This text was adapted from a speech that I presented in 2002 to women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It contains references to doctrines of the Church and scriptures used by it. The theme of the conference was “The Bread of Life,” and the topic was “How We Determine What We Read by the Power of the Spirit.”
If I were to make a loaf of homemade bread, what ingredients would I use? The recipe my family likes calls for flour, honey, salt, yeast, potato flakes, eggs, water, and vegetable oil. Every ingredient has a purpose. The flour gives the loaf of bread its body. The yeast makes it light. The salt balances the flavor and inhibits the yeast so that the dough won’t rise too high. The eggs provide richness. The honey adds a touch of sweetness. All of the ingredients work together to make the loaf of bread nutritious and great tasting.
When any of us set out to make a loaf of bread, we don’t often stop to consider whether the ingredients we are putting into the bread are wholesome, or, in other words, conducive to good health. We assume the ingredients are nutritious and safe and that they will work correctly in the recipe because we’ve used them before and have achieved the desired results. We buy those ingredients at grocery stores we trust.
Just as various wholesome ingredients go into making a loaf of bread or any other nutritious food, certain ingredients go into creating a celestial piece of literature. If we were to write a recipe for a celestial piece of literature, what ingredients might we list? Truth, perhaps, and the presence of the Spirit. Celestial literature would be well organized and contain stories and ideas that would uplift and delight us. It would exhibit a depth of observation about life and encourage us to ponder the doctrines of eternity. We would expect the language to be refined and beautiful. We would be better people for having read it. We know celestial literature contains these wholesome ingredients because the perfect example of celestial literature is always before us—the scriptures.
Now going back to the bread, what would you say if I told you I had mixed a little dirt into a loaf of bread I had made? Or blood? Or rotten eggs instead of fresh ones? Or motor oil instead of vegetable oil? Or heroin? The bread would be disgusting, wouldn’t it? We know that the ingredients I’ve just listed are unwholesome because someone we trust has told us so. Perhaps our mothers told us not to eat dirt when we very young. Maybe we saw a film in school on the dangers of heroin. Someone we know may have eaten rotten food and become sick. All of us have probably bitten our lips and tasted blood. If any of those ingredients were used, would a loaf of bread look the way it is supposed to look? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The loaf might be puny or disfigured. It may be an odd color. It would probably smell bad. Eating bread made with unwholesome ingredients would certainly make us sick and unhealthy.
Then again, someone might argue that there would be only one rotten egg for four loaves of bread. The other one would be fresh, which certainly balances out the unwholesomeness of the other one. That divides into one fourth of a rotten egg per loaf. Why, in only one slice out of twelve per loaf, a person wouldn’t be eating much rotten egg at all! Certainly only a teeny tiny bit of rotten egg wouldn’t make someone sick! It’s not as if he would be eating a whole carton of rotten eggs!
We all know it wouldn’t matter. Even a little rotten egg is going to be bad for us. If we began eating bread full of these unwholesome ingredients on a regular basis, we would not be at our maximum health. Our lives would deteriorate, and we would have a difficult time functioning. We would eventually develop a taste for this contaminated bread, which would prevent us from enjoying good, wholesome bread. The contaminated bread would begin looking so normal to us that we might not even recognize the appearance, taste, and smell of good bread.
What would happen, in fact, if many people developed a taste for this foul bread? They and most of the people around them would be sick and not even know it! It would take on the status of a gourmet delicacy. We would have classes on how to let the eggs rot just right to get the correct flavor. People who liked wholesome bread would be considered odd and unsophisticated, and the sick people would laugh at them and tell them that they’re behind the times: “This is the way we make bread now. It’s so much better than the way bread used to be made. You need to develop a more mature taste.”
The bread bakers would, by and large, stop making wholesome bread because they could make so much more money selling the contaminated loaves. They might say: “If I don’t bake bread that pleases people, they won’t buy it and I’ll go out of business. I won’t be able to support my family.”
Wholesome bread would become so difficult to find that even those who preferred it might start eating the foul bread because it’s so available. When warned by someone who recognizes the foul bread for what it is, people would defend themselves by saying, “But there isn’t anything else available! It’s just part of today’s world! If I don’t eat this bread, what am I going to eat? All of the bread bakers and food experts say that this bread is all right. How can they all be wrong?”
And they would all be wrong, because it doesn’t matter how many people think contaminated bread is superior. Eating wholesome bread will nourish us and eating contaminated bread will sicken us. The same principle applies to literature. Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who later became president of the Church, said this:
Today, with the abundance of books available, it is the mark of a truly educated man to know what not to read. “Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Feed only on the best. As John Wesley’s mother counseled him: “Avoid whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, . . . increases the authority of the body over the mind.”
The fact that a book is old does not necessarily make it of value. The fact that an author wrote one good work does not necessarily mean that all his books are worthy of your time. Do not make your mind a dumping ground for other people’s garbage. It is harder to purge the mind of rotten reading than to purge the body of rotten food, and it is more damaging to the soul.Ezra Taft Benson, “In His Steps,” Speech delivered at Brigham Young University, March 4, 1979.
The one sure way never to develop a taste for unwholesome literature is to feast daily on the scriptures. They truly are the most celestial literature on this earth, and they are, therefore, the standard by which we should judge everything we read. As we digest the scriptures and make them a part of us, a remarkable thing happens. This celestial literature becomes so delicious and fulfilling that we are better able to recognize other quality literature. Not only that, but we become so familiar with its symbolic, often difficult language that we become better readers and thinkers, which means there isn’t much written in our own language that we won’t be able to read and understand.
Nothing we read will ever have the spiritual impact on us and on society that the scriptures do, but if we choose the literature we read carefully, we’ll find other material that combines great intelligence with superb structure. As we dine on this other literature, our understanding of the scriptures can be increased.
This very thing happened to me when I was asked to lead a book review in my ward. Since I didn’t think I would have much time to prepare for it, I decided to choose a book I had read recently and was quite familiar with—Emma, by Jane Austen, which, in my mind, is a perfect example of excellent structure radiating great intelligence. For those of you who are not familiar with this story, it’s about a young woman who acts as a match-maker for her friends and ends up almost killing her own chance for true love. As I was preparing this review, I began reading Emma for the third time. One of the things I did on this reading that I had not done before was look for the theme of the book, that one pronouncement about life that ties the whole work together. Maybe I’m slow, but the theme of this novel was not obvious to me; I really had to think about it.
Toward the end of the book, I found a sentence that tied everything together and rejoiced! I had found what I believe to be the theme of Emma:
Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.Chapter 13
So in language more modern but less elegant, we could say:
We as human beings have a difficult time seeing the truth clearly, especially in our dealings with other people, but when we really love those people, the misunderstandings that naturally arise from time to time don’t have to matter.
I think this is an interesting observation, one I hadn’t considered before. I decided that Jane Austen’s observation was a true one, and as I continued to think about it, several questions came into my mind:
Why aren’t we allowed complete truth at this point of our existence?
How do we gain truth?
What do we have to do to gain complete truth or, in other words, all knowledge?
Which comes to a person first? Complete truth or complete charity? How are these two concepts connected?
As these questions churned in my head, I began looking up scriptures about truth and charity. I would like to share a few of these scriptures with you, because they help us understand some things about literature and our relationship to it. We won’t read any of the scriptures about charity, but they are there and they are important, particularly those in Moroni 7, if you’re interested in looking them up on your own. As for the ones we’ll explore today, let’s start with D&C 93:24:
“And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.”
Summary: Truth is knowledge
Next, let’s look at James 2:19:
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
Summary: Satan and his angels have knowledge but are subject to the power of God
Next, D&C 6:16:
Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.
Summary: Only God knows our thoughts and desires—Satan does not. The implication is also there that our fellow human beings can’t know our deepest thoughts and desires either, unless they are given power from God. This is why we have the misunderstandings of the type so eloquently dramatized in Emma.
Next, D&C 88: 6 and a related verse, 41:
He [Christ] ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth. . . .
He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.”
Summary: Christ comprehends everything. This is how He is able to have all truth, i.e. all knowledge. This is how He can know the thoughts and desires we do not vocalize and why Satan, along with our fellow human beings, cannot.
I can’t think of a better way to describe the act of knowing the thoughts and desires of every person in the human family than to say he is “in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things.” I also can’t think of a better way to describe the very thing that great literature accomplishes. Whether it details a historical event or describes a character’s thoughts and emotions, a powerful book helps us “comprehend all things,” or, in other words, it helps us be “above all things, and in all things . . . through all things, and . . . round about all things.” Consequently, one of the best ways we can develop our ability to comprehend truth is to read and read well. Participating in an activity that will help us be “above all things, and in all things . . . through all things, and . . . round about all things,” will draw us closer to the Lord and make the Spirit a more powerful influence in our lives.
In D&C 88:67 we are told that a person will reach this state of perfect comprehension once the darkness in him is gone and he is filled with light:
And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.
One of the best interpretations of this scripture that I’ve ever read was given by Elder H. Burke Peterson in a conference talk he gave in October, 1993, addressing the problem of “sex, nudity, and vulgarity” in the media:
In an application of this scripture today, it is my understanding that anytime we look at or listen to the kind of material we have been speaking of—even in its mildest form—the light inside of us grows dimmer because the darkness inside increases. The effect of this is that we cannot think as clearly on life’s challenges—be they business, church, school, family, or personal—because the channel to the source of all light for the solving of problems is cluttered with various unclean images. Our entitlement to personal revelation on any subject is severely restricted. We don’t do as well in school or at work. We are left more on our own, and as a result we make more mistakes, and we are not as happy. Remember, our mind is a wonderful instrument. It will record and keep whatever we put into it, both trash and beauty. When we see or hear anything filthy or vulgar, whatever the source, our mind records it, and as it makes the filthy record, beauty and clean thoughts are pushed into the background. Hope and faith in Christ begin to fade, and more and more, turmoil and discontent become our companions.Elder H. Burke Peterson, “‘Touch Not the Evil Gift, nor the Unclean Thing,’” General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1993.
In contrast, let’s continue our reading in section 88 with verse 68 to learn what will result if we work to eliminate those dark things from our minds and hearts:
Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.
Could there ever be a greater reward than that? Reading these verses, it becomes obvious that the reason we as human beings don’t possess more knowledge is because we still have darkness in us.
These verses from section 88 are loaded with truth; there is no doubt about it. I won’t presume to give anything close to a complete interpretation of these passages, but I do want to give you one more thought. As I was contemplating this doctrine in connection with reading Emma, I knew more strongly than I had ever known that the literature that will best help us be “above all things, and in all things . . . through all things, and . . . round about all things,” or, in other words, the literature with the most depth of observation about life, is the literature that is freest from darkness. This is the literature that teaches the truth and teaches it in the Lord’s way. This idea completely refutes the popular belief that a story must contain foul language, depictions of sex, graphic violence, or whatever to be completely realistic and “true.”
The Lord is very concerned about our emotional health and doesn’t want us to take into our minds material that gives us excessive details about sin, even when that material is a factual rendition of something that really happened. We know this from what we are taught in the Book of Mormon. The prophet Mormon, when recording the events surrounding the destruction of his civilization said this:
And now behold, I, Mormon, do not desire to harrow up the souls of men in casting before them such an awful scene of blood and carnage as was laid before mine eyes; but I . . . write a small abridgment, daring not to give a full account of the things which I have seen, because of the commandment which I have received, and also that ye might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people.Mormon 5:8–9. Italics added.
If our sensitivities are in the right place, it should be a harrowing experience for us to read terrible scenes of the type to which Mormon refers. The prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon, when reprimanding many of the men of his time, said this:
And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children, many of whose feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God, which thing is pleasing unto God.Jacob 2:7
What does all of this mean to us as readers? First of all, it means that the most artistic books, in the heavenly sense, will not contain inappropriate material. We don’t have to feel as if we’re missing anything if we choose to avoid books that contain foul elements, even if they’re considered “art” by the rest of the world. What does this mean to us as writers? It means that every time we throw in a bad word or an unwholesome scene, we’re lowering the true literary quality of our work. It’s as simple as that. If we want our writing to further the Lord’s work, we will cripple ourselves if we use the tools of Satan.
Hardly a general conference goes by where we don’t hear counsel concerning our media choices. The Church’s For the Strength of Youth booklet contains many of these standards we hear about at every conference. It may be directed to the youth, but it’s for us too. I’ve actually heard the rationalization that the media standards the Lord asks the youth to live don’t always apply to adults. The proponents of this philosophy claim that the prophets give the youth stricter restrictions because they are impressionable. They claim that mature adults can accept material that condones evil, along with some explicitness, without being adversely affected. This idea is ridiculous! There is no double standard in the Church. How can we expect our children to live the standards if we don’t live them ourselves? Do we really believe the youth won’t see through such hypocrisy? At the other extreme, do we want to be responsible for teaching the youth or anyone that they can disregard the standards and not be spiritually damaged? For a booklet geared to adults, see Let Virtue Garnish Thy Thoughts.
As we do make that commitment to live the standards, the Spirit will give us feelings of discomfort if we are reading something that the Lord would rather we didn’t read. For me, it starts with a feeling of uneasiness, then escalates into: “Uh, oh . . . I shouldn’t be reading this.” After an experience like this with a book, the Spirit may also direct me not to pursue that particular author, even if I have already read books by him that meet the standards. If we pay attention, the Spirit will give us the direction we seek and need.
Is there light in material that’s inappropriate? Yes, and this is one of the reasons why making these choices can be so difficult. Many questionable books do contain light. Sometimes a great deal of light. Does that mean they’re good for us? No. A restaurant may throw perfectly good food into the dumpster, but that doesn’t mean we should go digging through the trash to find it! We who have the gospel are living in the spiritual equivalent of a palace. We have been dressed in our queenly gowns and are now sitting in the grand dining room with a feast on the table in front of us. Would a great lady or a queen go prowling through the palace garbage to find food? No! The idea is preposterous! She would use all of the resources available to choose the finest food the world has to offer, and only that would go on her plate.
And how do I know how fine ladies eat? Because I read books like Emma, by Jane Austen! Now, not everyone who reads Emma will have the same enlightening experience I had, and as I said before, I didn’t have this experience until I was nearly finished with my third reading of the book. Some of you, in fact, might find Emma downright tedious; I don’t think my husband could read it if someone held a gun to his head. It doesn’t matter. Different books speak to different people.
As we seek for the very best literature to put on our tables, we should seek out those things that edify and delight us. There is a trend these days to consider anything happy or hopeful to be too simple to ever be considered true “art.” Nothing could be further from the truth! The classics come in all types. Whether we are more inspired by a cheerful story with a happy ending or prefer a subtle, perhaps starker tale is a matter of personal taste. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel like an idiot, a simpleton, or a prude for liking cheerful stories and happy endings! At the other extreme, however, it would be a mistake to assume a book has to contain pleasant subject matter and a happy ending to be wholesome. Think of the scriptures. Many terrible things are documented in the scriptures, but we come away from them feeling uplifted and not depressed. Why? Because they teach the truth in the Lord’s way. They contain hope and have a good balance between happy events and sad ones. Read the things you love, the things that expand your mind, the things that bring you joy. I like this quote by President Thomas S. Monson:
Why is the story A Christmas Carol [by Charles Dickens] so popular? Why is it ever new? I personally feel it is inspired of God. It brings out the best within human nature. It gives hope. It motivates change. We can turn from the paths which would lead us down and, with a song in our hearts, follow a star and walk toward the light. We can quicken our step, bolster our courage, and bask in the sunlight of truth.President Thomas S. Monson, “Now is the Time,” General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 2001.
I believe that if the books we read do for us what A Christmas Carol does for President Monson, we are reading correctly.
Read the things you enjoy, but every now and then choose something that will lift you out of your comfort zone. If you typically don’t read anything but the Ensign and Church books, live a little and read a novel once in a while. If you’re like me and love to read novels, try some poetry now and then or perhaps a play or a biography.
As you are reading, rejoice in the truth that the Lord is so generously pouring down on all people. One of the blessings I have received by reading in different genres is a testimony of how comprehensive the Lord’s influence is in this world. When He says that He is “willing to make these things known unto all flesh” and that He is “no respecter of persons” He means it! (D&C 1:34–35) He is literally pouring His Spirit down on the world, to people of all races, nationalities, and religions, and those who are sensitive to that Spirit are living many of the same standards we are and face many of the same challenges. Reading the literature of these people bolsters my faith in humanity and in my Savior, who loves all people. I don’t think there is anyone in this room who won’t feel a connection to this character from Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina:
Ever since Levin, at the sight of his beloved dying brother, looked for the first time at the questions of life and death in the light of what he called the new convictions which between the ages of twenty and thirty-four imperceptibly replaced the beliefs of his childhood and youth, he had been horrified not so much by death as by life without the slightest knowledge of its origin, its purpose, its reason, and its nature. Organisms, their destruction, the indestructibility of matter, evolution, the law of the conservation of energy, were the terms that had superseded those beliefs. These terms and the conceptions associated with them were very useful for intellectual purposes, but they gave no guidance for life. Levin suddenly felt like a person who had exchanged his warm fur coat for a muslin garment and who, out in the frost for the first time, becomes convinced, not by arguments but with the whole of his being, that he is as good as naked and that he must inevitably die a painful death from exposure.Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, Part 7, Chapter 8.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, that a Russian count who lived more than a hundred years ago could so eloquently illuminate an idea that has such meaning to us as members of the Church. That is, of course, because all truth comes from the same source. As we make a commitment to read well, the Lord will help us find the delicious literature that will uplift us and connect us to our brothers and sisters all over the world.
In conclusion, I would like to ask: What do you really want? I want to understand things, great things. I want to be, as it says in 1 Nephi 14:14, “armed with righteousness, and with the power of God in great glory.” Not just in the Celestial world, but now. I want to come into the presence of my Savior. I want to be a part of creating Zion. I want to be a queen in my Heavenly Father’s kingdom. To get where I want to go, I have to work to become pure in heart. To do that, I have to be careful about what I put into my mind. I’d like to close with this passage from Revelation 19:7–9:
Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.
And he saith unto me, write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The featured image came from Pixabay.