Friday, September 30, 2005

Branding god

I have been going through more of Branded nation, and despite a quite slow and weak start, I have begun to enjoy the book more. Perhaps this is because it is a welcome excuse from plumbing in a dirty 2 foot crawl space in a 100 year old house. However, Twitchell's section on the branding involved in the megachurch movement was quite good.

We depend on the law to organize our human transactions. We consider that law comes from some mythic source. With us, that's the Constitution. The myth of the urtext holding everything together is central to the American brand of jurisprudence. It's not good to believe that it's every judge for himself or, worse, that there is a high degree of uncertainty built into the story. This is also true with religion.

From the lead in to this section of the book, it seems as if "the high degree of uncertainty" is one thing branding removes. One does not need to doubt the story behind the product. The manufactured connections pin down the product, concretizing it - solidifying the connections making it more immovable and life like - less abstract and ethereal. But, as I mentioned before, is the associated leavening caused by this concretization good?

It seems obvious that different people appreciate different levels of manufactured firmness in this regard. Or perhaps from a religious perspective it is better to say, different people need different degrees of religious absolutism. but the end of the paragraph, to me, is the kicker.

If we ever countenanced the possibility that man makes his gods in his own image, would we ever give ourselves over to the priest?

Countenancing this idea seems blasphemous. It is the ultimate priestcraft, the end road of the magachurch brand. And yet, to me, it seems like a very worthwhile question.

As LDS we believe that prophets do speak for god, perhaps not always in the form of a mathematical one to one mapping, but nonetheless in way whose net outcome must exceed that of any other method we could use. Now one could take the approach like I mused some time ago that the specific kingdom we achieve may depend on the model for god we are willing to accept and create in our lives. But the question still seems to remain, would we ever give ourselves over to a priestly divestiture of divine knowledge if cocneptions of god are subject to branding influences?

Perhaps religion is a much simpler product than we want to accept. Perhaps it really is nothing more than faith repentance and baptism, all done through Christ towards the Father. If this is the case, churches are in a predicament. People demand, overtly or not, a branded product. Yet the essence of religion may be the rejection of such etherals in favor of pragmatic certainty. In essence, it may be a rejection of feel good culturally created and appropriate associations in favor of lots of loose ends grounded by a few irrefutable testimonial pillars. Is religion a story providing helpful morals, or is it a mist surrounding an iron rod?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Using the grey

There are good and bad consequences in every decision. It seems as if negative consequences are defined as such because of the loss of future opportunity caused by them. However, no path that we ever take will be without negative consequences. Attempts at minimizing negative consequences may end up being more a function of what we do with a grey world than how much grey there may actually be.

Perhaps negative consequences can be thought of as a linear function. What we do with negatives may be a quadratic function. Initially the value of the linear function may be larger than the quadratic, but over time, a quadratic will always dominate. So while avoiding negatives may look appealing in the short run, eventually, real benefit may involve finding out how to deal with a grey world.

In this light, righteousness involves less avoidance and more action. Righteousness may involve getting the most out grey situations. It may mean having an ability to make all things work for our benefit. It may be akin to changing our environment by changing our perceptions of it. In effect, it would mean putting on a pair of rose colored glasses, not to hide what is wrong, but to highlight what may be done with it.

Now this doesn’t mean that there is no wrong, no sin. From my point of view it also doesn’t mean one should go out and walk the edge of right and wrong under the misguided rationalization that it is beneficial. Rather it means knowledge of consequence is essential. Goals are paramount, and all decisions are to some extent limiting. (Thus to my mind, faith is the power of action with a sure knowledge of the effects of implementation)

Sometimes the Spirit isn't there to tell us which decision is the absolute best. Sometimes the merit of decisions depends on what we are willing to do with them. It involves, how we are willing to use the unique opportunities that each presents. In essence, the Spirit lets us know if what we are thinking of doing lines up with what we hope to get out of it. In this sense, the spirit can't make us into automatons. All it can do is line up our desires with the options that are available.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Often lessons stress the importance of avoiding even the appearance of evil. While I won’t disagree with the importance of this, I do wonder if the way people interpret the application of this idea isn’t somewhat removed from some of the intents of this admonition?

Many people bring up the point that the worst thing we can do for non-members around us is to set a bad example by not living up to our beliefs. After some recent comments from my non-LDS friends, I started to think more about what non-members really understand about our beliefs and subsequent examples.

Most of my friends have been non-members. This is still true. To be honest, I think we fool ourselves when we think that non-members understand many of the rules we follow. Most don’t even know what they are. Of course things like drinking, smoking, swearing, etc, are easy monikers to identify. However, I wonder if they really know why we are following these laws. I think most people interpret these rules as just weird things that mormons choose not to do. Of course we like to think that there are grand reasons why we follow these rules. We also like to think that people outside of the church are so inspired by our examples on these points that they eventually come to recognize their fundamental importance. While lots of people have come to investigate the church because of this, personally, I think this reasoning comes off a bit too egotistical.

I think a lot of the behaviours that make us unique get filed away under “one of those crazy things mormons do”. Due to our social nature, people have a need to be able to understand why the people around them act the way they do. For instance, as a social creature I need to be aware of signs for “don’t touch that or I will hurt you”. One of the most frustrating things for people is not being able to understand the rules by which other people are playing. I strongly suspect this is one of the reasons why play is so important for children. When non-members look at some of the different things we do, I think they interpret our actions based on some arbitrarily strange requirements of our religion. I think it takes a long time and some rather profound experiences for others to see that many of the things we do have a rational rather than dogmatic basis. Something is required that lets people shift they way they interpret our example. They have to grasp that there is a world view in which these examples make sense as something more than dogma.

In this light, example has an effect only if people are able to grasp our frame of reference. To me, this shoots down the standard motivator of “don’t do anything that could be considered a sin, because it may cause others to do wrong”. This is a non-sequitr. Unless people have significant interaction with us, there is no possible way they can understand the context behind non-stereotypical actions. Our actions will always get interpreted according to what others seem as plausible. For some this means no-drinking is really just a way for us not to be too jovial. For others, no activity on Sunday may be interpreted as making sure you are somber one day of the week. etc. In my experience, many of the things non-members see lds people refraining from relate to social interaction. They often see us as rather strange because many of the things we avoid, significantly affect the way we socialize. This is ironic because often the more we try to set a good example, the more we can alienate those around us.

So what is the answer for how to set a good example? I wonder if the best example we can set involves making it easy for others to see the world view by which we live. In other words, the best example may not be one that avoids even the appearance of evil, but one that fosters understanding. Well so long as we actually have a good reason for living some of the relatively strange ways we do.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Currently I am reading Branded Nation by James Twitchell. In his introduction he mentions that people favor things that appear to have distinguishing depth. We anthropomorphize pets because we feel better thinking they can communicate more than they do. We favor brands because they are associated with stories that make them seem more than they are. In effect, the more similar things become, the more we favor the invention of distinction. Added to this, the created backgrounds we favor are usually ones that lead to environmental congruence. In other words they fit in with the other things we have - the Diderot effect. (Think of the renovator who puts up a new mirror, but needs to update one thing after another to keep things harmonic). The interesting thing is quest for distinguishing depth relates to religion.

First off I'll admit that I believe that much of the antagonism in religion comes from attempts to clearly distinguish one belief set from another, exaggerating rather benign differences. However this apparently human tendency may lead to some problems. It reminds me of the use of leaven in the scriptures. It seems like our desire for uniqueness, expressed in the need for branded, story filled things is an easy way for us to turn open areas of the gospel into products of our own congruence. Often we can't accept the overlapping that could occur by leaving things open. We need a type and depth of story that matches the type and depth of the other stories involved in our life. We turn our interpretation of religion into just such a story. We look for it to communicate with us just enough to put things into harmony, not discord. We expect it to answer just enough our our questions to be satisfying, but not to provide questions we don't want and conclusions we don't want to tender. In essence, we want a religion that just feels "right".

However such a view requires either a completely amorphous religion, or one that accommodates an infinite level of different stories and depth. To many, Christ's unconditional acceptance provides this ability. Yet the more our view of him morphs, the more abstract and supernatural he and religion become. The more we try and ground him, the more we insist on congruence, and its inevitable leavening. To me, the question is, can we accept reality? Watching politics, perhaps many people will always need spin.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Organized Religion

As one reads history books, one thing that continually disturbs many people is the role organzied religion has played in conflict. To many people organized religion is associated with intolerance, cultural extermination, and a host of other downfalls. As people search through eastern spiritualism or indivualistic new age spiritualism to replace organized religion they often tend to get caught up in a cycle where the problems of things with which they are familiar are obvious, while those of the pristine foreign cultural mining fields are pure and undefiled.

While one can attempt to defend organized religion by appealing to the advantages and disadvantages of other quasi-religion philosophies, eventually this just results in unproductive dogmatic boxing. So perhaps the better question is, knowing the propensity for possible abuse in tightly controlled hierchial buearacracies, why would God choose to use this venue?

A few possible answers come to mind.
1. It prevents individuals usurping authority and proclaiming themselves as a source of truth. Thus the organization helps prevent people from having to choose between innumerable competing voices. Of course this may mean a reduction in efficiency as fulfilling the needs of a large diverse population necessarily means individual exceptions are harder to accommodate, and thus, eventually harder for the general population to accept.
2. Related to the last point, it may be the best of a series of compromise solutions. When one considers the individual benefit times the number of individual likely to benefit, institutions are a natural maximizing outcome. While individualism may maximize what any individual can get from readily available sources, it does not mean that a large population will cummulatively be maximized in a similar way. Often a single capable individual can assist a number of incapable individuals, even if the method of transfer isn't perfected tailored to those on the receiving end.
3. Our natural propensity for religion is a seed in human nature around which basic governing structures can evolve. In this sense, people have a strong inheritied tendency to want religious like uniformity within their group. In this way organized government would have evolved as a watered down version of orthopraxy.
4. Perhaps our tendency to organized religion is an associated consequence of our tendency to institutionalize successful practices or strategies. Of course this is precisely what those who argue for individualized spritirualism state. Proponents of organized religion consider this tendency beneficial, while detractors consider it limiting or oppressive.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


What is it that makes some actions so bad. In religious terms what trait do some actions have that make them sins?

Of course the obvious answer is that they displease god, offend the spirit etc. However, these answers deal more with the consequences of the action than the characteristics inherit in the actions themselves. I wonder if one aspect of sin is an unwillinglness to see or accept possible consequences.

For instance, if I were to steal, I may be tempted to minimize direct consequences. Insurance companies cover the cost. People expect this to happen. It may be a relatively minor inconvience to those affected when compared to the relative reward for me. Here the action assumes consequences that certainly may not be valid. In many cases the perpertraitor may even feel that consequences don't really matter. Perhaps this is because they happen to other people, not to themselves.

What happens when we look at these actions in the worst case scenario? Are individuals really still as willing to commit these actions? Certainly some aren't. Hence they try to not think about the consequences. However, many people are perfectly willing to commit such actions even in the face of the human consequences.

So what then is the answer? My guess is that part of what makes something a sin, is the lack of good that can be accomplished through these actions. In effect, nothing worthwile is created.