Two Degrees off Center: Learning How to Break the Rules
December 14, 2018
“Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.
by Rich Keys
After taking piano lessons for three years, I discovered jazz at age 13. For another year, I lobbied, begged, and pleaded with my parents to let me take jazz piano. They finally agreed, but only if I kept up the classical training, and we found a teacher who was proficient in both. I seemed to have a natural gift for jazz improv and it came pretty easily, but I noticed the jazz theory was based on what I’d learned from classical music. There were just more chords, more scales, and more arpeggios in the jazz, more colorful ones, and the timing was more complex, but the theory was surprisingly similar. Regardless of jazz or classical or anything in between, music has the same roots on the family tree, even if they sound like distant cousins.
By the time I enrolled at BYU as a music major, I’d had four years of jazz improv and seven years of classical piano. There were only nine of us in Honors Theory class, so it felt like a close family. Dr. John Halliday started us on 18th-century theory—Bach and Mozart stuff—and after two weeks we were totally bored. Nothing but rules: You can’t do this, you have to do this, and on and on. We wanted to get to the Romantic period of the 19th century—Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky—no rigid rules, nothing holding us back, free to do as we please, or so we thought. Then Dr. Halliday explained, “First you have to learn how to play by the rules before you can learn how to break the rules.” In other words, there’s even a right way and a wrong way to break the rules.
It seems that, all things considered, there aren’t that many commandments in Christianity. It’s the rules that are always out of control. Adam and Eve got a pretty short course of commandments from God when they were evicted from Eden. But then, just a few books later in the Old Testament, there are thousands and thousands of rules, so many that you can’t keep track of them all. Worse, you may get stoned to death for something you didn’t even know was on the books. So Jesus comes to earth to simplify everything, and he gets things back to just two commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. But we can’t leave well enough alone, and we get back to thousands and thousands of rules again. So God seeks to simplify everything again through Joseph Smith, and instead of rules, Joseph says, “I teach correct principles, and the people govern themselves.” So if there were just principles, and we could govern ourselves, then how did we end up with so many rules again less than 200 years later?
God makes commandments. Man makes rules. However, instead of focusing on the actual commandments and letting the Spirit of God guide us in keeping them, many people seem to focus on man-made rules and policies, even when they seem to contradict God’s own commandments. Here’s the recipe: Take a commandment, add some bias and half-truths of your own, then mix in a generous dose of pride, spread it evenly over all the what-ifs you can think of without consulting the Master Chef, and you now have a rule. Then someone else takes that rule, adds his own bias, half-truths, pride, and what-ifs, and now we have a few more rules…and so on until there are thousands of rules again. Fortunately, there are a few leaders who go organic, who avoid the man-made ingredients and stick to the original commandment, adding only as the Master Chef guides them. If you have such a leader, count your blessings. Then go to him and thank him personally. So many of us in Affirmation have struggled with the source of rules, and we’ve leaned on the source of commandments, or other sources, for help, comfort, nurture, reassurance, and further direction.
Finally, two stories on the use of rules in the church:
The week after the November 2015 policies were announced, I said to my bishop, “I wish the local leaders would go more by the Spirit and less by the Handbook.” In all seriousness, he said, “Oh, we couldn’t do that. Everyone would be doing something different.” I was so stunned at that, I had no reply. Conformity had become the new golden calf.
Contrast that with the very unusual move the LDS church took in the mid-20th century, calling Matthew Cowley to be an apostle just after he finished serving as a mission president, a huge, unprecedented leap of authority. After a weeklong crash course of nonstop meetings, orientation, reading, cramming, late night study, and such, his mind was overwhelmed with what he had gone through. At the end of the week after he was sustained as an apostle, J. Reuben Clark, a former US Ambassador to Mexico and then counselor to the prophet, said to Cowley in all seriousness and with a very stern look, “Well, Brother Cowley, you’ve learned an awful lot in a very short period of time this week, but whatever you do, NEVER forget Rule #6.” Cowley’s brain went into overdrive, but he couldn’t recall it. Finally, he admitted, “President Clark, I’m sorry, I don’t remember Rule #6.” Clark leaned in and said, “Never take yourself too damn seriously.” Shocked, Elder Cowley asked, “What are the other five rules?” President Clark said, “There aren’t any others.”
If we could just get the Handbook down to that one rule….
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.