Jerry Johnston: Why waste space with ire?

Published: Saturday, Dec. 20 2003 12:25 a.m. MST

Paul Swenson was a reporter here some 30 years ago. Yet even now, snippets of "Swenson folklore" surface in newsroom conversations from time to time. There's the story of the day he was sent to cover the annual Christmas parade. He wrote the story as if it were a review, then gave the parade low marks. The following day, a copy of the newspaper appeared on the assignment editor's desk with a scribbled note from the publisher. It read: "Next year, don't send Scrooge."

Now, after a varied career, Swenson is "raising his Ebenezer" once again. This time, in a collection of poetry called "Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake."

It's a harsh book. The kind of book that seems meant to put people off their lunch.

And it is not a book for all tastes.

What the poet thinks tastes "tart," for instance, will taste "bitter" and "sour" to many readers.

What he sees as "edgy" feels "cutting."

Provocative feels inflammatory.

As for the slant of the book, you could call it a "repair manual." If the poet were to picture the LDS Church as a house, he would likely see it as a "fixer-upper." And he sees himself as the man with the toolbox.

Most believers, of course, believe the opposite. They see themselves as "fixer-uppers" and the church as a box of tools. But no matter, the poet pulls out his repair kit and goes to work.

And it's surprising how many things appear to be broken.

The clothing. The music. The titles. The attitudes. He'd like to retool them all. In short, he comes on like a man who shows up at church, pinches himself into a pew and tries to make himself comfortable while those around him scowl.

He pushes and prods to make room for himself and his friends.

He apparently likes church.

He goes.

He wants to be there.

And it is good for him to be there.

He just doesn't feel good there.

This isn't a tale told just in the LDS faith. The "uneasy believer" shows up often in stories and churches, and has for centuries.

And the faithful in the pews near him always ask themselves the same unspoken questions.

Why is he in the church but not of the church?

Irony and anger are easy. Does he realize it's submission that's hard?

So many religious writers have kind hearts and shoddy skills. He has the skills but a misplaced heart. Does he know what wonders he could be doing?

Does he know in a nation riddled with war, child abuse and despair, squabbling over doctrine isn't on the list of "Things to do today"?

The people in the pews would tell him there are bigger fish to fry.

He's in church. They're in church. It's all to the good.

They'd say instead of fresh phrases why not embrace the cliches?

Put your shoulder to the wheel.

Scatter the sunshine.

Speak kind words.

The debate over the tempo of the hymns will wait.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com

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