Clothed in the Black Robes of a False Priesthood

Back in 1983 Hugh Nibley, the virtual patron saint of my major, gave the unforgettable commencement speech “Leaders and Managers.” Here are the memorable opening lines of Nibley’s famous speech:

Twenty-three years ago on this same occasion, I gave the opening prayer, in which I said: “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood.” Many have asked me since whether I really said such a shocking thing, but nobody has ever asked what I meant by it. Why not? Well, some knew the answer already, and as for the rest, we do not question things at the BYU.

As of April 23, 2015, I, Stephen Owen Smoot, am now a proud member of this false priesthood, having donned my black blue robes and having received my Bachelor of Arts degree from Brigham Young University in Ancient Near Eastern Studies (Cum Laude). (I also received a secondary Bachelor of Arts degree in German Studies, but, for whatever lame reason, wasn’t granted a second diploma. Oh well. You’ll just have to believe me, I guess.)

Thousands of dollars and almost four years later, and all I got was this piece of paper.
With fellow Ancient Near Eastern Studies graduates, striking an Egyptian smiting scene pose on Jasmine, our stoic execration ritual victim. 
With Professor Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of Ancient Scripture and coordinator of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU. Professor Huntsman presented me my diploma at my college’s convocation.
Nothing says sexy like a degree in Ancient Near Eastern Studies.
As I reflect on my time at BYU, I’m not sure where to start in summarizing my experience. I guess first and foremost I need to thank my family, and in particular my loving parents, who supported me emotionally, financially, and spiritually while I was at BYU. Because of their sacrifice, I was able to focus on my schoolwork, research projects, and work for peanuts as a Teaching Assistant/Research Assistant for cool professors, as opposed to being forced to put my nose to the grindstone working two jobs cleaning dishes and bussing tables. I will forever be grateful for their love and support.

Next, I need to thank my friends. I have made many great friends while at BYU. There are too many to name here, but to all of them, I am very grateful for your kindness, support, insight, and friendship. Thank you for laughing at my stupid jokes, for putting up with my edgy and awkward sense of humor, and for pretending like you were interested while I rambled on about this or that.
I am also grateful for my professors. I am grateful for my Ancient Near Eastern Studies professors, who instilled in me a passion for studying the Bible and other Restoration scriptures, and have been inspiring examples of true disciple-scholars. They not only taught me Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but also taught me how to read the Bible, so that I, like Joseph Smith, could “delight in reading the word of the Lord in the original.” I am likewise grateful for my German professors, who turned me into a total German nerd and helped me fall in love with the inspired and beautiful works of Lessing, Goethe, Heine, Eichendorff, Kafka, Hoffmansthal, and others. Again, I can’t name all of them, but I can at least name those professors whom I worked for as a TA or RA, including Mark Wright, Paul Hoskisson, Talita Osman, Bill Hamblin, and David Seely. 
I can truthfully say that I am grateful for my opportunity to have studied at BYU. Yes, there are plenty of lame cultural things about Provo that I could do without, and BYU is by no means perfect in every regard, academically or otherwise. But at BYU I was blessed to receive an education that strove to capture the mandate found in the Prophet’s 1832 “olive leaf” revelation: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Also found in this revelation is what has become my favorite scripture, which was quoted on the program of my college’s convocation:

Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; 

Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms— 

That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you. (D&C 88:78–80)

What is this mission and calling? To what end did I pursue an education at BYU? I personally believe that, for me, this calling is, to use the words of BYU’s mission statement, “not only [to] be capable of meeting personal challenge and change but [to] also bring strength to others in the tasks of home and family life, social relationships, civic duty, and service to mankind.” My education, I therefore hope, was more than merely accumulating knowledge for the sake of earning a degree, but also to help better myself and those around me. President David O. McKay said it best:

Character is the aim of true education; and science, history, and literature are but means used to accomplish the desired end. Character is not the result of chance work but of continuous right thinking and right acting. True education seeks, then, to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men, combined with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love–––men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life. (Gospel Ideals, 440)

I hope that BYU continues its mission to provide an education that not only helps men and women become great scholars, tradesmen, and artists, but also an education that “assist[s] individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” As such, I hope BYU will never lose or compromise its unique character as a religious school in the rising tide of modern secularism. I therefore heartily endorse with the words given by Robert P. George at the commencement ceremony of my graduating class.

Where do I go from here? Well, for now I have my eye on some graduate schools, where (against my better judgement) I will go for my Master’s and PhD degrees in some field related to Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Hopefully, if Aquarius and Jupiter align and the career gods take pity on me, I will go on to land a professorship at some institution once I have a PhD. (I would be more than a little elated if that institution was, ultimately, BYU.) Of course, one never knows exactly what the future holds, but for now that’s my plan.

But I’ll cross the grad school bridge once I arrive at it. In the mean time, it’s work, writing, reading, blogging, spending time with family, and lots more Xbox One and Netflix.  For now, I can let out a deep sigh of relief and say . . .

4 thoughts on “Clothed in the Black Robes of a False Priesthood

Comments are closed.