Crock of Ages

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[Written for The Daily Universe for January 12, 1998; re-submitted with slight modifications for March 16, 1998; not published either time]

BYU singles wards are better than regular wards out in the real world for the following two reasons:

1. No crying babies. (Plenty of babes who cry, but no crying babies.)

2. Gospel Doctrine classes actually teach doctrines of the gospel.

I learned to appreciate item No. 2 when I went home to California over Christmas break. In the Gospel Doctrine class there, we were discussing D&C 138 (or, as it is commonly called, “D&C 138”). Early on, one class member spent several minutes talking about how her brother had been visited several times by their dead mother, and how she had explained what it was like in the hereafter: trees and flowers, and everybody’s really nice, and you can get Ben & Jerry’s for only a nickel, and there’s always a place to park, and they play FM-100 over the sound system 24 hours a day just like in the Cougareat.

While this woman was going on and on about her mother’s supposed visitations, it occurred to me that even if all this IS true, there isn’t much point in mentioning it except to show off to the other class members (“MY dead mom visits my brother, and YOURS doesn’t, so nyah nyah nyah”), because it doesn’t add any new perspective to anything, nor is it particularly inspiring. Also, if it’s true, it’s probably too sacred to be discussing it in Sunday School, where people like me can make fun of it.

Later in the lesson, the teacher asked, “What do we know about the division in the spirit world?” It’s a simple question, and one that missionaries discuss amongst each other constantly. According to the way these terms are used in common missionary parlance, “paradise” consists of those people who were good, whereas “spirit prison” consists of those people who were rude to missionaries. (This theory presents a problem in some areas. For example, in Chile, where no person has ever been rude to a missionary, and where the capital city of Santiago now has 30 missions just in the downtown area, and where the fire hydrants are constantly running so that, to save time, investigators can be baptized as they walk down the street — in Chile, missionaries are at a loss to explain WHO will be in spirit prison.)

Anyway, back to Sunday School. The question was about how the spirit world is divided, and in response to that question, the same woman as before raised her hand. She launched into another fireside talk about the order in which you meet people when you cross over into the spirit world, and how it’s a lot like Munchkinland, in that people sing you along your way and show you where to go, and there’s candy canes and lollipops and stuff. All of this, she said, is true regardless of whether you were good or bad before you died. Most of what she was saying had no basis in verifiable fact, but she was sold on it because her brother had told her, and he’s in a stake presidency, which makes it true, and he heard it from his bishop, which makes it even truer.

I have only two objections to this story:

1. It didn’t answer the question.

2. Even if it HAD answered the question, it still wouldn’t be true.

Let’s look at this logically. If you were evil and wicked in this life, full of hate and bitterness, and you went around kicking dogs and beating people with sticks, then you are probably going to “spirit prison.” (If you ever said “no” to a missionary, then you can bet on it.) (If you also beat that missionary with a stick, then you can bet double on it.) And even if all your family and friends — also dog-kickers and with-sticks-people-beaters — are there, they are probably not going to be happy about it. I don’t think it’s going to be such a jolly, Chuck E. Cheese-esque affair.

So what did the teacher have to say about all this? He said, “Well, I’m in no position to comment on that.” And I thought, “Neither was she, but that didn’t stop her.” And no one said anything, and that’s exactly my point. In a BYU ward, there would have been dozens of people ready to swoop upon this woman and point out that most of what she said could not be proven by the scriptures to be true OR false, and so it therefore shouldn’t have been said at all without clearly identifying it as personal opinion. Perhaps this woman would have been tarred and feathered, too.

In a BYU ward, you have a high concentration of returned missionaries, most of whom, despite dressing and talking exactly alike (“Fetch, dude!”), are often very different from each other. For example, if someone says something that is contrary to something Elder Bruce R. McConkie once wrote, there will be a group that will reject that person and point out what Elder McConkie said about it, and they will assume that the matter is therefore closed. “Elder McConkie wrote more books than any other general authority; therefore his opinions are more valid than anyone else’s,” that seems to be these people’s position.

On the other side, you have people who got tired of having to explain Elder McConkie’s blunt and occasionally puzzling statements to investigators and trouble-making less-active members, and so they finally decided to simply reject everything Elder McConkie said, including statements as seemingly harmless as “The sun rises in the east” and “Please pass the salt.” (“That was only his opinion,” these people will say defensively.)

On yet a third side, you will have people who chuckle and say, “We’re getting into some pretty deep doctrine here. I don’t think it’s necessary to my salvation for me to know that.” These people will even say this during the announcements at the beginning of class, and when roll is being taken. These are people who, when they were missionaries, read the LaVell Edwards biography during their personal study time, and whose idea of a heavy gospel conversation is an exchange of J. Golden Kimball stories and a round of “Church Film Trivia” (“Which sister missionary in ‘On the Way Home’ is prettier?”) (Answer: The blonde one.)

And so this goes on for a while, and eventually you’ve gained either a stronger testimony of something, or a headache. Hopefully it’s the former, but if there had been any screaming babies, you can bet it would have been the latter.

After the publication of "Police Beat -- Beaten" at the end of the fall 1997 semester, BYU President Merrill J. Bateman started expressing concern about "Snide Remarks." We couldn't get any general reasons for this concern; just one or two specific examples that didn't really explain anything.

The result of the brouhaha was that beginning in January 1998, every column I wrote had to go through a new Daily Universe review procedure. First, the Daily Universe Editor-in-Chief and NewsNet Editor, both students, read it. Then it went on to John Gholdston, a faculty member who was the adviser to The Daily Universe and one of the swellest guys I know. Then it made its way to Dr. Laurie Wilson, chair of the Communications Department.

Now, this was not to censor the column. All of those people just mentioned were fans of "Snide Remarks" and wanted to see it continue. That they would take as much time as they occasionally had to take in order to read, edit, advise and argue over the column is indicative of how supportive they were. They could have easily just said "Forget it" and canceled the whole thing.

No, the purpose of all the reviewing was to anticipate what President Bateman may not like about it, and whether or not he would have a point. Certain things are sensitive topics with President Bateman, and so we danced around them. Was it annoying to have an audience of 30,000 readers, exactly ONE of whom I had to cater my writing to? Oh, my, yes. Was it fair for ONE guy to essentially be the ONE person I had to please? Heavens no. But was I stuck with this condition? 'Fraid so.

Anyway, this particular column was written to be the first "Snide Remarks" of the Winter 1998 semester. However, even after extensive revision and watering down (as you see it here), it was still ultimately deemed unsuitable. You see, while all of us found it quite funny, we knew that there were some -- including President Bateman -- who thought that if you MENTION something religious in a humorous context, then you are automatically MAKING FUN of that thing. This is clearly not the case. I'm not making fun of Sunday School, Bruce R. McConkie or the spirit world in this column. I'm making fun of people's various incorrect and amusing views on those subjects. Intelligent readers with a sense of humor can distinguish the difference; certain others (President Bateman, for example) cannot.

Several weeks later, I met with Dr. Laurie Wilson to discuss what changes would have to be made to this column in order to make it publishable. Surprisingly, the changes she suggested were minor; hardly even worth listing here. I made the changes, resubmitted the column through the review process ... and at the last minute (in fact, seven hours after the official "last minute"), the column was nixed again. So it was apparently destined not to be published, at least not in The Daily Universe. It later showed up in the first "Snide Remarks" book, of course, and I felt good about that.

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