Anthony Sweat is a full-time religious educator, currently teaching seminary at West High in Salt Lake City, and a regular speaker at Especially For Youth and Education Week conferences. He is the co-author of the bestselling book WHY? Powerful Answers and Practical Reasons for Living LDS Standards, and the author of the newly-released I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go to Heaven?. Both books are published by Deseret Book. He’s also an artist, a PhD student at Utah State, a father of five, an expert finisher of basements, a highly competitive SingStar participant, and my little brother. (And no, he’s not the same brother that some of you may know from his once-popular but now-defunct blog Normal Mormon Husbands. That brother lives in North Carolina and is freakishly tall. Tony lives in Utah and is merely respectably tall.)
The reason I wanted to talk to Tony about his book isn’t just because he’s my brother. It’s because I wish a book like this had been available when I was a teenager, and because I know I need to be reminded of the principles he explores even now. So, on to the interview!
Tell us a little bit about I’m Not Perfect. Can I Still Go To Heaven? What was the impetus behind your writing it?
I wrote the book after doing some informal polling with seminary students and other LDS youth attending EFY conferences around the country. In those polls, I found that over half of these youth don’t think they will make it to the celestial kingdom. Over half! And these are the youth who are actively engaged in the gospel, who are generally trying to do what is right. When I ask them why they think this way, the most common answer goes something like this: “Well, I’m not horrible and a murderer or anything, so I don’t think I’ll go to the telestial kingdom. But I’m not perfect or like my grandparents or my Bishop or the prophet, so I don’t think I’ll go to the celestial kingdom either. So, good thing God made three kingdoms, because I’ll probably go to the middle one where average people like me belong.” Here are the numbers from an anonymous poll of a group of 184 9th grade seminary students in Salt Lake City who answered the question: “If you died and were judged today, which eternal kingdom do you think you would go to?”: 30% celestial kingdom, 54% terrestrial kingdom, 16% telestial kingdom. I have heard too many of our youth say they don’t think they can’t make it to heaven, so I thought I’d write a book to help them understand why they can, even if they aren’t perfect.
This book takes a very serious topic—the atonement—and approaches it in a rather non-traditional way. You’ve basically created a fictional classroom with you as the teacher and eight “students” who represent a cross-section of the types of kids you might find in an average seminary class. These students are introduced with Facebook-like profile pages and interact with each other and with you in ways that are typical of teens. Each student has an avatar that lets us know when he or she is speaking—much like the avatars you see beside people’s comments in blogs like Segullah. Why did you choose to write the book this way? What were the benefits and challenges you encountered as you wrote?
More than anything, I wanted the important doctrine that is taught in the book to be understandable and engaging to teenagers and to your average reader. The doctrines discussed in the book are big and serious doctrines—perfection, covenants, works, grace, judgment, the atonement, just to name a few—and I felt that a traditional chapter book would lose the average teen reader in a mountain of text. A class discussion with student questions and comments seemed the most logical way to approach the book to make it more readable, as teens are used to the discussion formats from their classes at school, conversations with friends and family, and of course on the web through social media.
The challenge, of course, was to make the discussion seem genuine. The format required me to move into a little creative fiction and write in the voice of different types of teenagers as they made their comments and asked their questions. Luckily, I’ve been with teenagers long enough and taught this subject to them often enough that I could pull from real life dialogues I’ve actually heard teenagers say in the classroom. When we read a scripture about being “damned,” I know some kid in the class will usually say “Whoa. You just swore,” so it was fun to be able to put those little lines in there. A specific and more serious example is the opening chapter when Katie (one of the fictional students) expresses her frustration and despair she feels when talking about who will make it to the celestial kingdom. Those lines and many others were almost word for word transcripts from real students I’ve heard express those very feelings. Although it was challenging to accurately represent the different students’ perspectives and voices, it was enjoyable at the same time, and I think it makes the book more readable and understandable. Hopefully the different characters represented in those dialogues help the youth who read it say, “That is what I would think or say…I’m a lot like him” and get more into the book and what is being taught.
The heart of the book seems to be encapsulated by these lines near the end: “Because [Christ] was perfect, we don’t have to be. . . . We don’t have to qualify ourselves for the celestial kingdom, but instead qualify ourselves for Christ, and He will bring us into the celestial kingdom.” Could you explain this concept, and why you think it’s so difficult for some Latter-day Saints (including LDS youth) to understand?
Although the Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches about grace, we seem (at least from my personal and teaching experience) to not really get it sometimes. We think that somehow our works will qualify us for heaven, and they won’t. They simply can’t. King Benjamin tells us that even if we served God with our “whole souls” we would still be unprofitable servants—we would still be in the hole (Mosiah 2:21). Sometimes we think that if we can just bake enough casseroles, set up a few thousand metal chairs for meetings, visit all our visiting and home teaching families (early in the month even!) then we will qualify ourselves for heaven. That just isn’t true. I love when Nephi says that we will be saved by grace “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). I think what Nephi is saying isn’t that we need to do everything in our power and then, and only then, will Christ’s loving grace kick in. No. I think more what he is saying is, “Try as you might, in spite of everything we do, we still will need to be saved by Christ’s grace. He is the only way. We cannot save ourselves.” The beauty of that idea is that it should relieve the burden of perfection off our shoulders. We don’t need to be perfect, because Christ already was. What we need to do is figure out how to join ourselves with Christ—to be linked with him. Instead of trying to qualify ourselves for heaven (which is impossible), we need to look to our Savior and qualify ourselves for Christ. This is done through making covenants with him, and this is where our “works” figure into the equation. If my works can qualify me to make and keep covenants with Christ, I will make it to heaven, in spite of my imperfections. Covenants are the key. Covenants are what make us “the children of Christ” as King Benjamin said (read Mosiah 5:5-10 for a powerful summary of this idea). I think this idea is difficult for some of us, adults and youth, to understand because it takes faith. It takes truly believing in Christ and his perfection, and not relying on ourselves and our own independence and works. It takes both true faith and true humility.
Your book is full of a lot of hope and positivity. Do you think there’s any danger in telling youth that they don’t need to worry about being perfect? Is there any value to the long tradition of scaring kids straight?
No, I don’t think we need to scare kids straight. I think the gospel is a gospel of hope. Christ didn’t come to the earth to condemn the world, but to give life and hope to the world. I see more youth and adults who give up on the gospel because they don’t feel worthy, or because they feel like they can’t measure up to some impossible yardstick of perfection, or because they feel like they have messed up their chances for salvation because of a mistake, than I ever see youth who use the idea of faith in Christ’s perfection as an excuse to sin. Love and hope and optimism are consistent with the spirit of the gospel, whereas fear and discouragement are usually tools of the adversary.
In your ten years of working with LDS youth, what trends do you see among them that fill you with the most hope? What trends worry you most?
In terms of conversion and dedication to the gospel, these youth are better than my generation. They just are. As a whole, they know the scriptures better, they can teach the gospel better, they are more perceptive of the Holy Ghost. They have to be. The divide seems to be widening between righteousness and sin, so youth are forced to decide which side of the line they want to be on sooner than previous generations. One thing that worries me is that the abundance of sin in the world, and the social acceptability of so much of this sin, means we cannot take spiritual things lightly in our youth. It can be very difficult for teens who start to stray young, who have the idea that they can “get serious” about the gospel before a mission or during their twenties, to get back on track. Of course, they can get back on track—this is one of the main messages of my book—but it can be a hard road. We need to be spiritually strong and mature younger than perhaps we ever have before. But what gives me hope is that the whole of the youth today are up to the challenge of their day. I see it on a daily basis, and it is inspiring.
There are many parents of teenagers who read Segullah. How can the message found in your book help parents as well as teens?
That is a great question. Although the book is written for teens, I would hope adults could also learn a lot and gain a better understanding of the doctrines of perfection, covenants, and the atonement if they read it. I learned a lot writing it. As parents and leaders of youth, we are the ones who help shape their original ideas and thinking in their formative years. If we understand and have faith in these doctrines, and have the hope in Christ that springs from them, then naturally our children will benefit from our knowledge and faith as they are trying to develop their own testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Talking to Tony made me wonder: when you were a teen, did you see the Celestial Kingdom as a kind of distant impossibility? Are you unsure, even today, about where you’ll wind up when you die? How do you navigate the terrain between works and grace, and how to you teach these concepts to your children?