Friday, October 19, 2007

Interview with Ken Jennings by an Atheist

Just thought this would be of interest to the blogernacle. As a Republican and supporter of Mitt Romney I have to disagree with his politics, but most everything else seems right on to me.

Hemant: You’re a Mormon, but I’ve rarely heard you say much about your faith outside of its name. Do you ever talk about your faith publicly?

Ken: I’m always happy to talk about Mormonism when it comes up — Alex Trebek and I discussed topics like tithing and Mormon dietary taboos (cigarettes, booze) on-air, and many interviewers since have been oddly interested in the possible connections between faith and game show success. I think I only seem reticent about my faith when you compare me to a certain kind of bumper-sticker Christian, full of proselytizing zeal. I love my religion and am always happy to share it, but it’s also very personal to me, and I don’t know that trotting it out incongruously in secular situations is always appropriate (or, from a conversion perspective, very effective). Mostly, I’m just happy for the chance to shatter any remaining stereotypes of Mormons as insular weirdos. So I try to pick my spots and appreciate it when others do the same.

Hemant: You’ve said in interviews that a six-month mission trip you took in college strengthened your faith. What was it about the trip that changed your life?

Ken: It’s actually a two-year mission that young LDS guys serve — I was in Madrid, Spain from 2003 to 2005. Missionaries help out with local congregations and perform community service, but the bulk of their day is spent looking for and teaching people who are interested in hearing more about the Mormon church. Almost any Mormon who’s served a mission will talk for hours on end about what a formative, landmark experience it was in their lives. A lot of that is just timing and circumstance: you’re 19 years old, you’re far from home, you’re living an incredibly demanding lifestyle (missionaries work upwards of twelve hours a day, six days a week, and even their non-working hours are tightly regimented for study, chores, etc.). But there’s more to it than that.

For believing people — even very devout ones — religion tends, by necessity, to be a sidelight in our lives. We talk a good game, but we still spend much more time and effort on our careers, family, even hobbies than God gets. It was eye-opening to actually be able to put my money where my mouth was, for a change, and think about spiritual things full time, and act accordingly. That kind of focus really shows you the power can religion have in someone’s life — my life, as well as the changes for good I saw in a lot of the people we taught. A lot of atheists probably assume that a dramatic increase in religious devotion leads inevitably to fanaticism, but believe me, there’s an enormous potential for good in that kind of focus as well. I lived a completely distraction-free, self-examined life for two years, considering nothing but Life’s Big Questions. Those medieval monastic orders were on to something.

Hemant: Have you ever doubted your Mormonism? If so, how did you deal with that?

Ken: I think doubt is an essential part of faith. I don’t like the absolute conviction of a lot of religious people, even when it doesn’t lead them to blow up buildings or whatever. Mormons like to say “I know…” rather than “I believe…” when they testify of their faith, and I know they mean well, but the formulation rankles. It sounds complacent. Ah well, you know. That’s all sorted out, then.

I feel like a livelier, stronger faith is the kind you have to fight for regularly. The man with a sick child in Mark chapter 9 said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I feel the same way a lot of the time. My faith isn’t just the one I happened to be spoon-fed as a child. By this time, it’s based on a lot of very real life experiences — times when I feel the principles and organization of my church brought me closer to the divine. But it’s a chaotic world out there, and sometimes you have to fight to remember those experiences amid all the other distractions.

Hemant: How do you reconcile your faith with your knowledge of science where there is contradiction between them?

Ken: This is an easier question for a Mormon than it is, perhaps, for an Evangelical: there’s no specific LDS doctrine on issues like evolution, so none of that has ever been problematic for me. Brigham Young taught the early Latter-day Saints that “Mormonism embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical.” As a result, there’s an open-minded, questing, Enlightenment spirit to the Mormon pursuit of truth that I’ve always liked.

Science has been known to be wrong about scientific questions, but it certainly has a much better track record than organized religion does in deciding scientific questions, so I prefer to keep the two magisteria non-overlapping. I also don’t like it when the maple syrup from my pancakes gets on my sausage at breakfast.

Hemant: Outside of your church (which was tithed, correct?), where did you donate some of your winnings?

Ken: Yes, a tenth of my winnings was tithed to my church, but I’d like that to be just the beginning of the good I do with the money, not the end of it. It’s nice now to be able to write a generous check when some worthy cause pops up, Katrina or a friend’s fun run or a public radio pledge drive, and not have to worry about whether I can still pay the bills that month. But I’ll confess that I’m still paralyzed by indecision when it comes to the bulk of the money. I’d like to do one big, substantive thing rather than ladling it out piecemeal, but it’s hard to know where it would do the most good. So for now, I mostly dither.

Hemant: A lot of religious parents raise their children in “the family faith.” Most atheist parents (perhaps in response) prefer teaching kids how to think, not what to think. How are you raising your kids Dylan and Caitlin?

(Quick note: In this question, I meant to ask Ken what his thoughts were on the idea of teaching critical thinking instead of simply believe-it-because-we-said-so religion. In the process, I came off sounding rather douchebaggish. Ken rightly called me out on it with his answer.)

Ken: Wow, if there an emoticon for self-back-patting, you forgot to use it there. This question, with its imagined crazy religious brainwasher parent and its benevolent, tolerant atheist one, doesn’t strike me as very accurate. You’ll be shocked to hear that even religious people would like their kids to know how to think, and I’m sure a Hitchens-style atheist would be just as unhappy to see a child convert as any believer would be to have a child “fall away” from the faith. I would like to see my kids’ lives blessed by their religion in the same way that mine was. We take them to church with us. They’re four and one years old, respectively. Should we open the Yellow Pages to “Churches” every Sunday morning and have them throw a dart?

That said, of course our love for our kids — or anyone else — isn’t contingent on them sharing our religion, no matter what path they choose. But, in the meantime, my wife and I are going to give them a head-start in the only tradition that we know from personal experience has brought us greater truth and happiness.

Hemant: Do you think Mormons ever get an unfair rap from society? Is there any stereotype in particular that annoys you?

Ken: I almost don’t know where to begin here. Until recently, I thought the LDS Church had pretty effectively mainstreamed itself over the last fifty years. Being Mormon made you an interesting oddity at a dinner party — like being a raw-foodie, or a unicyclist, or a Canadian — but it didn’t elicit any lip-curling scorn. Then Mitt Romney decided to run for president, and now I can’t go a week without reading a clueless blog post or Sunday-paper think piece in which it’s 1850 and apparently Mormons are sinister, secretive outsiders. Thanks Mitt!

Dear mainstream media: there are twelve million Mormons in the world today. The majority aren’t Utah-based Osmond clones. In fact, the majority don’t even live in the US anymore. We are not a monolith. The clueless stereotypes (Mormons are chin-bearded polygamists) are as useless now as the slightly more clued-in ones (Mormons are teeth-grindingly wholesome, whitebread, green-Jell-O-eating suburbanites with eight kids apiece). I myself do not have a chin-beard or any multiple wives (though if they actually looked like Ginnifer Goodwin on Big Love, I could maybe be persuaded). I don’t have eight kids. I don’t own a single pitchfork. I’m not (by my own estimation here, of course) a complete moron, a close-minded nutjob, or a humorless tool. I’m not a Republican. I enjoy high culture and pop culture alike. Mormons are regular folks, just like anybody else, not a spooky cult in any way.

Atheists, you should be the ones taking the lead in ending the Mormon-bashing! After all, LDS doctrine may seem kooky to you guys, but at least you don’t think it’s heretical. You should be the first to realize that the founding LDS narrative — Joseph Smith, an angel, golden plates, etc. — isn’t any more or less sensible than the origins of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. It just doesn’t have a few millennia of distance to give it the patina of authority.

Hemant: What trivia don’t atheists know about the Book of Mormon?

Ken: I don’t think non-Mormons know much of anything about the Book of Mormon, so this is a pretty wide field. How about: the word “Deseret,” the Mormons’ 1849 name for their proposed western state, doesn’t derive from the word “desert” at all. It appears in the Book of Mormon, where it’s translated as “honeybee.”

Hemant: Do you only stay in Marriott hotels?

Ken: I’m so ecumenical, I’ll stay anyplace with free wi-fi. No matter what kind of godless heathen owns the joint.

Hemant: On your last episode of Jeopardy!, Did you throw the final question *wink wink nudge nudge*?

Ken: Yes. I was so sick of a job where I was making $60K+ an hour that I decided to abruptly quit. That’s exactly right.

Hemant: Is Marie Osmond going to win Dancing with the Stars?

Ken: I hope not. I’m a Jennie Garth or Mark Cuban guy myself.

Hemant: How was the writing of your new book compared to the work you did for Brainiac?

Ken: Brainiac was a tremendously challenging narrative book (at least for a clueless novice author like me), since I was trying to interweave my own TV experience with a look at American trivia culture as well as ask bigger-picture questions about what the trivia urge says about the way our brains work. It was a juggling act. I figured the Trivia Almanac would be a breeze by comparison — just write a lot of trivia questions, right? — and a way to get out of my system all the trivia I accumulated writing Brainiac. But then the scope of the almanac sort of crept out of control: I ended up having to write nine thousand trivia questions in about six months. I think it’s the largest U.S. collection of trivia questions ever released in any form.

Suffice it say, I’m pretty much done with trivia now. As aversion therapy, it totally worked.

Hemant: Mitt Romney. Your thoughts?

Ken: He’s not my favorite candidate — not even my favorite Republican candidate — and as I said above, his run has made it a media open-season on Mormons. But all the hype about a Romney win putting the Oval Office under the thumb of a shadowy Mormon hierarchy is ignorant fear-mongering of the kind that should have gone out with JFK in 1960. Mitt’s certainly the best-looking candidate, though, you have to admit. John Edwards? Are you kidding? That guy looks like John Ritter. Mitt is a hottie.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Preliminary Look at Joseph Smith Manual

As has already been commented on, the next Priesthood/Relief Society LDS manual will be the life and teachings of Joseph Smith. In fact, it will be used the next two years. I can agree with a quote from the link that "this is a good book," but I disagree that, "this is the best manual to be released by correlation." Some things that will be mentioned are to be commended. Others, by the very nature of the manual's teaching style, are problematic. For the record, the problems don't have to do with its approach to history.

Each chapter in the book starts out with an historical event from the life of Joseph Smith. That is nothing new compared to the others that have been published. The difference is that, unlike the others where the lessons drive the life events, the life events introduce the lesson topics. In some ways the manual is as much a biography of the Prophet as it is gospel doctrine. Most of the chapters follow the same outline as "The Life and Ministry of Joseph Smith," an introductory chapter. There are some time jumping in the vignettes, but mostly they follow chronologically. Those who want an unvarnished "inoculation leaning" history are going to be disappointed. It is purely of a religious and mostly traditional viewpoint. The manual sums up the narrative focus:

Through Joseph Smith, the choice seer of the latter days, the doctrines and saving ordinances of the gospel were revealed, and the true Church of Jesus Christ was once again established on the earth. The testimonies of ancient and modern prophets join together to proclaim that Joseph Smith was the instrument through whom God restored the fullness of the gospel for the blessing of “the whole human family, from eternity to eternity.”4

Chapter 47: “Praise to the Man”: Latter-day Prophets Bear Witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 541–57

Considering the purpose of all the manuals as religious devotional material, such need for scholarly purity seems unwarranted. They have been for church doctrine and not history class.

There are some interesting historical highlights nonetheless. Probably the best addition to a church wide introduction is the explanation and use of source material. Unlike the person in the link (Tom), I wouldn't call it "transparency" as much as good professionalism. To be honest, it has the hallmark of someone familiar with Rough Stone Rolling as much as the new Joseph Smith papers project. It is too bad that the link at doesn't include the appendix, because it contains a fascinating look at how the (Documentary) History of the Church was compiled. None of that new to myself, but probably not to many members. It also reinforced for me the need for an updated version that reexamines and uses the original source material, including new notes. The last one to edit what we have now is B.H. Roberts who sometimes contributed myths about the material.

Probably the single most interesting detail is the almost repetitive comment about the First Vision. It clearly states:

"4. Joseph Smith—History 1:5, 7–13. On several occasions the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote or dictated detailed accounts of the First Vision. Quotations in this chapter are from the First Vision account first published in 1842 in “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, Mar. 15, 1842, pp. 726–28; Apr. 1, 1842, pp. 748–49; and later included in the Pearl of Great Price and published in the History of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 1–8. This is the official scriptural account. The Prophet Joseph Smith prepared this account in 1838 and 1839 with the help of his scribes."

“Chapter 1: The First Vision: The Father and the Son Appear to Joseph Smith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 26–35

This acknowledgement continues with a chapter entirely devoted to the Wentworth Letter, "It is an original account by Joseph Smith testifying of his sacred call from God, his visions, and his ministry and teachings. It recounts the rise and growth of the Church and the persecutions of the Saints." (“Chapter 38: The Wentworth Letter,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 435–47). By and large the letter has become a de-facto scriptural account of LDS Church history second only to the 6 volume History. There could be a time when the section in the Pearl of Great Price with the 13 Articles of Faith could be replaced with the entire letter.

Just one final note on a detail that was included that usually draws specific meanings. The time when Joseph Smith refused liquor during a painful leg operation has often been used as a lesson on the Word of Wisdom. Regardless, such a connection has been ignored and replaced with parent and child trust. The manual states, "Refusing liquor to dull the pain and relying only on his father’s reassuring embrace, Joseph bravely endured as the surgeon bored into and chipped away part of his leg bone." (“The Life and Ministry of Joseph Smith,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), xxii–25). Again, this seems the influence of Rough Stone Rolling that ignores the same popular interpretation and focuses on character.

The largest problem is the text itself. Strangely, it is the combination of the relatively rich use of resources and its teaching method that hurts the overall reading material. Like all the Teaching of the Presidents manuals, the chapters are a patchwork of quoted sermons. What sets this apart from the others is the often short quotes that make reading it difficult. There are some longer paragraphs, but sometimes all that exists is a string of one or two sentences connected only by theme. A brief one sentence introductory sentence offset by italics often tries to make up for lack of context. Although this is partly because of the nature of the source material of Joseph Smith's sermons, that doesn't explain all the difficulty. Similar to the DHJS, this has reinforced my thoughts that there needs to be an updated Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that compiles more extensive source material.

In conclusion, there are two points that can be observed. The LDS Church Curriculum Development department is more open to tiny scholarly trends. This is mostly in relation to source use and citation, but does cross into a few historical treatments. What is not going away any time soon is the traditional devotional nature of what the LDS Church publishes. This is only natural. It is a religious institution trying to bring souls to Christ and not a scholarly research group looking for peer review.