I LEARNED THAT I SHOULD TAKE ON ANYTHING THAT GENE SUGGESTED
By Claudia Bushman
I am sure everyone will say how wonderful Gene England was. I quite agree. He was larger than life, and his life was an open book. He left a record of his thoughts. He put himself on the line. As he said, in a statement truer today than in 1984 when he wrote it:
[T]he Church community is blessed, not fractured, by those who express themselves sincerely and openly—even their disagreements and their vulnerability—rather than those who keep silent in public but criticize in private or harbor resentment or guilt or gnaw alone on the bones of their failures and hurts.
The great thing about Gene was his openness, his willingness to speak out and to welcome others into his counsels.
Charlotte has advised us not to write eulogies for this collection, a hard direction to follow. For the purposes of this tribute, I am going to talk about the influence Gene had over me, which was direct and real. He made a difference in my life.
The first was that he gave our little Boston collective of Mormon feminists permission to edit an issue of Dialogue. I had had great reservations about asking for this favor. Women in the sixties, especially Mormon women, did not take themselves very seriously and doubted that anyone else would either. But Gene, with scarcely a second thought or reservation, said “yes” and told us to go ahead. Working on that issue changed the whole dynamic of our monthly women’s meetings. We focused on a project that we could all work on in our own distinctive ways. We came up with lists, did research, wrote essays, critiqued things that came our way. The result was a real product, not just more talk, and it turned out to be a landmark publication. It’s not that it was so great—actually, it does have some very odd things in it—but like the talking dog or the preaching female, that it existed at all was quite a marvel. That was in Volume VI, back in 1971. Forty-plus years after Dialogue began its publication, that issue may still be one of the best known.
More important, from my point of view, the project cemented a group of housewives together and prepared them to take on more projects. Having Gene’s approval gave us confidence and the assurance that we could do something. We became a cohesive group, still closely knit together long after the fact. And speaking personally, it made an immense difference to me. I had never wanted to or liked to write, and I still don’t. I had no ambitions in that direction. But that experience turned me into a writer and an editor. Gene did that with a simple “yes.”
And then there were other instances. Sometime down the line, under pressure from somebody, I wrote an essay in which I spoke about my mother’s death and that of others. I remember that somebody didn’t like my essay and wanted it “fixed,” but I didn’t know what kind of fixing it needed. Someone else said that it was a nice piece and recommended publication. After it was published, Gene decided, on the basis of that little piece with its contested approvals, that I was a good writer. He quoted that essay and frequently said nice things about my writing. There is no question that I was elevated in the eyes of others because of his good words.
I couldn’t believe that he really thought that highly of my abilities, and so I was very surprised when in 1986 he asked me to review two of his books for BYU Studies. He may have thought I owed him, which I certainly did. I agreed to do it and took the responsibility seriously. The two books of essays, Dialogues with Myself (Midvale, Utah: Orion Books, 1984) and Why the Church is as True as the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986) revealed who Gene was. He laid himself out on the page. I said lots of good things about him and the books, but later felt that maybe I had been too critical and wounded him. I said what I thought, and in rereading that review recently, I think I spoke truly about him. I noted there that he
may have been the first “sensitive” Mormon man, willing to give women more than a fair shake and known to weep from time to time. He is a great confessor who opens his life and heart to others and encourages reciprocation. Though buffeted by the slings and arrows of critics and officials who have not particularly appreciated his style, and despite the fact that his world view is basically tragic, he maintains a boyish cheerfulness and has not fallen victim to the bitterness that afflicts other liberal Mormons when the Church has not “come around.”
He did tell me that he took a lot of heat from females in his family about the “sensitive” business.
Gene was an early practitioner of “lived religion,” the school of theology that concentrates on the theological thoughts and attitudes of a religion’s congregants rather than those of the leaders. By placing his emphasis on the people and their experience, he opens wide spaces for worship previously available but unrecognized. And what is best, he did this in writing, so that it remains to be considered fresh by every new generation. Signature Books has now made his Dialogues With Myself available online and all would do well to look it over from time to time.
Gene’s personal writings connect with Mormons in ways that conference talks do not. As I said long ago in my review:
England is at his best, I think, in the shorter, more personal pieces such as his justly celebrated “Blessing the Chevrolet” in which he unites the world of belief in God and the everyday world of failing autos, and uses the power from one to heal the other. This synthesis is his great strength, and the piece is faith-promoting literature at its best while also being, as in the title, outrageous England. This stance gives credibility to his world, as in the case where he civilizes such bizarre doings as the Hosanna shout.
His role models are Orson Pratt, Juanita Brooks, and, most of all, Joseph Smith, all of whom suffered for living up to what seemed to them the best of their inner light and for doing their duty. . . . The endurance of Brigham Young and Spencer W. Kimball inspire him. He grapples with the paradoxes of obedience and inner light.
His “lived religion” focus makes it possible for him to consider the Church “the best medium, apart from marriage . . . for helping us gain salvation by grappling constructively with the opposition of existence.”
Revisiting that old review has made me realize how true Gene was to himself, and to the church. He found his voice early and used it in thoughtful and quotable works to the end.
I was involved in one of Gene’s final projects, one he passed on to Bob Rees to complete. The Readers’ Book of Mormon was published by Signature Books in 2008. Gene called me one evening and invited me to write an introduction to a section of the Book of Mormon. I had learned that I should take on anything that Gene suggested, but this one stopped me cold. I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about the Book of Mormon, that I had never been to LDS Seminary, Institute, BYU, or any other of those places where such knowledge was gained. I had read it and read in it from time to time, but never without a purpose, and all questions were dispatched to my husband Richard, my never-failing resident scriptural scholar. Gene, laughed and laughed, and then reissued the invitation. Amazingly, he was not looking for gospel expertise. He wanted personal responses, fresh looks, short essays that responded in individual ways. And so I took on the dreaded 2 Nephi and the generally ignored “little books” and found enough there to make them mine forever.
Eugene England stood at the juncture of two cultures. His identity as an intellectual academic liberal was responsible for his writing at all. His mythic, primitive believer’s stance informed his content. He defined Mormon intellectuals as having the gift that made them “curious about why as well as how, anxious to serve [the Lord] by being creative as well as obedient.” He wrote and lived in the tension at the crux of those two traditions. Yet having worked out the right way to go, he was always tolerant of others’ views. As he said: “True disciples of Christ, true Christians, will ignore persecution and resist the paranoia it naturally brings, will blend their energies to loving and serving others, whatever their differences, and thus will endure and be saved.”
His steady affirmation remains a blessing for all of us.
1. Eugene England, Dialogues with Myself, 55, quoted in Claudia Bushman, “Book Reviews,” BYU Studies 26 (Summer 1986): 3, 114.
2. Claudia Bushman, “Book Reviews,” BYU Studies 26 (Summer 1986) 3, 111.
3. Ibid., 112–13.
4. Eugene England, Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel, 4, quoted in Bushman, BYU Studies, 111.
5. Eugene England, Dialogues with Myself, 57, quoted in Bushman, BYU Studies, 113.
6. Ibid., 190.