Saturday, September 24, 2011

Chosen Generation

After my post on the "true and living church" I had a close friend mention that it would be interesting to see how the use of the phrase "chosen generation" had changed in general conference over the years. He remembered hearing it a lot growing up, but not as often now. So I started by simply looking at the number of times that phrase was used. It quickly became apparent that different people interpreted 1st Peter 2:9 in different ways. So first I went through each reference in all the talks which said "chosen generation" and tried to put them in categories. I ended up these categories:

1. Merit - This was a category for those who felt that this phrase was a special distinction for those who followed Christ's teachings sufficiently to be considered part of a "chosen generation." For example, Joseph Fielding Smith said the following in 1971:
If we will walk in paths of virtue and holiness, the Lord will pour out his blessings upon us to a degree we have never supposed possible. We shall be in very deed, as Peter expressed it, " a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people."

2. Membership - Many used this phrase and scripture in 1st Peter to refer to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One example is from Russel M Nelson in 1995:
When we embrace the gospel and are baptized, we are born again and take upon ourselves the sacred name of Jesus Christ. We are adopted as his sons and daughters and are known as brothers and sisters. He is the Father of our new life. We become joint heirs to promises given by the Lord to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their posterity. Peter used uplifting terms in a prophecy regarding our day. He identified members of the Church as "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people."

3. Priesthood - Several used this phrase and passage to refer specifically to the priesthood. Thomas S Monson (who has only ever used this phrase when referring to priesthood) said in 1996 Priesthood session:
What a vast audience is attending this general priesthood meeting this evening. The Apostle Peter aptly described you: "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light."

4. Inherent - Starting particularly in 1970, and becoming a more frequently used interpretation, the phrase was used to refer to the youth of the church and the fact that they were strong spirits, reserved through the eternities to come forth in this particular day and age. Frequently this usage of the phrase abandons a direct reference to the passage in 1st Peter. Joseph Fielding Smith in 1970:
Our young people are among the most blessed and favored of our Father's children. They are the nobility of heaven, a choice and chosen generation who have a divine destiny. Their spirits have been reserved to come forth in this day when the gospel is on earth, and when the Lord needs valiant servants to carry on his great latter-day work."

Those four categories seemed sufficient for categorizing most of the uses in general conference. There were several however which could fit equally in two of the categories. One example of this is seen in the graph above, where a quote could be seen as meaning either that one must live in a way that qualifies them to be worthy of the term, while also implying that it is tied to membership, one such example is the following from Rufus K Hardy in 1939:
Let me read to you what the Apostle Peter said, because I believe we can apply it to ourselves: But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. I think we are doing that as best we can, but I believe we can do better if we try just a little harder.
It should also be acknowledged that this categorization is a subjective process and others likely could have categorized things differently. However, I believe that while this is the case, the general trends shown and described here would hold true regardless.

While reading the various texts from general conference talks, I noticed that occasionally a similar phrase would be used to describe the same concept as the "chosen generation." So I started looking for other phrases referring to the same concept. They were:
Royal Generation
Finest Generation
Greatest Generation
Best Generation
Finer Generation
Strongest Generation
Capable Generation
Marked Generation

One can see how including these affects the graph:

Again, if one wants to find problems with this, it is easy to do so. I didn't include every instance of the word "generation" in this list. There are references to a "wicked generation," "rising generation" and many others. However because my focus is on the rhetoric of the "chosen generation" of youth who were reserved to come forth at this time because they were "noble spirits," I was primarily looking for general conference talks which either perpetuated that idea,  or which showed historic use of the phrase "chosen generation."

As is evident in the graphs, the phrase "chosen generation" has been used in several ways over time. The  most interesting thing to note is the sudden and dramatic rise in the use of the phrase to refer to the youth as special spirits of a superlative nature. Based on my readings of all the general conference talks with the phrase "chosen generation" it seems that this new use began in 1970 by Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith.
Our young people are among the most blessed and favored of our Father's children. They are the nobility of heaven, a choice and chosen generation who have a divine destiny. Their spirits have been reserved to come forth in this day when the gospel is on earth, and when the Lord needs valiant servants to carry on his great latter-day work.
The next year Theodore M. Burton used the phrase "chosen generation" in a similar way, which implied that the youth at that time were inherently special and unique. Two years after that, David B. Haight used it in this same manner. However there were members of the quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency who were less likely to make statements without some qualifiers. Theodore M. Burton prefaced quoting from 1st Peter by saying "I feel." The year before President Smith's comment, President Hugh B Brown said the following after quoting from 1st Peter:
Whether or not all will agree that these characterizations are applicable to the Saints of this day, I am sure most will at least agree that we are a peculiar people -- not in any unkind way, but perhaps most would say we are a different people.
I find such phrasing (the acknowledgment of a variety of interpretations) very refreshing. I'm going to continue a bit of this detour to note several of the interesting uses I found for the phrase "chosen generation." In the 1940's Oscar A Kirkham used the phrase "greatest generation" in referring to the youth and (as Burton and Brown above) couched the phrase with "I feel in my heart" and "In my humble opinion." In 1947 Milton R. Hunter used the term "chosen generation" to refer to the early mormon pioneers who crossed the oceans and plains. In 1999 President Hinkley used the passage in 1st Peter to refer to all the members of the church in this last dispensation. In 2006 Paul B Pieper gave a specific interpretation of the phrase "chosen generation" to refer to the first generation of a family to join the church; that first member to join becomes the chosen generation through which past and future generations are blessed.

In any case, as can be seen from the above graphs, the frequency of this "chosen generation" = 'the current youth are royal/special' continues. This has reached epic proportions too because mormonism makes for an incredible game of telephone. Most don't bother looking up or citing sources. As a result, when I was in seminary I put a piece of paper in my scriptures which had a fake quote on it. Times and Seasons had a post which talked all about it (comment #36 is particularly applicable to this current post). People took this idea and went crazy with it. Here is a site which considers most of the quotes to be gospel truth, but noted the mistaken quote. This is the only site I've found which hunted down the origin of the quote. The false quote was popularized by Brad Wilcox (famed EFY speaker) but apparently originated with Jack Marshall (an institute director in Pasadena, CA).

As many of the comments on the Times and Seasons post noted, this is likely a harmless faith-promoting story to help encourage the youth. On the other hand, I've had individuals point out that simply giving praise to someone (especially children/teens) for their inherent abilities as opposed to abilities which they work to develop can be detrimental. Just check out this psychology study. If you look up the original paper, there were two groups of students. Each was given a simple test and all the students performed well. One group was praised for their innate ability (you're so smart), while the other was praised for their work (you worked so hard at it). The students were then given a very difficult test. None of the students performed well. A third test was administered which was moderately difficult and the group praised for their efforts vastly outperformed the group praised for their innate ability. The conclusion drawn was that when the students had the very difficult test those who had been told they were inherently smart began to question that fact and felt that they must not be smart. However, the other group (which had been told they had worked hard for the previous test) simply assumed that they must not have worked hard enough for the difficult test and exerted even more effort in studying for the 3rd.

How much can/does this apply to the topic of the "chosen generation?" I see many parallels. I see all of these comments as an effort to encourage, help, and strengthen the rising generation. I see nothing but the best of intentions with all of them. Perhaps if we can focus more on the effort the youth exert in being good and overcoming obstacles we can better empower them for future struggles. Many quotes did just this. When discussing this topic with some, one person seemed irritated that President Smith ever said the original quote after seeing the life the idea gained from it. I pointed out to him that President Smith didn't ever beat on that point repeatedly. In fact, the very next year after his original quote, he said this (emphasis added):
If we will walk in paths of virtue and holiness, the Lord will pour out his blessings upon us to a degree we have never supposed possible. We shall be in very deed, as Peter expressed it, " a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. " (1 Pet. 2:9.)
It doesn't appear at all that President Smith was confined to one interpretation of the phrase or passage.

As an interesting afterthought, it is fun to see who used the phrase "chosen generation" in a consistant manner. To do this, I first only selected those who used the phrase multiple times within multiple conference talks. Then based on each use of the phrase within each talk I placed each onto a spectrum:

You'll notice I place President Smith outside of the chart. He was the first I could find to indicate that our youth are an inherently chosen generation, yet he also used it as a status we merit through our choices, as well as referring to the general membership. He truly spanned the spectrum in how he used the phrase. President Hinkley really loved expressing his love for the youth and how much respect he had for them. As a result many of his statements reflected the "inherently chosen" variety. In fact, most living people on the chart are noticeably on the far right in the "inherently chosen" or a mixture of that and 'chosen = membership.' The notable exception is President Monson. It appears that he's only ever mentioned this phrase in the context of quoting 1st Peter and always in Priesthood session. Below is the number of talks in which each person used the phrase "chosen generation":

Unfortunately I don't do well at getting things organized so this post is jumps around quite a bit, but rather than delay it another 3 months awaiting time to work on it, I'm just posting it. So what are your thoughts? How did you understand the use of "chosen generation" before? What trends did you notice? Did I get anything wrong? Why do you think this idea of an inherently chosen generation took off so quickly?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Am I my brother's keeper?

If the link isn't working: click here.

As much as I hate Ron Paul's delusional Randian pipe-dream, the cries from the audience are what really delivered a severe blow to my faith in humanity. Have we so lost touch with our interconnected nature as humans? Regardless of the view you want to take, isn't it generally accepted that helping each other out is vital to our collective survival?

From an evolutionary biologist's perspective, our drive to empathize with others and work for the good of the community is what has allowed us as a species to have such vast success.

From a biblical perspective, the injunction to care for others is much more explicit. Certainly one of the messages received in the story of Cain and Abel is that we should be our "brother's keeper." The Hebrew word which the King James Version translates as "keeper" is שָׁמַר (shamar), which is most frequently used in the Old Testament when discussing the importance/need/command to "keep" the commandments/covenants. That in Genesis, God would have us care for each other and use the same word as with being a "commandment keeper" is fitting given that Jesus later pointed out that there is no greater commandment.

Often the assumption is made (thanks to years of tradition) that Sodom and Gomorra were so evil that they deserved to be destroyed because they were gay. However, if one bothers reading more of the old testament than simply the Torah, we read the prophet Ezekiel's explanation (which Elder Burton calls their "even greater evil"). They were prideful and they refused to share their abundant food with the poor. Elder Maxwell once used this same reference in Ezekiel to describe Sodom's lack of care for the poor when he said:
There are too many scriptures condemning members in all dispensations for ignoring the poor to require repetition here. I do turn to an example that summarizes some of the errors of the culture in Sodom. [Ezekial 16:49] Add to this observation the powerful verse 20 in the 49th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, and we see that there is a clear connection between economic disparity and sin.
If one trusts the pseudoepigraphic "Book of Jasher" (which many early mormon leaders did) you can read more graphic accounts of the people of Sodom and Gomorra abusing immigrants for their money (or labor) and allowing people to die in the streets.

This is (as Elder Maxwell pointed out) a significant theme throughout the Old Testament. Prophets calling the political leadership to repentance for "grinding the face" of the poor.

Now I'm sure that some feel justified in condemning this hypothetical 30-year-old to death because of his own foolish decisions. Perhaps some can live with such rationalization, but mormons have virtually no wiggle room on this point:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
[Mosiah 4:16-19]
I understand that many have the view that Ron Paul voiced, namely that churches should be the ones to care for the poor. I have some issues with this approach as I see it being incredibly ineffective, incoherent, and insufficient at dealing with the systemic problems in our society. (FWIW I see the government approach to the problem to be moderately ineffective, incoherent, and insufficient at dealing with the systemic problems in our society; I feel that regardless of the macro-level approach individuals need to each seek out those in need) But at least a view such as Ron Paul's does not extinguish the imperative to care for those in need. At least such a view doesn't scream "YEAH! Let him die!"

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rebuilding our 'soul' as a people

President Thomas S. Monson wrote a piece in the Washington Post as part of a series in which religious leaders were asked:
What have we learned about religion in the past 10 years? 
What was the spiritual impact of 9/11?
I loved his response. He indicated that the tragedy caused most to "rediscover God" and there was a renewed sense of spirituality. He noted how this has waned in the years since.

I loved this passage:
Our Father’s commitment to us, His children, is unwavering. Indeed He softens the winters of our lives, but He also brightens our summers. Whether it is the best of times or the worst, He is with us. He has promised us that this will never change.

But we are less faithful than He is. By nature we are vain, frail, and foolish. We sometimes neglect God. Sometimes we fail to keep the commandments that He gives us to make us happy. Sometimes we fail to commune with Him in prayer. Sometimes we forget to succor the poor and the downtrodden who are also His children. And our forgetfulness is very much to our detriment.
I love his usual Monsonesque poetic phrasing. The most important commandments given of course are to love God and love our neighbor, which he notes "will make us happy." I also love that he specifically highlighted the newest "purpose of the church" which is caring for the poor and needy. I can't express how grateful I am that my church is putting greater focus on pure religion.

The other passage which really resonated with me was this passage:
The way to be with God in every season is to strive to be near Him every week and each day. We truly “need Him every hour,” not just in hours of devastation. We must speak to Him, listen to Him, and serve Him. If we wish to serve Him, we should serve our fellow men. We will mourn the lives we lose, but we should also fix the lives that can be mended and heal the hearts that may yet be healed.
The concept of expressing gratitude to the divine, seeking a greater sense of awareness of how to help those around you, following those promptings, learning to seek out those who are in need, and helping others is what it's all about.