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Combining Religious Faith and Academic Excellence

Though I was raised in a faithful Latter-day Saint home with a strong Gospel heritage (my great-grandparents joined the Church in 1842; from 1933-37 my parents presided over the Netherlands Mission), in one sense mine was perhaps not the conventional LDS home. My father, T. Edgar Lyon, an Institute teacher at the University of Utah with remarkable and widely recognized knowledge of Church history, instilled in us a questioning attitude that helped shape my thinking, and probably steered me into the academic profession.

He never questioned basic Church doctrinal beliefs or practices, but primarily the writing and teaching of Church history. A stickler for accuracy, he was troubled when students approached him after his Church history classes at the Institute and complained that they had been taught inaccurate or false versions of our history. They then asked what other aspects of Church history or doctrine they had been taught that they could no longer trust. My father insisted that teaching fact-based and unembellished Church history and doctrine was more faith-promoting and strengthening than emotionally-based representations that often were inaccurate or wrong, and would not hold up to scrutiny. This desire for careful, solid scholarship within the context of faith not only shaped my thinking but contributed strongly to my later entering the academic profession.

Unlike some others, I cannot remember a specific time or event when I gained a knowledge of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith in restoring the Lord’s true church. But I do remember a number of smaller, seemingly less dramatic, but nevertheless memorable and undeniable spiritual events from my childhood and teen years whose cumulative effect instilled in me a sure witness and knowledge that God lived, that He answered prayers, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet who restored His Church on earth. Still exploring the apparent conflict between reason and faith as an undergraduate at the University of Utah, I found in the writings of Carl Jung what proved for me to be a decisive insight. He observed that “Religious experience is indisputable.” He continued (and I paraphrase) that once a person has such an experience, no one can dispute, disprove, or explain it away. At best the only statement an observer can make is, “I didn’t have that experience.” The apostle Paul and Joseph Smith made similar statements earlier, but for the first time this insight corroborated for me the validity of my own personal revelation regarding the things of God. And though logic, facts, and accuracy continued to drive my academic thinking through my life, this new understanding confirmed that there are valid ways of knowing beyond the limits of rational, logical, thinking that produce insights, understanding, and knowledge about a spiritual sphere of which science and logic can tell us almost nothing.

I strongly believe that the Lord directed my academic career in placing me where he needed me, and where He could bless my family. Going to Harvard for my Ph.D. gave me the privilege of working with a remarkable dissertation advisor, Bernhard Blume, a native German scholar who fled Nazi Germany because his wife was Jewish. He effectively adopted me as a son and continued to promote my career for nearly two decades. Partly through his influence I was offered my first position, that of assistant professor at Harvard, before I had finished my doctoral dissertation. Within the Church my position of assistant professor at Harvard also allowed me to serve as an elders’ quorum president with some remarkable men, and later as the bishop of the first student/singles ward on the east coast, where I again gained more than I gave. And contrary to my own inclination, when I left Harvard the Lord altered my career plans that would have taken me to the University of California, Davis, where I had an offer. In answer to prayer, and against my own wishes, He made it clear that I should go to the University of Florida instead. I reluctantly listened. Less than three years after leaving Harvard as an assistant professor, I was then recruited by the University of California, San Diego, as a full professor. Had I taken the position at UC Davis, it would have been six to eight more years before I would have achieved the rank of full professor at UC Davis, and ten to twelve years before receiving the equivalent salary offered me at San Diego. Nor did I have any compelling reason to leave UCSD for BYU in 1994, and I would not have done so without the direction of the Spirit. In short, the Lord has always been my career counselor, as well as the guide for my personal life, and a better one than any I could have chosen alone. I sincerely believe He cares about even those of His children in the world of higher learning, and that He directs our lives and academic work if we involve Him in it.

Certainly He did so with me. By the time I began my studies as a freshman, I realized that the Lord expected my very best in everything I did, from my role in my family to my teaching, research, and entire academic career. This motivated me powerfully, and in return the Lord blessed me beyond measure. Among many apparent “coincidences” that blessed my career, and in which I later recognized His hand, was a phone call in 1969 to my department at Harvard asking if anyone there knew anything about the writer Bertolt Brecht. Since I had just returned from the Brecht Archives in Berlin (I was already working on a book about him), I was asked to meet this person, who owned a large number of unknown original letters from Brecht to an American friend. After I finally arranged for him to sell them, copies of these letters became the basis for two of my subsequent books, following the one on which I was already working, and set a research agenda for me that I would not have followed had this not happened. I submitted the manuscript for the last of these three books to the most prestigious publishing house in Germany, where it was rejected after receiving a negative, error-filled evaluation by an East German scholar who wanted his country to have a monopoly on the Marxist writer Brecht. Meanwhile the manuscript was accepted and published by Princeton University Press. Soon after it appeared in the USA, but before it became, by university press standards, an academic best-seller, the German publisher who had turned me down approached me with a generous contract to translate and publish it. It went on to become a big seller in German and stands today in Brecht scholarship as the standard work on that writer’s exile years and writings in America.

I could cite dozens of examples where I felt the Lord intervened in this and subsequent research efforts, such as apparent “coincidences” in discovering or extracting unpublished documents from unwilling persons or libraries, or mistakes made by archivists in my behalf that gave me access to documents I should not have seen. Such ”lucky breaks” happened again frequently during my work on my last book dealing with the poet Paul Celan and the philosopher Martin Heidegger, where I gained access to documents no one else knew existed, and I was the only one allowed to see them. Some of these cases might have been chalked up to luck, but their frequency and nature defies odds, and I choose to see the Lord directing my career, though I am not sure that He cares especially about the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, or Martin Heidegger. But I came to know that He cared about me and my academic work, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Gospel principles and Christ’s teaching also played a major role in my teaching. Knowing that students liked to know more about the human side of their professors, and wanting to get to know each of my students better, I began early in my career to invite them to our home at the beginning of each quarter or semester, or to invite small groups of them to eat lunch with me once or twice a week. In these informal settings I informed them briefly about what determined my thinking and my values system. I never talked about my faith in the classroom, but in these gatherings I could let them know comfortably that I was LDS, describe our faith and its influence on my family and our life together, and how it shaped my values and thinking. And I sincerely tried to teach by the Spirit and treat my students with charity and understanding. This, I think, made me a better teacher and resulted in many close personal relationships with students over the years, as well as garnering an “outstanding teacher” award at the University of California, San Diego.

Though I kept the Gospel overtly out of the classroom in the secular universities where I taught, my understanding of the Lord’s teachings determined how I presented difficult or controversial subjects, knowing that some students had deeply-held religious or personal sensibilities that were easily offended. In my view the study of Literature generally, as well as any of the so-called Human Sciences, is potentially more subversive and threatening to student values and feelings than the study of the natural or engineering sciences, since it raises troubling questions about who we are, what we think, how we behave, and our ideas, values, and ideologies. In teaching courses on the writer Bertolt Brecht and helping students understand Marxist ideology, which was unavoidable for that deeply committed Marxist writer, I tried to remain detached so it was clear that I was not advocating Marxism, but only presenting it as a serious, deeply felt belief system of many people. Since most students knew my personal values system, my detachment from the subject made it easier for them to deal with incompatible or difficult ideas or problems they encountered in the course material. To me, any faculty member who does not identify her/his personal value system in teaching about areas of faith or ideology is not being intellectually honest. And I came to the conclusion very early that my classroom was not the place to ventilate my own doubts or uncertainties about issues I was still working through for myself.

The Holocaust, which I had studied since my Ph.D., presented a different challenge, and one with which I struggled before finally offering courses on this topic three decades later. In any other setting, much of what we read in my course, and almost all the documentary films I showed, would be considered x-rated. This troubled me, but also prompted me to excuse students from viewing or reading materials they found too distasteful, which happened only rarely. By knowing my personal belief system, they understood why I emphasized topics such as the problem of evil in the world; questions of faith in times of trial; and the issue of forgiveness as seen differently in Jewish and Christian (or LDS) theology. My Holocaust courses became some of the most popular and satisfying I taught in my career and elicited some of the best work, including original research, from students.

When I began teaching at the University of California, San Diego, in 1974, it was (and remains today) one of the top research universities in the country. On the high-powered faculty at the time were seven Nobel laureates, more than fifty members of the National Academy of Sciences, and an equal number of fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. According to annual surveys, my colleagues spent an average of 62½ hours a week on their professional work. But my commitment to my wife and our eight children, and to Church callings that ranged from a bishopric to a stake high council, and finally nine years in a stake presidency, made that impossible for me. At best I was able to devote no more than 40-45 hours a week to my profession, and part of that was doing administrative work as a department chair, associate dean of the Graduate School, chair of the Academic Senate, and, finally, provost of an undergraduate college. How, then, could I compete in terms of research and scholarly productivity? Again I turned to the Lord for help. I have no rational explanation for how He compensated for this disparity in time spent, but in the course of my twenty years there my research and publications allowed me to advance through all seven steps of the full professor series and reach the top level. I still do not understand how this was possible, but again it confirmed that the Lord watched over and blessed me remarkably in my professional life.

From the beginning of my forty-three-year academic career I believed that the Lord expected both faith and academic excellence from me. In my mind there was no conflict, since I understood that one required the other. As an American working in the field of German language and literature, I recognized early on that to gain recognition of my work in Germany, the ultimate validation of one’s standing in my field, would require the Lord’s assistance, and unusual effort on my part. Very few German scholars specializing in English or American literature ever have their research articles published in scholarly journals in Great Britain or the USA, much less their full-length books. The reverse is equally true. Few native-born Americans writing about German language and literature consistently have their scholarly works published in Germany. Yet in my field I have been one of few in this category to have my research appear in German scholarly periodicals and my books published by the most prominent publishing house in that country. Before the Berlin Wall came down I was also among the few native-born Americans in my field invited to deliver papers in East Germany, to serve on the editorial board of a scholarly encyclopedia, or to hold a chair as a visiting professor at a German university.

For all of this I give the Lord full credit and profound thanks. He has carried me in my academic career and made possible results I only could have dreamt of when I began my career. His presence in my life has been the strongest single motivating and strengthening factor in a very gratifying and satisfying academic life. And His expectation that I give my best has motivated me to do work far beyond my own natural capacities. Above all, I am deeply grateful for the knowledge that God and Christ live, and that Joseph Smith was his prophet who restored the Church Christ established. This knowledge has determined my thinking, my career, and my life.


James K. Lyon (Ph.D., Harvard University) came to Brigham Young University in 1994 following a career at Harvard, the University of Florida, and the University of California at San Diego, where he served as department chair, associate dean of the Graduate School, and provost of Fifth College.

Professor Lyon is the author of nine books: with Craig Inglis, Konkordanz zur Lyrik Gottfried Benns (Hildescheim: Georg Olms, 1971); with Hans Otto Horch and Craig Inglis, Indices zur Deutschen Literatur, Nr. 5: Gottfried Benn, Gedichte (Frankfurt: Athenaeum, 1971); Bertolt Brecht and Rudyard Kipling: A Marxist’s Imperialist Mentor (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1975) [a German translation appeared in Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976]; Bertolt Brecht’s American Cicerone (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1978); Bertholt Brecht in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) [a German translation appeared in Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984]; Bertolt Brecht Gedichte: Eine Chronologie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986); ed., Brecht in den USA: Eine Dokumentensammlung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1994); ed. with Hans-Peter Breuer, Brecht Unbound (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1995); Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

He is also the author of seventy-one articles and twenty-six book reviews, including “Hangmen Also Die Once Again: Dispelling the Last Doubts about Brecht’s Role as Author,” The Brecht Yearbook 30 (2005), 1-60; “‘Das hätte nur Brecht schreiben können’: Zur Entstehung und Verfilmung von Hangmen Also Die,” Brecht plus minus Film: Filme, Bilder, Betrachtungen (Forum Verlag: Berlin, 2004), 15-32; “The Original Story Version of Hangmen Also Die—A Recently Discovered Document,” The Brecht Yearbook 28 (2003): 1-30; “The Fugitive Venus,” Brecht Handbuch, ed. Jan Knopf, vol. 3, “Prosa, Filme, Drehbucher” (Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 2002): 385-390; “Silent Witness” Brecht Handbuch, ed. Jan Knopf, vol. 3, “Prosa, Filme, Drehbucher“ (Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 2002): 390-395; (in Greek) “Brecht in America,” Brecht: A Critical Introduction (Athens, 2002), 369-396; “Mormonism and Islam through the Eyes of a ‘Universal Historian,’” BYU Studies 40/4 (2001): 231-326; “Elements of American Theatre and Film in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle,” Modern Drama 42/2 (Summer 1999): 238-246; “The Reclusive Eileen Chang and an Innocent American Visitor,” Unitas: A Literary Monthly 4 (1997): 59-73; “Use and Misuse of Brecht’s FBI File,” The Brecht Yearbook 20 (1995): 359-362; primary editor and author (with John Willett, Siegfried Mews, and Hans Christian Noregaard), “A Brechtbuster Goes Bust: Scholarly Mistakes, Misquotes, and Malpractices in John Fuegi’s Brecht and Co.” The Brecht Yearbook 20 (1995): 269-367; “Brecht’s Mann ist Mann and the Death of Tragedy,” The German Quarterly (Fall 1994): 513-520; “A Slightly Different Approach to Languages Across the Curriculum,” Translation Perspectives VII (1994): 73-78; “Der Holocaust und nicht-referentielle Sprache in der Lyrik Paul Celans,” Celan Jahrbuch 5, ed. Hans Michael Speier (1993): 247-270; “Repentance,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, vol. 3 (New Jersey: Macmillan, 1991), 1216-1218; “Gleich und Gleich gesellt sich gern’ und ‘Gegensaetze ziehen sich an’: Das dialektische Verhaeltnis Karl Kraus-Bertolt Brecht,” in Karl Kraus: Meister der Sprache – Meister des Ethos (Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 1990), 1-19; “Brecht auf dem Broadway,” Deutschsprachige Exilliteratur seit 1933. Bd. 2 New York, eds. John Spalek and Joseph Strelka (Bern: Francke Verlag, 1990), 1549-1564; “George Saiko als Dramatist,” George Saikos magischer Realismus: Zum Werk eines unbekannten grossen Autors, ed. Joseph P. Strelka (Bern: Peter Lang, 1990), 155-164; “Die (Patho-) Physiologie des Ichs in der Lyrik Paul Celans,” Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 4 (1987): 591-608; “Rilke und Celan,” Argumentum e silentio: Ein internationales Paul Celan Symposium, ed. Amy Colin (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986), 182-197; “Altered States of Consciousness: Trakl and the Mystical Experience,” Internationales Georg Trakl Symposium, ed. Joseph Strelka (Frankfurt am Main and Zurich: Peter Lang, 1984), 78-93; “Brecht und Stalin: Des Dichters ‘letztes Wort’,” Exilforschung 1 (Munich: Text und Kritik, 1983), 120-129; “Poetry and the Extremities of Language: From Concretism to Paul Celan,” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 7 (Fall 1983): 40-63; “The FBI as Literary Historian: The File of Bertolt Brecht,” Beyond Brecht/Über Brecht hinaus. The Brecht Yearbook, vol. 1 (Detroit and Munich: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 213-231; “Das FBI als Literaturhistoriker: Die Akte Bertolt Brechts,” Akzente (August 1980), 362-383; “Brecht, Thomas Mann und Deutschland,” Tintenfisch 15, Thema Deutschland (Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1978), 46-52; “Paul Celan’s Language of Stone: The Geology of the Poetic Landscape,” Colloquia Germanica 2: 3-4 (1974): 298-317; “Paul Celan and Martin Buber: Poetry as Dialogue,” PMLA 86 (January, 1971): 110-119 [excerpts reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism 19, ed. Sharon R. Gunton (Detroit: Gale, 1981), 87-88)]; “Georg Trakl’s Poetry of Silence,” Monatshefte 62 (Winter 1970): 340-356; “Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Bericht vom Zeck’: Eine Berichtigung,” Etudes Germaniques 23 (April-June 1968): 257-279; “The Poetry of Paul Celan: An Approach,” The Germanic Review 39 (January 1964): 50-67.

Professor Lyon has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and two grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, and has served as the principal investigator for two substantial grants from the Ford Foundation.

Posted May 2011