In James Goldberg’s evocative new collection of poems, there is one early set of lines that really arrested me, from a poem called “Upon the Sand.” Here’s an excerpt:
We’d imagined God’s wrathThe Book of Lamentations,
would jolt us—pyrotechnic,
commanding our attention.
So we missed the subtle
cease-striving, the slow
rotting away of root and
branch. We slept through
days of should-have-been
decision, opting out
of a greater vision
and into the rhythm, pounding
like the waves, of the sins
of each generation.
by James Goldberg (p. 9)
Goldberg is lyrical in his description of “God’s wrath”, and makes an arresting, poetical point: will God’s wrath come like firework? Or will it be like the slow boil of our souls? A passive immersion in society’s sins, where we sleepwalk “into the rhythm, pounding / like the waves, of the sins / of each generation”?
It’s an evocative image. And it stand out all the more because of the allusion Goldberg makes to a repeated call in the Doctrine and Covenants: being clean from the blood and sins of this generation. Joseph taught the need to preach the gospel to “a crooked and perverse generation” (D&C 33:2; 34:6). The Olive Leaf revelation, given in Kirtland two years later, enjoined the early Latter-day Saints to be “clean from the blood of this wicked generation” (D&C 88:75), with blood here implying either sin or impurity, a symbolism that has its origins early in the Hebrew Bible. The formulation “blood and sins” is stated by Elder Holland in his magnificent 2012 talk “The First Great Commandment”, and is spoken, too, in the temple. It seems, in other words, that there are sins characteristic of one’s generation and time.
In notes on the poem, Goldberg makes an additional step about these sins: they’re not obvious. Indeed:
The idea of sins of a generation echoes a repeated call in the Doctrine & Covenants for people to separate and cleanse themselves from the sins of the generation. I’ve long felt like there are sins so pervasive and acceptable in a given era they’re almost impossible for people to see.The Book of Lamentations,
by James Goldberg (p. 109)
This phrase has been on my mind for awhile. Not least because it begs the question: what are these sins and impurities peculiar to my time? How covered and stained in this blood am I?
And if these include sins and wounds “so pervasive and acceptable in a given era they’re almost impossible for people to see”—well, what are these things? What are these sins, moral deformations, disordered, wounds, idols? And how do we gain sight to see them? And how do we gain strength to resist?
These are weighty, but important, questions. The worst sins are those we cannot see, the proverbial “Fish in Water” problems. But once we can see the water we swim in, and culture we’ve absorbed, and no doubt the sins of that culture we’ve unwittingly absorbed—only then can we resist. As Marshall McLuhan said once in an interview:
… the only alternative is to understand everything that is going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can. I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.Marshall McLuhan, cited in “Understanding as a mode of Resistance”
The sins of this generation are the juggernaut. And I fear a lot of us, myself very much included, let this juggernaut roll on over.
All of this is to say is that “becoming clean from the blood and sins of this generation” amounts to a call for cultural critique. It amounts to a declaration that we will try “not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2, ESV)—or as another translation has it, not to “copy the behavior and customs of this world”.
At least, not uncritically. The world isn’t all bad. But it has its problems. And our call is to witness “a better world” (Ether 12:4), and one way we can do that is to see, understand, and resist those aspects of culture that miss the mark.
All of this might be very abstract. Cultural critique is limp without grasping for precision, without trying to identify the specific sins of our time, the “ones almost impossible for people to see.” A project for future posts.