Category Archives: Books

The Zookeeper’s Wife: Reviewing The Book and Movie

By Maddie Scott

“At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.” So begins the Zookeeper’s Wife, a war story by Diane Ackerman, an acclaimed poet, essayist and naturalist. In the first sentence, it is clear that Ms. Ackerman is primarily a naturalist who likes to create sentences that have the same beauty in the words as the nature she is describing. The war story seems to at times have a secondary role in the Zookeeper’s Wife. For example, when describing the curfew the Poles were subject to under German occupation, Ackerman writes, “After curfew, Poles could no longer stroll under a canopy of stars.” This paragraph continues with a detailed explanation of meteor showers, including description and  history, with only cursory mention of the Poles who could still watch such showers from balconies or windows, and a brief comparison of meteors to German gunfire and bombs.

The reason this works for some readers is that Diane Ackerman seems to be a kindred spirit of sorts with the main character in the book, Antonina Zabinski, the Zookeeper’s Wife. Antonina had the same connection with nature that Ms. Ackerman has. As the author writes,“Antonina loved to slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal’s eyes, and she often wrote from that outlook, in which she intuited their concerns and know-how, including what they might be seeing, feeling, fearing, sensing, remembering.” Their residence at the Zoo, the Villa, was home to many animals that participated in family life, including a badger, rabbit and hamster.

Amidst the descriptions of nature, Antonina and Jan’s (her husband) zoo animals and family, Ackerman weaves in the story of occupied Warsaw, her own family’s fight for survival (Antonina left the Zoo and the Villa more than once with her young son during particularly dangerous times of bombing and fighting), and the remarkable resistance efforts that she and her husband participated in. Jan was part of the Home Army and took part in the Warsaw Polish Uprising. His connection with a Jewish entomologist, Szymon Tenenbaum, who left his collection of insects at the Villa for safekeeping when he was forced from his home, opened the doors to the Ghetto (the Polish director of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Labor Bureau had a mutual admiration for Tenenbaum and his collection of insects) and Jan was able to help many Jewish friends and strangers escape. Many of these people took up temporary (and some more semi-permanent) residence at the Villa. All told, the Zabinskis helped to save approximately 300 Jews. Antonina demonstrated the same strength, compassion and resolve in helping their Jewish “guests” as she did in keeping her family safe.

The Zoo itself went through many changes during the war. Many animals were killed during the first days of bombing in Warsaw, and many more were moved by the “benevolent” Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo, and a Nazi, who tried to convince Antonina that he had the animals’ best interest in mind (while later taking a hunting party back to the Warsaw Zoo to kill remaining animals). After the war, Antonina and Jan restore the Warsaw Zoo, before Jan’s retirement from the Zoo in 1951.

Ackerman shows great skill in representing the Zookeeper’s wife’s strengths. In the concluding chapter, she relays Jan’s quotes via Danka Narnish, an Israeli reporter, “Her confidence could disarm even the most hostile. It wasn’t just that she identified with them, but from time to time she seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind.”

The movie adaptation of the Zookeeper’s Wife is visually appealing, and it is easier to follow the comings and goings of the Jews that the Zabinski’s save, rather than in the book with its heavy description and seemingly non-linear timeline. Antonina, played by Jessica Chastain, convincingly conveys her love for the people she saves, animals, and her son. Her love for her husband, however, is clouded by a fictionalized romance between her and Lutz Heck, played by Daniel Bruhl. The movie takes evidence of Lutz’ admiration of Antonina from the book and turns it into a mutual attraction, much of which the movie is based upon. Antonina is also portrayed as soft-spoken and unsure of herself. Despite the great things she accomplishes in helping Jews to escape the Warsaw ghetto by giving them shelter in her house, the sense that the audience gathers from the movie is that she is overly emotional, tempted romantically by a Nazi who in the book she is clearly wary of from the beginning, and not an equal partner to her husband. The movie also takes great artistic license in portraying a young Jewish woman who was taken in by the Zabinskis after being brutally raped by Germans in the Ghetto. While such atrocities certainly happened again and again during the war, this character is created for the movie, and not mentioned in the book.

If one wants to learn of the remarkable story of Antonina Zabinski and to get a more accurate representation, it is far better to read the book than to see the movie.

 

 

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Why do LDS General Authorities Quote from C.S. Lewis?

By Dylan Sage-Wilcox

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strive to live the high standards of their faith, they look to their leaders for direction in biannual meetings known as General Conference. Thousands of members living in Utah convene together in the Conference Center while millions more tune in on TVs, laptops and phones. Faithful members who listen to these inspiring messages given on a variety of topics from selected General Authorities of the Church say that there is at least one talk that really touches them. Each message is often given through the personal experience of the speaker, however, there are other sources of inspiration that are called upon. Such a valuable resource is Christian apologist and renowned author, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis is one of the most quoted non-Latter-day Saints in General Conference. Marianna Edwards Richardson and Christine Thackeray wrote C.S. Lewis: Latter-day Truths in Narnia where they pointed out some of the reasons as to why Lewis is so often quoted by LDS leaders: “Lewis had a knack of speaking for ‘every man’ and gave us modern parables for Christian living. All can relate to his testimony of Christ and his practical understanding of how to put gospel teachings into practice today.”

The Deseret News complied 23 C.S. Lewis quotes shared in LDS General Conference, they found that Elder Neal A. Maxwell quoted Lewis the most, 19 times, four instances being in General Conference, the others in talks and devotionals he gave. President James E. Faust came next to Elder Maxwell, quoting the author at least seven times.

Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. His religious background began as a youth when he was baptized in the Church of Ireland, under the nudging of his mother, Florence Augusta Lewis, whose father was a priest for the church. In 1908 Lewis suffered many losses; the death of his uncle, grandfather, and mother, the latter died of cancer. These life events helped to shape his view on life and even death as he began to immerse himself in Greek and Norse mythology and other literature. He was sent to Malvern to recuperate from respiratory difficulties, it was here at the age of 15 that he abandoned his childhood faith and became an atheist pursing mythology and the occult. The young Lewis viewed Christianity as cumbersome and time-consuming, however it wasn’t until Lewis read George McDonald’s “Phantasies” in 1916, which “baptized his imagination” did Lewis finally have a religious epiphany.

In 1929, as a faculty member at Oxford University, he met fellow colleague and equally-noted author, J. R. R. Tolkien, who persuaded Lewis to be fully converted to Christianity. Lewis recorded in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Since his conversion to theism at the age of 33, Lewis committed himself to the Church of England he became not just a defender of his Anglican faith, but of all Christianity. James Sire wrote “C. S. Lewis was a man with wide interests, a man who wrote with distinction in many fields – literary history, philology, criticism, Christian apologetics, science fiction, myth, poetry, and children’s literature. His readers are thus drawn from many walks of life.” Sire said that Lewis could be serious without being sentimental, he could be a genuine Christian without being trapped by religious piety, he could enjoy without the sole seeking of enjoyment, and he was willing to advise without becoming a professional advisor. Because of his broad perspectives and conversion from atheism to theism, Lewis was uniquely equipped to defend Christianity from naysayers because he was once a naysayer himself. His teachings and essays ranged from the Savior’s atoning sacrifice to the importance of motherhood. Hence the reason why many LDS leaders quote him so generously.

Jannalee Rosner, in her article for LDS Living, gives three insights into Lewis’s popularity among Latter-day Saint authors, leaders, and scholars. First, Lewis helps us with missionary work and Sunday School comments. Second, his ideas are related to Mormon doctrine. And third, he tells great stories and parables.

President Ezra Taft Benson gave a still-oft quoted talk in April General Conference of 1989 entitled, “Beware of Pride”, where he quotes Lewis, who said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” The first general authority to quote from the renowned British author was Elder Paul H. Dunn of the Seventy in 1977, who gave a talk entitled “We Have Been There All the Time” where he advised members of the church to give special attention to relationships with loved ones, family, and friends. He quoted Lewis’s words: “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelets.” From that point on, general authorities have been using Lewis’s profound insight to enhance their messages

“All the Light We Cannot See,” A Novel for the Pensive Mormon

By Daniel Stout

Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” is in the slow-read category, but not in the monotonous sense of the word. On the contrary it is a lively fascinating book; it just demands a thoughtful pace. This reviewer is drawn to the pensive reading experience where a page-a-day can be immensely satisfying. That is if one adheres to Anna Quindlen’s thoughtful reading concept. Reading is in the mind, and some books let the imagination wander. All the Light is such a book.  Mormons that enjoy perusal of a sentence followed by gazing-out-the-window rumination should enjoy this tale. If you’re lamenting the lost art of thinking, allow Doerr’s artful prose to come to the rescue.

51wG7x-S+0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is the tale of two teenagers in World War II France: A blind girl and a male member of the Hitler youth. The latter figuratively eyeless. These are disparate worldviews, but their lives eventually converge. The merge of mindsets not only makes a good story, but forces the reader to confront delicious dilemmas avoided in our religious lives. Why don’t we recognize the limitations of authority?  What is it about evil that makes it so difficult to discern?

It’s a novel about life’s ironies.  Happiness is somehow drawn from contradiction, and ultimately there is no happiness, only an arduous journey.  All the Light holds a mirror up to our journeys eliciting reflection of readers’ earthly sojourns. It raises more questions than it answers, but that that’s the goal of the author. It’s a a book to think with.

I had heard that All the Light was a literary achievement, but was unprepared for the elegant use of metaphor and well-crafted writing. Varied sentence length and brevity are but a few of the peruser’s delights. Doerr’s artistic workmanship is present in line after line. Take this sentence, for example. Four words, but a hundred interpretations:

Still night. Still early.

Ultimately, it is a book about the paradoxes of nature, i.e., so nurturing yet so cruel. Doerr schools us on a vital subject.  ________-__-____-2644Life may impair us, but never obstructs our drive to uncover love in its dark recesses.  Read this novel, and don’t be afraid to take a year.

 

LDS Students Size Up Power Rangers

By Myck Miller

For many the TV show Power Rangers was one that dominated the children of the 90s. These same children, now adults were ecstatic to hear of the production of the newest Rita-Repulsa-EW-e1461076145709addition to the Power Rangers family. The excitement was there, the technology was available, and yet many of BYU-Hawaii’s students were not happy with the result of the movie. Was it the anticipation? Could it be that the past can’t be replicated in the present? Whatever the answer is the BYU-Hawaii student body was not happy with the movie and voiced their opinions about where the movie went wrong.

Landin Hayter, a senior majoring in Political Science said, “my hope was that this movie was going to take me back to my childhood and give me the satisfaction that I once had as a kid. The problem is that the expectations that I placed on the film were too high and it ended up coming up short.” Landin later explained that much of what he loved as a kid now is no longer a form of entertainment. Many can remember those Halloween nights with one of the most popular costumes being Power Rangers.

When asked about what went wrong with the movie, Dave Johnson, a junior majoring in accounting said, “the plot wasn’t clear and the acting was terrible.” 6084779ce2255704f927c668d4fbe3e8d7fa0b3bHe later added, “I had a serious issue with the flow of the movie. It lagged on forever and when it was time to morph and get the action rolling the movie came up short. I expected the action to be like the superhero movies but it didn’t live up to the hype.” Much of what the students said about the movie had to do with the pace. Power Rangers had the expectation of living up to the hype of so many of the superhero movies that are currently in production. When BYU-Hawaii students were asked how it compared to the Marvel and DC comic movies the overall consensus was, “NOT EVEN CLOSE!”

Although the college students weren’t fans of the movie they did add that the movie may appeal to younger children and is a family movie. BYU-Hawaii students however are not fans and hope that if there is another movie in production they learn from the mistakes of this film and try to pattern the sequel to something similar to Avengers or the Christian Bale batman movies.

“Amanda Knox” documentary features a modern “Inspector Javert”and mass hysteria

By Daniel Stout

The new documentary, “Amanda Knox,” is exhilarating and haunting, yielding a paradoxical film; it dishes out ample joy and tension. Thematically, the truth-small_121129-233805_to291112est_9350conquers-doubt story is difficult to pull off. Take Dateline and 20/20, the accused are inevitably guilty, or at least convicted. The film is less successful as a crime story than a psychological examination of mass hysteria, similar to the deindividuation of the Salem Witch Trials. Amanda Knox, a University of Washington student visiting Perugia, Italy, was accused of murder in 2007. The film is preceded by Knox’s memoir, “Waiting to be Heard” published in 2013.

No real evidence that Knox and her boyfriend murdered Meredith Kercher ever surfaced. She was found guilty of the stabbing, then innocent, then guilty again. Finally released from shackles, she returned to Seattle, only to face extradition efforts from the Italian government. These efforts recently ceased partly impeded by the Innocence Project. A reporter for the West Seattle Herald, Knox is rebuilds her life and narrates sections of the film, enhancing the dramatic tension, providing personal testimony of the terror of captivity and joy of newfound freedom. What are the factors underpinning a global media event where Italian crowds burned effigies, shouted profanities in the streets, and demanded justice, only to have the real killer eventually confess.

Relentless persecution of the innocent at all costs is a frequent subject of dramatic works. Hugo’s Les Miserables comes to mind as Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini makesgallery-1475164281-gettyimages-127239622 Inspector Javert look like a lightweight. Despite insurmountable evidence, Amanda Knox must be punished in the name of the people, country, and God. In a late scene in the documentary, he’s psychologically and, perhaps pathologically, unwilling to concede the court erred.

With the exception of The Thin Blue Line, Amanda Knox is superior to recent works on the wrongly accused, including Making of a Murderer and the The Central Park Five.

As Latter-day Saints, it’s difficult to view Amanda Knox without reflecting on the The Mountain Meadows Massacre, an event where Christ-like community gives way to sinister social pressure and mob hysteria based on misinformation and collective paranoia. Although a somber film, it flickers with the light of those willing to stand up for truth despite the punishments of opposing the crowd.

At a more personal level, the Amanda Knox story elicits conversation about how rumor and gossip often expands into immense harm that isn’t easily reversed.

 

Toobin’s New Book on Patty Hearst

by Danny Stout

Jeffrey Toobin, journalist, lawyer, and meticulous researcher delivers superb work in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst (Doubleday; 371 p.). His earlier work, The Run of his Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, though, well-crafted, lacks the intrigue and mystery of the Patty Hearst Story. Despite the societal schism splitting the nation over O.J., the story, though tragic, has few of the nuances of Hearst’s life. Average college student or terrorist murderer? Or both? It’s the difference between a 500 and 1,000 – piece puzzle: The Hearst story is loaded with variables such as wealth, politics, psychology; the crime motive difficultly discerned. The O.J. story’s more didactic.

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Few Millenials know this baffling tale their Baby Boomer parents have been stewing over for half a century. Granddaughter of the wealthy media mogul William Randolf Hearst, Patty was kidnapped in 1974. The nation froze. Weren’t high-stakes kidnappings a thing of the past? Not since the Lindbergh baby in 1932 was a hostage story in the nightly news.

Unlike Lindbergh, Hearst was an adult student at the University of California at Berkeley that’s aggressively snatched from her modest apartment by a handful of the Symbionese Liberation Army, violent revolutionaries with an ill-defined commitment to over-throw America. With the famous name drawing press coverage, they rose from obscure misfits to public players in the American protest movement.

Today she’s a victim, the next, Hearst carries a machine gun into a bank robbery. Eventually, murder results. All the intrigue of “split-personality” movies such as The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, pale in comparison to the mega-mystery of Patty Hearst. Toobin keeps the dramatic tension alive through conflicting details of the narrative. Readers are left to judge Patty’s character and life.

Toobin is out for bigger game. Egalitarian values were no where to be found in the 1970’s as Hearst serves a meager two years and is pardoned by President Jimmy Carter. Others paid more dearly for the savage crimes.

Perhaps more engaging is Toobin’s before-and-after portrait of Hearst. Her group guns down people in cold blood, but now she lives the toobinupscale urban life. She enters dogs in elite shows, and all seems forgotten. Hearst prefers not to talk about the violent years. How can she draw a blank and disremember so easily? Toobin suggests that the life script of the ultra – rich provides an inherent ability of selective memory lapse. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, the affluent are adept at memory lapse. For the destitute, such memories are painful and often carried to the grave.

Hidden Daughter: New Biography of Rosemary Kennedy

by Dan Stout and Kayna Stout

Kate Clifford Larson, biographer of Harriet Tubman, and Mary Surratt, collaborator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, fills gaps in the elusive story, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. The third Kennedy sibling born after Joe Jr. and Jack, she was the oldest daughter of the nine children. Rosemary was mentally challenged, functioning below Kennedy expectations. Never referred to as retarded or handicapped, parents Joe Sr. and Rose called her developmentally delayed, watching her fall behind in maturation milestones. Rosemary was the anomaly in America’s most powerful family, and, according to Larson, deliberately hidden from the public eye.

Based on reams of notes, letters, and records, this nuanced book uncovers surprising embarrassment about Rosemary bookmental illness, and a 1940’s psychology fraught with dubious treatment and unchecked medical practices. Enigmatically, Joe Sr. adored Rosemary; she was the first girl, very pretty. Yet he had the lowest of thresholds for public tantrums and refusals to reason with family members. Rose sent her to private school, hoping this would elevate her abilities. Within a year, the institution expelled her.

Convinced a cure existed, Joe Sr. ordered a lobotomy for his difficult daughter.  Without consulting his wife Rose, he left Rosemary in the hands of Drs. Walter Freeman and James Watts, frontal lobotomy specialists; they were confident she would improve. The outcome was disastrous: her speech was impaired, and considerable movement in both legs and one arm was lost.

The parents purchased excellent care at various facilities before Rosemary settled permanently in Wisconsin continuing daily physical therapy; she regained limited speech. Joe Sr. communicated mainly through his secretaries. “She is feeling quite well” he wrote to family members. By 1944, Rosemary dropped out of Rose’s family letters, a situation that lasted 20 years.

Tragedy after tragedy struck the family, from Joe Jr.’s death in World War II to the assassinations of Jack and Robert. Sister Eunice, however, continued to visit Rosemary, maintaining at least one regular family tie. In a 1980’s interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rose claimed Rosemary taught the family many lessons of life, yet this occurred at a distance. Goodwin, according to the author, was the first outside the family to learn that Rosemary had a lobotomy.

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Rosemary uncovers a number of cultural and historical insights. The field of pre-war neurosurgery reveals a blind modernist belief in scientific progress to the point of peril. Little consensus, few trials, and no reference to peer-reviewed studies led to a miracle cure mentality. This, coupled with gender inequity, (80% of lobotomies were performed on women despite over 60% of the institutionalized were male) permanently altered Rosemary’s life and destiny.

The rays of sunshine in this otherwise grey story is Jack’s support of the mentally challenged while president, and particularly, Eunice’s summer camps that eventually became the Special Olympics. Ted Kennedy took up the cause as a U.S. Senator, and today, several grandchildren keep Rosemary’s story alive through writing and volunteerism.

Larson’s book is a lamentation on society’s forgotten, and an emphatic warning that culture is only as strong as our love for those saddled with harsh adversity.

Harper Lee (1926-2016): A teacher’s tribute

by Kayna Stout

The passing of Harper Lee has brought with it a well spring of memories. In 1995-96, I taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” (TKMB) to 150 ninth graders in Lindon, Utah at Oak Canyon Junior High. It was my first and only year of teaching at a secondary school. And, it was my objective to create 150 new fans of the novel. During our six week unit, I thought of every creative way I could share my enthusiasm for what to me is the greatest American novel ever written.

It just so happened that Brigham Young University was producing the play version of TKAM, which I had seen that semester. The child who played Scout was the spitting image from the movie that starred Gregory Peck as Atticus, Scout’s lawyer father. I tracked her down and discovered she was from Pleasant Grove just a stone’s throw from our school. I asked her and her mother if she could come to my six classes for the day and perform like she did in the play at BYU. For a nine year old, she was amazing in her ability to be in character with overalls and a Southern drawl. I had borrowed from the drama teacher a large black box for her to stand on as she recited line after line from the play and novel we were reading as a class.

My students were spell bound. There was not a single disruption during any of my classes, harper and scoutwhich was a first for me as a novice teacher. By the time fourth period rolled around, the drama teacher had heard what I was doing and asked if she could bring her students for the remainder of the day. Now with 60 students crammed into each class, our young actress was still mesmerizing them all. That’s the power of talent combined with an engrossing story and great dialogue. Harper Lee herself would have been proud at the way we were handling her masterpiece.

I was so intrigued by Lee’s seclusion from the literary world after receiving the Pulitzer Prize that I researched in the BYU library what else she had published. This was pre Internet when you actually had to go to a library to find something. I discovered the article she had written for McCall’s magazine early in her writing career before her fame. I went to the stacks and found it. I made a photocopy to share with the class.

As we progressed in our reading of TKAM to the trial of Tom, I thought of another engaging harper gregory peckactivity for my classes. I divided them into groups of five and provided each with tape recorders. I found quiet places throughout the school where they could turn their portion of the trial into a radio broadcast. I told them to be creative with sound effects and voices. They exceeded my expectations as we listened all together as a class to their radio productions. Another teaching triumph. I felt a kinship with Miss Lee; she was teaching her readers to become more tolerant people, and I was teaching my students to be the same.

We were in this journey together.

I had another surprise guest for my students as we headed toward the Christmas break. My mother-in-law Betty was visiting our family for the holidays and arrived before school was out. She’s from Georgia and has a soft Southern drawl. I convinced her to speak to my class about growing up in the segregated South in the 40’s and 50’s, the decades that followed the events in the novel. She had my Utah students in the palm of her hand. They applauded her at the end of her reminisces as a Southern born and bred girl.

I sent all my students home for the holidays with a chocolate gift I made. I found a candy mold in the shape of a bird probably meant to be a dove, and I wrapped each in cellophane with a red ribbon. As they headed out the door to start their Christmas vacation, I gave each student a chocolate mockingbird. I think Harper Lee would have approved!

When classes got underway again in January, I intrigued my students with a black draped box that resembled the size and shape of a casket. I told them that they would be participating in a funeral for Tom. There’s no funeral for Tom in the novel, but I felt like he deserved one, and asked the students to help me mourn his loss. They wrote down the good things about Tom’s life. I put a photo of a black man on top of the casket. I played a cassette tape of Mahalia Jackson singing with a gospel choir. The students stood by their desks one at a time and read their tributes to Tom. It was emotional and felt real to all of us.

I apologize to Miss Lee for taking creative liberties with her American Classic, but I think she would forgive me, a first year teacher doing her best to teach adolescents about prejudice and compassion. By the end of the six weeks of reading TKAM, I felt like we all knew each other a little better and had grown wiser about the world we inhabit.

As a final assignment, I asked my students to write a letter to Harper Lee telling her what they had learned from her novel. I told them I would mail their letters to her, but I didn’t. I’m sorry, but I was pretty exhausted just surviving my time-crunched life as their ninth grade English teacher. There were other activities and the occasional pop quiz, but all I wanted was to have them love that novel as much as I did and still do. I hope wherever they are now as 35 year olds when they hear the news of Harper Lee’s passing, they will remember that ninth grade teacher who wanted to make the world a better place. Thank you for the memories Miss Harper Lee. I’m glad I still have those letters. They are my connection to that special time and place in my life. Something that means a great deal to me.

The morality tales in TKAM resonate with LDS beliefs. The equality of all God’s children is a thread that runs through both the novel and the Book of Mormon. For example, 2 Nephi 26:33 could have been said by Atticus just as well as Nephi states, “… He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God both Jew and Gentile.” And I believe Atticus would have encouraged his children to raise their voices to a Mormon hymn such as “Do What is Right.” He exemplified the lyrics to this beloved hymn when he guarded Tom in jail against an angry mob. There are even echoes of Joseph Smith’s unjust imprisonment. These themes of equality, justice and standing up for what’s right are what make TKAM feel so familiar to an LDS reader. If it’s been awhile since reading it, doing so will honor the author for sharing it with us.

 

 

Susan Jacoby’s new book,”Strange Gods: A secular history of conversion

by Danny Stout

According to Susan Jacoby, there are reasons for religious conversion beyond spiritual ones. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, she says, “I wanted to see how much of conversion is forced, through family, or through the social or economic gains.”

Her 2008 book about anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason, was a New York Times best seller. Jacobi is an atheist and secular humanist; her goal isn’t to push an atheist agenda nor discredit believers. She does, however, feel that secularists have been ignored and mistreated as exemplified by the fact that political candidates do not recognize, and therefore ignore “secular voters.”

Unlike the new atheism that takes an incendiary stance toward religion, attributing many of life’s ills to denominations, Jacoby’s book is refreshingly tolerant while retaining her defense of secularism. Works such as The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris

and Richard Dawkins’ fiery The God Delusion, argue that religion diverts the individual from sec book imagethe scientific worldview, therefore delaying social and cultural advancement. One should actively campaign against it. The late public intellectual Christopher Hitchens strongly advocated this position. Jacobi, on the other hand, respects religionists that find peace and truth in their convictions; she is critical, though, of proselyting and the implication that secularists have an inferior position. Atheism is not a religion; it lacks rituals. It shouldn’t be looked at as an inferior religion, she says.

Governmental adoption of religious slogans such as “In God we trust,” are not egalitarian, and indicate that religions are too close to the state. On NPR she quoted presidential candidate Ted Cruz: “Nobody should be president that doesn’t begin the day on his knees.” Such a statement ignores secular values, Jacobi insists. President Jimmy Carter is a devout Baptist, but respects secular people.

Perhaps a more dominant theme in Strange Gods, is that religious conversion is complex and pragmatic, a result of many factors none of which have to be belief-centered. Her father was a secular Jew that converted to Catholicism. When Jacobi asked him why he didn’t raise her as a Jew, he said, “If you didn’t get something in life, I didn’t want it because you were a Jew.” His own conversion was about accommodation and acceptance by the larger society. Her point is that religionists and secularists may have more in common than we think.

“My family is genuinely an American story. Jews migrated, converted to Lutheranism and Susan Jacobymy German uncle converted to Episcopalianism. Some stayed as Jews. Some married Irish Catholics. My mother was Irish Catholic.” If you join a religion that claims absolute truth, dissent is difficult, “so you stay,” she says. In less rigid faith communities, people move around. Half the U.S. population has changed religion at least one or more time, Jacoby asserts.

Her family members are generally accepting of conversion if it solves a problem. Her mother thought Catholicism was the answer to her husband’s gambling, and it helped. President George W. Bush sought out Evangelicalism to deal with his drinking problem. He also had success.

Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion is a plea for mutual respect between believers and secularists. Jacobi’s argument that secularists are second-class citizens is convincing. Bernie Sanders is a secular Jew, she points out. He says, “I feel culturally Jewish.” He is openly secular, but Jacobi laments many understand what that means. It’s even worse that few care.

The book ends on an optimistic note. There is a changing, more positive reaction to secularists, she believes. “I can say I’m an atheist without shame.” Her message for religionists, and that would include Latter-day Saints, is that if one is commanded to love all people, this should also apply to secularists.

In “A Mother’s Reckoning,” Son Dylan Klebold and Columbine Tragedy Examined

by Danny Stout

A long-awaited news story, Diane Sawyer’s interview with Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the teen Columbine murderers yields inevitably new revelations. In 20/20’s “Silence Broken,” Sawyer’s journalism is thorough given the compressed medium of television. Does Klebold’s new book, “A Mother’s Reckoning” reveal after almost two decades how parents could overlook signs that their son was on the verge of one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history? Thirteen were killed and 24 wounded. From the journalism critic’s standpoint, Sawyer’s interview is artful, getting her subject to talk freely, but she also bypasses some key questions.

We see Klebold nervously pacing before the interview, “wondering,” as Sawyer says, “if she’s made a mistake by agreeing to disclose her story.” Klebold explains why she never left Colorado for a different identity somewhere she would be less known. “I can’t run from this,” she responds, “It is hard to live with the fact that your son has killed people and you have to own that.”

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via ABC TV

Tearfully, she continues, “I am so sorry for what my son did. Never a day goes by that I don’t think about it.” Sawyer narrates between questions, giving her own interpretation intermittently. One example is when she inquires, “Why do you use the word ‘harm’ instead of ‘kill?” The reply is softly given: “I don’t know.” Then Klebold admits the softer term helps her cope. She is trapped in a contradiction, Sawyer observes, and “all the lessons of her regret are in the book,” which is a sneaky way of saying if I’ve missed something, it’s all in the book anyway.

Sawyer covers a lot of ground, thus a synopsis is difficult. The crux of the story goes like this: Sue Klebold considers herself a good parent; she was involved in Dylan’s life. After listening to recorded conversations between her son and Eric Harris, she admits that parents fool themselves into a sense of normalcy, that things are Okay. Parents must look harder for clues of teen distress. Dylan was clearly depressed, but Eric Harris had deeper psychological problems; he drew pictures of decapitations and swastikas. His personality disorder was a God complex, and perhaps he convinced Dylan to hate the world. “We have guns. I feel more Godlike,” Eric wrote in his journal. Sue Klebold doesn’t blame the Harrises, however, and occasionally converses with them.

She is far from healed. The Klebolds divorced due to differences about how to cope. Her book forced her to turn over every stone in a process of healing and understanding. “She’s gone over her life with a magnifying glass,” Sawyer observes. Klebold asserts, however, that some things cannot be entirely comprehended. Proceeds from the book will be donated to suicide prevention groups.

Sawyer’s historical and cultural context of the tragedy is thin yet provides a helpful, although brief timeline. The first comparable mass murder, according to the journalist, occurred at the University of Texas when Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 and wounded another 32 from a tower on the campus. Columbine, the next crime like it, came 30 years later. Since then, there have been 50 rampage shootings, and 79 foiled plots.

Sawyer relies on statistics related to violence in the media and gun access. Few question the salience of these factors, but she never gets to the heart of the matter which is clearly mental illness, despite the fact that her two expert guests identify this as the root of what happened. Sawyer doesn’t seem to want to talk about psychological issues.

Klebold’s claim that a teenager’s privacy must be protected by not searching their rooms could have been teased out more extensively. Both teens had guns, and explosives were in both homes.

Viewers will be compassionate for a mother’s humble attempt to cope with such sadness. Klebold remains perplexed by the the responsibility question.

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Admitting on the one hand that she should have been a better listener, she denies that some clues were crystal clear. For example, Dylan wrote a paper for school describing someone looking like himself pulling out a gun and mowing down students. Many take this as a clear indication of something to come. “We didn’t take that paper seriously,” she defends. It’s common for kids to write stuff like that using their wild imaginations.” She hearkens back to her own wild creativity as an art student.  Her description of the Klebold household sounds like a million families across America.  The perception of normalcy with so much going on backstage is much more interesting than Sawyer’s statistics about media violence and gun ownership. Family communication, perhaps, is the subject Sawyer misses. For this reason, all parents should see the interview.

Finally, journalists get an average to poor grade in covering the event.  Dave Cullen’s 2009 book, Columbine argues that reporters did little to broaden knowledge about underlying motives for what happened. Covering the story for various news outlets, Cullen regrets the inaccuracies of the information Sue Klebold had to straighten out herself. For example, the two teens were not bullied to a large extent as was reported. They were not members of the “Trench Coat Mafia;” Dylan just liked the way the coats looked. They didn’t intend to kill jocks nor believers in God specifically as many reporters claimed. The highly circulated story of the victim that said “yes” when asked whether she believed in God, and then was promptly shot has now been discredited. It’s ironic that the most valuable insights about Columbine have just come out in a book by the mother of one of the perpetrators, when public discussion should have been more substantive. And, how can it be when news reporters are so off base?