Professor Eugene EnglandIt’s pretty obvious that I’m nobody special, but I do have some memories of some pretty special people. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my old professor, the late Eugene England, and I thought I’d share some memories of him here.

I had always wanted to take his class when I was at BYU, but they always were either full or didn’t work with my class schedule. When I came back from my mission and enrolled at the University of Utah, I was surprised but delighted to discover that Eugene England was teaching a class there, through an extension center. I signed up right away, and the class was full of traditional students like me, as well as some amateur enthusiasts (I mean that in the best sense of the word) including one superannuated Seventy.

We asked him how he came to teach at BYU’s rival, and he said he had some friends in the U’s English department who suggested it. He said it was amazing what teaching at a different University could do to one’s reputation. Merely driving 40 miles further to teach the same class could transform him from an apostate Mormon liberal to an upholder of the oppressive, fascist religious patriarchy.

I had read much of his work before, but until this class, I had never read his essay “Easter Weekend.” I was awestruck. I had never ready anything so personal and yet so full of the Spirit. After class one day, I asked him a question. Keeping in mind this is a paraphrase from memory over a decade old, it went something like this:

Me: It seems like a common thread in all of your writing is affirming your faith. Do you see your writing as a way to bear your testimony of the gospel?

England: No. I mean, that is nice, but there has to be a dedication and loyalty to craft, and in my professional work that is paramount. I do want the piece to be faith-promoting, but even more, it has to be good.

I was a bit taken aback by his answer, but it has stuck with me more than anything else I learned that semester. Oscar Wilde said that all bad poetry is sincere, and I think it is the same thing with bad religion. Just because something is heartfelt doesn’t mean it’s good or effective. Or true, for that matter. It’s the same thing that Hugh Nibley railed against in his speech, “Zeal Without Knowledge.”

That’s the double entendre in England’s book The Quality of Mercy–in order for something to be truly merciful, it has to be of sufficient quality. If Bonhoffer criticized “cheap grace,” then its sister must be kitsch mercy–all mushy, slobbery, teary-eyed, but without saving power.

The lesson he taught me I have strived to live, in what I write, and in what I do. I have no idea how Professor England would view the blogging medium, still less my writing here. However poor quality my contributions are, I can at least say, they are the better for having been a student of Eugene England.