The Roots of My Faith–Part I

By Eric Samuelsen



Or right-click here to download the audio file: The Roots of My Faith



Image: Matt Page

I grew up Bloomington, Indiana, a college town some fifty miles south of Indianapolis. Bloomington was torn between town and gown, between blue-collar locals and academics. From my house, we could hear stock car racing every summer night. On our way to church, we passed Pentecostal churches by the score, including, memorably, the “First Babtist Church.” And if you’ve seen the movie Hoosiers, there really is a basketball hoop in every back yard or driveway. In fact, basketball was what brought the community together—rural evangelicals who may well have loathed the secular humanism of a major university nevertheless showed up at Assembly Hall every Thursday and Saturday to watch the IU basketball team play.

When my family moved to Bloomington, there were fewer than 30 members of the Church in town, meeting Sundays in the storage room of a liquor store. Our ward was half Hoosier and half academic. Nowhere was this better exemplified than the home teaching partnership of Daniel Ludlow and Ray Hardesty. Ludlow, you all know—the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and one of the great scholars of Mormonism: he was one of the grad students in my ward. Ray Hardesty was an old sorghum farmer, a backwoodsman, as Hoosier as they come, a man with a third-grade education who had nonetheless memorized much of the Bible. He stood resolutely opposed to essentially every innovation in the Church. A ward library? A cultural hall? An organ in the chapel? Ray was against them all, and said so, memorably, every testimony meeting. Brothers Hardesty and Ludlow couldn’t have had less in common, but they became dear, lifelong friends and awesome home teachers. That was our ward.

Since I was one of three Mormons in our high school, I hung out with the school’s Christians, which meant, for the most part, evangelicals. But my father was a professor, so I also hung out with the university kids. But then, my father was pretty atypical for a professor. He had been trained as a sheet metal worker, and became an opera singer. He taught voice in the school of music, but he had the skills and the attitudes of a construction worker. A blue-collar opera singer.

We didn’t have early morning seminary—too few kids, too scattered—so I met with other Christians every morning in the school for Bible study. And then I took all the AP classes with professors’ kids. I’d meet my Christian friends for lunch and we’d play hearts and euchre, skipping the Shakespeare study group. I made up for it by serving as editor of the school’s creative writing magazine, by writing a weekly column for the school newspaper, and by acting in all the school plays—and we did five a year.

Then D____ G_____ showed up, and what had been a more or less peaceable co-existence between the secular and religious turned into confrontation and open warfare. D____ had been the quarterback for the football team (he’s the uncle of a current NFL quarterback) but had turned to Jesus and become founder of something called the Joy movement. Joy consisted, he said, of putting Jesus first in your life, Others second, and Yourself last. J-O-Y. He drove a psychedelic van—the Joy Van—around town, speakers blaring Christian rock. Our principal, an evangelical, held a series of full-on revival meetings disguised as mandatory school assemblies. D____ would preach and lead us in songs like “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “Spirit in the Sky” and then urge us all to invite Jesus to become our personal savior.

When parents found out about these assemblies, they were outraged, and the whole issue became both contentious and litigious. Eventually, the principal was forced to relent, and shortly thereafter D_____ G_____ was disgraced and criminally prosecuted when it turned out he’d been sexually involved with underage girls in the Joy Van.

I attended the assemblies and joined in mocking them when I was with my humanist friends. But the Joy movement drove a wedge between me and my Christian friends. Shortly after D_____ arrived, I was told that, being a Mormon, there was no room for me in the Bible study group because I wasn’t a Christian. I lost half my friends in one horrible Thursday morning.

So who was I, aside from a newly baptized convert to the Church of the First Amendment? I thought I was a Christian—in fact, I thought of myself more as a Christian than a Mormon. Wayne Johnson, my best friend in the world, was a Mormon but he attended the other high school in town, and we really only saw each other on Sundays. And those were only the Sundays when I made it to Church. My father owned both a speed boat and a sailboat, and in those pre-three-hour-block days, when we had Sunday School in the mornings and sacrament meeting in the evening, we didn’t always make it back in time for Church. I didn’t much know what we even believed.

My ignorance wasn’t helped by the fact that it was so easy to blow off home-study seminary, which consisted of a large notebook full of lessons and workbooks. The idea was that I was supposed to get up on my own every morning at six and fill out those workbooks. Yeah. That wasn’t going to happen. Then every Sunday, instead of Sunday School, we met with the seminary teacher (I’ll call him Brother Jones) and were supposed to turn those workbooks in for a grade. Then he’d teach a summary of the lessons we were supposed to have done all week, which nobody had.


During my sophomore year in 1972, the AP civics teacher, Mr. Hurt, did a unit on Vietnam. He turned it into a big debate. We divided into groups, took sides, and invited the school to this debate, moderated by three teachers. I was in the anti-war group, but just by happenstance—Mr. Hurt had picked the groups randomly. Still, it’s where I belonged: the war terrified me. I desperately hoped it would end before I turned 18 and entered the draft lottery. I volunteered for my first political campaign, for George McGovern. (We lost 49 states; good practice for my future as a Utah County Democrat.) And one Sunday I asked Brother Jones how, as a Latter-day Saint, I could apply for conscientious objector status. He said I couldn’t. The Church supported the war.

Now at that point, I didn’t know Mo Udall was Mormon, didn’t know about the principled objections to the war from many in the Church. I only had Brother Jones, who I really liked and trusted. And what he said was appalling to me. My church—people who were my kind of Christians—supported the war. And so I thought, if that was true then there really wasn’t any way for me to stay Mormon.

It wasn’t just the war. The other big issue at the time was civil rights. Bloomington didn’t have a large black population but I had a few black friends and thought the movement was a great one. However, Indiana wasn’t the best place to hold that view. Twenty miles south of us was Martinsville, a town with no blacks at all, a town with a strong Ku Klux Klan presence. The star runningback on our high school football team told me how, when he played Martinsville, some of the kids would hide broken glass in their uniforms and slice him up when they tackled him. He got his revenge by rushing for over 400 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. He eventually played at Michigan State and for the Detroit Lions. Indiana was the only state in the country to have elected an open Klan member to the governorship.

It was a terrific shock to learn that, as a Mormon, I was on the wrong side of equal rights, too. I don’t remember how I learned of the priesthood ban, but I do remember how I felt. That Sunday I was in anguish, asking Brother Jones, “Why? Why?” He said blacks had been disobedient in the pre-existence. Fence-sitters. And then he read a quote from President Benson about how blacks had been basically content with segregation until outside Communist agitators got them all upset.

My father wasn’t an intellectual, but he was a smart, honest, good man, and so I went home and asked him what he thought of all this. He said “I just have to think that’s a mistake. The whole thing’s just a big mistake. That preexistence stuff doesn’t sound right and it doesn’t feel right. I don’t know the answer, but that’s just wrong.”

My Dad’s discomfort helped a little. But if Mormons really were for the war and against civil rights, then why was I one? I went back to Brother Jones and he challenged me to read the Book of Mormon. This struck me as a pretty roundabout answer to a straightforward question, but I thought, “Okay, fair enough. I should read it.” We had a chart on the wall in our seminary classroom where we were supposed to color in a square for every chapter we read in the Book of Mormon, and I was in dead last with no squares colored in at all. So I sat down one week and began reading.

And I felt good. (It also felt good to color in all those squares the next Sunday.) Some of the Book of Mormon was wonderful, especially King Benjamin’s speech on caring for the poor. But what I really remember is how I felt. Peaceful. Happy. When I hit Moroni 10:3–5, I didn’t even bother to pray. (I’d done that years before, going out to the woods to pray about the truthfulness of the gospel, learning only that if you go out to the Indiana woods in the summer and kneel down, the chiggers are going to eat you alive. Joseph Smith had to fight off the darkness of the adversary in the Sacred Grove, but I couldn’t even handle a few buzzing gnats. My ankles itched for weeks.) I didn’t need to pray. I didn’t know what the feelings meant. I only knew I wanted more.

A popular book at the time was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—probably the first baseball insider tell-all. It was great—funny and profane and smart. But then I noticed something. When I read the Book of Mormon—and I read it cover to cover three times my junior year in high school—I felt good. When I read Ball Four, that feeling went away. I’d do it on purpose—read this for an hour, good feelings! Read that for an hour: good feelings gone!

The conclusion I might have reached from this is an obvious one: spiritual books invite the Spirit, worldly books reject the Spirit, so avoid worldly books. But in fact, I kept reading Ball Four, and it’s still a book I love. I don’t think the Lord was saying “This is a good book; this is a bad book.” I think he was saying “This is a good book, this is a better book.” In time, the same great feeling I got from the Book of Mormon came to me when I read other things: A Man for All Seasons, for example. I was an actor in those days—had leading roles in every school play. I found that a prayer would give me a good Book of Mormon feeling that would help me manage my stage fright. It was a useful little feeling.

Seminary then was much the same as seminary now. We got the usual lessons about avoiding worldly music and worldly movies and worldly media and, I suppose, worldly books. All of my children tell me that they’ve had seminary lessons in which they were “challenged” to bring their CD collections or iPods to class and burn “worldly” CDs or delete “worldly” tunes.

Brother Jones, as it happens, had heard a talk about avoiding rock music and felt guilty about the contents of his record collection. His approach was to reject worldly music not by burning his records but by giving them to me. Somehow, in his mind, it was okay to give these evil albums to one of the high school kids he was teaching—and that was logic I was completely okay with. And, dude, he had some good stuff! For example, there was Leonard Bernstein’s Mass which has been described as a Catholic mass written by a Jewish composer for Protestants. It’s a musical examination of a crisis of faith in a secular society. It has bad language and rock music. And it’s the most powerfully spiritual piece of music I know. Also in his stack was the soundtrack to the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. My Dad took me to a performance of Superstar, and afterwards we talked about how powerfully it showed the atoning mission of the Savior.

Because we lived in Bloomington, I was completely awash in music. The Indiana University school of music was, if not the finest music school in the world, at least in the top five. And they built their program on opera. By the time I was 18, I had seen excellent professional-quality productions of most of the major operas. Every summer, the opera program staged one really big opera in the football stadium, including a production of Aida with real elephants. My favorite opera was The Flying Dutchman, partly because my Dad was usually in it—the Dutchman was one of his favorite roles—and partly because in the IU production, when the Dutchman’s ship arrived, the bowsprit would come crashing down over the first five rows, which as a five-year-old, I thought was completely awesome. But it wasn’t just opera. When my wife and I moved back to Bloomington so I could go to grad school at Indiana, the music school decided to perform all the Mozart piano concerti. So Annette and I took the kids. And let me tell you, Mozart wrote a lot of piano concerti.

Bloomington also hosted an annual bluegrass festival, and we’d go sit in the grass and listen to all that country fiddling for hours. The town also hosted not one but three annual folk music festivals. Fifteen miles east was the city of Nashville, Indiana, which followed its Tennessee namesake by having an opry house. Every week, all summer long, top names in country music would perform, so we’d go and hear Loretta Lynn and Lynn Anderson, Conway Twitty and George Jones, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and David Alan Coe.

And then, when I was in high school, our family took our annual summer trip to Utah to visit aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. There, my wicked, worldly cousin Steve asked if I wanted to go to a rock concert. Not wanting to seem uncool, I said sure. And so we went and saw Jethro Tull. They played for over three hours—two whole albums worth of music—Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. Of course, Brother Jones had given me Aqualung, but I hadn’t listened to it yet. When we got home, I did—a marvelous examination of the need for the real atonement in a lost and fallen world.

That was my first introduction to what we then called progressive rock; rock music performed by classically trained musicians. My dad didn’t like rock music and still doesn’t, probably because of—rather than in spite of—my best efforts to get him to appreciate it. But I couldn’t get enough.

The early seventies was a great time for rock music, and I was in a perfect position to take advantage of it, as my good friend’s father was a concert promoter. Can you imagine a cooler job for a friend’s father to have? We got free tickets to essentially any concert we wanted to see. And since I was known to be LDS, all my friends’ parents trusted me to be the designated driver. And since I was doing most of the driving, all my friends’ parents insisted that my friends pay for my gas. It added up to a pretty sweet deal.

Bloomington is within a four-hour drive of Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago and St. Louis. And Bloomington itself attracted a lot of top bands. We got to see everyone. All I had to do was drive.

If Indiana is known for one thing aside from basketball, it’s the Indianapolis 500 car race. And Bloomington was also home to the World of Outlaws stock car circuit. Indiana teenagers had plenty of bad driving examples to choose from. State road 37, from Bloomington to Indianapolis, had more traffic fatalities than other state highway in America, despite the fact that it was four lanes and perfectly straight. I had a ‘65 Ford Fairlane, 8 cylinders and 383 horses under the hood. And while it was perfectly true that, as an LDS youth, I didn’t smoke or drink or do drugs, that didn’t necessarily mean I was a safe driver.

Pushing 80 on a two-lane highway, passing semis on hills and around blind corners, I could do Bloomington to Indianapolis in 28 minutes, and Bloomington to Cincy in 88. I can still do it: my best time from Provo to Cedar City is 83 minutes. We’d play rock and roll as loud as it would go and bomb along narrow Indiana highways, fishtailing around every curve. I never hit anyone, was never in an accident, and never got a ticket. Which is not to say that we didn’t come pretty close to seeing the face of God a few times.

It was here that I learned the difference between the Spirit and euphoria; because, driving really fast with rock and roll playing very loudly can lead to euphoric experiences. Until a few years ago, I drove as a way to overcome writer’s block. I’d be stuck, trying to work out a scene or a character or a transition, and I’d get in my car and bomb down I-15 towards Nephi, 90 plus miles per hour, playing the loudest music I could find on the radio, overloading on pure adrenaline. Then I’d go home, back to my computer, and lo and behold, my subconscious had solved the writing problem.

A few years ago, there was a stake priesthood meeting and I really didn’t want to go. I don’t know about you guys, but for me, stake priesthood meeting is the very definition of a meeting to have a meeting, and therefore, the very definition of optional. But my wife thought I should go, and she thought I should take my oldest son—set a good example. I decided she was right, and my son Kai and I reluctantly and slowly put on our ties—I don’t wear suits (I don’t own a suit) but I do have ties, all of them by Jerry Garcia—and we made it out to my car. We sat there, glumly, trying to motivate ourselves to go to stake priesthood meeting until I turned on the car radio, and turned to the heavy metal station. AC/DC was on, playing “Hell’s Bells” if memory serves. We started a little head-banging motion. I put the car in gear, and off we went to stake priesthood. AC/DC led to Poison, then Def Leppard, then Motley Crue. And we were energized, excited, euphoric. AC/DC got us to stake priesthood meeting. And we really enjoyed the meeting, participated with enthusiasm, learned a lot.

But that’s another chapter in the discerning of spirits. When I was a kid, driving wildly on narrow Indiana highways, playing Brownsville Station or Led Zeppelin, passing on hills and around blind corners, I experienced something, and it felt good. It was euphoria. Meanwhile, the Spirit was whispering to me, “Uh, don’t pass that guy yet. Wait a bit, that one’s a little dangerous.” The Spirit was the useful feeling, the one that had my best interests at heart. The one busy keeping me alive.

So we’d go to concerts, me and my friends. And the concerts we attended! We saw The Stones and The Who and Led Zeppelin. We saw Jethro Tull twice and Yes twice and Genesis when Peter Gabriel was still with them, in their “Selling England By the Pound” days. We saw Emerson Lake and Palmer. We saw King Crimson and Eric Clapton. We saw Elvis—old and fat, poured into his jump suit, but still working his magic. We saw Oregon, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We saw Bob Dylan and The Band. Above all, we saw Gentle Giant. Nobody’s heard of them anymore, but they were our favorite band—astounding musicians.

That was my life, a life absolutely immersed in music—classical music, folk and country, rock and roll, prog rock, and country rock. And what I concluded, and what I still believe to be true today, is that the idea that there are two kinds of music, two kinds of art—“worldly” art and “spiritual” art—is utter and complete nonsense. All art is worldly. And all art is spiritual. It all invites the Spirit, it all leads to euphoria and joy and every emotion known to man. To embrace classical music and reject jazz, or to embrace the Tabernacle Choir and reject doo wop, or to embrace Josh Groban and reject Stephen Tyler is simply nonsense. If there is anything virtuous lovely or of good report and praiseworthy, then call it art and . . . just bask.

We hear it today. People my age will say, “Well, the Beatles and the Stones, that’s good music. This rap stuff is terrible. Rap, they just left off the first letter c.” And I think, “Have you heard Jay-Z? Have your heard Eminem? Or Tupac?” It’s all worldly, and it’s all spiritual, and it all invites the Spirit and it all rejects the Spirit and it all leads to joy and it all leads to pain, sometimes, too.

So I read the Book of Mormon and found that I liked feeling the Spirit. The music that surrounded me filled me with joy and the Spirit. Meanwhile, I was acting in school plays and seeing every movie I could. The conclusion I reached from it all was simple—I liked feeling the Spirit. And I learned to cultivate it, to use it effectively.

One more high school experience: I loved Gentle Giant, but the guy I admired more than anyone was Bob Dylan. And he came to Bloomington. I bought two tickets the day they went on sale, and I counted down the days until he came. I mean that figuratively. It would have been better if I had actually consulted a calendar because two weeks before the concert, I suddenly realized that it was on a Sunday.

So I went to my Mom and I told her, “Hey, I’ve got this dilemma. It’s Dylan. I’ve got my tickets. I’ve got a date. It’s on a Sunday.”

And she said, “Look, we’re LDS. We honor the Sabbath. We don’t go to concerts on Sundays. But you’ve got your agency. We’ve taught you the difference between right and wrong. I hope you make the right choice.”

Darn her.

So of course, I went to the concert. I mean, come on man, it was Bob Dylan, of course I went to the concert. But I didn’t much enjoy it; felt too guilty. And the Spirit really did go away for awhile. So I learned something else about the Spirit, about agency and choices and consequences.

Music and art and theatre and literature remain the main ways for me to access the Spirit. And I really do think I’ve learned how to distinguish between the Spirit and euphoria. The best art invites the Spirit most strongly. And that is just as true, in my experience, when it’s R-rated.

Click here to read Part II.