Life in the Church for an Old Guy


StuffIBlogAboutI wrote this yesterday after my tech class was over for the day. Would have published it last night but we went to the local Community Writers Group to learn more about how to be a good poet. Ah, the things we do for love. Somehow, it looks like our empty-nest years are going to be filed with lots of reading and writing. I’ve got a library of over 1,000 books about halfway read.  By the way, this is more of a post of just a bunch of personal reflections. Skip it if you want.

Just a Normal LDS Guy Who Blogs

From the day I started this blog six years ago, I’ve always tried to make it clear that I’m just a normal LDS guy, happy with the church here in California, including the orthodoxy that seems to bug some people to no end. I’ve also tried to make it clear from the beginning I like the controversial stuff that can easily have multiple points of view without any of them being absolutely correct. It doesn’t bug me to have an absolute answer of exactly the way things are supposed to be.

Thanks For Reading My Blog

If I haven’t said it before, please let me express it now: Thank you for sticking with me. I know I have some long-time readers from way back when. But according to the stats, most have subscribed or visited for the first time in the last year or so. For that reason I sometimes give a quick summary of why I write and what you can expect to find on this blog. I get about 200 visitors a day. Most of you read a couple of posts then move on. That’s OK. I hope you find what you need.

What You’ll Find Here

If you don’t want to take the time to read my “About me” tab, in a nutshell, I’m an old guy in the church, grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, love the doctrine, or at least the idea of studying the doctrine, love to read other’s points of views on the doctrine, do not consider myself a scholar, but am interested in the controversial stuff (I think I said that). I’ve gone back and forth from orthodox conservatism to libertarian, constitutionalist to even being a little liberal on some important issues.

Why I Write – Because I Read

I write because I feel the need to share my thoughts. We have one son who lives up the coast, my wife is a published author and I am a computer guy with some free time late in the day and in the evenings. I don’t watch TV, prefer to eat at home rather than eat out, am forever buying and starting books, and sometimes even finish them in a short period of time. I think I have some eccentric or weird viewpoints of life.

Last Days Seem to Be Closer

For example, like many of you, I feel the end days are near, even upon us, perhaps much closer than we think. I know the gospel is supposed to go into all the world before the Lord returns but it seems to me that it is doing that through technology. I believe we are in for some catastrophic events in the near future. I am a follower of the Electric Universe theory of science. Most scientists don’t know what it is and would vehemently disagree with many of the components.

Connection to the Spirit World

I believe in the reality of the spirit-world, seem to have some sort of gift or unusual sort of connection where I can sense the presence of those from both sides, especially the dark side, and can constantly hear their thoughts if I don’t tune them out. I can pick and choose someone nearby and have a conversation with them. I don’t do this on a regular basis. It’s kind of spooky and I haven’t figured out what good it does so I don’t pursue it. Lately, they’ve been bugging me, causing me anxiety with strong feelings of panic and tremendous constant headaches.

Healing – But Not Just the Body

I’ve sought all the typical Western healing modalities with no success. I’ve pursued and am still pursuing alternative healers and have decided it’s time to seek psychological help. I’ve got nothing against it. I know they go to school a long time to become certified in how to help people work through their problems so I’ve visited a few in the hopes of finding one that can understand what I’m going through. I’m meeting another one for the first time this Thursday.

We Need to Heal the Spirit Too

Of course, most psychologists would say I have a psychosis with this idea that I’m bothered by spirits around me. It’s too bad he’s not LDS. There are few in California, so I’ll have to explain why this is such a big deal to me. I’m specifically doing this because my home teacher said in the latest blessing I should pursue every avenue of healing the Holy Ghost brings to my mind. This is one of them. Besides I look forward to telling my story. I’ve shared it in previous posts on this blogs including links to documents detailing specifically what happened.

Publishing a Book – Not an Easy Goal

Did I mention I’m a big fan of Anthony Larson and his prophecy trilogy of books? I am. I’ve written dozens of articles about the stuff I’ve found in his books and on his blog. I think what he has written explains so much about what is going to happen. I hope he gets some credit for having foreseen it once it comes to pass. I’ve been writing a fictional book about a few characters who deal with the events he describes in his books. So far it seems to be fairly well received. We shall see.

Controversial LDS Authors I Like

Some of my favorite authors are Anthony Larson, Doug Mendenhall, Mel Fish, and lately, Denver Snuffer. I have read most of what Denver has written and am in the process of reading the transcriptions of his recent lectures. I have purchased the audio recordings / CDs and have enjoyed listening to them but want to understand better the scriptures he uses in the lectures, thus the transcriptions. Would love to write a review of each lecture, especially his latest on Priesthood.

Boise: 9-10-13, Be of Good Cheer
Idaho Falls: 9-22-13, Lectures on Faith
Logan: 9-29-13, Repentance
Centerville: 10-6-13, Covenants
Orem: 11-2-13, Priesthood

My Thoughts on Denver Snuffer

I understand he has five or six more lectures next year and hope to make it to at least one in either St. George, Las Vegas or perhaps in Phoenix in about a year. In the meantime you can find these lectures discussed ad infinitum on the private Denver Snuffer forums found about the Internet. I’m grateful for these smart people, many who know him, who have some radically different viewpoints than I do about what he teaches. I happen to think he’s a pretty good teacher and am sorry he was excommunicated but that doesn’t bother me. I know truth when I hear it.

We Invest So Much In Temporary Knowledge

I’m finishing up a technology recertification year this week. I just did the final tally. My employer was gracious enough to allow me to attend 94 days (752 hours) of Microsoft, VMWare, CompTIA and other technology classes this year. I now have sixteen exams for which to prepare. Some of the exams are five hours. I haven’t heard it called this, but in my book, it’s like getting a Master’s degree in Network Administration. I’m not looking for a new job but it’s nice to bring my knowledge current in the small world of technology I inhabit. There are so many others. Not bad for an old guy. No high-five’s until I’m done.

My Work in Technology Mixed In

But what will the technology certifications matter in the end? They are already outdated. It’s the hours studying doctrine I need to increase. For that reason I printed out each of the five lectures from Denver Snuffer today. Having already listened to then, I know there are some amazing things in them. 132 pages so far. Denver has stated the content was given to him by the Lord, something he wanted us to know for our times. No matter what you think of Denver Snuffer, that is quite an accomplishment so far and he still has I think five more lectures to do.

Personal Religion Brings Happiness

Carol and I continue to read the scriptures every night before our nightly prayer. Some nights the readings are short. Other nights the discussions are deep and heart-felt. We love this church and gospel both. You may wonder how I can say I like to read what Denver Snuffer has to say about things, but it doesn’t bother me. The Church has blessed my life and I am extremely grateful. It brings me happiness, friendship, fellowship and opportunities for service. God bless our prophets, apostles, bishops and Stake Presidents. None are perfect, but I’m amazed at the hours they put in. I know the General Authorities get a living allowance, but I work and have worked all my adult life in bishoprics. I know these men love the Lord and the Saints.

Summary: Just some personal thoughts

I guess my point is I want to make it clear someone can read the writings of an excommunicated member and still remain faithful and love this church. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. There is nothing in the temple recommend interview that asks if you read books from former members.  The only question that comes close is “Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”  No matter how you slice it, I can’t see how reading books by former members could put one in that category. What do you think? Will the day come when we’re called to account for what doctrinal stuff we read?

The Last Post


HollandAtThePulpitWarning: This may not be Uplifting

I’m in another computer class this week. This makes week number sixteen this year. For those mathematically challenged, this will be 640 hours by the end of the week. I’ve got three more weeks to go – another 120 hours for a total of 760 hours. I got to thinking about when my migraines started. They started in February – about when I started all this computer training.

High Tech is for Young Folks

Maybe it’s because I’m a 56 year-old man and this stuff is fast-paced high-tech. I’m not saying I can’t keep up. I find it harder to focus so I can remember what is being taught. It was different when I was younger. There’s more stuff in there that needs to be shifted around and categorized to make room for new technology. I hope this is the last time I have to recertify my tech skills.

Keeping the Bad Guys Out

I think this is going to be one of the most enjoyable classes. It’s called “Ethical Hacking and Countermeasures.” In other words, I learn the same stuff in this class the hackers employ who want to break into my work systems. I’ve often asked myself why someone would care to break into our network. We manage several billion dollars’ worth of private jet aircraft, but so what?

Few Can Afford a Private 737

The aircraft mean nothing to me. They’re just things. I wouldn’t want one. They cost millions of dollars to house, staff and maintain each month. I would probably be worried about how I would pay for them but then I guess if you can afford a private Boeing 737, you can afford to pay for the monthly maintenance. Besides, a single charter flight can bring in half a million dollars.

A lifetime in the Business World

I hate business, always have. I thought I would be a college professor, a scientist or astronomer actually. But someone told me I could make more money to provide for my family if I learned computers so I did. I’m not sorry about my decision. I enjoy my work, especially weeks like this, but I have always wondered what it would have been like to teach or to be a research physicist.

Escape into Writing Science Fiction

That’s why you’ll find one of the main characters of my book teaches at CU. Funny thing is, he’s not happy with his job either. He wants to work for the government, because that’s where the big bucks are. He hates having to work so hard to get his programs funded and get new grant money each year. He feels stuck in his job, always looking for a newer telescope to manage somewhere.

Teaching Gospel Doctrine Class

I think I’ve written in the past I always ask the Lord what he would like me to write about in my blog posts. A couple of things come to mind. One is the wonderful experience I had substitute teaching our gospel doctrine class two weeks ago. I’ve been teaching church history since I was seventeen. This had to have been the most emotional retelling of the crossing of the plains ever.

Ephraim’s Rescue

I could barely finish the story of the rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart companies. I think it meant more to me because I had seen TC Christensen’s wonderful movie “Ephraim’s Rescue” just a few months ago. I related the story of how Ephraim Hanks ceremoniously washed his hands before each healing and how his gift grew upon him over the years. It was a sacred story.

Thinking of Denver Snuffer

But I had to think about Denver Snuffer as I taught. I know you’re going to ask why so I’ll tell you. I had the lesson divided into three – The rescue of the handcart pioneers, the crossing of the Sweetwater with the three young men who ultimately gave their lives to accomplish the task, and then part three was supposed to be spent in the scriptures, as we discuss being rescued by Christ.

We Tell Good Stories

I’ll offer the excuse of having been a high counselor for so many years in a previous stake. I love to tell stories. High Counselors, the good ones anyway, are able to take their assigned subject then shorten or lengthen the telling of their prepared material until it fits the time exactly so the Sacrament meeting ends at five minutes past the hour. I learned to do that with great expertise.

Scriptures Didn’t Get Read

Unfortunately, in the telling of the stories of the saving of the handcart companies and the story of the crossing of the Sweetwater by the three boys, I used up all my time. I never got to part three. While I received many complements of how deeply touched the members of the class were, what did I do wrong? I did not teach them from the scriptures. Not a scripture was read.

A Savior Who Rescues

It was not intentional I assure you. The spirit was felt. Even Carol said so and she does not hand out compliments easily. But the doctrine of a Savior who rescues us was not discussed. We did not as a class open the scriptures, read silently or out loud, separately or together, the scriptures that pointed out the whole purpose of why we meet in Sunday School: to learn of the Savior.

The Migraines Continue

I have thought a lot about the need to be rescued over the last seven months. I am a problem solver by nature and by training. By apparently my problem is not one that is going to be solved, or at least I haven’t discovered the solution yet. Migraines run in my family. I remember many days coming home from school finding mother lying in the dark with a damp cloth over her eyes.

Lots of Reading and Thinking

They always seemed to come to her after grading a lot of student papers. That involved reading and thinking, exactly what I am doing in my recertification classes. I’ve read that migraines can also be hereditary. Hmmm…Mother was marginal bi-polar. So am I. I am so grateful for Elder Holland’s General Conference address last Saturday. It was exactly what I needed to hear now.

Improve Skills With The Scriptures

So what does this have to do with Denver Snuffer? It made me think of something he said or wrote: that we have become a church of storytellers, and darn good ones too, but not nearly as good at opening, finding, studying and telling the story of salvation and revelation from the Lord’s scriptures. I speak this to my self and nobody else. I lack in scripture teaching skills.

Finding Answers in the Scriptures

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know the scripture stories. I can tell them with the best teachers who have spent a lifetime in this church using such stories to illustrate points as found in approved curriculum, but what about just opening the scriptures and teaching when prompted by the Holy Ghost? Perhaps such opportunities don’t come very often in your life. Are you ready for them?

Remember, Doctrine Doesn’t Sell

It still bothers me that Denver Snuffer was excommunicated last month. It still bothers me that friends who I dearly love, who have written books devoted specifically to doctrine have seen the sales of their books drop from the high plateaus of the seventies and eighties to the low levels of almost nothing today. “Doctrine doesn’t sell,” they are told by Deseret Book sales executives.

This Blog is Six Years Old

It’s been six years this week since I started this blog. I’ve grown a lot and made a lot of friends, but I’ve discovered two things that bother me tremendously and have caused me to think deeply about both the need and the wisdom of continuing a blog like this. First, anyone who has read the blog from the beginning knows how much it has changed. I do not believe things as I did then.

I Thought All Mormons Were Conservative

Back when I was started I was naïve and immature. I believed everyone felt as I did. I thought most Mormons were conservative, believed the stories of the restoration literally and felt as deeply as I did about preparing for the second coming. I felt the return of the Lord was just around the corner. I thought God was preparing a people to meet him. I believed in a real Zion.

Close Encounter With Evil Spirits

I still do, just not in my lifetime. Some of you know back in February I had a close encounter with the devil or at least with a couple of his evil spirits. It has permanently changed my life. I am no longer the same person. I am much more emotional. I am much more sensitive. I am now hiding behind drugs. The prescriptions for anxiety and pain keep the devil away, but just barely.

Hiding Behind The Doctor’s Pills

The other day I tried an experiment to see if maybe I had convinced myself of something that wasn’t true. I stopped taking all the pain and anxiety drugs – just for one day mind you. I thought I could handle it. I was fine during the day. The head burned a little, the pain was there as it had always been, but it was manageable, at least until 1:00 o’clock in the morning. Then I knew.

The Evil Spirits Returned

I knew I would never be free from what whatever had happened last February. The evil spirits were back. They woke me up and let me know they were still there. Their presence I felt back in February may or may not have had anything to do with the drugs and alcohol my son was using. It scared the crap out of me. I took my pills, waiting for them to take effect, went back to sleep.

No Idea of the Cause

Carol kept asking me, when this pain started, asking if it had started when I began reading Denver Snuffer. No, it started in February, and as far as I can tell, is related to anything other than a more intense effort to or realization that the new material I was studying for work was a lot harder than it was the first time or the second time I went through this certification process.

Mental Illness Can Be Hereditary

I was warned in my patriarchal blessing the adversary wanted to destroy me and my work. I always wondered what that work was. I still do. But I’m not sure how much longer I’ll need to worry about it. The pain and anxiety have been getting steadily worse. I’m going to have to face the reality I have developed the same mental illness that afflicted my mother in her later years.

Time to see the Head Shrink

That’s the curse of borderline genius, they say: sometimes you can produce amazing things with wonderful God-given gifts. I feel this when I prepare and teach a gospel lesson that helps people feel the sprit. Other times, you see or hear evil spirits. What is a person to do? I guess I have done everything except what the last doctors suggested – see a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

Owned by the Boss 24x7x365

I am tired of driving on the Los Angeles freeways two hours every day for a job that I both love and hate. I love it because it is so damn easy that I can do it in my sleep. I hate it because the boss owns me and made it clear in a recent conversation I am to be at his beck and call whenever he needs me 24x7x365. He also called me a grumpy old man. That hurt even if it was true.

This Blog May Suddenly Go Away

So I think I’ve said the two things I wanted to say: 1) This blog may suddenly disappear one day. What does it matter in the eternal scheme of things? Am I a better man because of this blog? Does it server any useful purpose? Have I ever or am I now helping anyone? The numbers say I get a few hundred readers a day but I think they’re just looking for news of Denver Snuffer.

Even the Very Elect Shall Be Deceived

That’s the other thing I wanted to say. 2) We are told in the last days that even the very elect shall be deceived by false Christs. Funny, I never considered Denver Snuffer to be a false Christ. What do I do with the witness, even the burning testimony I was given when I read his last book, Passing the Heavenly Gift, that it was true, especially now that he has been excommunicated?

Looking for a New Job

I’m going to look for a new job. I’ve made up my mind that it’s not worth the many hours I spend on the LA freeways to be told by a wealthy man I once respected that he owns me. Why should that matter? We’re all owned by our employer’s, especially in California where we are employed at will, meaning the owner does not have to give a reason to fire us. He simply can.

Money Can’t Buy You Happiness

I am willing to take something, anything that is closer to home, even if it’s thousands of dollars a month less. What is money anyway? Yes, that means I’ll have to move. I can’t afford to live in this beautiful city, but from everything the scriptures tell us, there will be no more beautiful cities left in a few years. I’ve been taught all my life the last days will be unbearable with suffering.

Not Your Typical Mormon Family

But the most important thing in the world to me, my relationship to Christ, has suddenly become front and center. I am not your typical Mormon. I am not a young Mormon man with a beautiful young Mormon wife and a large beautiful, happy Mormon family. Perhaps I grew up with that but that has not been the experience of my adult life. It’s just been me and Carol and Mike.

My Son Has Moved On

Mike is gone now. He is happy, or so we think, based on the things he writes on Facebook. He always was smarter than his dad and has a better job than his dad where he does things that are much more technically challenging that what I’ll ever do. I love Mike. I’m proud of him. I hope he finds a good woman to love and to make his life complete. He lives by the seaside up in Goleta.

Not Very Uplifting Writing

I don’t think I’ve ever written like this before. You can tell it took a somewhat ominous tone about halfway through. Sorry. I don’t mean to be a downer. I am simply disappointed and did not find what I was hoping for from General Conference, as wonderful as it was. There is something missing from my life, and that something is a sacred, close personal relationship with the Savior.

The Church Says I’m Deceived

And the one man who taught we could and should pursue such a relationship has been cast out by the church I love. I was never as excited as I was when I read PtHG. Then I had never been as disappointed and saddened as I was when I learned he had been excommunicated. Now I am the point in my life where I am tired of putting up with disappointment. It’s time to make changes.

ONLY Prophets Know the future

I won’t change my church. Where would I go? But I am disappointed in what they did to Denver. I have to ask if I’m crazy – one of the deceived ones we were warned about all though our youth to be wary of. “Don’t be like them. You’re special. You’re elite. You’re the chosen ones. Don’t let anyone lead you astray. Follow the prophets. They’re the ONLY ones who know the way.”

Farewell and God Bless you My Readers

God bless. I bid you adieu. Who said that in the Book of Mormon? Was it Nephi or Moroni? Oh, neither. It was Jacob. Ah, yes, wanderings in a strange land. That’s us. Cast out. How in the world can a man go without the sacrament or the temple? I guess your own home becomes your temple. You become your own bishop, therefore authorizing the sacrament yourself. Interesting.

Update: about 4pm on Wed 10-9-13: As noted at the beginning of the post, I have been intensely involved in a computer class that starts at 6am and runs until 2pm each day. When I say intense, I mean intense. This is a class on how to defend against evil people who want to steal, deny your rights as a paying customer or worse, to simply destroy or bankrupt you by wiping out your data.

Your wonderful comments

I have noted your 33 comments to this essay, and especially the now 441 comments to my previous essay.  I am deeply moved by your expressions of sympathy and compassion, especially from some who I don’t even know, in addition to the dozens of private emails inquiring after my health. I can tell you the second half of the essay above is not normal for me and ask you to excuse me.

The Influence of Drugs

It was written under the influence of hydrocodone, tramadol and clonazepam (now my spam filter is going to have to work overtime). I am so sorry if it a) made no sense, b) was not uplifting, which is always my goal and especially for c) stating that this blog may go away. As I just reread it in a more sound mind, it made me think I was going to go off myself or something. How horrible. I’m so sorry.

Can’t Run Away From Problems

I will include these last four paragraphs in comments below, then read and respond to your comments and state unequivocally I am not discontinuing this blog. There are two things I need to work out – 1) How I am going to deal with my ongoing health issue in a way that would be pleasing to the Lord and 2) How I am going to deal with my testimony issue regarding Denver Snuffer in a like manner.

Does a Fetus Have a Right to Life?


I believe in the sanctity of human life. I oppose elective abortion for personal or social convenience. We should not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange such abortions. Possible exceptions to elective abortion include: 1) When pregnancy results from rape or incest, 2) When a competent medical authority determines the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy or 3) When a physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. Even these exceptions do not automatically justify abortion. Abortion is a most serious matter and should only be contemplated after the persons involved have considered other alternatives such as adoption. Although freedom of choice was denied a raped 15-year old girl causing an unwanted pregnancy, she can still exercise her freedom by allowing the child to be born and adopted, especially if she has strong feelings that abortion is the taking of a human life. I don’t believe the abortion argument should be about rights, but about potentiality.  In this paper I hope to present a persuasive moral argument that abortion is akin to murder and should be avoided, even if the child is unplanned or unwanted.

Abortion is a war on the defenseless and voiceless. It is a war on the unborn. It is ironic that civilized societies that generally place safeguards on human life have now passed laws that sanction and publically fund the practice of abortion. Since the legalization of abortion in 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), approximately 50 million abortions have been performed the United States.  Worldwide more than 40 million abortions are performed each year. More abortions are performed each year than soldiers killed in both WWI and WWII (30 million). Death from abortion far exceeds the toll of the deplorable loss of life from warfare. 93% of abortions occur for social reasons – the child is inconvenient or unwanted. Who speaks up for the rights of these unborn children – the right to life and all the potentialities it affords?

Let me be clear: I do not intend to argue against the legal right of the mother for abortion on demand. She has that legal right. She can do with her own body as she chooses. I intend to argue that the fetus has a right to life because it is a separate person that deserves to be born and to experience life. There are at least two people involved in the decision, even if we exclude the father. Terminating the life of a developing baby involves two individuals with separate bodies, brains and hearts. Perhaps it is presumptive to do so but in order to support that statement we need to consider when meaningful life begins. At conception, the mother and the father each donated 23 chromosomes containing the genetic coding that, when combined, establish all the characteristics of an unborn person. This genetic combining results in a new human being. Approximately 22 days after conception, a little heart begins to beat. At 26 days the circulation of blood begins. Just because the baby is not yet fully developed does not mean that it is any less of a person. The effort of man to legislate when a developing life is considered “meaningful” is presumptive and arbitrary. The fetus, no matter at what stage, is a person.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton and one of the most prolific writers on philosophy and ethics. He has stated, “The central argument against abortion may be put like this: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being. A human fetus is an innocent human being. Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.” Peter Singer disagrees with this logic. He has argued that “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons.” He has also said that “In a strictly biological sense, opponents of abortion are right to say that abortion ends a human life.” But he does not consider a fetus or even a human infant to be a person. His views on abortion center on the right to life being intrinsically tied to a being’s capacity to hold preferences. I disagree with that assessment. Just because the fetus cannot yet express itself, does not make it any less of a person.

The real problem is defining what constitutes a person. Personhood cannot be defined based on functionality, presently realized. We must consider that abortion destroys one’s possible future. It is for this very reason that it is morally wrong to take our own lives. But is it a compelling argument? Not yet. It doesn’t answer the question of why human life is valuable and therefore why it is wrong to take another human life. A person or a potential person in the case of a fetus has great worth, even infinite worth if you consider what it can become. Even though a human fetus has not yet been born, it still possesses all the characteristics of a human being and thus is indeed a “person” or a member of the human family. Unrealized human potentiality gives that fetus a moral right to live. The fetus has intrinsic worth and value in its very nature as a human being in embryo. Abortion is indeed murder in that it denies the potential human person the growth opportunities this life affords. To truly understand the worth of a human being, you must consider that there is more to a person than merely a human body.

I am a substance dualist and readily concede my belief in a soul as a bias influencing my position on abortion. It is my belief that I exist now, have always existed and always will exist in some form or another with or without my physical, mortal body. In other words, I am composed of more than the neurons and molecules that make up my physical body. I have a mind and a spirit that are temporarily housed inside this mortal body. I have no idea how my mind and spirit interact with my body. My metaphysical position supports the idea of a plane of existence other than the natural world around us that we see and experience. Because I am self-aware and have a sense of personal identity over time, I have concluded consciousness will continue for me after the death of my mortal body. I cannot conceive of not “being.” I am more than a mental state produced by chemicals in my brain. I am an intelligent, eternal being housed in this mortal body for a time and season, learning and growing. In short, I have great worth and potential.

Abortion is murder in that it is destroying the mortal body created to house an eternal spirit. Abortion takes away the right of that eternal being to have a mortal experience with all the attendant growth and learning that takes place in this world. I am pro-choice but not in the sense that the phrase is normally used. I believe in freedom to choose my course in life but I do not believe I am free to choose the consequences of my choices. The analogy of an astronaut may help. Anytime during the selection or preparation process, the potential astronaut is free to withdraw from the program. But once the spacecraft has lifted off, the astronaut is bound to the consequences of the previous choice to make the journey. In like manner, once conception has occurred, the choice of the woman has already been made. She cannot “unchoose.” Yes, she is free to choose what she will do with her body, but once a new life has begun within her, she must consider the impact future choices will have on that new human being. Elective abortion simply becomes a form of birth control, a way to avoid undesired consequences of choice. It is morally wrong because it takes the life of another human being without their consent.

A common rebuttal to the argument against abortion is the woman’s right to what she can do with her own body. She has a right to choose and has a right to consent to what is done to her body. As I noted previously, I do not contest these rights. I am pro-choice in this regard. But I wonder if we are giving enough attention to the rights of the father. What if he is opposed to having his child aborted? I have purposely avoided including harsh descriptions of the abortion process such as “sucked down a sink,” or “skull crushed and severed.” Has the father nothing to say if he does not wish to have the child he helped create killed in such a brutal manner? The fetal pain debate is unsettled, since it is impossible to determine what the fetus feels during the abortion process. Why do we hold fathers responsible to provide for their children and not hold mother’s to the same standard? Abortion is a way of avoiding responsibility for choice.

Another rebuttal to the argument against abortion is that we are trying to force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term. I noted exceptions to my position of a general opposition to abortion in the opening paragraph. If the mother was raped or the pregnancy resulted from incest, statistically shown to be less than 1% of unwanted pregnancies, then abortion may be justified. However, in the case of pregnancy arising from consensual sex, the woman has tacitly consented to the fetus using her body so she is not being forced against her will. The right to life of the fetus and the right of the woman over her own body are ongoing debates. I do not believe in forcing a woman to do anything against her own will. The decision is a difficult one that ultimately, only the woman can make. She must live with the consequences of her own decision. She may regret having participated in an abortion in her later years.

In this paper, I hope I have made it clear that I believe human life begins at conception. I cannot say at what point the intelligence, soul or eternal spirit enters the human fetus. That is an important consideration in my personal religious beliefs but not relevant to this argument. You do not have to believe in the existence of a soul to understand that life begins at conception. I think anyone who has studied the issue concedes this fact. A new human life is a miracle, worth preserving. Why destroy a life that could bring joy to others? There are better ways of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Preserve the life of the child and give it to someone else through adoption. It is a wonderful alternative to abortion. I hope I have argued persuasively that life is precious, especially unrealized potential life. Life comes from life. It is no accident. It is a gift that is not our right to take as we choose. Choose life, not death.

For more information:

Official Statement on Abortion from LDS Newsroom

Abortion, An Assult on the Defenseless by Elder Russell M. Nelson

Weightier Matters by Elder Dallin H. Oaks

Is Abortion Right for Me? – a resource from LDS family services

In Defense of Virtue Ethics


Of the “Big Three” moral philosophies, virtue ethics seems to be the most problematic. Criticisms and rebuttals of the other two theories, utilitarianism and deontology, are relatively simple to state and understand, or at least I found them so. On the other hand, I was able to easily compile a dozen criticisms of virtue ethics from a very few professional papers on the subject in a short amount of time. That intrigued me. In this paper I intend to defend virtue ethics as the best moral philosophy by addressing several of the excellent criticisms.

The theory is straight-forward: Moral life should have a purpose and lead to happiness. Virtue ethics is about building character. Developing good moral character leads to contentment that comes from “doing the right thing.” This moral theory is not about rules or something called “utility.” Virtue ethics requires a lifetime of practice to develop. The way to become a moral person is to be moral. This theory is more about being or becoming, not so much about doing. It’s about who you are. The concept of the “mean” is crucial to this philosophy. The focus is on balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Aristotle taught in order to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character, we must first be taught by teachers and by experience. Later, we then consciously choose to do the best or virtuous things when presented with moral choices. This requires a lot of pondering of our choices and ultimately, feeling about things in a certain way. It is this feeling which causes, motivates or empowers virtuous or good actions.

Perhaps it is this component of feeling that raises such criticism. Those who practice virtue ethics are seeking eudemonia (Greek), a state meaning well-being, blessedness, or for our purposes, a state of human flourishing. That makes it hard to measure and hard to determine when such a state has been reached. How can virtue ethics be useful in a society if the objective is so subjective to the individual? This is just one of the criticisms I will address in this essay. Of course, just because a theory has legitimate criticisms does not negate the value of the theory, especially if favorable rebuttals can be presented. I am going to assume you are familiar with the theory beyond the basics presented in the preceding paragraph and will therefore focus on the rebuttals as the core of the argument advocating my position.

Let’s address the applicability problem right up front. What sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not? What sorts of measureable outcomes are desired with virtue ethics? What are the duties or rules of virtue ethics that can be used in specific moral situations? The difficulty in this objection is that it focuses on a lower functioning level of human nature – having to be told what to do in all situations. Such a lower level is indicative of immaturity. Virtue ethics works best as one seeks to do the virtuous thing partly by avoiding vices. Let’s take the specific example of a raped fifteen year old girl trying to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The moral guidance of virtue ethics would have her avoid vices such as selfishness, irresponsibility or short-sightedness. Abortion is a personal choice but has consequences that reach far beyond the individual. Adoption is an alternative to abortion. Virtue ethics provides moral guidance in this situation by allowing the young mother a choice. She can make a very difficult situation better by applying the moral guidance afforded by seeking the virtues of love, patience, unselfishness, forgiveness, tolerance, kindness and charity. She may choose to raise the child herself but is probably not yet suited to provide the child the best care. She can have the abortion but perhaps she has strong feelings that she might regret her decision. Action guidance from virtue ethics allows her to choose to endure the unwanted pregnancy and give the child up for adoption as being a better choice. The criticism that virtue ethics does not provide action guidance in specific moral situations demonstrates an unwillingness to think things through, weigh the alternatives and make a choice, a process that rule-based systems don’t do well.

Now let’s address the cultural relativity problem. This is not unique to virtue ethics, but seems to be made less difficult by the unique aspects of this theory. You are probably familiar with the example of the differences in how some societies treat their dead. With virtue ethics, we can readily see that something abhorrent to Western civilization like cooking and eating a piece of flesh from your recently deceased grandmother might actually be an acceptable practice because it embodies the virtue of honoring your ancestors. Such a virtue is applicable to most cultures even though we may disagree with the way a specific culture implements it. Another example is the idea of slave-holding. In some cultures it was considered morally acceptable, even virtuous to enslave human beings. Virtue ethics does not necessarily require a static ranking of virtues over time. In the slave-holding example, there is an obvious conflict of virtues at work, which in the minds of some, justified the vice of enslaving another human being against their will (I’ll address the conflict problem and justification problem next). Virtue ethics embraces the idea of community. Our values are determined in large part by the communities to which we belong: nation, family, school, church and private and public associations. We accept that some virtues will hold a greater influence upon us according to the time and place in which we live. We are social animals, grounded in a particular place and time. The ethos of our society shapes our moral views and moral activity. The application of virtue ethics allows for the influence of our community to determine the ranking of our values according to our circumstances.

A good moral system must address dilemmas. The requirements of different virtues can bring about conflict because they seemingly point to different courses of action. However, this conflict is only apparent and can be resolved by those possessed with phronesis, translated as practical wisdom. This wisdom comes only with time and through practice, which of course means making mistakes. In reality, virtues do not make opposing demands. One course of action, which some may consider a rule, may outrank another in a particular case. Or it may be that there is an exception to a standard course of action based on the specific circumstances of a moral choice at hand. Over time, the practitioner of virtue ethics will come to know instinctively, or by a feeling, what is the right course of action in this situation. Since the complexities of every dilemma cannot be determined in advance, virtue ethics teaches the skills needed to study the problem out, ponder the choices and make the best decision. At first, this is difficult and prone to mistakes, but over time, it becomes second nature to know the best course of action.

I only have room to address one other criticism of virtue ethics known as the justification problem. In short, how do we justify or ground our ethical beliefs of what is moral? Which of all the character traits are the virtues? Perhaps this is where the idea of the mean comes into play. We can make lists of all kinds of character traits and then note the extremes of each end. While this may be an exercise to teach the skill for the uninitiated, I do not recommend it as a regular course of action. At one end of the spectrum is excessiveness, while the other end represents deficiency. For the virtue of courage we have recklessness and cowardice. For the virtue of work, we can consider laziness on one end and frenetic on the other. The Golden Mean is the virtue that is to be found in between two corresponding vices. As virtue ethicists, our objective is to be somewhere in the middle. Plato gave us the four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Aristotle then added five additional virtues of wisdom, courage, liberality, magnificence and magnanimity. There is no master list of virtues because it could never be all-inclusive. This moral theory is not grounded in a list of rules, desired outcomes or even specific virtues, but rather on the idea of balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Virtue ethics is grounded on a skill of how to choose wisely, which only comes with practice over time.

In conclusion, it is my contention that virtue ethics is a superior moral system because it is more flexible and embraces a wider range of possibilities than rule-based or outcome-based systems, mainly because of the central component of endorsing agent-based choice as the best way to guide one’s life. Just because a person is continent or falls short of a perfect virtue does not negate the value of virtue ethics. There is something particularly admirable about people who manage to act well when it is especially hard for them to do so. They may not yet have achieved eudemonia, but they are still practicing, which is a major part of the theory of virtue ethics. They may fall short of the ideal again and again but continue to seek the goal of perfection through an ever-so-slightly different approach. This may seem repetitive or even counter-productive, but perhaps that is part of the beauty of the theory. Eventually, given sufficient time and effort and with encouragement from teachers and leaders, practice will pay off. The performance will be complete and the practitioner of virtue ethics will reap the benefits of a moral life well lived.

We Have Limited Free Will


We have limited free will. Within certain limitations, we can make choices and act upon those choices. Our choices are partially controlled and determined by outside forces and by the laws of physics. But we have agency to act within certain bounds of natural laws that exist. We can exercise that agency, make choices and act upon those choices. Logic dictates there is no purpose or meaning to life if we do not have some free will. We instinctively know we have power to act in some things without constraint of necessity or fate. We are bound or limited by physics but we are independent agents within our sphere of influence. We intuitively think or feel we are free. We therefore act at our own discretion. We are capable of responding to random chance with purposeful choices. Thus we can be held morally responsible and accountable for our choices and actions in both the deterministic world of physics and the indeterminate world of observable quantum mechanics that we are still discovering.

Absolute free will is logically incompatible with determinism because we do not control the universe. However, as individuals, we are able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario. There are obvious choices in life we can choose to follow. We can conceive and believe things. This proves some free will even though there are limitations on the choices available to us. For example, because I am not a fish, I do not have the choice of living underwater without some sort of breathing apparatus. It is determined beforehand that human life is incompatible with living unaided under water. I am therefore limited to certain pre-determined boundaries if I want to sustain life. In like manner, in some situations I have a limited number of choices I can make because of the randomness of life. I hope I never have to decide what to do if I am in a plane that is about to crash. I would have no control of the physics causing the plane to crash, but I still have some obvious choices I can make and act upon, like remain calm or panic.

As an argument against any kind of free will, consider the views of hard determinism. Determinists believe that our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors are all predetermined from the moment that time began at the big bang. A determinist advocates that we do not have any control over the state of the universe or the laws that govern the universe. Free will is an illusion, they say. You may think that your choices and actions have an effect on the universe but you are really no more than an observer. For a determinist, free will is a nothing more than a necessary delusion that allows us to build a society where praise and punishment actually mean something. Compatibilists hold individuals morally responsible for their actions as if they had free will. Although it doesn’t really exist, they say, we can act as if it does, thus providing a necessary condition for moral responsibility – accountability.

Following this logic, the universe is deterministic and bound by the laws of physics. Our bodies are bound by those same laws. If you are a materialist, you believe that all behavior is caused by chemical brain states outside of our control. In order for free will to exist, there must be a supernatural agent that is not bound by those laws to inject an input from outside the system; in other words, a God. I wish I could develop this further, but for now I will propose that there are only two arguments against free will. First, if determinism is the true state of things, then the will is not free because all events are caused and our actions are predetermined. Therefore, there is no moral responsibility or free will. The second argument against free will is indeterminism of random events or chance. If all our actions are caused by chance then we have no control, and therefore, again, no free will or moral responsibility. True free will requires we have control of outcomes. However, we do not control the universe or the laws of physics. If you think about it, we control nothing of this world or the universe. To prove free will, we must prove that we can control at least some things, thus becoming independent agents with power to act.

I don’t disagree with all the views of materialists or determinists. In fact, I readily concur with determinists that the laws of the universe are outside our control. I also concur that a large part of our body processes are apparently outside the control of at least our conscious mind and will. I can’t control the motion of the planets, the effects of nature, or prevent myself from dying someday. These things are determined. My bounds are set in these matters and many others. I also concur with indeterminism as it relates to many of the choices with which I am presented in this life. So many things are just random and purely by chance. I come across an object on the freeway that gives me a flat tire. It was pure chance that I happened to come upon that object and embed it in my tire first because I just happened to be there at that place and at that time. Random chance is just part of this life. So many things – most things – are out of my control.

So what do I control? There are many things over which I have control and thus free will. I control my responses to the choices I am presented in life. I can control my thoughts. I can control the things I put into my body. I control the things I say and the things I do. Nobody forces me to act a certain way or respond in a specific manner. I control my attitudes and my beliefs. I decide what I will do with my time, who I will go visit, what work I will do, what I choose to study. I may not choose many of the things that happen to me in this life but I can and do choose how I respond to those situations. I determine the character I build by using my free will adequately. My free will is limited to those things over which I have some control and have choices. I do not have free will when it comes to the laws of physics and nature. They are out of my control. In the things over which I do have control such as thoughts, beliefs and opinions I choose what I want to think about or believe. My thoughts are not caused and are not random. They are purposeful and demonstrate free will, especially when I act upon them. Therefore, my conclusion is that we have limited or adequate determinism and limited but genuine free will.

Thoughtful Discussion of Controversial Topics


I’ve been doing some critical thinking about a couple of recent statements made by J. Michael Bailey. He is the Northwestern psychology professor who has been the subject of so much media attention due to the live sex demonstration in his human sexuality classroom last month. You can Google the story if you want the details.

What intrigued me was the challenging nature of the defensive statements he offered when the story became public knowledge. He said that he didn’t expect everyone to agree with his decision to allow the demonstration to take place and that “thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning.”

I happen to be enrolled in a critical thinking class right now so this idea caught my attention. While I don’t agree with his decision, I do agree with his statement. So I expected someone to take him up on his challenge, because he offered it as such. Maybe it is too soon but I have yet to see a serious response to his justification.

An Argument to Illuminate Reasoning

A couple of days after the story broke, professor Bailey continued his defense by saying that he would give an F to those who objected to his teaching method. He wrote that the responses conveyed disapproval but did not “illuminate reasoning.” Apparently he has yet to receive an explanation as to why his demo was a problem.

I hope someone with more knowledge of this subject will respond to his proposal for a thoughtful discussion and offer a few reasons why his demonstration was not the best choice. I’m looking for arguments that will illuminate reasoning and do more than to just express disapproval. I could use it when I argue this in my class.

The Man who would be Queen

A little more background information on professor Baily might be helpful.  He wrote and published a controversial book in 2003, The Man who would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. He admitted that he had sex with his research subjects and said he thought there was nothing wrong with this.

Coincidently, about that same year he found himself divorced and no longer the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University. According to published reports from students, he is not a great lecturer, but makes up for it by presenting extremely controversial aspects of human sexuality in his classroom.

Teaching Should Benefit Society

I love to teach so maybe this is an area in which we can agree. Professor Bailey is an educator; therefore I’ll assume that it is his intent to help his students learn. As a professor of psychology, I would hope that it is his desire to prevent psychological damage in his students. After all, isn’t that the objective of studying the subject?

We study human behavior to understand it and to be able to deal more effectively with activities that are disturbing, distressing or problematic for the individual or society. For most practitioners, a goal of applied psychology is to benefit society. A university professor is in a particularly influential position upon civilization.

Pornography in the Classroom

Professor Bailey said he uses pornography in his classroom. “I don’t see anything wrong with showing pornography in the classroom provided it has some purpose in the class. Some can be a little explicit,” he said. “I teach the truth – as I understand it…[which] sometimes conflicts with people’s assumptions. That is controversial.”

Bill Yarber, a researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of the widely used textbook Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America, said he’s never heard of a naked woman being brought to orgasm in front of a class of students. Watching a video is one thing but seeing a live demo is pushing things.

A commentary from a Catholic blogger about this episode illustrates a typical reaction, “Professor J. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class has nothing to do with psychosexual development, morality, biology — nothing worthy of study; just an excuse for presenting risqué and deviant sexual behaviors as normative.”

Sexual Relations Should be Private

It is my contention that demonstrating the use of a motorized phallus to a group of students is not a legitimate form of sexual education, especially in the classroom. In fact, I will go so far as to say that viewing of pornographic material is equally inappropriate and unnecessary to meet the requirements of human sex education.

I believe that sexual relations should be expressed privately in marriage, between a husband and wife. I therefore believe that all public displays of sexual activity are inappropriate. I believe that pornography is harmful and destructive to the souls of those who create it and those who consume it. It is not needed for sexual education.

Professor Bailey’s demonstration was controversial because as far as I can tell, it was the first time live sex has been used in a classroom setting. But the real issue is how diametrically opposed this is to the values of virtue, modesty and respect for human sexual relations. It is degrading and cheapens it to something undesirable.

Achieving a Fulfilling Love

I think the comment of a student studying to be a therapist who then reported on her human sexuality class says it best for me. She stated that she had become a sexual zombie; that sex meant nothing to her because she had tried it all. She found no joy in sexuality. And yet she wants to become a therapist to fix others like her.

Pornography is any material describing or depicting the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings. Pornography degrades the heart, mind and spirit. It robs us of self-respect and the sense of beauties of life. It tears us down and does not lift us up. It does not help us achieve fulfilling human love.

I will be leading a classroom discussion of this current event in my critical thinking class in a few weeks. When I shared my subject with the professor he was pleased and said that I might be surprised to learn how many in the class feel the same way I do. That would be a pleasant discovery that I hope is not limited to my college.

Choosing to Act with Certainty


William Shakespeare was arguably the most influential writer in all of English literature. One of his plays, Hamlet, seems to have become so influential that it has profoundly affected the course of Western literature and culture even after 400 years. From Hamlet, I have chosen three themes that Shakespeare developed so beautifully: 1) The impossibility of certainty, 2) The complexity of action and 3) The mystery of life and death. These ideas are further advanced in Tom Stoppard’s existentialist work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Through absurdity, we are lead to believe that 1) The world is incomprehensible, 2) We are insignificant and incapable of making meaningful choices and 3) We are but players on a stage.

The very purpose of life

In effect, Stoppard’s ideas are the same as Shakespeare’s, illustrated with an equal amount of wit, but in a much more bleak and sarcastic style. I dispute these ideas and in contrast, it is my contention that 1) We can choose what we believe about and do with our lives, 2) We have power to act and can cause things to happen and 3) We can be certain about our choices to act in this life. In fact, making choices and acting upon those choices is the very purpose of life. The process of choosing and acting brings great meaning and fulfillment to our lives and is of significant value to our mental health and happiness. It is by not acting that we forfeit opportunities for growth.

Removing doubt from our lives

When the ghost appears to Hamlet and makes him swear to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet does not seek that vengeance right away. Hamlet is not sure that he believes the ghost is who he says he is or if he is telling the truth. He is uncertain. He is placed in a difficult situation and wants to be certain that Claudius is guilty before taking action. In an effort to gather support for his sworn course of action, he feigns madness and causes actions that will help him ascertain the veracity of the events related by the ghost. He asks the players to change the production so he can watch the reaction of Claudius when he sees his crime revealed in dramatic form. These are the actions of a very thoughtful and intelligent man.  It is obvious that his madness is an act. So it is not so impossible to be certain about things. Perhaps it just takes a little time and planning. A little later Hamlet witnesses Claudius confess his crime in prayer, thus his doubts are removed.

Dealing with uncertainty

In response to the confusion expressed by Guildenstern at the incomprehensibility of the events unfolding around him, the Player in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.” Tom Stoppard purposefully demonstrates for us that Guildenstern does not have all the information he needs to make sense of the world around him. Obviously, Stoppard is relating that we are all in the same boat in that we also do not know of everything in the script, so to speak, except for the small part we play.

To act or be acted upon

Of course we are not really in the same boat as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that we live in the real world where we can seek out and obtain more information if we chose to do so. They are only actors, figments of the imagination of Shakespeare and Stoppard, with no control over their lives.  In a sense, they are being acted upon by the whims of the authors. With their limited viewpoint, life does seem incomprehensible and impossible to be certain about anything.  On the other hand, we can discover, learn and choose to be certain in our beliefs about life around us.

Philosophies and belief systems

When the Player in Act III of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it,” he is implying that the universe is unfair and does not discriminate between good people and bad; that rewards and punishments are entirely random. But is the world such a chaotic place as Stoppard seems to believe it is as expressed through the words of the Player? We go to great effort to create meaning in our lives, developing belief systems and philosophies that give us comfort and a sense of order. It’s true that we cannot control the elements and we cannot control what other people say or do, but we, all of us, have created philosophies or adopted religious ideas to help us cope with the seeming disorder and confusion. Thus, we create our own sense of order and fairness, especially if we look at this life as only a small part of our existence, a mere blip on the timeline of eternity.

To be or not to be

In what may be the most famous speech in the English language, Hamlet examines the mystery of life and death, weighing the moral ramifications of living and dying. “To be, or not to be,” he poses; to live, or not to live. Is it nobler to suffer a life full of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end one’s suffering through death? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to pain, suffering and uncertainty that it might bring. In fact, he decides that it would be better to die than to live with the heartache and shocks of life.

Philosophical inquiry not enough

But then he considers the afterlife and the dread of possibly trading one miserable existence for something unknown but conceivably worse. He concludes that this dread makes “cowards of us all,” and so we thus continue to suffer through lovesickness, hard work, political oppression and a host of other undesirable afflictions common to all in this life. This speech connects several of the main themes of the play, including the idea of uncertainty, inability to act and the mystery of death.  Hamlet is deeply passionate and relentlessly logical but he has demonstrated for us the difficulty of knowing truth through philosophical inquiry alone.  There must be another way.

The power to act

There is a better way. When we are presented with something new or different from what we previously believed, we can choose to believe it or to reject it. When we choose to believe a piece of information, a theory, a philosophy or even a religion, we then have the power to act upon our new belief, thus causing results either within ourselves or the world around us.  We have that power because we are agents unto ourselves.  We can cause things to happen of our own free will.  In effect, it is the ultimate in scientific inquiry and the empirical method.  Once we act or cause action, we can then see the results for ourselves.  We then have knowledge.  We can now be certain about our choices to act in this life based on the results they bring about.

Experience brings knowledge

Let’s apply this to Hamlet. Presented with the news from the ghost that his father had been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, he decided to believe it, at least partially, but also decided to obtain greater evidence. He caused the players to act as accusers which rattled Claudius into a confession overheard by our hero. Hamlet then had confirming knowledge, obtained by his own actions. He no longer needed to believe what the ghost said. He was certain of this thing.  He acted upon his belief and learned something for himself through his own experiences. He no longer needed to believe what someone else said was true. He now had a personal knowledge.

Ask the right questions

Now let’s apply this to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as presented by Tom Stoppard. These confused gentlemen are small players in the big picture, but we are made privy to some of their thoughts and actions while they are not on stage. When they encounter the Player, we sense that they have an opportunity to learn more about their purpose and meaning from him as he seems to know far more about what is going on than he reveals. If only the pair would ask the right questions, they might get some answers. Alas, they do not and continue to march through the entire book just as confused and bewildered as they began. Because they do not actively seek understanding from a potentially knowledgeable source, they therefore have nothing in which to believe or act upon. Consequently, they are unable to make any significant choices and obtain no confirming knowledge to make sense out of their life. They die meaningless deaths.

Choose what we believe

Finally, let’s apply this to us. We come into this world with no knowledge of the purpose or meaning of our lives. Over time, we are presented with a multitude of explanations, beliefs and philosophies to explain the events that are going on around us. Unlike players or actors on a stage who have no control of their lives, we have been given the ability to makes choices and act upon our beliefs. For example, we can choose to believe that there is purpose and meaning to life and that there is someone who knows the beginning from the end. Acting upon this belief, we seek for more knowledge from others who profess similar beliefs. Again, we are presented with choices as some will claim that their answers are the best. They invite us to act upon their beliefs as well as their requests to support them, often financially. They even invite us to participate in their cause in spreading their views to others.

Act upon our beliefs

Choosing to believe something and then acting upon that belief gives us experience. We can then decide if we like the results of our experiment. We can be certain that something is of value or not based upon our own experience. In the process, we learn a lot about ourselves. We discover what will satisfy us and what makes us happy. We rise to the level of our own desires for knowledge. The critical part of the process is to take action. Unless we act upon our beliefs we can never know for ourselves if it is of any value to us. For example, someone may tell you that seeing a Shakespeare play is an enjoyable and enlightening experience. But unless you go see one for yourself, you will never know. Similarly, the best way to learn something about a life philosophy or religion is to participate in activities that practitioners of that way of life follow.

We can be certain

We can choose what we want to believe, act upon those beliefs and then be certain for ourselves if those beliefs have merit or value. Life does not have to be so complex, uncertain or mysterious, especially if we reduce it to a serious of choices and actions. We choose to believe that an education is of value and act upon that belief by paying for an education and doing the hard work required to get a degree. We are then certain of the value of an education. We may decide that it was a waste of time and money or we may choose to believe that our life has been improved and enhanced by our achievement. After all, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The world is not so incomprehensible.  We are significant and more than just actors on a stage.  We are here to gain knowledge through our choices in life.

Just what was Portnoy’s Complaint?


Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts.  Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution.  I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers.  Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception.  In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law.  As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar.  Of course that was in 1969.  Today it is considered an American classic.

I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior.  I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex.  Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict.  Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo.  Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that.  If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture.  It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion.  In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing.  But then, that’s what makes it so very American.

Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt.  He was an expert at guilt.  In fact, he was a slave to it.  He lived with it day in and day out.  And where did he get it?  He tells us that it came from his parents.  After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39)  Did they do it on purpose?  Are they to blame?  Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer.  “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion.  He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.

At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents.  He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt.  It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture.  In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage.  In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84)  But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.

Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man.  It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal.  Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years.  In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country.  According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly.  Do you see my point?  If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner.  It is a characteristically American problem.

Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith.  In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion.  It is also his cultural heritage.  He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith.  As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents.  Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.

That was the wrong answer.  Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it.  Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament.  Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude.  To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise.  “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285)  In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.

Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life.  He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read.  Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt.  I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends.  If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical.  Guilt is a universal part of the human condition.  It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs.  In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did.  He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book.  If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.

To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued.  If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up?  If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years?  Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man.  He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure.  If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt.  In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage.  It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family.  It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal.  Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.

“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me.  How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114)  That’s pretty shallow.  People do get old.  Bodies change.  Yet they stay married.  Why?  Because they are comfortable and happy together.  It’s not all about sex.  Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together.  It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another.  “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father?  I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)

No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts.  People get married because they love each other.  They get married for love.  And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you.  But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)

No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love.  You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring.  Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient.  Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith.  One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime.  I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage.  He does not want to be married.  He does not want to be faithful to one woman.  He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element.  Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.

He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful.  He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road.  He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him.  He does not want to get married and probably never will.  He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex.  Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage.  You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom.  You idiot!  You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck!  Grow up!

Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life.  Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome.  Get a clue from your religion.  Talk to your rabbis again.  Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt.  You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know.  And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way.  But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?

Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969

Walt Whitman, the First Great American Poet


Walt Whitman left a legacy as an American poet that cannot be ignored.  Yet, nearly 120 years after his death, polarization of opinion about his work and his influence is still strong.  It seems that you either love him or you hate him, and in most cases that view depends upon your moral convictions.  There is no doubt that his work was controversial in his day, evidenced by the labels of “obscene” and “pornographic” given by some reviewers.  For those who have seriously studied his work, the general consensus of opinion is that Walt Whitman was a great American poet and in fact, is considered the first great poet of America.  However, to many in this great nation, instead of singing the body electric, Whitman’s poetry demeans and degrades the human spirit.  And while his works may have shocked the sensitivities of some readers in his day, it is tame by today’s standards, giving us an early preview of America as the land of porn.

A Short Biography

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in New York and died in 1892 in New Jersey at age 72. He was the second of eight surviving children in a poor family struggling to barely subsist, both physically and emotionally. Biographers have surmised that his father was probably an alcoholic.  There was some mental instability in his family among his brothers and sisters. Although his formal education ended at age 11, Whitman was a very successful autodidact, a self-educated man. He worked for a time in the newspaper industry as a journalist, editor and printer. He tried his hand at teaching for a few years but did not enjoy it and quit abruptly, with some speculating that it was due to an unwanted romantic advance toward one of his young male students.

Leaves of Grass

Returning to journalism at age thirty, he began what became his life’s work: Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry written in a distinctly American style using free verse and a cadence based on the Bible.  He self-published his book in 1855 and published multiple editions in his lifetime. The book was and is powerful, abandoning traditional verse for free verse poetry. It was also deemed by some to be controversial as they found his repeated sexual imagery content to be offensive.  When he presented copies to his family, his own brother said it not worth reading.  Although he did not list himself as the author, he did include a now-famous portrait of himself facing the title page, with an open-neck shirt, jaunty hat and one hand on hip.  In the body of the text he identified himself as, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist…”  He was, in all respects, a natural man.

O Captain, My Captain

Whitman’s sexual orientation is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual.  He never married but had several long-term intimate relationships with other men in his lifetime. Whitman achieved international recognition and worked tirelessly to promote his book. He obviously lived during the Civil War and that was a big influence in his life. He travelled to Washington looking for his brother who he had heard had been killed, but was only wounded. He spent time on the battlefields and in hospitals caring for the sick and the wounded. He came to greatly admire Lincoln and was deeply affected by his assassination. His most famous poem, O Captain, My Captain was about Lincoln and he gave many lectures on the president’s life. He suffered serious health problems in his later years, surviving three paralyzing strokes.

America’s National Poet

Walt Whitman answered Emerson’s call for poets to expound the new world of the United States. There is no doubt that he did this powerfully, uniquely and in a highly acclaimed manner. He was considered America’s national poet, at first more by Europeans than by his fellow Americans, at least in his own day. Using free verse, Whitman created a new style of writing that was uniquely American. He used natural voice and diction to imitate the natural flow of thought and feeling. He had a grand vision of speaking for America and explaining what it was all about. He saw and described scenes that leave you feeling like you were also there with him. He was innocent enough to believe that there really was such a job as a national poet.

An Epic to Celebrate America

Whitman was on the forefront of the American literary scene and was well prepared to promote it. His language was uniquely American, not British or European; powerfully American. His language had fewer rules; it was looser, courser, rougher and more promiscuous. He felt he was actively involved in the struggle for democracy with Leaves of Grass. He also said that he hoped his book would heal the nation and even prevent Civil War. He wanted to inspire and stir people with his work.  He viewed his book as a true epic. What would an epic be like?  It would celebrate America, the American self, the “I.”  In fact, he sings of America throughout the book.

The Great Equalizer

Before Leaves of Grass he wrote editorials but he saw that they were mostly ineffective so he created a more profound work through his free-verse writings. He addressed the soul and the psyche of the nation, to create a real sense of community. He threw his book out there with a lot of hope for a nation that would soon divide apart. Whitman wanted his book to be written by the nation and for the nation using his voice. In his preface he says that the poet is the great equalizer and the one who is in balance. He obviously had a great ego and assumed a lot, but believed in his age and his country. He felt that he had a national mission to fulfill because he could see and tell of a world of experience in a way that nobody else could or did. He wanted to preserve the Union, to hold things together and yet maintain our unique identity. The many contradictions and differences of our nation did not bother him.  He wanted us to accept them and him and was truly puzzled by those who could not or would not accept either.

Legacy of Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman’s personal literary journey of national significance. His desire was to sing of the new country with a new voice and he felt the time was ripe. There is no doubt that Whitman’s vision and ego helped him produce his masterwork. His profound vision created a tremendous contribution to American literary history. Numerous poets have tried to place themselves in his wake or have reacted violently to him. There is no getting around him.  He was a celebrity in his day and is celebrated today.  He had disciples that surrounded him in his later years and still has a large following today. But why is he so important?  It is because he stirred up such controversy and got people talking. More importantly, he broke the boundaries of poetic form and elevated common people through his portrayals of American life.

A Religious Skeptic

Leaves of Grass had a major impact on the literary world; His work cannot be ignored. His poetry has been set to music and inspired musicians, both classical and popular. Europeans said that you couldn’t really understand America without Walt Whitman. Some modern poets have said that Whitman is not just America’s poet, but he is America. Whitman considered himself to be a messiah-like figure in poetry; so did his admirers. His vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the beat movement as well as by anti-war poets.  He took what Emerson and Thoreau started with the transcendentalist movement, thoroughly Americanized it and then set it free to enjoy a new life through his free-verse poetry.  His style speaks to many people who think as he did and do not live within the constraints of limitations imposed by moral boundaries of religious America.  Though he was born to a Quaker family, it would be more proper to classify Whitman as a man of spirituality and not a man of religion.  He as deeply influenced by Deism and denied that any one faith was more important than another. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, who was also a religious skeptic, he embraced all religions equally.  And though he accepted all churches, he believed in none.  It is safe to say that Whitman’s religion was like his verse: free and easy.

A Mass of Stupid Filth

But it is his forays into eroticism that elicited such strong responses from his critics.  They said that his poetry was “a mass of stupid filth” and that Whitman was like a pig “rooting among the rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.”  For example, in section 11 of Song of Myself, Whitman warned us that he was going to celebrate himself, get bawdy and lusty and otherwise embrace the passion, pulse and power of life.  The 29th bather is a powerful example of how he makes that happen.  In section 3 of Song of Myself he had already exposed us to the urge of sex, and now he sprays us with a beach orgy. Section 11 is famously known as the 29th bather, a fantasy that starts from a female narrative and ends with a homoerotic shocker.  It caused one reviewer to exclaim that he was guilty of violating “the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization.”  Another accused him in Latin of homosexual behavior.

Raw Sexuality

While some biographers are certain in their declarations that there was never any evidence of homosexual activity, what is certain is that he used the imagery of raw sexuality liberally throughout Leaves of Grass. “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world…always sex” are found along with scenes of “hugging and loving bedfellows.  He takes on an all-knowing and condescending spirit that tells us to forget about “creeds and schools,” religion and education, and just listen to what wisdom he is about to belch forth.  With arrogance he states that “what I assume, you shall assume,” as if to say that our views could only possibly be his views. He is going to introduce us to the common laborers of America, the average people who are cheerfully and skillfully working to build the great American dream.

I Celebrate Myself

Throughout his work we will witness numerous vignettes of life in the America of Walt Whitman’s day, not life in halls of congress or places of business, but in homes and gathering places. And through it all, we are to be subjected to the lusty, bawdy, fleshy side of life that Whitman, or his muse, wants us to see, hear and experience.  With Walt, we will hear the delicious singing, the “party of young fellows, robust and friendly, singing with mouths open their strong melodious songs.”  He is positively giddy. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself… undisguised and naked…mad to be in contact with” the sensual nature of this physical and worldly existence.  We will soon be reading biography, sermon and poetic meditation of this muse all lustily embracing the fleshy body as it expresses itself through the life of Whitman.

The 29th Bather

In Leaves of Grass, Walt writes of getting “undisguised and naked,” and sensually urges his readers to “Undrape!  You are not guilty to me,” but “stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical.” But these words and phrases are nothing compared to the scene that unfolds in the 29th bather.  The young lady lets her imagination take her to the beach to join the crowd of young men, describing the beards of the young men glistening with wet that ran from their long hair, little streams that passed all over their bodies. “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies; it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.”  And then the action turns decidedly homoerotic as actions are performed on the young men by whom – the unseen 29th bather or by each other?  If Whitman intended to shock the sensibilities of his readers, he wildly succeeded.  But then, this is nothing compared to sex-soaked erotic content of a more modern classic such as Portnoy’s Complaint, which dwells on the lusty subject of masturbation.

The Good Gray Poet

How this erotic and sexually dissident poet was adopted as America’s national bard and anointed “the Good Gray Poet” is hard to understand.  He never did reach the common people but was celebrated by the intellectuals of the day, especially from other countries.  Did Whitman presage the view of America as the land of porn? If not, then he certainly did contribute a fair share for his day.  The real work in analyzing and appreciating Whitman’s poetry is in looking past the celebration of the natural man and seeing in it the celebration of America, the great land of opportunity and the dream that all can succeed and that anything can be created and promoted.  All it takes is the kind of confidence and belief in oneself that Walt Whitman had in abundance.  In that respect, Walt Whitman was truly an American genius of a rock-star caliber for his day.  If Whitman could successfully promote and sell out every edition of his book each time it went to press, in spite of the moral constraints of his day, just think what we should be able to do today!

Controversy Promotes

Of course I’m not suggesting that we rush out to write a bunch of pornographic prose as he did, but I am saying that, like Whitman, we should celebrate this great nation for the freedoms of expression that we enjoy and that can really be found in no other nation of this world today. And, like Whitman, if we embrace the spirit of controversy and promotion of something unique, as was his free-verse style, then we should be able to reach out to millions of people through the modern leaves of grass – the Internet.  Isn’t that what many of today’s bloggers are hoping to accomplish?  They are the Walt Whitman’s of our day, bypassing the established norms of book publishing for the new media of the Internet.  And they succeed because of their controversial content and endless self-promotion.  If only what they promoted was uplifting to the human spirit.  Controversial content is what drives the readers to the blogs and websites where they want to express their own opinions in the comments.  Walt Whitman knew what would sell and he knew how to sell it.  Just think of what he could have done if he lived in the Internet age!

Getting Past Prejudices with the Musical Rent


The warning signs outside the theater were ominous: “Adult content not suitable for children.”  Looking around as we entered, I had to remember that the college-age students there were not children.  That’s hard to do when you have offspring older than most present, including the actors performing the show.  Carol and I were there by assignment to see the musical “Rent,” the Tony and Pulitzer award winning rock-opera drama about life in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980’s.  It takes place in the neighborhood known as Alphabet City, an area primarily inhabited by bohemian young people wanting to break into theater, TV or music.  Sadly, the area also had high levels of illegal drug activity, violent crime and HIV/AIDS.

Undoubtedly the themes of homosexuality, AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness prompted the warnings about the adult content.  The characters include a gay male couple in which both partners have AIDS, an on-again/off-again lesbian couple, and a straight couple in which both partners have AIDS and both have a history of intravenous drug use.  It’s not exactly “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and was written intentionally to shake things up, but also to address the concepts of love, loss and community.  Those are the themes that I would like to address in this essay.  If we can overcome bigotry and be compassionate towards people living with AIDS for a few moments then we can be uplifted by some beautiful elements of Rent.

I’ll admit I was a little put-off when I read some of the articles and reviews of the play in advance of witnessing the production.  I wanted to know more about the story before I saw it.  I like to think I’m not homophobic but from what I had read in some reviews, the lifestyle went beyond mere portrayal; it was celebrated, endorsed and flaunted in your face.  I didn’t want to see that.  I’m old-fashioned in that I believe that some things should be left private, and sexual activity is one of them.  However, the production that we saw must have been a tamed-down version because there was only occasional gay kissing and touching, nothing too disturbing.  I was more bothered by the decibels of the musicians, which sometimes drowned out the singers.

Outstanding Music

The songs in Rent are the first of the beautiful and uplifting elements that I noticed.  The entire play is a musical.  It seemed like there were very few lines spoken that were not actually sung.  Even the hilarious little phone messages peppered throughout the play were delightfully sung to us, adding much entertainment to the dramatic production.  Who hasn’t heard “Seasons of Love,” especially since it has been playing in some TV commercial lately?  Although not particularly uplifting to me, La Vie Boheme was immensely entertaining.  Other enjoyable songs included Your Eyes, Goodbye Love, Light My Candle, Tango Maureen, Out Tonight, One Song Glory, I Should Tell You, Take Me Or Leave Me, No Day But Today, and Living in America.

I can’t think of one thing with more universal appeal than the idea of love.  Who doesn’t want to be loved?  I have met people who have said no when I asked them if they wanted to be happy in life but I have never met someone who said no when asked if they wanted to be loved or at least accepted for who they are.  Of the three major themes I saw in the play, the idea of being loved came across the strongest.  Although they had a lot of emotional handicaps and baggage, these were people dealing with building relationships.  I can’t identify with being a drag queen but when Angel was dying, I found myself shedding a tear for Collins’ loss.

Living with Loss

These people lived with loss every day.  That’s why one of the recurring songs was entitled, “No Day but Today.”  How they dealt with that loss teaches a lot about the idea of community.  They came together in their grief.  They comforted one another.  They took care of one another the best they could.  Mimi was not judged for her drug addiction but was encouraged to live without it and find something better to take its place.  Since so many of their friends were dying, they adopted the motto to live for the day and to reach for their dreams one day at a time.  How hard it must be to make plans for the future when you are living with a disease like AIDS.

It was love and loss that built their community.  They only had each other.  Rejected by so many outside their world, they had to give each other strength, and they did.  Although the ending was a little hokey with Angel becoming the angel who told Mimi to go back when she was dying, the love that developed between Roger and Mimi was delightful to witness.  How can you not love a happy, feel-good ending where the main characters find happiness in each other?   Except there’s one big problem – they still have AIDS and will die someday.  But then, so will we all.  See, it really does have universal appeal.  The play mirrors life that someday will end.

After seeing the play, Carol read the script and I read dozens of reviews.  I was fascinated by the dichotomy of opinions expressed.  It seems that most reviewers either loved it or hated it.  One said she had never walked out of a play before in her life but walked out on Rent.  She must have had a family member in our audience because a couple in front of us walked out at the first encounter of affection expressed between Angel and Collins.  Were they homophobic?  In all probability, yes they were.  I mean, the music was loud and the show could be confusing if you weren’t paying close attention, but it was obvious that they didn’t like what they were seeing.

Reviews from Viewers

Here’s a quote from one of those reader reviews I found in the NY Times about the time the show was closing after a twelve-year run:  “If you want homosexuality and drug addiction rubbed in your face, then this is the play for you. I basically hated it, if you haven’t figured that out yet.”  In contrast, “Rent is a fabulous roller-coaster ride of emotion. The characters are extremely real, and so are the troubles they face. The songs are beautiful and the energy and electricity of it is so wonderful that you are a complete moron if you don’t like it. The only reason anyone wouldn’t like this show is if they are homophobic, intolerant, and weak.”

But my favorite had to be, “So let’s see… a group of drug addicted promiscuous squatters are the heroes and the one person who breaks from the group and becomes successful and buys the building (which they live in illegally) is the bad-guy because he wants rent… hhhmmmm… and let’s see, we have loud screeching that we’re supposed to call singing but it’s “cool dude” ’cause the lead is just so hot looking and has the teeny bopper girls squealing in delight.  This is a show for the MTV-Put-Upon Generation… pure junk.”  Opinions of performances are one thing but this reviewer was obviously passing judgment and commenting on the lifestyle choices.

The Composer

Part of the impact of the show is the death of the composer and writer, Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by Marfan syndrome, on the night before the play opened off Broadway.  In spite of his death, the show went on.  Glowing reviews began to appear. The six-week run sold out immediately.  In the months to come, Rent moved to Broadway, won four Tony awards, including the prize for best musical, and Jonathan Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, posthumously.  The show went on to become one of the longest running productions on Broadway and is now enjoying a second life in local theater.

Social Impact

Rent has had and is still having a social impact.  While the play is now a little dated with the use of pay phones, answering machines and clunky old cell phones the size of a brick, it is still attracting younger crowds wherever it plays.  Of course, that was probably inevitable in our case, given that our venue was a local community college.  Wherever it opens, it is reviewed by the local theater critics.  The comments posted on those online reviews demonstrate that some of the same prejudices and bigotry are still alive and well in America today.  Rent is a wonderful example of American creativity that reaches to the very heart of our lives through love and loss.  I hope our community has changed and become more tolerant in the years since it first opened.

I haven’t included a lot of quotes from the musical, because frankly, they aren’t very deep.  For example, here’s one from the song, Light my Candle: “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.”  And from Angel, the transvestite, “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.”  From the song Will I, about dying from AIDS: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”  I suppose my favorite has to be “There will always be women in rubber flirting with me…”  That last quote is from Maureen, one of the two lesbians.  Some of the stuff is really quite funny, if you can just get past the idea that these are people looking for love in unorthodox relationships.

Unorthodox Relationships

And that is the point of the play and the impact it has had on America.  How do we view the lives of those who are not in orthodox relationships?  Do we view them as sinners, in need of repentance and salvation, who will suffer in hell because of their poor lifestyle choices?  I am confident that there are millions of people who will voice that very opinion without hesitation.  Or do we love and accept them, making an effort to help them find happiness and success in life?  That is one of the toughest choices in life, especially for those who have family members living in a lifestyle that is contrary to the moral principles that they value.  Rent helps us see past the pain and sorrow of rejection and loss of those who live with AIDS and still manage to have hope.

It’s that final scene of hope that I find most uplifting and inspiring about the play.  They found hope because they loved and supported each other through their loss and sorrow.  I think Jonathan Larson would be pleased to think that his play has helped us to become more loving and supportive of each other, especially those who deal with AIDS on a daily basis.  And in the end, the millions he earned posthumously from the play helps others pursue their writing careers.

Note: Carol saw the play with me and shared an excellent review on her blog.

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