Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Robes of A False Priesthood and Other Insights From Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, to put it simply, was one of the great ones.  Here are a couple summaries of the man:

Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
"His commitment is so visible and has been so pronounced and so repetitively stated that that's not even the issue. So then we get on to: what is [he] saying?. . . He's impatient with mediocrity, he's impatient with irrelevance and to the casual eye that may be seen as eccentricity, when in fact I think it's a reflection of his deepened discipleship."

Truman G. Madsen:
"Is he a cynic and a pessimist, with all kinds of negative things to say? Yes. Is he an optimist, an idealist, with great hope for the future? Yes. Some would say you can't get those together. He does."

In 1983 Nibley gave a classic commencement address at BYU.  I was only three years old at the time, so I've come to appreciate his words through the marvels of modern technology.

The talk is entitled "Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift".  (I may be wrong, but I believe it ranks among the most under-appreciated talks in the history of the Church.)  You can listen/download the full audio at BYU Speeches website here, but that text is missing some of Nibley's greatest ad libs (so the text and the audio don't always match up.*)  "Zion's Best" does a decent job of capturing the text of his speech the way he actually delivered it, as well as the text of the speech in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley here.

One example of a humorous, but missing, ad lib is what Hugh Nibley says after paraphrasing Brigham Young: "To quote one of the greatest of leaders, the founder of this institution, 'There is too much of a sameness in this community. . . . I am not a stereotyped Latter-day Saint and do not believe in the doctrine . . . away with stereotyped 'Mormons!'"  He then added: "Goodbye all!" As the audience cracked up, he told them "That was just added--that wasn't in the speech. No extra charge!"  This particular departure takes place at the 12:49 mark of the audio, FWIW.  (All versions of the speech continue in agreement with his next line: "True leaders are inspiring because they are inspired, caught up in a higher purpose, devoid of personal ambition, idealistic, and incorruptible.")

While the entire speech is filled with great insights, this is the powerful concluding paragraph:

"In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world—as the temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

As always, he gives us so much to ponder on, and like a good prophet, speaks truth to power. The Church™ would have done well to learn from this speech, but alas, I don't think we've learned (at least collectively) the lessons Hugh Nibley was trying to teach us.

Some Latter-day Saints might bristle at just the mention of the Church as a corporation--but Hugh Nibley recognized that the Gospel and the Church are not the same thing:

It is quite inconceivable that the gospel should ever be under condemnation, though the Church has been from time to time. They are not the same thing. The one is a teaching; the other, an organization to foster that teaching. Is the organization free to adjust and control the doctrine? Can it decide on the basis of public relations what would be most appropriate for what audience and for what occasion? What to emphasize and what to play down? Does any organization through its officers have that discretion? ("Mediocre Meditations on the Media"Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints)

Parenthetically, the history lover in me would especially love to know how we got from point A to point B:
Point A:

"I admire men and women who have developed the questioning spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas and stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent - if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression. This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence nor any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it."  (Hugh B. Brown, counselor in First Presidency, Speech at BYU, March 29, 1958.)
Point B:
"As for the rest we do not question things at the BYU" (see clip below from his BYU Commencement Address, Aug. 19th, 1983.  Hugh Nibley was obviously speaking tongue-in-cheek, but still, people laugh because there's obviously some truth to it.) 
Clip of Nibley explaining his "black robes of a false priesthood" comment: 

For the record, Hugh Nibley's son-in-law, Boyd Jay Petersen, wrote the biography "Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life."  It won the Mormon History Association’s Best Biography Award in 2003. (You can purchase the Kindle version for just $9.99.)  Petersen also discusses Hugh Nibley in a fascinating multi-episode Mormon Matters podcast here.

    *Boyd Jay Petersen:  "Part of it is simply that they published the transcript prepared by Hugh, but not his off-the-cuff remarks, which were often some of his most brilliant and biting satirical jabs (one of my favorites is the part where he says that graduation robes caused the well-known green house effect). But there was also some controversy about the talk. In fact, the editor of BYU Today was allegedly fired due to publishing Nibley's "Work We Must But the Lunch is Free" talk as well as this piece. (I discuss this in a footnote on page 372 of the biography.  There was also a problem with the audio recording of the speech. FARMS put out a VHS of the talk, but there's a chunk they had to take from a tape recorded version that Phyllis made of the event, which was, needless to say, not great quality"
    (as quoted on Facebook.)  

    For what's its worth, Petersen also mentioned that Nibley actually pulled my favorite Brigham Young quote (above) out of context, which is why it would be wise to add: "as Hugh Nibley paraphrased Brigham Young" when quoting it.   


Clean Cut said...

Anybody know a workaround for posting YouTube clips if they are not supported on an iPhone?

Direct link to "must see" clip of Hugh Nibley:


Left Field said...

I was one of those clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood. I remember well his robe unzipped and his hood falling off one shoulder.