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A mountaintop is as much a summons to greatness as it is a summit graveyard, where Mother Nature smites the worst elements of human nature; where the magnificence of the view vanishes into thin air, until the thinness of air transforms the festive into the funereal; where pride yields to punishment, until a place to rest becomes a permanent resting place for the wicked and the damned, and the damnation of fools. A review of Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover (Random House, 352 pp., $28)
A review of Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover (Random House, 352 pp., $28)
One person who is no fool is Tara Westover, author of Educated: A Memoir. She heeded the calling of the Lord and left the mountaintop to climb the Mount Improbable of art and science. She endured years of religious fundamentalism, where the predominance of certitude allowed ignorance to prevail.
Her book is a reminder of how man corrupts religion, not the corruptive power of religion. It is also a warning of what happens when you refuse to acclimatize to the terms and conditions of the mountain. The altitude sickness that ensues sickens a person’s mind as much as his body. It deludes Tara’s parents by having them deny her an education. It converts the holy into a nightmarish hallucination of imminent apocalypse and attacks by “the Illuminati.” It poisons her Mormonism with the rantings of a moron; of a man smart enough to know, but not strong enough to say, what the reader knows—that he is wrong about almost everything.
That man is Tara’s father, whose self-righteousness cripples his ability to do right and stop wrongdoing. He is in fact never wrong, not when he—and he alone—knows what God wants. This is neither the God of the Old Testament, whose commandments Moses receives at Mount Sinai, nor the Lord and Savior of the New, whose words Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the God of a fanatic, whose will can only be done by forsaking the spirit of the law to enforce the strictest letter of the law. This is the God of faithless devotion, whose disciple is too fearful of doubt to be a faithful servant of the way, the truth, and the life.
This is a man who wages war from a mountain ridge. He surveys a fallen world, whose towns and cities he believes God will fell; whose hospitals and houses of worship will collapse; whose schools and libraries will crumble; whose time will come when the time changes, so the End of Days will be the first day of the rest of his life. How else to explain his dismissal of laws, language, culture, institutions, literature, history, and tradition? How else to explain his version of history, when Tara learns the history of a crime with no name against a people with an everlasting name?
History changes when Tara studies the Holocaust at Brigham Young University (BYU) and earns her doctorate in intellectual history at the University of Cambridge. She makes history by leaving the mountain for the slow ascent toward the apex of her profession.
Tara’s story is not, however, about her hatred of religion. Nor is the story of her father a tale of religious hatred. Their story is, instead, about the frailties of man. It is a story as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the history of all mankind: that those who believe every question has an answer, because they believe there is no question we cannot answer; that to believe these things is not to know God, but to know these people believe they are God.
To really know something, then, is to know how little we know. It is to know that to serve God is not to be a slave to God. Think of the alternative, because a God without mystery—a God who may as well text us, lest we bother to think for ourselves and interpret the text of the Bible—is more dictatorial than divine. He is, by this standard, more akin to an algorithm than a Creator: a celestial butler, the Ask Jeeves of the universe, with better search results.
An educated person, in contrast, knows the limitations of man, not God. Tara Westover is such a person. She knows that education is the gateway to enlightenment. She seeks to understand what the light reveals by shining the disinfectant of sunlight onto the darkest pages of history. She does justice to Justice Louis Brandeis’s admonition that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people who fail to avert evil through the processes of education.
She is educated, not because of the depth of her intelligence, but because of the degree of her wisdom. She has the humility that blesses the best readers of the Bible. She honors the Word through her love of words, ensuring that a house of many mansions also has many shelves of books.
Tara Westover’s education continues—no education is complete—so long as there are new ideas to discover and new debates about the oldest issues. Brave enough to stand up for herself, and bold enough to take a stand in defense of liberty, she is as much a standout in church as she is in the academy. She exercises oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.
Among so many sheep, she is a shepherdess.