Sometimes church (like so much else) looks like a place designed for extroverts. Gregariousness, if not a virtue exactly, at least seems like the sort of thing that could come in handy, since the realities of lay ministry so often oblige us to give talks, teach lessons, or otherwise act in semi-public ways. What, then, of the shy among us? Perhaps their (ok, our) patron saint could be Lousia Yates Robison, who notwithstanding deep shyness served effectively as the General Relief Society President during the difficult years of the Great Depression. [Read more…]
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.
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…]
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…]
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.  To what, then, does Relief Society as an organization exhort the Church—not just the women, but all of us? [Read more…]
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…]
Adam 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…]
The 1630s—the decade of George Herbert’s death—were a tense period in the history of the English church. William Laud, bishop of London since 1628, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. He came to office with an ambitious program of reform designed to bring unity to a fracturing polity. The fault lines had begun to show in 1625 when Puritans began to turn the methods honed in the anti-Catholic pamphlet wars on the bishops of their own church. Laud hoped to bring unity by simmering down the conflict with Rome, but this of course only fostered further accusations that he was a crypto-papist. Instead of bringing peace, Laud’s program culminated in two disastrous wars with Scotland—events that helped precipitate the civil wars of the 1640s. [Read more…]
That Lent should be a season of joy seems, well, not quite right. Why voluntarily enter a world of deprivation when life is usually hard enough as it is? We can hardly follow Jesus into the wilderness if that’s where we’re already living, having been cast out of Eden alongside Adam and Eve. Sin and death really do seem to have the dominion here.
Moreover, this privation is supposed to make us like God, knowing good and evil. Knowing as much about evil as we apparently do, might not some good usefully correct the balance? Meanwhile, we kvetch: our bones wither away, because of our groaning all day long. [Read more…]
Where to start with Lowell Bennion, a man whose virtues almost defy enumeration? Best, perhaps, to follow his own example and cut to “the weightier matters.”  Although he was a theologian, teaching thousands of students in his decades as director of the Salt Lake City Institute that religion should involve the mind and the spirit (a message distilled into his classic book Religion and the Pursuit of Truth), Bennion’s greatest theological impact came from how he lived his life, inspired by these favorite words from Micah: “what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Nephi famously delights in plainness, pledging to speak the doctrine of Christ “according to the plainness of [his] prophesying.” Surely the core doctrine of baptism—the topic of Nephi’s discussion—needs to be presented in a straightforward manner, lest confusion arise. And yet, what does “plainness” mean, exactly? Does plainness require that a speaker eschew all ornamentation, or style? Beyond that, what does it mean to “delight in plainness”? [Read more…]
Church life gets messy sometimes: people say weird things in testimony meeting or Sunday School, have failures of social tact, or occasionally behave in outright ugly ways. Barring the more extreme instances, this is all more or less normal, and every now and again, amidst the humdrum strangeness of it all, holiness manages to occur.
From the Gospel accounts, it would seem that the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Jesus was a bustling place, a place of great social, political, and religious importance. A young couple bringing their child into the Temple for the presentation required by the law—which they fulfilled as humbly as possible, with the poor person’s sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves”—would not ordinarily merit much notice. One might see them, perhaps, but likely not for long, amidst the pressures of other business. Such may even have been the experience of the priest who assisted them. [Read more…]
Life is hard. At a stake conference a few years back, I heard Pres. Eyring speak words to the effect that if you feel like you’re swimming upstream, you’re on the right path. Those words have encouraged me many times since, prompting me when life gets difficult in ways large or small to tack into the wind and keep on sailing. This idea has a potential problem, though, in that it can quickly spill over into militaristic metaphor. Sailing into the wind risks being transmuted into swashbuckling. What’s the difference, and why does it matter? Why care what metaphor we use if enduring to the end is the outcome? [Read more…]
Bringing a little baroque sensibility to our series, I present this poem by Richard Crashaw (1613-1649):
In honor of Martin Luther King, jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, here is the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:
A broken boy
broke the bread
with breaking voice
broke the prayer.
His broken prayer
found broken me,
much more than
when he got it right.
Given how frequently we come across other people in our day-to-day lives, it’s somewhat shocking how rarely the depths of their humanity become manifest to us. Even walking down the street in a crowd, as often as not we perceive people primarily as objects to be taken into consideration as we navigate the spatial world. Through mindfulness and other such techniques we can, in the novelistic manner advocated by David Foster Wallace, work toward empathy by imagining stories for the people around us. While there’s much to be said for this approach, in the end it only makes the prospect of our really coming to see another person seem all the more improbable. [Read more…]
From Luke’s account of the shepherds we get the idea that Jesus was born at night. In telling us of a people walking in darkness, the reading from Isaiah invites us to see this circumstance of Jesus’ birth as symbolic of our lives without him. If the babe in the manger is Isaiah’s “great light,” though, why does such darkness persist in our lives, even for us who believe? Should not the holy event have wiped forever the tears from our eyes?
How can we love God in our hours of darkness, when we feel that God’s presence is nowhere near? To have Jesus born at night means that God chose to become present precisely when the world was dark. His coming, though, divides the night into before and after, absence and presence—and yet many of us still await him, as though he were absent, the manger everlastingly empty in anticipation. The world, which should be light, taunts us with its continuing darkness. Although the Book of Mormon peoples were treated to an exception, the very moment of Jesus’ birth did not bring the dawn. Night persisted still. [Read more…]
All of us, as Paul said to the Romans, sometimes do the very things we hate. We measure with wicked scales and bags of dishonest weights, and the consequences are just as Micah predicted: we eat and are not satisfied. The thing about injustice is that it harms everybody involved—both oppressor and oppressed—and yet the power dynamics of this relationship serve to perpetuate it. Oppressors enjoy the profits of deception, while the oppressed often lack means to improve their situation, no matter their personal qualities.
Such situations call for advocates to serve as mediators. What makes a good advocate? While Jesus is the model advocate, I believe that the life of Esther Eggertsen Peterson usefully illuminates what Jesus did for us all—both oppressors and oppressed. [Read more…]
Isaiah’s phrase—“Strengthen the weak hands, / and make firm the feeble knees”—has become, in LDS parlance, a key expression of our obligation to serve others. In the context of Advent, the most striking aspect of Isaiah 35:1-10 is the repetition of “shall,” which directs our expectation toward the Messianic Age, when “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, / the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” As Latter-day Saints these verses often turn our minds back to the pioneers’ cultivation of the Salt Lake valley, but Advent reminds us that something of this prophecy remains unfulfilled, calling us to rejoice now in anticipation of the rejoicing then.
Indeed, today’s readings use unfulfilled prophecy precisely to keep us in joyful expectation. The psalm tells us that the Lord “gives justice to those who are oppressed, / and food to those who hunger,” that he “cares for the stranger” and “sustains the orphan and widow.” Certainly the Lord does these things, but the work is just as certainly not complete. We must yet look forward to the time when we might with finality echo the Canticle, replacing Isaiah’s future tense with the past: “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Our memories shadow forth the taste of divine nourishments past, stoking our present hunger for the banquet to come. [Read more…]
Disappointment happens—and it hurts. What’s worse is that there are opportunities for disappointment everywhere.While there’s nothing particularly modern about disappointment, modern communications technologies can amplify our awareness of disappointing events and also provide fora in which we can express the disappointments we feel. These technologies, in other words, have expanded our capacity for disappointment. Just as it’s now completely normal to encounter a Facebook post articulating disappointment with an occurrence on the other side of the world, it’s also long since become commonplace to posit “the internet” as a factor in leading people to become disappointed with the Church. If disappointment is a basic part of human experience, I believe that it’s worth thinking about what part disappointment plays in our efforts to build Zion and how, then, we can engage in that work in our current technological environment. [Read more…]
Eliza R. Snow reveals much about herself when she describes her early search for religion:
[W]hen I asked, like one of old, “What must I do to be saved?” and was told that I must have a change of heart, and, to obtain it, I must feel myself to be the worst of sinners, and acknowledge the justice of God in consigning me to everlasting torment, the common-sense with which God had endowed me, revolted, for I knew I had lived a virtuous and conscientious life, and no consideration could extort from me a confession so absurd. 
By claiming freedom from hell on the basis of her own merit, Snow transgressed against a standard trope of Christian autobiography dating back to Augustine’s Confessions and evidenced in the title of John Bunyan’s 17th-century classic Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: instead of a life radically transformed by God from the grossest depravity to a state of grace, she understood her life as basically good and freely oriented toward God. From the perspective of Augustinian or Calvinist orthodoxy (not necessarily shared, to be sure, by other participants in the Second Great Awakening), Snow’s position might appear in the suspect guise of works-righteousness. Rather than claim to merit heaven by her works, I believe that she worked diligently to show her love for God. This energetic life of serving God by serving other people is why we honor her today, on the anniversary of her death.
The sixteenth century was a cruel and confusing pendulum of religious change in England. Henry VIII, erstwhile Defender of the Faith, broke with Rome in the 1530s, albeit more in church government than in doctrine. (The irony: Anne Boleyn was a Protestant.) His son, Edward VI, took things in a more Protestant direction, although his brief reign was followed by his half-sister Mary’s (also brief) attempt to return the country to Catholicism. Her half-sister Elizabeth then returned England to a firm but moderate Protestantism, eventually prompting pressure for further reform. Thomas Tallis, the greatest English composer of choral music during this period, lived through all of these changes and managed not only to stay a firm Roman Catholic through all of them, but also to remain in royal favor. Tallis’s achievement has much to teach Mormons as we navigate the shifting currents of the cultures in which we are embedded. [Read more…]
Today, with the start of Advent, we begin a new liturgical year—a new cycle of sacred time that anticipates by a month the beginning of a new secular year. During Advent we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth while also stirring up our longings for the time when he will come again. Along with the traditional identification of this Sunday with hope, this double expectation makes Advent a good time for new beginnings. Unlike the secular new year, Advent gives our resolutions a clear focus: Christ. Because he came once, he can come again—and, more importantly, he can be with us now. [Read more…]
With a new liturgical year beginning this Sunday (the First Sunday of Advent), the Mormon Lectionary Project has completed its first cycle. As we enter into the project’s second year, here are some brief notes on what to expect. Our goal is to collect the project in book form after this year, and these plans reflect that goal. [Read more…]
In a recent post I expressed my belief that the world is an entropic chaos tending toward death, and that in rebelling against this we can make beauty, which the all-devouring nature of the void requires that we make again and again. I mentioned this idea in conversation with a new friend the other day, and she suggested that it would be better to think about how to cultivate beauty, to find ways of sustaining it over time. This seemed to me a good and wise correction, and although seeds of the idea do appear in my post, especially in the idea that human connection is the highest form of beauty, I wish to develop them further here. Zion, after all, is at once a place and a form of human community where the people are, as the scripture reminds us, of one heart and one mind, dwelling in righteousness, and having no poor among them. [Read more…]
Reactions to the recent Gospel Topics essays on polygamy (here and here) have been widely varied, running on a spectrum from “WHAT?!” to *yawn*. The fact of this diversity raises some interesting questions, especially in light of Jesus’ statement “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” The point isn’t that we all should have had the same reaction (although there has been commentary to that effect); rather, the urgent question is whether we as members of the Church can come together in the face of such diversity—and if so, how.
Bradley J. Kramer has a new book—Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon—coming out this week from Greg Kofford Books. Zion’s Books at 274 W. Center St. in Provo will be hosting a book launch and roundtable discussion this Wednesday, 12 November, at 7pm. The roundtable will include responses to the book from Jack Welch, Richard D. Rust, and Delys Snyder. Kramer will also be signing copies of the book at noon on Thursday 13 November at Benchmark Books, 3269 South Main St–Suite 250 in Salt Lake. I’ve read the book and find that it offers an enriching way of approaching the Book of Mormon as a literary and religious text, so I encourage readers of BCC to take advantage of these opportunities to meet its author.
Disambiguation: Bradley J. Kramer is not the same as the Brad Kramer familiar to readers of this blog.
On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The act itself was not terribly momentous, because this was a usual way of announcing an academic disputation. More conspicuous was the subject: the formal title of the theses was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” signaling a challenge to Church doctrine and power. Print technology then facilitated the rapid spread of Luther’s words throughout Europe; within two months they were widely available on the Continent. From this apparently simple beginning ushered forth a world-changing series of events. [Read more…]