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…]
I’ve been at work on this one for a while, and I’ll probably keep tinkering, but here it is anyway. [Read more…]
As Mormons we believe strongly in the principle of agency. Modern scripture tells us that the War in Heaven was fought over it.  And yet this belief sometimes leads us to believe that, as W. E. Henley famously put it, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”  Aside from the doctrinal insistence that Jesus should be the captain of our souls, and acknowledging that Henley’s poem can be of use when we need to rouse ourselves against the troubles that surround us, the reality remains that much about our lives remains outside our control.  It may be true in the ultimate sense that we control our destinies, but in many ways we simply don’t have such control in the short, medium, and even the long term of our mortal lives. The unexpected has a way of occurring, no matter how righteous we may be. And in this respect, it sometimes seems as though Life—or its nefarious human agents—is out to get us.
Julie Smith over at Times and Seasons has done an excellent job of covering the decision to edit the word “fourth” out of Elder Bruce A. Carlson’s prayer opening the Priesthood session of General Conference. Public Affairs eventually responded to Smith’s request for an explanation by saying:
While the women’s meetings have long been an important part of general conference week, they are not usually referred to as a session of general conference. Edits are routinely made to general conference proceedings prior to publication of the official record. In this case a simple edit was made by the conference producer to reflect the usual numbering of the sessions.
What’s striking about this statement are the words “routinely” and “usual,” which have the effect of taking something many saw as significant and asserting that it was in fact banal all along—as if to say, to those of us who dared believe that something extraordinary had happened, “Everything is normal: nothing to see here.” That Carlson’s prayer apparently built on the momentum of President Uchtdorf’s words opening the General Women’s Meeting, only to have the effort stifled by the bureaucratic inertia of “routinely” and “usual,” indicates one of the challenges of bringing change to a large and complex organization. (At this point it’s worth noting that Carlson was taking his lead not from rabble-rousing feminists, but from a counselor in the First Presidency, someone we sustained last weekend as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Carlson, too, seems to have believed that the prophetic can occur at General Conference.)
Does Mormonism have a theology? My gut response, as someone who reads 17th-century theological debate for fun, is to say “no.” We do not, as a people, engage in the sort of definitional arguments that characterize formal theology. Ask someone after sacrament meeting what kind of Christology Mormonism has and you’ll probably still make it to Sunday School on time (unless that someone is Blake Ostler). This isn’t to say that your typical Mormon is stupid for not knowing what Christology is, or for not being able to place Mormon belief within the historical arguments about it. The typical Catholic probably couldn’t do that either. The difference is that Catholicism has a long history of philosophical engagement with these questions, and Mormonism doesn’t. Our engagement tends to be more ad hoc, with an Orson Pratt here and a Sterling McMurrin there. At present, in addition to Ostler (and approaching theology in a quite different way), we have the triumvirate of Jim Faulconer, Adam Miller, and Joseph Spencer.
It seems to me that one of the major challenges of the 21st century involves figuring out how to be present to other people. Technology has given us so many ways of connecting with others, but with these opportunities come some obstacles as well. Part of the value of social media is the way that it can help us keep connected regularly with distant friends, but these connections can often be fairly shallow. For that person who sat across the room from you in middle school math class, this might be okay, but with closer friendships it can feel like a hollowed-out version of something once solid. And in rare cases, social media can foster real friendships with people we’ve never met in real life. Conversely, social media and other forms of technological connection can distance us from the people with whom we are (or ought to be) present all the time, especially our families. Given Joseph Smith’s teachings about friendship as “the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism” and about the eternal potential of family relationships, I believe that figuring out how to be present to other people is a pretty powerful theological imperative. In a recent post I thought about these questions in terms of heaven; for this post, I turn to the here and now. [Read more…]
If you know a story about Mary Fielding Smith, odds are it’s one of these four: she blessed an ox that was about to die on the pioneer trail; when, on another occasion, a search party had been unable to find her lost cattle, she prayed and was told the cattle’s exact location; when Captain Cornelius Lott gave her a hard time about attempting the trek as a widow, she swore she’d beat him to the Valley, which she did; or, later, she insisted on paying her tithing because she would not be deprived of the blessings.
While these stories have the benefit of being more or less true—on Lavina Fielding Anderson’s search of primary sources, they seem to agree that Mary asked her brother and another elder to bless the ox—the fact that they represent the sum of what we as a people generally know about her ought to give us pause.  To say that she was more complicated is obvious, and complicating details aren’t hard to find: letters between her and Hyrum indicating some disagreement over her tactics as a step-parent, as well as other evidence suggesting that her marriages to Hyrum and, later, to Heber C. Kimball as a plural wife left her feeling lonely and not altogether satisfied.  I share these details not to point out with gleeful cynicism that Mary Fielding Smith wasn’t all she’s been made out to be, but rather to reflect on what it means for us as Latter-day Saints to honor our forebears.
A poem by Sara Teasdale has gotten me thinking about heaven lately.
How can our minds and bodies be
Grateful enough that we have spent
Here in this generous room, we three,
This evening of content?
Each one of us has walked through storm
And fled the wolves along the road;
But here the hearth is wide and warm,
And for this shelter and this light
Accept, O Lord, our thanks to-night. 
I’ve loved the poetry of Czesław Miłosz since a friend gave me a slim collection of his poems over a decade ago. Especially searing are the poems he composed amidst and about the Warsaw Uprising as a sympathetic Catholic outsider. Even after coming to the United States, Miłosz composed his verse primarily in Polish, often collaborating on the translations. This poem comes from his final collection, Second Space.
Hear me, Lord, for I am a sinner, which means I have nothing except prayer.
Protect me from the day of dryness and impotence.
When neither a swallow’s flight nor peonies, daffodils and irises in the flower market are a sign of Your glory.
When I will be surrounded by scoffers and unable, against their arguments, to remember any miracle of Yours.
When I will seem to myself an impostor and swindler because I take part in religious rites.
When I will accuse You of establishing the universal law of death.
When I am ready at last to bow down to nothingness and call life on earth a devil’s vaudeville.
Many of us have recently participated in the “Eternal Marriage” lesson from the Joseph Fielding Smith manual. The lesson’s final section carries the heading “As a husband and wife faithfully observe all the ordinances and principles of the gospel, their joy in marriage grows sweeter.” The paragraphs in the section, however, lean toward defining this joy negatively, in terms of avoiding divorce. This tendency can have the effect of making our divorced sisters and brothers seem “less than” those whose marriages are currently working.
It’s a commonplace to note that in the Church nobody chooses her calling. Rather, God, through the mediation of priesthood leaders, calls us to serve, typically only for a limited time, in any of a wide variety of capacities. There is much to be said for this approach: sometimes, by doing things we never would have chosen for ourselves, we, like Moses, learn things “we never had supposed.” Having this potential for divine surprises built into the system is a good thing.
Still, this approach comes at a price: we lose the concept of vocation—the idea that God calls us individually to walk a particular path of divine service. (Angela C recently wrote an excellent post about this.) To be sure, patriarchal blessings can provide something like an individual call, but in most cases there are not formal institutional venues for performing the things that we in the depths of our souls feel that God has called us to do. If a person in another denomination feels called to the ministry, in many cases there are formal processes of discernment and training to guide that person in working out whether this is really what God wants him or her to do. In Mormonism a person who feels so called must either wait for a formal calling or figure out some less formal way of acting as a minister. This latter option can mean “doing much good of [one’s] own accord,” but it can also lead to tensions with the institutional Church. [Read more…]
This late work appears as the final poem in Donald Justice’s Collected Poems (Knopf, 2006). It has been a favorite ever since I learned of it a few years ago. The third stanza strikes me as an especially clear expression of religious hope as tempered by thoroughgoing realism about the difficulty of life, represented by the almost Beckettian song at the end of the second stanza.
1 There is a gold light in certain old paintings That represents a diffusion of sunlight. It is like happiness, when we are happy. It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light, And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross Share in its charity equally with the cross.
2 Orpheus hesitated beside the black river. With so much to look forward to he looked back. We think he sang then, but the song is lost. At least he had seen once more the beloved back. I say the song went this way: O prolong the suffering if that is all there is to prolong.
3 The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work. One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good. The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar. Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good. And all that we suffered through having existed Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
Note: regular BCC commenter melodynew contributes to a Poetry Sunday series over at The Exponent. Read her entry for today here. The more poetry, the better!
Academic approaches to scripture sometimes arouse suspicion in LDS circles, especially when they include the Higher Criticism (“Moses didn’t write the five books of Moses?”) or reading the Bible as literature (“So you think this is a work of fiction?”). People using or advocating these approaches often draw charges of privileging the intellectual ways of the world over the pure spiritual truth of God, of trusting in the arm of flesh, or of kowtowing to secular disbelief in the interest of seeming more acceptable.
Recent events—the death of Jordan Fowles, the shooting of the Stay family in Texas—have prompted some internal BCC discussions about the character of God. Commenters occasionally accuse BCC of being an echo chamber, but our discussions of this topic have turned out to be full of lively debate and disagreement. We’ve decided to bring our discussion to the blog, with several posts on the subject over the next few days. Our collective goal is to stimulate further conversation, not to defend any particular theological position (although some of us might choose to argue vociferously in the comments).
Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps offers a provocative vision of a God whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts, presenting this, as its subtitle (How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life) proclaims, as a compelling answer to the difficulties of being human. I want to follow in the spirit of Adam Miller’s thoughtful critique of Weeps in the Spring 2014 issue of Dialogue (subscribe if you haven’t yet) by probing some of the implications of the vulnerable God that the Givenses find in Moses 7:28-29. This probing will be ad hoc rather than systematic, stirring up dust rather than settling questions. With Miller, my aim is not to denigrate the book (pas du tout!), but rather to honor its contribution by allowing it to provoke further thinking.