The Approaching Zion Project: Prologue

Approaching ZionI have a confession to make: I’ve never read Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. I’m serious. I mean, I bought it years ago, probably before my oldest daughter was born. I’ve lugged it through at least six or seven moves. And it’s sitting on my bookshelf, taking up valuable real estate. But, though I’ve nibbled here and there, I’ve never even read a complete chapter.[fn1]

It seems an odd oversight, frankly: in Approaching Zion, Nibley describes what constitutes a Zion society, and what we need to do to establish such a Zion society; I’m deeply interested in how society and the law can promote social justice and a better world. So it seems like a natural fit, right?

I have two theories for why I haven’t, up until now, actually read the book. First, I do most of my pleasure reading on public transportation. And, at nearly 640 pages, Approaching Zion is not the kind of book I can comfortably slide into my messenger bag, then pull out when I’m standing, holding a strap, and trying to balance. Their Fair Share? Perfect for the train. The Benefit and the Burden? Great for the bus. Approaching Zion? No.

Second, based on the little I’ve read, I’m deeply skeptical of his project. I’m a fan of (properly-regulated) capitalism; I worked at a white shoe law firm and now work in legal academia—meritocracy is the life I’ve chosen.[fn2]

Still, skeptical or not, I feel like my spiritual/intellectual life is the poorer for not having read Approaching Zion.[fn3] And so, the Approaching Zion Project: I plan on (finally) reading the book, and blogging my reactions to it. And I’d love to have others’ participation, too, whether you’ve never read it, read it a long time ago, or read it recently. I plan on taking it one chapter at a time. I won’t blog more than one chapter a week, though I don’t promise any regularity to the posts.[fn4] If you’ve got your copy taking up shelf space, I’d love it if you pulled the book down and read along. (And if you don’t have it and don’t want to spend the money on it, the Maxwell Institute has it posted on the Institute’s website.)

The first substantive post in my Approaching Zion Project[fn5] will deal with Chapter 1: Our Glory or Our Condemnation.

[fn1] Well, that’s not entirely true: I read the Forward a couple hours ago, before sitting down to write this. But that doesn’t really count, given that it was written by Don Norton, not Hugh Nibley, and it basically just summarizes what is to come.

[fn2] I do prefer that my meritocratic society come with a healthy dose of safety net, fwiw.

[fn3] I admit, having a poorer intellectual life doesn’t always motivate me to do the things I haven’t done: I was proud to get an English degree at BYU having never read a Jane Austen novel. And, though I’ve seen several movie and BBC adaptions of her novels, I’ve still not read one. Unless you count Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, of course.

[fn4] Why not? Basically, with finals coming up, several conferences that I need to prepare professional papers for, kids to take care of and play with, Twitter sitting there calling my name, my new tax blog to update on a semi-regular basis, the Brigham Young biography vying for my pleasure-reading time, and the fact that spring has finally come to Chicago, I can’t be sure how much time I’ll be able to devote to this project during any given week. Sorry.

[fn5] I also debated calling this the Approaching Zion Experience, but arbitrarily decided against it.

53 comments for “The Approaching Zion Project: Prologue

  1. I can say, without equivocation, that Approaching Zion altered my intellectual, political, and spiritual trajectory more than any other book.

    Also, glad to meet another BYU English grad who hasn’t read a word of Jane Austen.

  2. I read Approaching Zion on my mission. It woke me up intellectually as much as it slapped my in the face spiritually, and then slogged me in the guts emotionally, stomped on my metaphysical foot, and then I was like, “Oh yeah? You want some?” I basically had a fist fight with Nibley. And I let him win.

  3. Add me to the list of BYU English grads who has not read Austen. How did we get out?

    I have read Approaching Zion more than once, but feel a need to peek at it again. I look forward to your project, Sam.

  4. It is one of my favorite books. I have it on my Kindle (there’s a conversion program out there that converts Maxwell Institute books into epub format, and then a quick conversion to MOBI….

    As with others, it has changed my view of economics and politics. I am a capitalist, but only because we aren’t ready to implement a Zion society, yet. BTW, I believe consecration includes a form of capitalism that is balanced with compassion and charity – not happening in today’s society. I will note now, and probably in the project, that neither consecration nor Nibley promote socialism, but rather a communitarianism that is based on stewardship (akin to private property).

    And while I neither attended BYU nor earned an English degree, I also have never made it through any of Jane Austen’s books.

  5. You tell me that “Nibley describes what constitutes a Zion society, and what we need to do to establish such a Zion society.” And you tell me that you’ve never read it. Then you tell me you’re deeply skeptical of his project. So you’re skeptical of Zion? And you base that skepticism on what?

  6. KLC, I’m skeptical because of the portions of essays I have read. And I’m interested in seeing how I’ll react when I read the full essays.

    Ben, John, Rameumptom, I know it’s been a formative book for a lot of people, people I like and respect. And I’m curious if I’ll have that reaction and, if not, if maybe it’s the kind of thing you need to read at a younger age to be influential.

    On the other hand, I read a piece on tax policy yesterday that rocked my assumptions, so I’m not unchangeable. Yet, at least.

  7. I love this book. I have 2 copies: 1 that I keep and mark up occasionally, and one I can lend out to people who seem up to having a good discussion about it. I am really looking forward to posts and comments on it here in T&S.

    You say your sceptical because you like capitalism. Nibley doesn’t advocate a law change in the US or Utah to change economic policies. He wants us to make the change in ourselves. We can be free to practice capitalism but choose to work together of our own free will. Zion won’t destroy capitalsim, capitalism will just be undesirable (not the best word) for those with a Zion-centered mentality. IMO

  8. BTW, I love the ideas presented in Approaching Zion. But it is not a great cover to cover read. It is a collection of different essays, speeches, and rants. A bunch of repetition and overlap (and not in the way that a philosopher might on purpose). In other words, it should not be viewed as a coherent book-length argument.

  9. I read “Approaching Zion” at the same time as the rest of the Nibley volumes when I discovered them in my father’s bookshelf while I was in high school. Unfortunately, I much preferred Nibley’s writing about Jaredites in prehistoric central Asia and related topics. But I’m still looking forward to this series (and to more tax-related posts).

  10. This book and the author changed my life. Nibley is one of the few men I ever met who truly did not “trust in the arm of flesh.” He walked the walk.

    A good companion volume is “Brigham Young Challenges the Saints.”

  11. I’ll go along. It’s too long since I read AZ. Chris is right that it’s not a coherent argument, so don’t expect that. It’s a bunch of different things stuck into a book.

    And Jane Austen is the best. Y’all are missing out.

  12. Sam, I’m on board for this series of posts (I consider Nibley a prophet, after all), and I’ll comment as often as I can. Keep in mind Chris H.’s warning above, though: Approaching Zion is a host of overlapping and inconsistent essays, which gesture towards and evoke and condemn departures from the Zion ideal, but there’s no firm argument there. Consider the book a pantry, stocked with a couple of complete and marvelous banquets (“Work We Must But the Lunch is Free” being his magnum opus), but mostly with just a bunch of nutrition foodstuffs, from which we need to assemble our own meals.

  13. Have we got a schedule here? Read one chapter a week or what? I want a timetable!

  14. dangermom, let’s call it hit-or-miss through May (though I hope to get through at least the first couple chapters this month); after we get to June, I may be able to firm up the schedule a little bit.

    And Chris, dangermom, and RAF, thanks; I’ll keep the sometimes-inconsistent-essay thing in mind.

  15. I’ve read (and loved) every lick of Austen. But then, I was never an English major, so there ya go…

  16. Count me in.

    I’ve read several of his articles on a one-off basis, but I’ve never gone through an entire book. (Access to FARMS articles saved my sanity on my mission.)

    I’m also very skeptical–some of Nibley’s essays have really disappointed me–but it sounds like fun.

  17. I’m a fan of (properly-regulated) capitalism; I worked at a white shoe law firm and now work in legal academia—meritocracy is the life I’ve chosen.[fn2]


    23 And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.

    24 And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

    25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you. Mosiah 2:23-25

    20 But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. D&C 49:20

    24 And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me.

    25 And again I say unto you, let every man esteem his brother as himself.

    26 For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just? D&C 38:24-26

    “meritocracy is the life I’ve Chosen”

    The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
    The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
    The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
    And the rains came tumbling down.

    The Wise Man and The Foolish Man LDS Children’s SongBook

  18. Hugh should have started approaching Zion himself by making his book available for free, like our Zionic lunches.

  19. I was an accountancy major at Arizona State University… and I read Pride and Prejudice.

    This will be a good project, I’ll try to keep up.

  20. Sounds great. If you’ve never read a word of Austen, you can approach Zion, but I doubt you’ll ever get there.

  21. Thanks, everyone. I’m getting excited about the book and the discussion that will ensue.

    As for Jane Austen, it started out an English major pride thing (because seriously, do you know how central she is to the BYU English department?), and it’s turned into she’s just not that high on my list right now. I’m sure (or, at least, I’m pretty sure) I’ll read her at some point, and likely enjoy her works (shh: don’t tell anyone!), but for now, I can self-deprecatingly boast about my lack of cultural awareness of some central parts of our culture.

  22. RE: #21

    I took Book of Mormon from Hugh Nibley and was acquainted with him.
    From my understanding, (not from him personally), but from others in a position to know, Hugh Nibley never received any royalties from his books, they all went to the Church and/or B.Y.U. He bought all of his clothes at the D.I., never drove a new car, and repudiated his wealthy ancestors who ravished the virgin forests of Oregon to make their wealth. The man had an incredible mind that was often two to three paragraphs ahead of his speech. You had to pay attention and write fast when you took notes. Personal conversation with him wasn’t that much different. Fortunately, he tolerated interruptions for clarifications on certain points. Clarifications were often followed with follow-up references for you to read more on the specifics of the topic then under discussion. (But you usually had to be multilingual to read all of his references and sources.) Hugh Nibley was the genuine article. He may not have always been right but he rarely was wrong. Zion needs many, many more of such an brilliant, humble, God-fearing man.

  23. I second Chris & RAF. I read it straight through three years ago (and incidentally, I think that’s a great way to take it), along with the Nibley biography by his son. I already loved Nibley, but the experience was glorious. Do keep in mind, however, he does none of the nuts-and-bolts of Zion stuff. He’s certainly not going to give you anything like a worked out scheme for how our political economy ought to work. But nearly every chapter/rant has something that is pure gold.

  24. Re: 21

    There isn’t really such a thing as the Obama phone. There is the Lifeline Assistance program, begun under Reagan in the 1980s, and expanded to include cell phones in the 1996 telecommunications act. This provides 250 monthly minutes, for people below a certain income threshold so they can enroll their children in school, hunt for a job, deal with elderly parents’ health care emergencies, etc. These disadvantaged citizens are not being given smart phones and data plans, so in order to read Approaching Zion, they will probably have to obtain a library card and rely on their local branch to have a copy.

  25. Like Sam, I have read a bit of the book, but couldn’t get through a full chapter — Nibley the social critic reads differently than Nibley the religious critic. But since so many people love the book, I will rustle up a copy and give it another shot..

  26. I doubt that I will comment much, but I do look forward to following along with these posts and conversations. With any luck, I might even read along.

  27. I’ve only read Approaching Zion in snippets. Good luck with the read. As for Jane Austen, I commend you for not reading her books, as they are a waste of time. I like what Mark Twain had to say about her:

    “I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

  28. First, I do most of my pleasure reading on public transportation. And, at nearly 640 pages, Approaching Zion is not the kind of book I can comfortably slide into my messenger bag, then pull out when I’m standing, holding a strap, and trying to balance.

    That’s why God gave us e-books. (grin)

  29. Mark Twain’s opinion of Austen is of a piece with his opinion of the Book of Mormon. He was never quite as funny as he thought he was.

    I prefer Kipling’s opinion.

  30. Riley (#21),

    I personally know BYU students (from the 1980’s and 1990’s)that Hugh Nibley helped financially so they could stay in school.

    I’d give you more details, but I can’t without violating confidences. The bottom line is that I have known NO greater LDS scholar and NO greater Christian. Be careful of how you speak of Nibley!

  31. Adam, come on. Mark Twain was far funnier than he thought he was. He was just less of a truth speaker than he thought he was. (grin) Despite those who aspire to be Shakespeare’s court jester whose humor is truth speaking usually the two are much, much more loosely coupled.

    In any case perhaps Twain is right that the Book of Mormon “is chloroform in print.” What better way to get a revelatory dream?

  32. “do you know how central she is to the BYU English department?”

    No, ’cause I was a Comp. Lit major at Cal. :) I don’t think she ever made an appearance in any of my classes, even the development of the English novel one–I rather think the prof assumed we’d read her and assigned lesser-known authors. My love for Miss Austen is purely personal. (And Mark Twain didn’t know what he was talking about. He did get James Fenimore Cooper right, though.)

  33. Dickens is a good alternative to JA. If you’re tempted by a period relationship drama, pull down Bleak House rather than Sense and Sensibility. (Or just stick with JA — I have nothing against her.)

    This is a great project. I know a number of people whose lives were changed by AZ. I greatly admire Hugh Nibley and agree with one of the comments above that he provides an excellent example for faithful scholarship and, more importantly, true Christian discipleship.

  34. Austen and Nibley are great. Perhaps not surprisingly, the standard works and the living prophets also have a lot to say about what constitutes a Zion society, and how such a society is established. I look forward to the JA / AZ reviews.

  35. AZ changed my life too but my impression is that it has that effect on a particular demographic: young, left-leaning, thinky-types.

    I hope you love it, but I suspect you might not.

  36. I’d like to publicly thank the philosophy department for providing me with a path to graduation that did not involve a single English class at BYU.

    Lincoln, that MI link is incredible. Not living close to the BYU library it is great to see all those works are available online.

  37. James Lucas and Warner Woodsworth wondered how to balance Zion with the principles of capitalism and wrote an excellent book “Working Toward Zion” as a response and companion to Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. It is worth a read after you finish Nibley.

  38. I was in Hugh Nibley’s ward for about 8 months. While there he gave a talk which framed the idea of Santa Claus as important to building faith in children, sort of a managed faith-crisis opportunity thing. Throughout the talk he kept reading from his paper but his head would list back and forth out of range of the mic and you had to strain to hear the words, which were most impressive.

    He played piano during Priesthood opening exercises and took walks during Sunday School instead of attending, and at no point asserted any kind of influence or authority over anyone.

    Jane Austen is sublime. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something, in my view. :)

    Looking forward to the posts in this series.

  39. As a critique, Approaching Zion is well taken. As a constructive project, if we followed his prescriptions we would be subsistence farmers within a single generation. So you have to ask yourself, did he believe that such a society would be spiritually optimal? He certainly gives that impression. Would we all be a lot better off spending ninety percent of our time growing food? Is autarky the path to peace and true prosperity?

  40. I love “Approaching Zion” in spite of the fact that I don’t love Nibley’s politics.

  41. Back in the day, wards and stakes were expected to raise a significant portion of their budgets on their own, preferably via some type of project that involved agriculture, even if none of the members knew anything about farming. My father once observed that while the history of Western civilization over the past 500 years is really nothing more than the transmigration of people from farms to cities, the Mormon Church, for reasons that eluded him, seemed intent on reversing that trend.

  42. Eric, my first post will actually spend a fair amount of time addressing Nibley’s pastoral view of Zion.

    I thinkI understand why Church leaders look to farms, though: most of the top leaders of the Church are roughly my grandparents’ age. And my grandparents were raised on farms in small towns in Utah, although they ended up moving to suburban California (with a lot of the rest of the nation) in the late 40s/early 50s. Still, many of the Church leaders come from rural environments, and likely remember them fondly.

    The current reurbanization movement (in the U.S., at least) is really only ten or fifteen years old. And it’s mostly people far younger than the top Church leadership; I suspect it won’t trickle significantly into our rhetoric for another generation or two.

    That said, the Church has spent a ton of money and other resources recently in New York City and, even more recently, in Chicago. So it’s not ignoring the cities institutionally, though it seems to still be trying to figure out what to do with them.

  43. Sam, I concur with your assessment. My father’s observation about the Church’s penchant for agricultural fundraising projects was made 50 years ago. A lot has changed since then and, as you note, more changes are likely to occur as the leadership torch is passed to the next generation.

    By the way, my father once voiced his opposition to our stake’s decision to purchase a local pig farm because no one in any of the wards knew anything about raising and marketing the little porkers. He was the lone dissenter. Within 18 months, this venture was insolvent, having lost $14,000. Back in the 1960s, $14,000 was real money. Not one local leader ever acknowledged that my father had been right. To the contrary, he was ostracized by some because he had the temerity to question priesthood authority. But that’s a topic for a different discussion . . .

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