Simple Things

Over the past few days, I have been engaged in some much-needed family immersion. Among other things, I rediscovered the joys of eating jello pudding with children, playing an impromptu “turkey bowl” football game (with players ranging in age from eight to forty-something), and whipping some teenagers at the board game Risk.

Another aspect of the immersion was 24 hours of driving (round trip). During this time, I found myself drawn to a CD containing John Denver’s greatest hits. The initial attraction was purely a function of impoverished choices: Southern Illinois does not have many radio stations, and the only people who thought to bring music were my wife (mostly Christmas CDs) and my daughter (mostly music I do not understand). I have never considered myself a John Denver fan, so I was surprised to find that I knew the words to so many of his songs. (Of course, the words are not difficult. John Denver was noted for simple, straightforward lyrics.) What surprised me even more was that I liked so many of his songs.

Actually, I was even a bit embarrassed when I found myself singing along to “Sunshine on my Shoulders.” I have heard people mock this song for its simplicity (“only two chords”!), but certainly that was part of the challenge in writing the song. (Right?) Anyway, in a troubling bout of self-analysis, I then found myself being embarrassed by my embarrassment. Why does everything have to be so complicated before I can enjoy it? I can’t just eat cheese; I have to eat artisanal cheese. I can’t just read a novel; it has to be a complex and intricate story. And so on.

Being a sophisicated consumer of almost anything usually implies an appreciation of nuance and subtlety that is lacking in novices. I suspect that most of us associate such sophistication with increased joy. We think of “sophistication” as a good thing. But there is a dark side. The critical eye shifts easily from being merely careful and exacting to judgmental and snobbish. This natural inclination, combined with the fact that many of us order our lives to ensure minimal engagement with matters on which we are not “sophisticated,” forms the foundation of a potential problem.

One of the areas in which we fancy ourselves “sophisticated” is the Gospel. Are sophisticated consumers of the Gospel different than sophisticated consumers of cheese or music or literature? When sophisticated consumers of the Gospel attend sacrament meeting, they are tempted to read a book rather than listen to the talks. When sophisticated consumers of the Gospel sit in the Gospel Doctrine class, they are bored by the “Sunday School answers.” Even the interesting answers seem unsatisfying because they require some unpacking, and Gospel Doctrine teachers rarely have the time (or inclination) to unpack.

So this is what I learned listening to John Denver: I want my understanding of the Gospel to be deep, but I do not want to lose my appreciation for simple things. “Jesus lives!” is a transcendent fact, with all sorts of interesting implications for our lives and behavior, but it is also a message my youngest children can value. And while I have, in Kristine’s words, “glimpsed … the joys and the redemptive possibilities of intellectual engagement,” I also want to revel in the simplicity of the Gospel message from time to time.

9 comments for “Simple Things

  1. JH
    November 28, 2004 at 8:54 am

    No shame in John Denver.
    Here’s what I’ve been thinking about over the Thanksgiving week:
    I just hope Rep. Ernest Istook, the R from Oklahoma is hiding in shame after trying to insert the IRS Big Brother amendment in the big fat Omnibus Bill. Sheesh, once it was discovered, everyone denounced it including Frist.
    Now he pretends he doesn’t know how it got in there. SURE!
    Talking Points Memo is covering this in detail. Thankgoodness Josh is not mentioning that Istook is Mormon. So far the hypocricy is just being pinned to the G.O.P.
    Shame on Rep. ISTOOK! You are behaving more like a Southern Baptist!!!!

  2. Wilfried
    November 28, 2004 at 9:47 am

    Important and timely post, Gordon. When sophistication and simplicity start to clash, apostasy is not far away. Both on the broad historical level of christianity through the ages, as in our individual life. They must be kept in balance if we want to have them both in us. In the Gopel simplicity can survive on its own, but not sophistication. Thanks for reminding us.

  3. Bryce I
    November 28, 2004 at 8:16 pm

    NIce post, Gordon. There’s a reason the Savior emphasizes the need to be child-like in our faith.

  4. Susan Malmrose
    November 29, 2004 at 11:20 am

    Great post. Now if I might put aside the gospel allegory and just talk music for a moment… :)

    There’s this great indie band with two Mormon members called Low. Their music is usually referred to as slowcore, or minimalist. Very, very slow and simple. Yet very powerful and emotional, if you take the time to really listen to it. In fact the very simplicity and slowness of it forces the listener to focus on it and take the time to really concentrate on what they’re doing. Sort of along the same lines as “Be still, and know that I am God,” the music makes you be still in order to take it in. Darn, back to a gospel allegory.

    One of the most sophisticated albums recorded in recent years, IMO, is one by a death metal band called Opeth. The album, Damnation, is not traditional death metal, but has normal vocals (as opposed to screamed/growled/”cookie monster” vocals) and is all acoustic/stringed instruments. I think it’s brilliantly done. But it’s all relative…there may very well be many more death metal bands that are even more sophisticated, it’s not a genre I’ve explored much of yet. I can tell you that a couple of years ago I never would’ve guessed a death metal band would be anything I’d call sophisticated. But I do plan on someday owning all of Opeth’s albums.

    And John Denver rules.

  5. November 29, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    I still think the criticism of the “Sunday School” answer is valid, but perhaps not with the fact that it’s simple, but the fact that it’s easy to give in an unengaged way, that’s closer to a catechism or the “vain repetitions” that we’ve been warned against. If someone asks “How do we remember Christ better in our daily lives?” in Sunday School, it’s one thing if someone says “prayer” and the teacher writes it down on the chalkboard and then someone says “scripture study” etc … and it’s an entirely other thing if someone says “You know, recently, I’ve made an effort to go to bed a little earlier and rise a little earlier and block out time just for the purpose of talking with Heavenly Father and trying to listen. I’ve found my days more peaceful and felt promptings to do things come more easily.” Both are pretty simple… but one is clearly better.

    The metaphor of music is probably a worthwhile one, because even minimalists (both in popular and art music!) do spend work on articulating things, working to reveal something either using the simplicity or hidden in the simplicity. With Denver’s Sunshine on My Shoulder, he uses a simple, warm progression to paint a simple, warm moment of pause, rest, peace, ephiphany (wouldn’t have been well served at all by a jumpy chromaticism). With something like Steve Reich or Phillip Glass, you often find the point is some spectral effect which creates tones where they’re not played, by intereaction between the played tones, and this is changed by subtle shifts in the played pattern, revealing surprisingingly different facets of some very similar patterns.

    The problem with repetition isn’t simplicity, it that without effort to reveal something, with thoughtless review, it becomes inuring and easy to ignore. With heartfelt thought and a tiny bit of variation, it becomes a pretty interesting and in the hands of a teacher or artist, even a powerful tool.

  6. Randy Uhls
    November 29, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    Great Post Gordon and I agree sometimes we forget that the gospel is at its essence simple. Joseph Smith wrote that the first principles and ordinances are Faith, Repentance and Baptism.

    Weston I agree that pray is important, in fact very important, but scripture study will bring you the answers that you seek. The scriptures are the road map back to our Heavenly Father. I have sat in ward council (I am the ward clerk) and heard many times the bishop say that most problems members have can be solved with the seminary answers (Sunday school answers) of faith, prayer and scripture study. Along with this of course is Temple attendance.

    On the subject of music I like John Denver music he does have simple lyrics but what a great message they contain about life. Some times the simple things are the best thing in my opinion.

  7. Rosalynde Welch
    November 30, 2004 at 11:34 am

    Gordon, maybe the problem isn’t so much in the “sophistication” as in the “consumers”. Should we think of ourselves primarily as consumers of the gospel and church, or as producers? In my experience, it’s much more difficult to produce a sophisticated object than it is to mount a sophisticated response or critique, and production is a more engaging and active task, to boot. Maybe if we try to redefine our relationship to church and gospel we’ll find that sophistication (a sense of nuance and complexity, not mere snobbishness) can be a virtue, not a vice.

  8. November 30, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    Lot of great comments. Just a couple of thoughts:

    Weston, this is a nice point about Sunday School answers and repetitions. I like it, and I agree.

    Rosalynde, that is very insightful and seems to tie into the discussion above (in my Franchise post) about revelation. I am not sure that producers is the right metaphor for our Gospel role — God is, after all, the ultimate producer — though I will grant that it has more appeal than “consumers.”

    This calls to mind something Henry Eyring said about enjoying sacrament meeting. I will probably botch this, but he was relating advice that he received from his father that goes something like this: when you find yourself bored in sacrament meeting, mentally write your own talk on the subject being addressed by the speaker. Here, the listener becomes a producer rather than a consumer, but this advice has always bothered me. The implied assumption is that the listener has more to bring to the topic than the person speaking. While this might be true, especially in the case of Henry Eyring, it removes the listener from the obligation to understand the speaker. And if lay preaching isn’t about achieving greater understanding of our fellow members, what is it about?

  9. December 1, 2004 at 9:22 pm defines sophisticated as :
    To cause to become less natural, especially to make less naive and more worldly.
    To make impure; adulterate.
    To make more complex or inclusive; refine.

    I have heard the word sophisticated to be used in the sense of polluting wine, etc.
    But I wasn’t sure what the exact definition is. I only know that I have not ever truly been comfortable with what the world seems to call “sophistication”…I am simple. Too simple for some people, I know. But your post gives me great comfort. I am okay with being simple. I like simple truths. I like their clarity, and their unchanging nature. Thank you for posting this.

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