Reading Scripture with Roland Barthes

In celebrating a great post-structuralist thinker through lectionary readings and a homily, it seems only appropriate to “go meta.” What, then, can Roland Barthes teach us about how to read the scriptures, as we try to use the scriptures to read Roland Barthes? In what follows, I’m going to put today’s readings in conversation with key works and concepts from Barthes’s varied career.

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The Annunciation

Detail from "Nativity" by Brian Kershisnik, 2006 (source: http://tinyurl.com/m6oafwf) -- The beauty and grace of Kershisnik's angels constantly inspire me.

Detail from “Nativity” by Brian Kershisnik, 2006 (source: http://tinyurl.com/m6oafwf) — The beauty and grace of Kershisnik’s angels constantly inspire me.

I hope you believe in angels. I do.

Celebrating the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), we necessarily reflect on the amazing implications of God sending the angel Gabriel “unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth” (Luke 1:26) — dispatching an archangel to an essentially forgotten rural backwater of a town on a Galilean hillside to visit a young, unknown, betrothed girl. But God, for whom “nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37), knew Mary and had selected her among all His chosen people for a pivotal mission in His work of salvation. [Read more…]

A Short Sermon for Holy Week

Given in Worcester Cathedral, 25.iii.15

The Easter story is not quite what it looks like when first encountered. We have had readings about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem — which I do not think is quite as positive as it sounds — and the painful death of Jesus on the cross, which is certainly not as negative as torture and death would otherwise seem to be.

So, this is my message: Easter is more than it appears to be and I will try to explain how. [Read more…]

Sighs Too Deep for Words

Sometimes with full heart I fall on my face before God and weep my soul to the heavens. I rage and sob and struggle to pour forth my full measure. Plying the words that mingle with my tears I falter, trying plainness or eloquence or cursing—anything that might break through. On the edge of despair I am reduced to muttering the Name over and over in its many lesser names—“Oh God!” “Dear, gentle Jesus!”—and in the repetition the distinction between prayer and blasphemy begins to blur. I pray on, or I go to sleep. [Read more…]

Did Joseph Smith, Jr. Ordain Elijah Abel to the Priesthood?

W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Utah where he teaches Utah history, Mormon history, and the history of the US West. Oxford University Press recently published his book Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.

In addition to this guest post, Paul has graciously agreed to answer any particularly interesting questions you may have regarding his book and his research on race in the Church. Please leave questions in the comments below, and they will be answered in a subsequent post.

The short answer is no, I do not believe that he did. I know that my answer runs against the grain of what has grown into a popular understanding regarding Elijah Abel(s) and his priesthood ordination. In some circles it has become an almost assumed fact that Joseph Smith ordained Abel, a black man, to the office of Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood. When I began research for my book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, I assumed the same thing. In fact, I made that claim in early chapter drafts for the book. However, as I dug into the sources I grew increasingly uneasy with that assertion and the evidence upon which it is based. In the book I don’t walk the reader through my behind the scenes reasoning and only the most careful reader will notice that I only claim that Joseph Smith, Jr. “sanctioned” Abel’s priesthood. What I offer below is a glimpse into my reasoning behind the decision to characterize it that way. [Read more…]

On Relationships, Human and Otherwise (With a Nod to the Best Book that I Hated When I Was 25)

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” —Count Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich is not the sort of book that the 25 year old version of me had any patience for. I read it, because I had to read it, when I took a Short Story class at BYU. But I was more interested in War and Peace because it was long and difficult, or Anna Karenina because it was about sex. But The Death of Ivan Ilyich is only about fifty pages long. Its simple prose borders on simplistic. And worst of all, it’s about a middle-aged man falling off a step ladder and dying a slow and meaningless death. Can you say BO-RING? [Read more…]

Lent V

If the Third Sunday of Lent marks, as Ronan wrote, the point where our observance flags, today’s readings allow for the hyperbolic suggestion that by now we’re just a pile of dry bones, crying to God from the depths of misery. Looking upon such histrionics, even a good friend might suggest that we just go and eat some chocolate already, if only to relieve others from the burden of witnessing our embarrassing display. [Read more…]

Sometimes Less Is More

Browning-Home-summer

My family moved to DeKalb, Illinois, where I would grow up, when my father got a job at Northern Illinois University as a professor of education. That was in 1965, and I was six about to turn seven. Every year for vacation we would drive to Layton to visit my maternal grandparents and other relatives. [Read more…]

Shiny Happy No Thanks

after-rain-flower-water

There’s this weird phenomenon I’ve observed. It’s unclear where it’s nexus lies— It may be influenced by the rise of the Pinterest quote culture, or the focus on and elevation of lifestyle blogs. Are wall-quotes in living-areas a symptom or a cause? I’m not sure. What I see in my own community, on social media, and online in general, is an elevation of happiness being considered a virtue, a morally superior position. Being happy is great, of course, but the converse side of expecting happiness (or cheerfulness) as a marker of faith is that those who are somehow not “happy” or who struggle in any way, are somehow perilously close to morally failing. [Read more…]

Women in Refrigerators

The fridge in question.  Also, Kyle Rayner's costume is the 2nd lamest Green Lantern costume.

The fridge in question. Also, Kyle Rayner’s costume is the 2nd lamest Green Lantern costume.

As you may know, I like comic books. On occasion, I like controversies about comic books as well. There was a pretty good controversy in the mid-to-late nineties, following a Green Lantern comic (#54, for those interested). In that comic, the Green Lantern Kyle Rayner comes home to find that his girlfriend Alex has been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator by a villain named Major Force. It’s a shocking scene of violence, but the most shocking thing about it all is that this sort of thing happens to women in comics with some frequency. [Read more…]

Mormonism in the American Mind: Eight Forgotten Classics that You Should Read before they Disappear

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a rich and varied history as the subject of imaginative literature. Mormons have always been more interesting as a group than most other religious people—often for reasons that we are not proud of today. And a large portion of literary Mormonism reflects this—especially in the nineteenth century, when polygamy, blood atonement, and Danites provided the raw material for some of the most ridiculous, and most popular fiction ever written about a religious group. [Read more…]

Just Whom Are We Inoculating?

inoculationLast week, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote another of her typically insightful surveys of current trends in Mormon life–this one focusing on the impact which the LDS Church’s recent openness regarding various complicated historical and theological issues (from the origin of the priesthood ban to the historicity of the Book of Abraham to Joseph Smith’s personal involvement in plural marriage) are likely to have as the church continues to grow and change. It was widely shared on social media–and that sharing led an old friend of mine, who no longer associates with the church, to share some thoughts with me: [Read more…]

Establishment of the Relief Society

When several Nauvoo women gathered on 17 March 1842 to organize a society devoted to good works in the community, Joseph Smith read the revelation to Emma Smith now contained in D&C 25, emphasizing that she had been “ordained … to expound scriptures, and to exhort the Church” (D&C 25:7). The establishment of the Relief Society on that day, and Emma’s election as its first president, brought this ordination for the first time into the formal structure of the Church. [1] To what, then, does Relief Society as an organization exhort the Church—not just the women, but all of us? [Read more…]

Can members support same-sex marriage and remain in good standing?

Taking a cue from Doctrine and Covenants 6:28, I thought I’d pull together and transcribe some of the recent discussions about whether or not members can support same-sex marriage and still remain in good standing.

And, if you need it, here is a temple-recommend, wallet-sized printable that you may want to laminate for easy reference:

walletsizedcard2

Now for the longer versions of the answer to the post title. [Read more…]

The Power of Personal Stories When Giving Talks

580-speaking-in-church

Today was ward conference, and as is typical in ward conference sacrament meeting, we had two speakers: the bishop and the stake president. Both of their talks were excellent, and they both happened to do the same thing in such a way that I thought there was a lesson there for good public speaking that I commented on at the beginning of my Sunday School class. [Read more…]

Whose Thing Is “The Church” (and What Exactly Can You Get Kicked Out Of)?

Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home. . . .
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
–Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

As a missionary, I used to tell investigators a story (I think it came from a Paul Dunn talk) about a Mormon general authority’s conversation with the leader of another denomination. The Mormon asked his counterpart, “Who is the head of your church in Dubuque, Iowa?” The other leader (of course) replied, “Why I am the head of our Church in Dubuque, Iowa. Who is the head of your church in Dubuque, Iowa?” The Mormon leader smiled beatifically and replied, “Jesus Christ.” The point of the story was really simple: our church (but not yours) is the Lord’s. [Read more…]

General Conference Reflection: The True vs. The New

I know we’re a couple weeks out from General Conference, but I figured I’d get ahead of the reflection pieces this year with one of my own.

For a few years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how General Conference can play a bigger role in my life. I’ll listen to a session here and there, or liveblog one for BCC, and when I was YM president, it was a good forcing function to get me to General Priesthood Meeting with my young men.

But it’s been a long time since I really connected with a session the way I think I’m supposed to. The mind wanders, the clock slows down. I try not to take my phone out, except to take notes or check #ldsconf on Twitter. I pray for guidance and insight, and sometimes it comes, but not in that get-really-excited-about-10-hours-of-talks-this-weekend kind of way that I know some people experience.

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A few confessions to people who’ve left the church

anditwasallgoingsowellI have friends and family members who have left the church. A few actively removed their names from church records. Most of them simply slipped into “inactivity” and some even still consider themselves Mormons. I have some confessions to make about my various relationships with them.  [Read more…]

Harriet Tubman, Liberator

Harriet Tubman’s life is one case where reality exceeds the legend. Although she led “only” about 70 slaves out of bondage (instead of the hundreds sometimes attributed to her), she lived for a half-century after her last liberation mission and continued to work in the same spirit of fiery determination for the betterment of African Americans, and African-American women in particular. [Read more…]

Some Thoughts on Dante, Fence Sitting in the Pre-Existence, and Worthiness Interviews

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”—Dante Alighieri (as reimagined by Dan Brown through John F. Kennedy)

The above bit of folk wisdom does not come from Dante. It is a wholly modern misquotation first fumbled by Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy in a speech about the Peace Corps and then adopted by Dan Brown’s fictional Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon in the multi-kazillion dollar bestseller Inferno. Harvard, apparently, has been slipping a bit in the Italian Classics Department. [Read more…]

(Mis)reading Scripture

book-of-mormon-and-bibleA seemingly evergreen issue in the bloggernacle: what do we do about prooftexting? On the one hand, it allows us to apply scripture to ourselves. On the other, it suggests that scripture, as written, is not up to the task of explicating the gospel and, instead, must be stretched and tortured to tell us what we need to know.[fn1]

An example: at church last year, discussion briefly turned to what we do when traditional Mormon readings of scripture turn out to be significant misreadings.[fn2] It came up in the context of God commanding Ezekiel to combine the stick of Joseph with the stick of Judah. The Gospel Doctrine manual explains that the stick of Judah is the Bible and the stick of Joseph is the Book of Mormon.  [Read more…]

Book Review: Adam S. Miller, “Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan”

MillerAdam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Self-published, 2015). Amazon: $8.99 paperback; $3.99 Kindle.

John Locke, in the preface to his posthumously published paraphrases of Paul’s letters, inveighs against the division of the text into chapters and verses because it hinders comprehension of the text as a unified whole. To understand Paul, Locke says, one ought to read the epistles in a single sitting, again and again, until the big picture begins to coalesce. This advice is the most difficult to implement with Romans, Paul’s longest and most complicated epistle, so a well-done paraphrase offers a way in.

Adam Miller’s new paraphrase sets out to address another obstacle: the difficulty that emerges in the culturally specific details and rhetorical tangles of Paul’s complex argument, which becomes only slightly less difficult when read in the NIV or NRSV than it was in the 400-year-old KJV. Miller, then, aims to “translate” Paul not just into a modern idiom, but into a modern context. Since he considers the message of Romans “urgent,” as his title proclaims, he strives to show the relevance of its argument for 21st century readers. [Read more…]

Clarissa Smith Williams

The 1920s signaled a shift toward “second generation” Mormonism. In 1921, the Relief Society received its first Utah-born president, Clarissa Smith Williams, just as Heber J. Grant had become the first Utah-born Church president in 1918. Few people could have been as prepared for the calling as Williams was: her mother, Susan West, married the church historian and apostle George A. Smith, meaning not only that Clarissa literally grew up in the midst of Church headquarters, but also that she had a lifelong association with Bathsheba W. Smith, George’s first wife, a counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency from 1888, and its president from 1901-1910. Bathsheba involved the precocious Clarissa (whose organizational skills led a brother to dub her, even at a young age, “the Little General”) in Relief Society work from an early age, and even predicted that one day she’d become its president. [1] Just like Mormon, Clarissa was a sober child and quick to observe. [Read more…]

Lent III

There is a much arid earth between Egypt and the Promised Land and thus the complaint to Moses sounds reasonable, given the circumstances:

The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst? (Exodus 17).

Here we are a few weeks into Lent and for many of us so many of those good intentions we had back in Egypt are broken. In the wilderness, we have failed. On Ash Wednesday we thought that this Lent would be the one, the one in which spiritual discipline would whisk us all the way to Easter on a cloud of religious glory. Not so, for in our wilderness of Sin, there seems to be no water, despite our hope that things would be different this time. God is right: “This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways” (Psalm 95). Yes, but that is the way of us, Lord. Have mercy and let the water flow anew. [Read more…]

MHA at 50

50th[1]

The Mormon History Association was founded at a meeting in San Francisco in 1965. For those of you with math skillz, that means that this year (2015) is the 50-year anniversary of the MHA. And to celebrate, Vol. 41 No. 1 (2015) of the Journal of Mormon History is a special issue in honor of the anniversary, guest edited by Spencer Fluhman and Doug Alder. My intention here is to give a brief synopsis of this special issue and then to offer some reflections of my own experience with MHA. [Read more…]

I Thought BCC Could Use Some Mommy Blogging

Some say women can have it all. Some say they cannot. I never really understood the debate until today. [Read more…]

I Stand All Amused

Church is different things to different people. It can be a respite, a haven. It can be divisive; it can knit us together. It is often boring. It can fill us with peace or with pain, and sometimes both within the same meeting. It can be the source of angst and pure joy. But I hope we can all agree that church is the best when it’s funny. The following are my favorite remembrances of irreverent laughter – the kind that causes you to slump over in your pew to hide your shameful shoulder-shaking and tear-wiping from God and the bishop. [Read more…]

Howard W. Hunter

“I feel ours is the mission to serve and to save, to build and to exalt.”

- Howard W. Hunter

Howard W. Hunter, November 14, 1907 – March 3, 1995 (source: http://tinyurl.com/nyepynv)

Howard W. Hunter, November 14, 1907 – March 3, 1995 (source: http://tinyurl.com/nyepynv)

Howard W. Hunter served for only nine months as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from June 4, 1994 until his death on March 3, 1995, the shortest period of any Church President so far. A banker, lawyer, and accomplished musician, he was called to be an Apostle on October 10, 1959 by President David O. McKay, who had recently dedicated the Los Angeles, California temple (1956) with the support of President Hunter, who was then serving as the President of the Pasadena, California Stake with the responsibility of organizing the open house and dedication of that temple.

President Hunter faced many medical problems during his time in Church service, for which he became somewhat known, including a heart attack, broken ribs from a fall at general conference, heart bypass surgery, bleeding ulcers, kidney failure, hospitalization for exhaustion, and finally prostate cancer that spread to his bones in the last few months of his life. He had faced health problems since his earliest childhood when as a four year old — and nearly half a century before the polio vaccine was revealed through painstaking scientific discovery — he suffered from polio, which reportedly affected his back for the rest of his life. His dedicated service through much pain and suffering occasioned by these medical problems made his life a model of “enduring to the end,” an important tenet of Mormon doctrine closely associated with exercising faith in Jesus Christ and regular repentance for falling short of true Christian discipleship as the way to demonstrate acceptance of and dedication to the Atonement of Jesus Christ in one’s personal life (1 Nephi 13:37). [Read more…]

Animals, Ranked

To some–notably John F.–ranking things is not a worthy endeavor. But Steve and I know better, and we know that ranking things is the responsibility of every Latter-day Saint as part of the building of Zion. It is part of our faith. Indeed, you could say that Steve and I follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things should be ranked, we hope all things will be ranked, we have ranked many things, and hope to be able to rank all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek to rank these things. If there are any things that aren’t like those other things, we seek to rank those things also. Today, Animals!

manimal

As always, these rankings are authoritative.
[Read more…]

I Hope that My Redeemer Lives

“I am a Christian by Yearning. Opposed to my doubt and perversity is a longing that the gospel be true. Christians are made, said the apostle Paul, of faith, hope, and charity. Though I have little charity and less faith, perhaps I have hope in some abundance.”—Levi Peterson

I have been thinking about Levi Peterson’s classic essay “A Christian by Yearning” a lot recently. It articulates better than anything I know current state of my spiritual understanding, which lies somewhere in between Bruce R. McConkie’s absolute certainty that he was on the verge of meeting Christ and C.S. Lewis’s recollection that, before his conversion, he was “very angry with God for not existing.” Between the poles of faith and doubt, I find hope in great abundance. [Read more…]

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