead of looking for a competent legal adviser to help her examine her legal options at that point. The movie wouldn’t have been quite as endearing, but it would have a lot more education to the vast hordes of American children who watch it. But I digress; in any case, Ariel would have been released from fulfilling her obligations because Ursula significantly breached her duty of good faith under the contract. Furthermore, even if Ariel was in breach of her contract, Ursula would not have been able to get specific performance of her contract. It is a legal maxim that he who seeks equity must seek to do equity. Ursula had unclean hands and therefore she would have only been entitled to monetary damages.

Lastly, as King of the Sea, Triton could have declared the contract void ab initio because it was contrary to public policy. In the same way that courts hesitate to enforce contracts between criminals, Triton could have decided that it was bad public policy to allow penalty clauses in contracts that require the defaulting party to be turned into a diminutive sea creature and become a possession. I certainly can’t see any value in allowing such provisions to be enforceable, but then again, I’m not a merperson, and I don’t necessary understand the Law of the Sea.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Original Epilogue of the Harry Potter Series

I have a friend who knows someone who works for Scholastic and apparently the last Harry Potter book was to have a different epilogue then the one they actually published. Through sheer tenacity and good luck, the original has fallen into my hands. Without further adieu, here is the original epilogue:

Harry awoke to a sharp pounding on the door that matched the pounding in his head. For a few moments, he felt disoriented and unsure of where he was exactly. The worn blue sofa on which he lay, as well as the low metal table in front of him, was littered with empty Butterbeer and Firewhiskey bottles. Harry was cognizant of a peculiar fragrance emitting from an ashtray in which lay the remains of some bitter herb. From the matching smell of his breath, Harry surmised that he must have enjoyed the mallowsweet the night before. The annoying pounding on the door hadn’t ceased, so Harry started to search the worn-out pockets of his dirty, beer-stained robes for his wand. “Just a second,” he called out weakly as he picked up the wand from the floor where it had fallen. “Alohomora!” he said, surprising himself that he could do such a dexterous wand flick considering the state he was in.

The door swung open to reveal Neville. “Thanks. I forgot my key again,” he said breathlessly as he entered the room. “Of course, it would be a lot easier if you just let me Apparate here at will. I mean, I know you like your privacy and all, but I just thought that—well, you know—that because this is my house—don’t get angry again Harry, I’m just telling you how I feel—I think I should be allowed to Apparate into it.”

“C’mon Neville,” Harry said, rubbing his forehead. He hadn’t felt a pain like this for the past nineteen years. Not since before he had destroyed the Horcrux that had been attached to his soul and killed Lord Voldemort. The difference between his current pain and the prior pain, however, was that instead of being privy to the thoughts of an evil wizard, all he could remember was a haze of smoke, alcohol and Romilda Vane. “I’m saved your life enough times. I think you should try to be a little bit more grateful. Besides, you have to remember I was the one who helped you get your cushy little job up at Hogwarts—some friend you are. But…I’m only going to stay for a few days longer. You know the situation between Ginny and me.”

Neville frowned slightly and hesitated before answering with a shrug. “Well Harry, a few more days should be okay. But I’m going back up to Hogwarts soon and I’ve already promised Viktor Krum and his wife that it would be okay for them to stay here while he does some work for the Ministry.”

Harry scowled at the mention of the word Ministry. “I don’t know why those folks at the Ministry are so willing to employ foreigners when they don’t mind letting go of loads of us English wizards,” he muttered darkly. “By the way, Neville, were you up before Romilda left? I didn’t hear her leave.”

“She must have left right after I did. Which reminds me…” Neville’s voiced trailed off a bit. Harry could tell that Neville was uncomfortable and was deciding whether voicing his complaint would be worth it or not. “Harry, I know this might sound insignificant to you, but—uh—in the future could you ask you female friends not to leave their, uh,…the truth is Harry that it’s a bit disconcerting to wake up and find a strange witch’s underclothes strewn about the bathroom. Not that Romilda is strange mind you,” he said, his face looking as though he thought that Harry was growing increasingly hostile to his suggestion.

Harry snorted. “You’re as bad as Ginny, sometimes. All you do is nag, nag, nag. But—and I’m only doing this because I like you—I’ll tell her not to do it anymore. Besides, I don’t think she’ll be coming by much longer. I don’t fancy her as much as I used to anymore—it’s probably a good time to move on anyways. Well, I’ll help you clean up this mess a bit before I pop down to Knockturn Alley for a pint. I don’t want you telling people that I’m a deadbeat.” Harry stood up, his legs unsteady and his head still pounding. “My head’s killing me. I think I’ll need a bit of mallowsweet to get me started though. You have any left?”

Neville shook his head. “I’m shouldn’t really be giving you any. I’ve heard rumors that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is planning an anti-mallowsweet campaign. Plus I’m worried that if Headmistress McGonagall found out that I had the second year students grow it for you, I’d get the sack.”

“McGonagall, McGonagall,” Harry sneered sarcastically. “You’re starting to sound like a broken Howler. Don’t worry about it. I’ll just clean without it. Evanesco!!” The empty bottles and ashtray vanished. “This used to be a lot easier before they liberated all the House Elves. At the rates those elves charge for their services these days, you’d be flat broke in a month. Anyways, I’m off Neville. I’ll be back in time for dinner. And for goodness sake, when I get home, make sure that you don’t burn it all again. There’s nothing worse than carbonized shepherd’s pie.” Neville nodded slowly as Harry pushed passed him and out onto the street.

Knockturn Alley had changed significantly since Harry had first stumbled upon it before his second year at Hogwarts. Long gone were the stores that sold Dark Arts paraphernalia; Borgin & Burkes, the last holdout, had recently been turned into an upscale health club for well-healed wizarding families and most of the other businesses similarly catered to a more wealthy demographic. Despite the redevelopment, a few of the original non-Dark Arts businesses had managed to survive. Close to the end of the alley, tucked in between a Twilfit & Tatting’s Custom Robe Outfitters and a new Wagstaff’s Wands Outlet, the new American wand manufacturer, was Harry’s favorite pub, the Toe and Slug. Although he had long been a patron of the Leaky Cauldron for many years, certain bad events had pushed Harry into seeking out a new establishment for his business. And since he had moved out from Grimmauld Place, the Toe and Slug sometimes seemed like the only home he had. As he pulled the old door open, the smell of old Firewhiskey filled his nostrils. Relishing the opportunity to indulge his favorite beverage, Harry eagerly entered.

The pub looked even more rundown on the inside than it did on the outside. A few motley wizards sat at a dilapidated table covered with pewter jugs and half-eaten food, close to a small fireplace in the corner, intent on a game of gobstones. An old hag was slumped over in a wooden chair close to the wall, her snores sounding like a Hungarian Horntail clearing its throat. Behind the bar stood Stan Shunpike casually flipping through the pages of the Daily Prophet. Not far from where he stood, a red-haired man sat quietly sipping from a mug of butterbeer that sat in front of him.

“Hey Ron!” Harry called.

Ronald Weasley gave his head a slight nod to acknowledge his friend. “Hey Harry!”

“How’re Hermione and the kids?” Harry asked as he sat on the stool next to Ron.

“They're doing all right. Hugo is starting at Hogwarts in a couple of weeks. I’m supposed to pick up a thing or two for him today, but I got distracted as usual.”

Harry smiled. “I know what you mean. Let’s just hope that Hermione doesn’t find out how you spend most of you day.”

“She probably already knows what I do most days. She doesn’t mind as long as I stay out of trouble. She’d be happy if I found work, but I watch the kids while she spends her day at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement—speaking of which, you still using mallowsweet? You’d better get rid of it. Hermione told me that they’re thinking about a crackdown. Seems they want to change the rules so that you can only use it with a centaur’s permission.” Harry nodded glumly, but didn’t reply. He considered asking Firenze for help, but wondered if the old centaur was too much of a straight arrow to help him out. Harry’s thoughts were interrupted by an arrogant voice behind him.

“Potter and Weasley,” it said. “I thought I could smell your peculiar odor from outside.” Harry and Ron turned around to see a blond, though balding, wizard standing behind them, his hands on his hips, his upper lip twisted into a sneer. The room was tense for a moment before he broke out into a chuckle. “Was I really that much of a jerk at school?”

Harry gave Draco Malfoy a good-natured pat on the back as he sat down. “We can’t really blame you. We were all immature back then and kids can be so nasty to each other,” he said, he said with a shrug. “Although a round of butterbeers would help make Ron and I feel better,” he added with a sly smile. Malfoy nodded at Stan and soon the filled glasses sat in front of them.

“A toast,” Malfoy said, raising his mug, “A toast—you too Stan, lift a glass—to the two best Aurors ever laid off the Ministry.” They clinked their mugs together and each of them took a long draught of the beer.

Ron smacked his lips after the cool liquid had drained down his throat. “Not bad—though I prefer Firewhiskey. It’s got more of a kick to it. Let’s have a round of that Stan!”

A few hours, and several pints, later, Harry and his friends found themselves more than a little tipsy. Though his friends appeared to be in high spirits, with each drink, Harry found his mood growing darker and darker. “Wait a second,” he said, interrupting Malfoy’s refutation of Ron’s theory that the Chudley Cannons were due for a turn around that year. “Ron, Malfoy, you know where I went wrong.” He paused to belch. “I shouldn’t have killed Voldemort so young. You just can’t do something that famous when you’re young. While he was alive, I was the Boy Who Lived. After he was gone I became the Man Who Nobody Cared About. He defined me—he made me a hero—he made me somebody. At age seventeen you fight evil and conquer it—then what? You got sixty years to try and match that. And what happens? You get sixty years to sit around and think about how great the first twenty were. Sixty years of hell.” Ron and Malfoy exchanged uncomfortable glances at each other, but said nothing. Neither of them dared say anything when Harry’s mood turned sour. Harry was completely oblivious to them as he continued his slurred rant. “Sure some people still wave and nod at me, but who really cares about Harry Potter these days? You work hard for fifteen years, putting your neck on the line every day fighting the Dark Arts and then what? The Ministry decides that the Dark Arts aren’t as much as a threat as they used to be and with wizards clamoring for reducing taxes and cutting costs, what choice do they have? You’re out saving the world one day and the next day your boss comes and tells you that there’s an overabundance of Aurors and that the older, more expensive ones are being let go. Of course, they thank you for your service with a shiny plaque and hand you a few galleons to tide you over until your next job.”

“Harry—“ Ron began, but Harry cut him off.

“Next thing you know, you’re stuck at home every day with nothing but Firewhiskey and bad memories for company, trying to get along with a wife who feels you’ve invaded her space and who can’t understand what you’re going through.” He took a long hard swill from mug of Butterbeer, finished the last of it. He slammed the mug down and attempted to stand. As he stood up, his legs gave way and he would have fallen if Stan hadn’t cast a levitating spell right on him that moment. “Thanks Stan,” he said weakly before the half-fermented contents of his stomach ended up on the floor.

His friends stood up beside him. “We’ll take over from here, Stan,” Ron said, grabbing a napkin from the bar to wipe Harry’s face. “We’ll get him home.” Both he and Malfoy grabbed one of Harry’s arms as the three of them stumbled out of the bar and out into the glitzy fa├žade that was Knockturn Alley.

A few days later, Harry stood waiting impatiently on Platform 9 ¾. The platform itself was swarming with kids, wizards, witches, owls, luggage and a house elf or two. He looked at his watch, then up at the platform clock and then scanned the crowd once again for any sign of his wife or children. Ginny’s late as usual, he thought with a frown. If she didn’t get there soon, James and Albus wouldn’t make the train. He scratched his neck. He hadn’t done any shaving charms in the past few days and his facial hair had become long enough that it was starting to get itchy.

As he stood there, fighting the urge to pace back and forth, he heard a voice cry out from behind him. “Uncle Harry!” He turned to see his niece, Rose running towards him, with Ron, Hermione and Hugo close behind. He scooped Rose up and gave her a big hug.

“How are you?” he said as he put her down.

She looked up at him, her brown eyes twinkling. “Sad. Hugo’s going to Hogwarts and Mum and Da’ won’t let me go with ‘im.”

“You’ll get to go soon enough. Hello, Ron, Hugo…Hermione.” He said the last name in a neutral voice. Hermione looked at him coolly, but said nothing. Ever since she had run into him and Hannah Abbott in a compromising situation at the Leaky Cauldron a couple of years back, she had been decidedly less then friendly. Harry surmised that she hadn’t said anything to Ron about the whole mess, but it always made meetings with her uncomfortable.

“Waiting on Ginny?” Ron asked.

“Yeah,” Harry replied. “Just want to say goodbye to my boys before they go to Hogwarts. I haven’t seen them in a few months. Ginny and I get into big arguments if I go over to Grimmauld Place—I’d rather our kids not see that—and Ginny won’t let them visit over at Neville’s, so this is one of my few opportunities.” He glanced down at his watch again before looking at Ron and Hermione’s oldest. “So what house do you think you’ll be sorted into?”

“I hope I’m put in Gryffindor, you know, like you and Mum and Dad.”

Harry nodded. “I guess you’ll find out tonight.” He looked up and saw Ginny struggling to bring three children with their luggage along the platform. “There she is.”

“We’ll get going then,” Ron said. “You probably want to be alone with them.” He beckoned for his family to follow him and they were soon lost in the crowd.

Ginny was huffing and her face was flushed from the effort of marshalling three children by herself. Her face maintained a measure of her good looks, but the birth of three children had been less than kind to her body. Her red hair was hastily tied up in a pony tail and a few stray wisps of hair had managed to escape in her hurry. “How are you Harry?” she managed to say between breaths.

“Fine,” he replied, a little more curt than he intended. He turned his attention on the two boys and girl that stood in front of him. “How are you doing? Are you nervous, Albus?” His oldest son nodded. “I was nervous the first time I went. I didn’t even know how to get onto the right platform, but your Nana Weasley helped me out.” His son nodded once again, but remained silent. Harry had found it increasingly difficult to talk to his son and his estrangement from his wife didn’t help the situation.

Ginny broke the awkward silence. “He’s worried about which house he’ll be sorted into. He doesn’t want be put in Slytherin.”

“No son of mine is going to be in Slytherin.” Harry said, wagging his index finger in his son’s face. “If word comes back to me that the Sorting Hat has put you into that nasty house, there’ll be hell to pay at Hogwarts. That stupid hat almost put me in Slytherin. Sure there are a couple exceptions, but for the most part, kids in Slytherin are a bunch of sniveling—“

“Harry!” his wife’s voice rang out. “Albus is already worried enough as it is. Have a heart!”

Harry gave his wife a hard look and kept quiet for a moment. “Well,” he said, in a low voice, as if the words were being pulled out of him. “Good luck, son. You’ll be fine whatever house you end up in.” He glanced at his wife to see if the answer was acceptable to her. “Run along, kids. I need to say a few things to your mother in private before I leave.” Harry’s children slowly moved down the platform seemingly lost as to where exactly they should go.

“Well, Harry?” Ginny asked. “Where have you been staying?”

“I’m over at Neville’s. It’s been great catching up with him after all these years,” Harry replied. “And now that he’s headed back up to Hogwarts, I’ve got the place all to myself.”

Ginny winced, as if Harry had kicked her in the shins. “I hoped that it wouldn’t have to have come to this, but I’ve been down to speak to my solicitor and I think it might be better if we make this separation more permanent.”

Although he was not surprised by his wife’s feelings, Harry wasn’t sure how to respond. At some levels, it was exactly what he wanted, but it still didn’t stop the intense feeling of loss he had whenever he thought of the possibility of divorce. “Let’s not cross that bridge until we come to it. I’m just trying to work some things out and I need some more time to do that.”

“We can’t wait forever, Harry,” Ginny said. “Albus and James need a father in their life. We’ve—I’ve—been waiting for years. I don’t think we can wait much longer.”

Harry paused and looked around at the crowded platform, as if he had just noticed the throng around them for the first time. “This isn’t the best place or time to discuss this…” He hesitated for a moment before adding, “I’ll stop by later tonight. Say goodbye to the kids for me.” Ginny’s mouth twisted, but she said nothing as Harry slowly turned and walked away.

As he trudged down the platform, a solitary figure in a solitary world, he reached up, almost unconsciously, and gingerly touched the scar on his forehead. It didn’t hurt like it used to, but it had never completely healed. And much like the emotional scars that marred his psyche from which he could not escape, Harry felt his scar made him a marked man, doomed to wander the world, with his only success years behind him and nothing but emptiness and hurt in his future.

Despite his feelings of hopelessness, or maybe because of them, Harry smiled in spite of himself, and once more touched his scar.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

On Tithing

Growing up, I had always planned on serving a mission. As part of the plan, I realized that based upon my family’s precarious financial situation, I would have to work for a year to finance my mission instead of going to college. After graduating from high school, I started looking for a job, but as a person with low skills and low productivity, the only avenues of employment that appeared open to me were door-to-door sales, telemarketing and fast food restaurant work. After two months of fruitless searching, I saw an advertisement for an office job working as an audit clerk. I wasn’t exactly sure what an audit clerk would do, but I felt that it couldn’t be that difficult a job. I applied and, surprisingly, I was called in for an interview.

Apparently, the job to which I applied had a high turn-over rate, so the company had turned to a temp agency to filter out the undesirables before interviewing people for the job. I passed the first interview and was set for another interview with the company the next day. At the interview, for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with the supervisor for the position. After the interview, I spoke with the lady from the temp agency who told me that she thought they had made a mistake and that she would arrange for me to have another interview with the other supervisor who had been away on vacation.

A few days later, I got another phone call from the temp agency. The lady had managed to snag me another interview with the other interviewer. This interview went much better and within a few days, I was sitting at a desk with a stack of old invoices, offer letters and other assorted documents. My supervisor and her assistant explained that I was to go through the invoices and make sure that we had been charged the right amount based on the offer letters that we had received. In addition to my lowly salary of $7.67 an hour with no paid lunch, I would also be paid 2% of whatever overpayments I found as an added incentive. Not exactly an edge-of-your-seat type of job, but I was happy to be working in an office than to have to work in the other fields of employment that were open to me.

After laboriously poring over the invoices for a day and a half, I had found a mistake or two and handed in the invoices and other papers to my supervisor’s assistant for her to check. Needless to say, I had done a horrible job and easily missed about 99.9% of the errors. I was crushed (and worried that I might find myself out of a job at the end of the day). The first few weeks were very precarious and not much fun.

Early on, I had decided that I would pay my tithing on whatever I would make. And I kept that promise. After getting paid, I would save 80% of the money I made, pay 10% as tithing and keep the other 10% as payment to myself. Even though I only took home about $500 every two weeks after taxes, in the mid-Nineties, it seemed like a lot.

In addition to my hourly wage, I was also paid the 2% bonus every quarter. Although when I first started the job, I was horribly unqualified for it, I ended up becoming one of the senior members of the department because of good job performance. I even had my own office before I left, which is pretty good considering many of my co-workers who had been there longer were stuck on out on the ‘floor’. Over the course of 15 months, I had saved the company almost a million dollars, and received 2% of that amount.

I was easily able to pay the whole cost of my mission and other attendant costs (clothing, dental work, etc.) Not only was I able to pay for my mission expense, I also was able to purchase several thousand dollars worth of guitar equipment, take a trip to Florida to visit relatives and amusement parks and generally have a really good time just going out with my friends and family. Living at home helped to minimize expenses, but I did contribute what I could to my family. Even after my mission, I had enough money saved to pay for the first year of college and to pay for a trip down to Australia to visit one of my companions.

The biggest reward for faithfully paying my tithing was that when I was out in the mission field, in my last area, I met a lady whom I will refer to as Minnie (not her real name). The other Elders in the area I was in were teaching the discussions, but she hadn’t been progressing for a couple of months. One night, one of the ward missionaries invited the four Elders and some of their investigators over to have a picnic outside. While at the picnic, I had an opportunity to sit and talk to Minnie.

I asked her how the discussions were going and how she felt about the church. She told me that she thought the church was good, but was unsure about God and the Atonement. I asked if there was anything else she was concerned about and she said tithing. For whatever reason, I felt that it was her main concern. I shared my experience with her and we spoke for about an hour about tithing, the Church, God and the Atonement. To this day, I can’t remember much of what I said, but I do remember that I spoke Japanese better that night then I had ever spoken it before (or probably since). I felt very good, very calm and very connected to Minnie. I truly felt as though she were my sister.

The next week at church, she came to me and told me that she was grateful that we had had our talk. She told me that she had been feeling like a ship in a storm and that she was conflicted about what she had been taught, but that after our conversation, she felt as though the waters had calmed and that she was ready to change her life and join the Church.

Several months after I came home from Japan, I got a postcard from Sister Minnie informing me that she was going on a mission to Temple Square. After her mission, she married a returned Japanese missionary in the Tokyo temple. I believe that they have one child. I not sure because her email address doesn't work anymore and I have otherwise lost contact with her and her husband.

This is not usually the type of story that I would post, but for some reason, the last few days I have felt that I should put it on my blog.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On John Locke, Natural Law and Reading

In law school, I presented a paper on jurisprudence, fundamental rights and the Supreme Court of the United States to my seminar on law, history and philosophy. As part of my research into such intellectually-stimulating realms of natural law and legal positivism, I would often come across writers who had examined the natural law espoused by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government and compared it to his arguments in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding against innate ideas. Most of these writers were puzzled by the apparent contradiction between the two concepts.

As opposed to the rationalists who thought that humankind was born with certain innate ideas, Locke thought that humans were born with no ideas at all and that only through sensory experience could they gain ideas and structure them into increasing mixed and complex ideas. Many have probably heard this referred to as the tabla rasa. Natural law is a theory of jurisprudence that holds that law is a body of rules found in nature that are independent from the customs and mores of mankind. To the extent that man-made laws conflict with this natural set of laws, the man-made laws were unjust. In recent memory, the most famous declaration of natural law was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously quoted Augustine in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and stated that one had a moral responsibility to disobey an unjust law, albeit nonviolently.

Returning to the apparent Lockean contradiction of tabla rasa and natural law, it appears that Locke is saying on the one hand, that all ideas and knowledge come from experience, and are not innately existent in humans, but on the other hand, to be arguing that there is a system of laws that are self-evident to all humankind. It quickly became apparent to me that there was no contradiction and that those who thought otherwise had not bothered to read what Locke had actually wrote. (Although to be fair, I must admit that Locke’s Essay is a difficult read. It’s not because it is abstruse, but because it is so dense and wordy.)

Further adding to the apparent contradiction was that Locke was dismissive of the earlier philosophical work of the Scholastics, chief of whom was St. Thomas Aquinas who championed natural law. Locke was especially dismissive of their work as it related to their attempts to posit real essences in objects. Locke felt that objects only had real essences in our ideas, not within the object itself. Locke argued that universal terms such as ‘man’ or ‘dog’ only applied to groups of objects and not to any one specific man or any one specific dog. The human mind ordered objects and combined simple ideas into complex ones. But this did not mean that he thought that natural law was somehow a real essence of the world.

To properly frame Locke’s arguments, however, you have to look at the intellectual climate of his time. Instead of calling branches of knowledge by their modern names, philosophers of the time referred to natural philosophy, which later became science, and natural religion, which later become teleological theology. It is no surprise, therefore, that a theory of jurisprudence would be labeled ‘natural’ law. Philosophers looked to the general success of natural philosophy in uncovering laws about the physical nature of the universe and optimistically extended those methods and conclusions to other scholarly endeavors.

In this light, it is easy to see that Locke thought that people were not born with an innate notion of gravity or planetary movement, that through experience (and application of reason, viz., the scientific method) they would come to understand the law of gravity or the law of planetary movement. These laws of physics existed outside of the human mind, yet they were discoverable by it. Applying this rationale to the law and human rights, Locke felt that through experience and the use of reason, people could arrive at an undisputed notion of what the natural law was. If there was any disagreement over what the law should be, it was because of flaws within human’s minds and the general complexity involving 'complex ideas' (as he defined it), not because law was a man-made creation.

Moral of this post: Before you discourse on a writer’s ideas, make sure that you have actually read what the writer had written before commenting on those ideas. Otherwise you come across as a lazy scholar.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On the Offensiveness of Christ

When reading the New Testament, one thing that becomes apparent is that Christ was offensive. For whatever reason, people were genuinely offended by him. And it wasn't just the Pharisees either. For all that is written about living a Christ-like life, apparently people tend to omit the foregoing. It certainly seems intuitive that being offensive is not a sign of being a true Christian. But to deny the offensiveness of Christ is to ignore an important aspect of his divinity. For those who acknowledge that Christ was offensive, they interpret his actions as a reformer exposing hypocrisy and false teachings. But even this viewpoint is flawed.

As Soren Kierkegaard points out in his Practice in Christianity, there is an unusual incident involving Jesus and two followers of John the Baptist. In Matthew 11:6, John the Baptist sends two followers to Jesus to ask if Jesus is the one they are waiting for or if there is another. Instead of giving an unequivocal, “I’m the one you’re waiting for”, Jesus gives a very curious answer. Instead he answers with:

“Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

All of the above seem to be signs that Jesus is the Christ, but what he says next, as Kierkegaard aptly points out, seems non sequitur.
“And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (The New International Version says: Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.)
The logical answer would be that because of the miracles and the teaching, Jesus is the Messiah. But instead of the logical answer, we are left with ‘Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.’ How is it that on seeing miracles performed and the gospel preached, someone could be offended? I admit to struggling with what Christ seems to be saying.

But, as usual, Kierkegaard makes an interesting insight into the nature of God and the nature of faith. You can’t know that God exists through rational argument. There is no ‘If p, then q; p, therefore q” when it comes to God. It’s a matter of faith, pure and simple. To me, it seems that it is irrational to believe in God or to not believe in God. It’s irrational to believe in God because there is (seemingly) no empirically verifiable evidence. But when someone is confronted with empirical evidence, there is no unavoidable conclusion. Jesus didn’t say, “You saw me do this, therefore believe,” he says, “Blessed is he that is not offended.” You can’t know God through science. You can only know God through faith. Such a fideistic answer may be unsatisfactory to ‘hard fact’-types, but that’s where we have to leave it at this point.

On further reflection, however, it seems that the New International Version provides an interesting nuance because it talks about falling away on account of Jesus. I’m sure that most people arrogantly assume that if they had encountered Christ, they would have known who he was. But it seems that appearances can be deceiving. It seems that humans don’t make religious decisions based on the evidence. It appears that humans make religious decisions about the truth based on the speaker. On pure appearances, Jesus was an uneducated carpenter. In Luke 4, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, reads what is now known as Isaiah Chapter 61, and tells the people that the scripture was fulfilled because of him. They became offended and tried to kill him, but for whatever reason, Jesus managed to avoid this fate. They failed to understand who Christ was because instead of listening to the message, they focused on the messenger.

But what is about Christ and Christianity that is so offensive? Kierkegaard thinks its because the miracles and the teachings don’t build faith, they bring people to the point where ‘faith can come into existence.’ When faced with a miracle, people are discomfited because they see Jesus, all they see is a regular human being. If by the miracle, he is claiming to be divine and you do not believe him to be divine, it leads to the conclusion that he is lying and therein lies the offense. We have a certain worldview and we reject any information that does not comport to that worldview. We become offended by the things that we can not easily account for.

A true believer will reject any theory that appears to show God as unmerciful or uncaring. An atheist rejects all miracles as misunderstandings at best, and outright falsifications at worst. But they are doing the exact same thing. They are rejecting information about the world, not because it is false, but because it does easily fit into their view of what the world is. When a fundamentalist summarily rejects evolution because it does not allow for God’s intervention, they are no worse than the atheist who rejects God because the evidence for Him is not in the form the atheist wants it to be. They are both deciding which evidence to accept and which evidence to reject. And because the beliefs of the other make both the fundamentalist and the atheist uncomfortable, they are offended.