On March 27th, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Hugh Nibley. The Nibley family held a family reunion and we got to see most of the East Coast contingency that we usually see only at funerals, so it was a party. And a good one at that. When Nibleys get together there is talking, loud talking, and much boisterous laughter, and amazing desserts. The Famous Nibley Apple Pie with the Certified Whole-Wheat Crust is only exceeded in greatness, in my opinion, by the lemon meringue pie, made with lots of real lemons and all their fruity bits. The only downer was that the guest of honor didn’t make it, at least not in the flesh. Although I did sometimes sense him guffawing at the political jousting and witty one-up-man ship and looking oh-so proud of his children. Hugh loved being around his family when they’re having fun, particularly when they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. And Nibleys seldom take each other too seriously.
The Nibley children are all passionate, articulate, and very kind. It’s a wonderful family to have been adopted into. Seriously, I have the best brothers- and sisters-in-law in the world, and my mother-in-law is amazingly kind and has treated me like one of her own from the time I first met her in 1983. Hugh was the most unique person I ever met. I first met him when Zina invited me over for dinner at the Nibley house. We had been talking about marriage and thought it was time to see what each of us was going to have to put up with if we went through with it. Zina’s mother was kind and welcoming, if a bit quiet; Hugh was socially awkward; he never stopped talking but didn’t seem to know what to say. It was charming because I felt like he was as nervous to meet me as I was to meet him. The legends about Hugh Nibley could not escape me, as I grew up in Utah valley, but the writings of Hugh Nibley had. I really didn’t know who he was or what all the fuss was all about. Seemed like a very nice, awkward, man, who was quite intelligent, but I wasn’t really sure why people were so impressed by him.
As I began introducing my new fiancée to friends and ward members, the first question they would usually ask was whether she was related to Hugh Nibley. Then, hearing the affirmative, they would launch into some Official Hugh Nibley Folklore. I heard stories about him parachuting into Greece during World War II while speaking classical Greek (not true), about how he would leave the car at school and walk home (true), about how he would launch into a joke told in German during his class and wonder why no one ever laughed (probably true). Occasionally, we’d get Hugh telling war stories during family gatherings, and the true stories were even more amazing than the folklore. The Hugh Nibley stories motivated me to seek out the man behind the legend. I began devouring his published works, digging up mimeographed (that was the technology of the day!) copies of old talks he had written, and I began to collect letters he had written to his friends and family. And what started out as a little family history project, transformed into a full biography of the man and his life’s works.
Nibley was interested in everything–ancient history mostly, but his focus was on comparing cultures and looking for similarities in the way we do things across the world’s cultures. His approach was similar to that of Mircea Eliade and the more popular Joseph Campbell. Hugh plowed through the historical record using his tremendous linguistic skills, making connections between rituals, personal names, themes, and genre that supported Mormon truth claims about the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and the Temple. Much of his work was apologetic in tone–marshalling the sources to defend the church from attacks already made on it.
But there was another side of Hugh Nibley, the social critic. Eugene England called him the finest lay prophet (as opposed to officially called) in Mormondom, but saw him as destined to live a life similar to Cassandra, the ancient prophetess doomed to speak the truth and have no on listen. Sadly throughout Hugh’s life this may have been true. Despite the very evident ways Hugh helped set the Church on the track of taking more seriously the words and ideas contained in the Book of Mormon and Books of Moses and Abraham and the temple, there were few members who read his social commentary and thought “He’s right, I need to sell my big house and give the money to the poor and become a school teacher, which has always been my passion.” But there were a few here and there, who read Nibley, changed their lives in ways he hinted at (Nibley was always more descriptive of Zion than prescriptive of the route you should take to get there, largely, I believe, because he recognized that there are as many ways to consecrate your life as there are lives to be consecrated).
Hugh called on us to create Zion and flee from Babylon, leaving us to contemplate what parts of our lives is Zion and what are Babylon. “Babylon and Zion cannot mix in any degree. A Zion that makes concessions is no longer Zion,” Hugh wrote. But in a more cutting way, he reminded us that, “Every step in the direction of increasing one’s personal holdings is a step away from Zion.”
Hugh urged us to be responsible environmental stewards, helping us begin creating a Mormon ethic of environmental stewardship. “Man’s dominion,” Hugh wrote in a classic essay that first appeared in the New Era, “is a call to service, not a license to exterminate.” But Hugh’s social responsibility was local as well as global. He fought for stewardship of the BYU Campus grounds, calling the presidents’ office every time the chain saws began cutting down and killing healthy trees on the south side of campus. He called on Provo residents to have greater respect for pioneer homes and buildings and not place the idea of “development” above our historical and cultural past. And he joined the chorus of latter-day prophets from Joseph Fielding Smith and Spencer W. Kimball, to abandon the practice of killing innocent animals during the annual hunting seasons so popular in the Western States.
And having served in the European campaign during World War II, landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, parachuting into and spending 70 bloody days in the muddy fields of Holland, witnessing the break out at the Bulge, and visiting the death camps of the Nazis, Hugh became an outspoken advocate for peace. “‘Renounce’ is a strong word,” Nibley argued, “we are not to try to win peace by war, or merely to call a truce, but to renounce war itself, to disclaim it as a policy while proclaiming (that means not just announcing, but preaching) peace without reservation.” Not a popular stance to take at BYU during the Cold War.
While I am a fan of the whole Nibley, I believe his social commentary holds up even better today than his apologetics. Don’t get me wrong, I was energized by Since Cumorah and Lehi in the Desert. However, there will most certainly be many new scholars will come along behind Hugh and explore the mines he opened. There will be more discoveries and more evidence brought to light even as some of Nibley’s leads turn out to be down shafts with little good ore. On the other hand, there have been many lives changed by reading Nibley’s social criticism. His writing has done what all great literature can do: It provokes us to see a new world, a better world, an attainable world, and it hints at the means necessary to take the road toward that promised land. I believe more people are heading Nibley’s prophetic warning today than there were ten years ago and many lives are being transformed in positive ways.
So perhaps Gene England was only half right: Hugh Nibley was our greatest Mormon lay prophet, but only temporarily a Cassandra whom no one listened to. Maybe he was a lay prophet who is best accepted by later generations. Lots of prophets, both lay and institutional, are like that.
I miss you, Hugh. I miss your lack of fashion sense (one suspender and a crushed fedora). I miss your fidgeting when you’d let me give you a ride in the car and I went down an alternate street that you hadn’t planned on me taking. I miss the potion magic you would concoct in the blender (although the mackerel and kidney bean shakes are not a smell I will ever need to smell again). I miss the passion you had about the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple. I miss the way you could get up in front of a crowd and in the middle of a cogent argument take a side tour, digressing until half your audience wondered whether you were ever coming back and the other half left wondering if they had just missed some central point that made sense of all this digression. I miss the way you could tie a serious argument about ancient political customs in Greece with the Beavis and Butthead. I miss how you would watch the Muppet Show regularly as well as Benny Hill. And I miss the fact that you consistently frightened the local Provoans by putting up a sign for the Democrats in your yard. I loved the way you did your home teaching every month and attended the temple once a week and taught Gospel Doctrine and never served in a bishopric or stake presidency. You were absolutely not a stereotypical Mormon! And we could sure use more of your kind right now. And thanks for giving me your dog tags. I know that was your way of saying that you approved of how the book turned out, and I hope the next time we see each other we’re both more comfortable acknowledging emotions and I can say in a little more direct way how much I’ve loved you. Thank you.