Dr. George B. Handley of the Comparative Arts & Letters Department recently published his 11th book, If Truth Were a Child (2019). Unlike his previous titles—which include creative non-fiction, scholarly works, a memoir, and a novel—this book is a compilation of reflective essays analyzing the intersection between faith and intellectualism.
Handley’s essays in If Truth Were a Child range from the remarkably personal, like “Why I am a Latter-day Saint,” to the incredibly practical (“Politics, Religion, and the Pursuit of Community”), all culminating in a powerful, poignant final chapter (“The Grace of Nothingness”).
If Truth Were a Child was born out of questions that most, if not all, religious intellectuals face almost constantly—like, how can one’s faith and intellect coexist, even prosper? The resulting work is a pertinent compilation of insights and experiences that are applicable to both the young student and aged scholar.
What inspired you to write this book?
Well, I’m really hoping for a movie contract. More seriously, it is the fruition of teaching at BYU and in the College of Humanities for 22 years now, in some ways. I think one of the things that I felt like I lacked in my education as an undergraduate at Stanford and as a graduate student at Berkeley was that I just never got exposed to good Christian thought and theology, especially at a level that was comparable to the philosophies and theories that I was reading. And I feel like we need to do some more work as faculty in the College of Humanities to provide some frameworks for students to be able to study the humanities in a way that resonates with the gospel. I think we should be open intellectually, and I think we should remain faithful. I think we can feel comfortable doing so and having intellectual integrity, but it’s really important that we have some models. I don’t pretend to have exhausted those questions or provided the model; I just wanted to provide some provocations that would be hopefully helpful.
Tell us about the writing process. I know some of the essays were written previously, and some you wrote exclusively for this book. For how long was this project underway?
One of the essays, “Poetics of the Restoration,” I wrote earlier in my BYU career. And that was my first attempt to try to think theologically and theoretically about what it means to be a Latter-day Saint, and believe in and teach the humanities, and embrace literature and aesthetic experience, and so on. And then I was asked a few years ago to give a lecture called, “My Journey as a Scholar of Faith,” and that’s the third chapter in the book, “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity.” And that was kind of a culminating moment for me. And around that same time, I think from roughly 2012 to 2015, I experimented briefly with blogging, and I found myself just constantly writing. I was just experimenting with lots of little ideas. So some of the chapters were kind of massive expansions of little blog posts, basically. That kind of provided some of the substructure for the whole book, I think.
Your book mentions that the humanities are “a wonderful training ground for charity.” How did you come to this observation?
I actually came across that idea some time ago, reading an essay by the Mexican poet and essayist, Octavio Paz. And he was writing about poetry and why poetry matters. I use him as an example of this, but he’s talking about a metaphor and the fact that a metaphor establishes relationship of deep meaning. It’s kind of often a hidden relationship between two unlike things. He only sort of briefly mentions something like, “and this is like the Christian concept of caritas,” using the Latin word for charity, and that just kind of triggered all kinds of thinking in my head, because of the way that I had been thinking as a Latter-day Saint about charity. It seemed to me that there was a way to think about charity as kind of holding contradiction together that was really powerful and beautiful to me.
Literature, I think, can be very effective in teaching compassion. And often when we’re teaching literature to students, you know, one of the tendencies could be that a student feels threatened by another worldview or another set of values, or they feel uninterested in it because it’s so different. And you know, as a teacher, you’re always trying to kind of evangelize a little bit about developing a listening capacity, that you sort of suspend your own disbelief. It’s not that you vacate your own values or you disregard them, but you experiment on the word, so to speak, and allow the fiction to move you in some way. So I think all of that started to coalesce into a way of thinking about the humanities as tools for self-expansion and understanding of other points of views and the ability to suspend disbelief. And I think there’s some real value in learning how to wait and test ideas.
The piece of artwork you chose for the cover depicts Solomon’s judgement from 1 Kings 3, a visual representation of the book’s title. What made you choose this image and title as an illustration for the entire book?
That’s a good question. I always thought it was such an interesting story that seemed to raise the question of, “how do we know what we know?” Because the king has to make a decision. He has to know what the right thing is to do. And he relies on a kind of instinct that believes that the truth will come out—not so much on the basis of what is said, but on the kind of integrity that that a person shows. And what really moved me about the story was that the real mother was willing to give up her child, you know, in order to save it. And it’s also a very perverse story, because on the other hand, the woman who’s lying is oddly willing to live with a divided child. I thought the story kind of highlights just the absurdity of her position.
I experimented with the blog idea and then a friend of mine, Blair Hodges, who works at the Maxwell Institute on the Living Faith series, he loved the title of that blog post and love the idea enough that he said, “you should write a collection of essays called ‘If Truth Were a Child.’” So he was the one that kind of gave me the idea of the whole project. And I could see that that little blog post had much more in it for me to think about. I was just kind of building around that same theme in a lot of the other essays as well. So it seemed like a good title.
What do you hope readers will gain from a study of your book?
Well, I probably would say the most important thing I hope is that people can feel inspired to put Christ more at the center of their lives, including and especially their intellectual lives, if they take themselves seriously as intellectual beings. I mean, I wrote it because I’m really worried about people in the Church who feel like they can’t find models for maintaining a journey of integrity and intellectual life while trying to be faithful and believing. That journey for me has had its moments of difficulty, but I’ve always found the challenge really exciting and it pulls me in rather than drives me out of the Church. I just hoped that if I could write what it was like, from my perspective, that it might be inviting to other people.
Like I said, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I want it to be inspiring enough to people to want to stay rather than leave. And not just stay, but thrive. You know, I don’t think anyone wants to have a religious life that feels slavish or doesn’t feel like an adventure. So I knew this was also going to mean writing in a way that was more personal, it was more vulnerable, and in some ways less intellectual or at least less academic. But hopefully there’s a place for all of us as scholars to do some reflection on why we do what we do and how it fits with the whole person that we are striving to be, and not just a merely professional set of ambitions.
—Samuel Benson (Sociology, ’23)