Short Take: Agency and the Alternative

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter, focusing on the Old Testament and related scripture in 2014. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Note: We know the Book of Moses, mentioned below, as part of The Pearl of Great Price, but it comes from the Joseph Smith Translation version of Genesis.

We’re taught of a premortal grand council (Joseph Smith used the term), where all of our Heavenly Father’s spirit children learned his plan and chose whether to press forward with Jehovah or to rebel with Lucifer. (See Job 38:7.) I could be wrong, but I cannot imagine so consequential a choice being required of us in the same meeting where we first heard of the plan. Agency itself, to say nothing of justice, required that we understand and ponder the plan and its implications before choosing our path irrevocably. So I imagine the grand council as the culmination of many meetings in which we listened, discussed, and asked countless questions. (This level of knowledge left ample room for faith in Christ, in part because his atoning sacrifice and resurrection were not yet accomplished.)

Some thought they knew better than God. This era of instruction provided time and opportunity for them to develop their arguments, preach their principles, and consolidate support among their spirit siblings. The war in heaven (Revelation 12:7-8) was a war between their ideas and God’s. When Lucifer formally offered his alternative in the grand council – save everyone, and he gets the glory (see Moses 4:1-4) – a significant fraction of spirits likely were already firmly in his camp and prepared to rebel with him.

(To be continued.)

Review: John Grisham, The Testament

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine,


Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages. Dell, 1999. ISBN: 0440234743.

A personal confession: I have a graduate degree in literature from an Ivy League school. My favorite legal thriller is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I prefer to read in the original Russian. Yet I have also read, quite shamelessly, all nine of John Grisham’s novels, including The Testament, and I have enjoyed each of them enough to read the next one. I can admit this because my mentor at Cornell, a leading literary scholar, convinced me that his taste for cheap detective novels was not a vice or a betrayal of higher art.

For me a Grisham novel is an escape. I expect it to be competently written, but not psychologically or philosophically profound. I expect entertainment that doesn’t insult my intelligence or stretch the limits of believability too far. (Alas, The Runaway Jury did the latter, but I was fresh from a month of jury duty when I read it.) Grisham fills this bill quite nicely. He is an order of magnitude shallower than Scott Turow, whom I also enjoy, but he is also much easier to read. Some of you will also care, as I do, that Grisham is generally free of sexually explicit content, unlike Turow.

In Grisham’s novels someone (besides me) is always escaping from something. More often than not, our hero or heroine is fleeing that favorite Grisham villain, the large law firm, with its vicious power struggles and well-paid servitude. If the firm is not actually trying to visit a violent death upon our hero, as in The Firm, it is battering his psyche, tearing apart his family, ruining his health, threatening professional or financial ruin, or ruthlessly hardening him to the plight of the poor, the homeless, and everyone else who doesn’t drive a late model BMW or better.

In this case, as The Testament begins, most of the damage is already done. Middle-aged attorney Nate O’Riley’s family is already shattered twice over. His financial ruin is an accomplished fact. He is emerging from drug rehabilitation for the fourth time in ten years, and he’s about to be disbarred over some improprieties involving the IRS. For all that, Nate is a brilliant litigator, when sober.

No sooner had I met Nate than I concluded that, in the end, he probably would escape most of his troubles, come to grips with the rest, and somehow start a new life, away from the litigation that drove him repeatedly to alcohol and harder drugs. Even with these general expectations established from the beginning, however, I found ample suspense. Better still, it wasn’t difficult to care about two or three of the characters. The rest are another matter entirely.

The Testament is written mostly from a comfortable, anonymous third-person viewpoint, but the first two chapters are narrated by one Troy Phelan. This cranky, elderly, eccentric multi-billionaire cannot continue to narrate for the simple reason that he pitches himself over a railing and falls several stories to his death at the end of Chapter Two. This is just after he has signed a new will in a dramatic meeting with three ex-wives’ worth of his children, where three distinguished psychiatrists have certified him mentally capable. The children believe he is leaving them at least half a billion apiece, but his real goal is to leave his good-for-nothing offspring very little, and to make his last testament (which gives the novel its title) virtually incontestable.

The rest of the novel confirms what we have already seen through Phelan’s eyes: His children are base creatures, and they deserve his hatred. Their lawyers are more intelligent, but otherwise no better than their clients. Grisham is good enough at what he does that, unless you’re kinder than I am, you’ll despise them all too. You won’t want this spoiled riffraff to get the money any more than you wanted the insurance company to win in The Rainmaker. Perhaps you’ll be objective enough to feel this way because of the damage they could do with all that money, but for me it was more personal. I just didn’t like them.

In the new will Phelan leaves nearly everything to an estranged, illegitimate daughter, Rachel, whom no one knew he had. She has disappeared into the jungles of Brazil, where she lives a simple Christian life as a missionary among isolated tribes who know nothing of the modern world. Predictably, Nate is dispatched to find her; it’s a good time for him to be out of the country. With considerable difficulty, and then almost by accident, he locates her. Also predictably, she initially displays no interest in her father’s massive financial legacy. Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, Phelan’s other children are increasingly obsessed by the money they have, the money they owe, and the money they think they can get.

Three questions kept me turning pages. First, Rachel has escaped modern civilization to a simple life of selfless goodness. She is happy and content. Will she return to the modern world to claim her fortune, or not? If so, what will become of her? Second, what will happen to Nate? Will he survive his jungle adventures? Will he become a missionary there? If he remains in society, will he stay clean and dry? Will he slide back into the gutter, perhaps never to return? (Given Grisham’s penchant for happy endings – that is, for successful escapes – I didn’t really believe he would leave Nate in the gutter.) Above all, there is the matter of the money. Will Phelan succeed, posthumously, in the worthy cause of keeping his legitimate children’s grimy hands off his fortune?

For me there was suspense on a different level, as well. Given the prominence of the Brazilian rain forest in the novel, and the ongoing tension between the simple, primitive life there and Nate’s intense, destructive lifestyle in the modern world, I was afraid Grisham might end up preaching some politically correct sermons before he was finished. Happily, he does not. He lets one character refer briefly to the rate at which farmers are encroaching on the rain forest, but there is no heavy-handed political arm-twisting. Nor is The Testament a tirade against the wealthy. However despicable Phelan’s offspring may be, there are others in the novel who wear the trappings of wealth with some dignity and generosity.

I am told that in good fiction at least one character evolves — grows, learns, degenerates, something. Here one of them does; it would give too much away to say which one. I am also told that in works of serious literature, the reader evolves. There is little danger of that here. I don’t think The Testament changed me at all. I didn’t expect it to. I read Grisham solely for entertainment, and he’s plenty good at that.

Short Take: Eight Tips for Loving the Old Testament

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter, focusing on the Old Testament and related scripture in 2014. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there..

Read with Your Mind

  • Slow down. We’re to learn and experience, not check a box or win a race. Read aloud sometimes, to force yourself to slow down and make sense of words and syntax.
  • Consult footnotes for different shades of meanings in Hebrew and insights from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST).
  • Other books of scripture are the best commentaries on the Old Testament. See how Old Testament passages are quoted and explained elsewhere in scripture.
  • Use Bible maps and the Bible Dictionary to put people and events in historical and geographical context.
  • If you don’t know a word, look it up. (This will not always help. King James’ English is centuries older than your dictionary.)
  • Remember, we’re reading a translation. No translation – no human language, really – is perfect.

Read with Your Heart

  • The people in the Old Testament are real people leading real lives in the present tense. Put yourself in their shoes. Consider how your own experience might be like theirs.

Read with the Spirit

  • Ask prayerfully for insight and understanding when you read. Gratefully welcome the Spirit when it comes and any insight it communicates. When it doesn’t come, study and ponder anyway.

Short Take: “The Most Correct Book”

The Book of Mormon’s title page suggests the book may contain “mistakes of men.” Joseph Smith called it “the most correct” book but didn’t call it perfect. Though written by God’s prophets and translated by God’s power, it actually cannot be perfect. Here’s why:

  • It is written in human language, which cannot fully describe divine things.
  • Human language constantly evolves. Many words don’t mean precisely what they meant two centuries ago.
  • The prophets could have written more perfectly in Hebrew, but had to use a simpler, more compact language to save space (Mormon 9:31-33).
  • The book is translated from language to language; in translation, any language pair poses challenges. Elsewhere, the Hebrew word describing Mary in Isaiah 7:14 could mean virgin or simply young woman. Other scripture says both apply, but what did Isaiah mean? Similarly, the Russian word for evil also means angry, so whichever English translation I choose limits the meaning more than the author did.
  • We see the prophets themselves still learning, filling in gaps in knowledge with their opinions (Alma 40:19-21) or clarifying earlier writings after further revelation (3 Nephi 28:36-40).

Knowing all this helps us understand why we need so many accounts of the same gospel, prepares us to discover new meaning in familiar verses, and helps us not to be shaken when we encounter human imperfections in sacred texts. In the end, salvation is in the Word, not the words. (See John 5:39.)

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. This is one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Short Take: How Much Shall We Hope? For Whom? For How Long? Why?

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Mormon wrote that God’s ongoing work to save each of us will not cease, “so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one [soul] upon the face thereof to be saved” (Moroni 7:36).

The broken-hearted mother of a convicted murderer once asked a friend of mine, “Is there any hope for my son?” She knew stern scriptures on the subject.

The friend asked me. I answered, “I will not say that the infinite atonement is less than infinite. There is hope.” (See 2 Nephi 9:7; 25:16; Alma 34:12.)

How much, therefore, shall we hope? Far more than we do now.

How long shall we hope? Until the end of time, which is well beyond death. Until God has done everything that a god can do to save his child.

For whom shall we hope? For ourselves, surely, and for everyone we love. Indeed, for every other human soul. For the lost, the confused, and the apparently hopeless. For the lazy, distracted, proud, addicted, self-righteous, belligerent, rebellious, and, yes, for the criminal. For the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal sons and daughters, and the vilest of sinners. (See Luke 19; Mosiah 28:4.)

Why shall we hope? The Savior said, “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16; 1 Nephi 21:16).

Short Take: “Your Words Have Been Stout Against Me”

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

When Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection, he filled in some gaps in their own records (3 Nephi 23:6-13), then gave them some of the words of Malachi.

In Malachi 3 and 3 Nephi 24 the Lord has two complaints against his people; both are relevant today. First, “Ye have robbed me.” In several familiar verses he promises to shower us with blessings, if we will be faithful in tithes and offerings (3 Nephi 24:7-13), showing that God matters more to us than money.

His second, less-quoted complaint is, “Your words have been stout against me.” His people gripe that living the gospel doesn’t do them any good. It is in vain; there is no profit in it. They think this because they look at the proud and judge them to be happy. They complain that success comes to the wicked, who are able to tempt God without immediate punishment (3 Nephi 24:14-15).

The problem here is that God’s people have the wrong heroes, admire bad examples, and let their envy of the world’s temporary rewards distract them from the hope and joy which are eternally in Christ. Yet there is hope. Those who repent of this, the Lord says, “shall be mine . . . and I will spare them” (3 Nephi 24:17).

Short Take: The King’s Prayer

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

King Lamoni’s father, a Lamanite, is learning the gospel from Aaron. He wants immortality and eternal life. He wants the Holy Ghost to change his wicked heart. Aaron tells him he must call upon God.

As he prays, notice that there is no pretense. He doesn’t pretend to faith or knowledge that he doesn’t have. He doesn’t try to impress Aaron or save face with his servants. He’s unafraid to use the if word, where God’s very existence is concerned. He starts where he is, as he is, with desire, a bit of hope, and the early symptoms of faith.

He prays, “O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, will thou make thyself known unto me. . . .”

Notice also that he already knows the exact price of what he wants: “I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day” (Alma 22:18).

We could do worse than to pray like a Lamanite.

By the way, the results in this case were spectacular.

Short Take: It’s Okay to Be Human

Author's Note
My neighbor and I are writing short columns for our monthly ward (congregation) newsletter. We focused on the Book of Mormon in 2013. Here’s one of my “short takes,” as previously published there.

Tucked between splendid sermons and dramatic events in scripture is something we often overlook: down time for God’s exhausted servants. The Lord once put Elijah on a program of diet and exercise before sending him back to work (1 Kings 19:4-8). When starving Alma first went to Amulek’s home (Alma 8:27), he “tarried many days,” regaining his strength, before preaching again.

Thereafter, Amulek preached with Alma and experienced miracles, but he, too, was still human. Publicly joining Alma cost him his wealth and influence. Worse, his friends and family, including his father, rejected him (Alma 15:16). This took its toll. Eventually, Alma took Amulek to Alma’s own house, “and did administer unto him in his tribulations, and strengthened him in the Lord” (Alma 15:18). Then they went back to work.

A final, different example: Captain Moroni misinterpreted the government’s lack of support for his army and wrote a blistering letter to the Nephite leader, Pahoran. He didn’t know the Nephite capital city had fallen. In his mature and gracious reply, Pahoran wrote, “You have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9).

We could wisely, patiently, and kindly make similar allowances for our own and others’ humanity, and be less inclined to judgment and more determined to see the good.