Home / Testimonies / Alan Frank Keele

I freely acknowledge that my lifelong serendipitous scholarly meanderings through the broad field of German Studies correspond closely to certain ideas suggested by doctrines and lore of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which I have a particular personal affinity.

A postmodernist might view my interest in “Mormon” ideas in German texts as a social construct, a form of Rorschaching, or a kind of subjective projection of my private a priori views onto the elaborate tapestry of German Studies.1

But such constructs are two-way streets, for it is also true that my involvement with things German has emphatically influenced what I have come to see as the most important doctrines of my own “virtual Mormonism” as it were, those tenets I have assembled from the elaborate tapestry of “Latter-day Saint” ideas into my own private credo.

Thus my current views on war, pacifism, and civic responsibility for example, have clearly grown out of my exposure to Germany’s historical experiences, including that of young Helmuth Hübener and his two fellow-LDS friends Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe, whose story I first encountered in the oeuvre of Nobel-Laureate novelist Günter Grass. (Further research into the subject, including extensive interviews with Schnibbe and Wobbe as well as with other survivors who had emigrated to the US, particularly to Utah, enabled me and my collaborators, BYU historians Douglas Tobler and Blair Holmes, to publish several articles and books on the subject and to participate in the making of a documentary film.)2

So just as the general German experience with dictatorship, war, and the incurring of national guilt on a gigantic, genocidal scale influenced my later reaction to truth claims I heard voiced by supporters of various US wars from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq, the Hübener story forced me to confront LDS ideas about the degree to which citizens should subject themselves to governments, and under what conditions.

In the end, I came to see that the matter of civic responsibility and ethical behavior is much more complex and sophisticated than the simple LDS 12th Article of Faith3 might suggest on its surface. Indeed, I have come to include in my personal German-history-inspired credo what I consider a much more nuanced LDS position, derived in part from the 98th Section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants.4

Quite a different “LDS idea” which has had a particular fascination for me is the concept that the souls of human beings existed eternally prior to our physical births on this planet. This is an ancient notion with a long history of advocates and detractors.5 The German texts to which this idea drew me include a pair of remarkable films by Wim Wenders6 (with some collaboration by Austrian poet and novelist Peter Handke), which posit the existence of a kind of preexistence, where angel-like beings, portrayed in the film wearing distinctive overcoats and ponytails, are seen (by film viewers though not by other characters in the film, save some children) hovering about Berlin, having been there since time immemorial, witnessing and observing life generally.

In due course, one of the “angels,” Damiel, (all such names have that –el suffix connoting divinity), decides to become human, to “earn a (hi-)story for myself by struggling for it” (“mir selber eine Geschichte erstreiten.”) In the second film, Damiel’s angelic companion Cassiel also becomes human, having weighed the implications of the change rather less than Damiel had, since Cassiel has to make a split-second decision to become human so that he can rescue a young girl for whom he serves as a guardian angel. (Cassiel is a compulsive lifesaver: In the end, after having taken many missteps in his brief sojourn on earth, Cassiel selflessly gives his own life to save all his friends.)

Thanks to the artistic gifts of Wenders and Handke, a notion that exists as a kind of black-and-white, two-dimensional concept in Mormon lore now takes on rounded contours and becomes a colorful, living idea, able to resonate in our minds and souls. Watching Damiel and Cassiel do the same, we are invited to contemplate, for example, just how we ourselves must have struggled with the concept of evil (Berlin, with its recent Nazi and Cold-War history is certainly an appropriate location for the contemplation of the existence of evil) before agreeing to become mortal.

We consider with Wenders and Handke the role of love and fellowship among former angels, for there are many (including a cameo role by Peter Falk) who have retained a memory of their prior life, trailing clouds of glory, as Wordsworth would have said it, who treat their fellow humans with the respect and dignity such courageous eternal beings deserve.

In the end, the films point forward to the creation of a new global family of like-minded former angels, who understand the profound eternal reason for their lives and have the potential to create a fairer, more peace-loving and humane society.

(In the course of discussing these films with colleagues, Professor Walter Whipple pointed out to me a related poem, “One Version of Events” by Polish Nobel-Laureate Wisława Szymborska,7 which I also highly recommend.)

Other German texts bear brief mention in the context of preexistence: The most remarkable Viennese author Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaborated with the deservedly famous composer Richard Strauss to create an opera entitled Die Frau ohne Schatten8 (The Woman Without a Shadow), which is a veritable compendium of LDS ideas, including this one. The plot is complex, but includes the idea that a disembodied spirit from a preexistent state, the Empress, has taken upon herself a human form but, in a kind of intermediate Garden of Eden milieu, has not yet taken the final step to become truly human.

This she does, finally, by renouncing a human shadow – here a symbol of mortality – which her evil nurse has illicitly acquired for her from another woman, the Dyer’s Wife, who at one juncture wants to renounce her mortality to avoid having to bear children. (The Dyer’s Wife changes her mind when she has a vision of her seven unborn children, whose voices seem to sing out to her – from seven fishes cooking in a pan.)

When the Empress renounces the ill-gotten shadow (though she believes that by so doing she has doomed her own husband, the Emperor, to eternal death), by virtue of her own selfless behavior it is seen that she miraculously has earned her own shadow, and her husband returns to life from his death-like state.

The risen Emperor sings that he, too, has had a vision of unborn children, and then soon the Empress, also, is able to see and hear the songs of the unborn. She asks: “Sind das die Cherubim, die ihre Stimmen heben?”(“Are they the Cherubim, who raise their voices so?”) The Emperor enlightens her: “Das sind die Nichtgeborenen, nun stürzen sie ins Leben mit morgenroten Flügeln zu uns, den fast Verlorenen; uns eilen diese Starken wie Sternenglanz herbei. Du hast dich überwunden. Nun geben Himmelsboten den Vater und die Kinder: die Ungebornen frei! Sie haben uns gefunden, nun eilen sie herbei!” (“They are the unborn, now they rush into life with dawn-red wings to us, who were nearly lost; these strong ones hasten to our side like starshine. Thou hast overcome thyself. Now heavenly messengers free the father and the children: the unborn! They have found us, now they hasten hither.”)

The unborn continue to address their parents and encourage them not to fear the trials of parenthood: “Hört, wir gebieten euch: ringet und traget, dass unser Lebenstag herrlich uns taget! Was ihr an Prüfungen standhaft durchleidet, uns ist’s zu strahlenden Kronen geschmeidet!” (“Listen, we command you: struggle and bear your burdens, so that our day of life may dawn gloriously! That which you unwaveringly suffer through in the way of tests is wrought for us into glittering crowns!”)

The opera ends with a mysterious song by all the unborn children, revealing that they are really the hosts, not merely the guests, at any (wedding) feast:

Vater, dir drohet nichts,
siehe, es schwindet schon,
Mutter, das Ängstliche,
das euch beirrte.

Wäre denn je ein Fest,
wären nicht insgeheim
wir die Geladenen,
wir auch die Wirte!

(Father, nothing threatens thee,
behold, Mother, that which made
both of you anxious,
is already disappearing.

Could there ever have been a feast
at which we, the invited ones,
were not also
secretly the hosts?)

Another important German opera attracts me strongly, in part for its portrayal of yet another “LDS” idea dear to my heart. This is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte,9 (The Magic Flute) and the idea is one which certain other Christian denominations love to hate, namely the notion of apotheosis, of man becoming like god. In The Magic Flute, the idea comes up relatively early, when Papageno, the opera’s comic bird-man figure, first meets Pamina, the opera’s heroine. Together they sing a duet about the universal nature of love and the personified goddess of love:

Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an,
Nichts Edlers sei als Weib und Mann.
Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann
Reichen an die Gottheit an.

(Her – love personified’s – noble purpose demonstrates clearly
That there is nothing more noble than a wife and a husband.
Husband and wife and wife and husband
Reach up to – and attain – godhood/divinity.)

(Another of my favorite ideas will be mentioned here only in passing, namely that it is in this eternal bond between two spouses that the potential for attaining godhood is greatest. This paean to eternal, temple marriage – another important LDS idea – is found in The Magic Flute as well as in The Woman Without a Shadow. And in The Magic Flute, the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris appear as role models: a married god-couple!)

At the end of Act I, the chorus sings an important text, the (bold) portions of which are repeated in Act II:

“Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit
Der Großen Pfad mit Ruhm bestreut,
Dann ist die Erd’ ein Himmelreich
Und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich
.”
(When virtue and justice
Strew the path of the great ones with fame,
Then earth will be a heavenly kingdom
And mortals will be equal to the gods
.)

In Act II, the three young boys who serve as spiritual guides to the characters also promise a proximate apotheosis:

“Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden,
Die Sonn’ auf goldner Bahn.
Bald soll der Aberglaube schwinden,
Bald siegt der weise Mann.
O holde Ruhe, steig hernieder,
Kehr in der Menschen Herzen wieder;
Dann ist die Erd’ ein Himmelreich
Und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich
.”
(Soon, to herald the morning,
The sun will be resplendent on its golden path.
Soon superstition will disappear,
Soon the wise man will be victorious.
O graceful, lovely peace, descend to us,
Return into the hearts of humans;
Then earth will be a heavenly kingdom
And mortals will be equal to the gods
.)

At the end of the opera, when the appearance of the sun has driven away the night, Pamina and Tamino, as well as Papageno and his wife, Papagena, are blessed with many children (in the one case) and truly exalted (in the other). The High Priest Sarastro sings:

Die Strahlen der Sonne vertreiben die Nacht,
Zernichten der Heuchler erschlichene Macht.
(The rays of the sun drive away the night,
Destroying the ill-gotten power of hypocrites.)

The choir of priests then sings to Pamina/Tamino:

Heil sei euch Geweihten!
Ihr dranget durch Nacht.
Dank sei dir, Osiris,
Dank dir, Isis, gebracht!
Es siegte die Stärke
Und krönet zum Lohn
Die Schönheit und Weisheit
Mit ewiger Kron’!
(Hail to both of you consecrated ones!
You have penetrated through night.
Thanks be to thee, Osiris,
Thanks to thee, also, Isis!
Strength was victorious
And, as a reward, crowns
Beauty and wisdom
With an eternal crown!)

As a last example I will mention a related, and supporting, notion to that of apotheosis, namely imago dei, man in the image of god. I had the good fortune to have been given by Professor Douglas Tobler a copy of a paper once presented at a conference in Switzerland by Ernst Benz, a Professor of Church History at the University of Marburg, entitled: “Der Mensch als imago dei” (“Man in the Image of God”). Later I was asked by Professor Truman Madsen to translate the piece when Professor Benz visited BYU but gave a talk deemed less appropriate for inclusion in Madsen’s volume of collected Reflections on Mormonism.10

A difficult, dense piece, Benz’s magisterial work is nonetheless a very important synchronic contextualization of this lofty idea, carefully traced by Professor Benz from the distant Biblical and Hellenic past via Neoplatonists (many of whom believed it) to the Church Fathers, many of whom – such as Augustine – were less inclined. Eventually the idea was marginalized and made anathema – expressing it was even punishable by death! – and sent underground). It surfaces in the German mystics of the Middle Ages, and then in Jacob Böhme in the seventeenth century and the German romantics of the nineteenth, finally to appear … mirabile dictu! … in its fullest form in the teachings of the uneducated boy Joseph Smith in far-off America, and on the wild frontier at that!

Here, among the followers of Joseph Smith, says Benz, is the place where the idea of humans in the image of god finally really took root and unfolded itself in all its important implications: for education, for universal medical care, for adequate nutrition for all, for suitable dwellings and clothing worthy of beings created in the image of god, for non-stultifying employment that reinforces respect and allows the mind and body to develop … in short, implications for how we really see and treat all our fellow beings across the globe, namely as eternal, divine beings created in the image of god, with the potential to become like gods.

This brief recitation of a few of my favorite theological/anthropological ideas taken from German texts and from LDS doctrines will have to suffice for now to convince any reader of these lines that I see the gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith as a great compilation of some of the best ideas ever thought and believed by humankind. It is inconceivable to me that an untutored youth, Joseph Smith, in a nineteenth-century American frontier milieu, could, on his own, have tapped into so many sources of universal truth as these.

I am fully aware that there are all manner of notions entertained by people calling themselves Latter-day Saints. Theirs is the burden of demonstrating that their favorite “LDS ideas” are consonant with truly Christian values and, if consistently applied, will result in a better society.

For my part, I have chosen to populate my own virtual credo with those ideas I resonate with and those ideas I also find expressed by great thinkers and artists, but most especially, those which have, in my humble opinion, the potential to remake a vicious, polarised, warlike, obscurantist, social-Darwinite world of fear and hate into a truly enlightened, irenic, equitable, humane, compassionate Christian civilization of love and hope.

—-
Notes:

1 As evidence I submit my book, In Search of the Supernal: Preexistence, Eternal Marriage, and Apotheosis in German Literary, Operatic, and Cinematic Texts (Münster: Agenda-Verlag, 2003) A German-language version is also available, at http://aufdersuchenachdemsupernalen.blogspot.com/
2 The film is Truth and Conviction (see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0420975/). The books are: The Price, the True Story of a Mormon who Defied Hitler (see: http://www.amazon.com/price-story-Mormon-defied-Hitler/dp/0884945340); When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler: The Story of the Helmuth Hübener Group Based on the Narrative of Karl-Heinz Schnibbe (see: http://www.amazon.com/When-Truth-Was-Treason-Karl-Heinz/dp/0252022017); and (in German) Jugendliche gegen Hitler: Die Helmuth Hubener Gruppe in Hamburg, 1941-42 (see: http://www.amazon.com/Jugendliche-gegen-Hitler-Helmuth-Hubener/dp/3921655757). The articles include: “The Führer’s New Clothes: Helmuth Hübener and the Mormons in the Third Reich.” (See: http://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/024-20-29.pdf)
3 “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
4 “5 And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. 6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land; 7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. 8 I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. 9 Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn. 10 Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. 11 And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God. 12 For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith. 13 And whoso layeth down his life in my cause, for my name’s sake, shall find it again, even life eternal. 14 Therefore, be not afraid of your enemies, for I have decreed in my heart, saith the Lord, that I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant, even unto death, that you may be found worthy. 15 For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me. 16 Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children;” (I have added emphasis here to some of the phrases I deem particularly relevant to the Hübener story).
5 Cf. for example, the recent book by Terryl Givens, When Souls Had Wings (see: http://www.amazon.com/When-Souls-Had-Wings-Pre-Mortal/dp/0195313909).
6 Der Himmel über Berlin (translated as Wings of Desire) (see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093191/) and In weiter Ferne, so nah! (Far Away, So Close! see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107209/)
7 See: http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2001/spring/szymborska-one-version-events/
8 See: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/history/stories/synopsis.aspx?id=43
9 See: https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/EntireJournals/2004_v43_n03%200348e2d4-ce07-4ad6-b307-95f5ac54a541.pdf
10 Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (see: https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/BYUStudies/article/viewArticle/5165). Professor Madsen shortened the essay to fit the requirements of his volume, but eventually the full essay appeared in the FARMS Review. See: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=17&num=1&id=573

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Alan Frank Keele is Professor Emeritus of German Studies at Brigham Young University.

Professor Keele was born in 1942 in Provo, Utah. He attended schools in Springville, Utah; Laramie, Wyoming; Spanish Fork, Utah; and Bicknell, Utah, and graduated from Wayne High (Utah) in 1960. He then attended the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, on a Rotary International scholarship, majoring in chemistry. After serving a thirty-month mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Germany from 1962 to 1964, he received his B.A. from Brigham Young University in German and History in 1967. In 1971, he received a Ph.D. in German Language and Literature from Princeton University in 1971, whereupon he began his career teaching at Brigham Young University. He has studied German, French, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Russian (in ascending order of incompetence).

He is married to Linda Kay Sellers. They have six children and ten grandchildren. Professor Keele has served on the board of Utahns United Against the Nuclear Arms Race, Utah County Chapter, on the Area Advisory Council for the Alpine School District, as chair of the Utah Democratic Forum, as co-chair (with Professor Donald K. Jarvis) of Russian Relief, twice as an LDS campus high councilman, as an LDS branch president of a BYU single student branch (1974-1977), and as LDS bishop of a BYU married student ward (1993-1997). He has been an ordinance worker in the Mt. Timpanogos LDS temple, a choir director, a Primary teacher, and Ward Mission Leader. Since 2010 he has been retired from Brigham Young University.

Posted February 2012