Zina D. H. Young

Along with her close friend (and sister wife twice over) Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. H. Young was part of the power duo of Mormon women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Popular wisdom held that Eliza was the head and Zina the heart, complementing each other as they traveled indefatigably around Utah (and beyond) to do the work of the Relief Society. (Picture two women in their late 50s, traveling alone through the deserts of Utah, camping together under the stars when they didn’t manage to reach a settlement.) [Read more…]

Challenges of Vocation in Mormonism

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. (See Angela C’s 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…]

Walking in Love with the Gospel Topics Essays

Here at BCC, amidst the recent interest in Joseph Smith’s seerstone (here, here, and here), we’ve also been revisiting the Gospel Topics essays (here and here). Collectively, the Church’s decision to publish pictures of the seerstone (and let’s not forget that the pictures appear in a landmark edition of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon) and the publication of the essays all participate in an institutional trend toward transparency about the Church’s history. Although I personally applaud this trend, it admittedly also adds some complications to the already challenging project of building Zion.

The basic problem is that some members have known about most of this stuff for years, while it comes as a sometimes unpleasant surprise to others, some of whom have been taught that ideas now given the imprimatur of lds.org were anti-Mormon lies. This reality presents the urgent question of how these two groups of members (and all of the people in between) are to live together in Christian community. Sam has recently written about one approach to teaching these materials in a Church setting, and I wish to add some theological reflections to his pragmatic discussion.
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A New Song: John Coltrane

Sometimes we ourselves are the greatest obstacle to the realization of our gifts. Such was the case with John Coltrane in 1957. He was at the peak of the jazz world, playing in Miles Davis’s first great quintet in addition to some historic gigs with Thelonious Monk, but his alcohol and heroin addictions were hindering his ability to participate, and he had to leave Davis’s group for a time. Enter God’s power of redemption: Coltrane later wrote, in the liner notes to A Love Supreme (1964), that in 1957 “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” Like Alma the Younger, Coltrane went from being “racked with eternal torment” to singing the song of redeeming love. He spent the next ten years of his life trying to make good on God’s gift to him. [Read more…]

Sing Praises to God: William Byrd

Ammon’s rapturous speech at the end of his mission famously climaxes with the phrase “I cannot say the smallest part which I feel,” but it also includes two references to singing: an opening call to “sing [God’s] praise” and a statement that the Lamanite converts have been “brought to sing redeeming love.” When joy breaks upon the shoals of language, music still remains to express it, and indeed there may be no other way to give full voice to the power of redeeming love. William Byrd, perhaps the greatest of Tudor composers, understood the capacity for music to express joy, as in today’s psalm, which invites us to “shout to God with loud songs of joy, but also in this setting of words from the 81st psalm:

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Why I Use Other Bible Translations in Gospel Doctrine

I routinely give some version of this spiel both when I teach Gospel Doctrine and in the hallway conversations that follow. Several friends have suggested that I blog it, so here goes. I’m aiming for brevity rather than thoroughness, since the point of the spiel is to give people in class who might be wondering why I tend not to use the KJV a short and accessible argument explaining my reasons. Even though we’re currently doing the New Testament, I’ll also include my bit on the Old. [Read more…]

Prophecy and Martyrdom: Jan Hus

The notion of a “prophetic witness and martyr,” as the Episcopal Lectionary styles Jan Hus, resonates deeply with Mormonism, which reveres Joseph Smith for having “sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.” That prophetic witnesses often become martyrs indicates just how dangerous such figures are, how threatening to established orders and comfortable hierarchies. Hus, like Smith, developed considerable authority and social capital within certain circles while arousing significant animosity from others. Prophetic practice seems threatening precisely because it is powerful, hinting at the possibility of a world turned upside down.
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Trouble of the World

We pray for our sisters and brothers killed in Charleston and for their families and friends. May God hasten the day when we beat our swords into ploughshares.

Tradition and Innovation: Maurice Duruflé

Much as the future is, by definition, leaving the past behind, the past finds its ways to linger on. Life layers us with habits of mind—some good, some bad—that not only color our choices but also shape our sense of what choices we even have. The limits of the future are laid, it seems, only by our bounded imaginations. Might we not leave the past behind too precipitously, though? Mormon writes with regret about the youth who forgot the traditions of their fathers, as taught by King Benjamin, and yet Jesus frequently criticized those who “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” A great difficulty, therefore, lies in discerning which of our traditions to carry with us into the future and which to leave behind. [Read more…]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Born in the year of Joseph Smith’s death, and gone himself only forty-four years later, Gerard Manley Hopkins lived a rich and difficult life. As a young man, he had the gift of seeing the Creator’s hand in nature. This sacramental view of nature drew him to Roman Catholicism and eventually to a vocation as a Jesuit priest. Not just the heavens, but everything in the world declares the glory of God, and Hopkins could see even a leaf as a “tabernacle for the sun”—or, perhaps, a tabernacle for the Son.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came. I say more: the just man justices; Keeps grace; that keeps in all his goings graces; Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is— Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men's faces.

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Trinity Sunday

This post is a slightly revised version of last year’s Trinity Sunday post. For more recent BCC discussion of the Trinity, start with J. Stapley’s “Mormon Jesus?”, which links to other posts by BCC authors.

Early in the Book of Mormon, Nephi receives some information that seems to have been all at once exciting, shocking, and confusing. After Nephi affirms his belief in Lehi’s vision of the tree, the Spirit who had carried him away responds with praise: “Hosanna to the Lord, the Most High God; for he is God over all the earth, even above all.” Then comes the intriguing part: “And blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God.”

This is intriguing not only because Nephi has not affirmed any such belief, but more profoundly because the text has not hitherto mentioned any such Son (except when the narrator Nephi, writing 40 years after the fact, attributes his father’s vision to “faith on the Son of God” [1 Ne. 10:17]). The book opens with Lehi, likewise carried away by the Spirit, seeing God enthroned (1 Ne. 1:8), after which he sees “One descending out of the midst of heaven” and “twelve others following him” (1 Ne. 1:9-10). While we are justified in understanding this “One” as Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon does not at this point identify him as God’s Son; nor does it clarify the relationship between this One and God at all. [Read more…]

Writing and Revelation

My wife and I recently watched “The Words,” a movie with nested stories about writers. It featured a trope that occurs fairly regularly in movies about writing: the all-night burst of inspiration that produces Deeply Moving Prose, usually after the person doing the writing has gone through a prolonged period of emotional difficulty. The desired effect of this trope is to imbue the writing with a kind of mystical power—an effect that these movies usually augment by keeping said Deeply Moving Prose more or less sealed off from the viewers, Hitchcock-style, because it’s easier to imagine Deeply Moving Prose than it is to produce it (which may explain the irony that most movies about writing, including this one, are badly written). [Read more…]

Emily Dickinson

This post will be less biographical than is usual for the Mormon Lectionary Project. After all, Emily Dickinson pretty much affords the quintessential case for the idea that biography doesn’t tell the whole story, for out of her superficially quiet life burst a vast and lively treasury of verse. Accordingly, this post eschews narrative in favor of putting Dickinson’s poems tactically into conversation with scripture both ancient and modern. It will be terse and epigrammatic, leaving readers to develop connections further in the comments (and to suggest other of her poems that resonate with Mormonism). [Read more…]

Mother Jesus

Although Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1417) was the greatest of the medieval English mystics, we know little of her life. At about age 30 she was cured of mortal illness through a vision she experienced while gazing at a cross brought by the priest who had come to administer last rites. By the 1390s she was a well-known anchorite (a person bound by vow to sacred confinement) at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich.

We know her primarily through her book of Showings, which makes her the first identifiable female author in English literature. This book exists in two forms: a shorter one recording what she called “the revelations of divine love” and a longer one that expands and meditates upon these experiences.

Although, as with many of our own spiritual experiences, Julian’s first vision seems to have come unbidden, she was exemplary in showing us what riches can come of meditating upon what the Lord has taught us. In this way she provokes us to love and good deeds, giving us confidence to enter (and re-enter) the sanctuaries of our own hearts. [Read more…]

Book Review: Sarah Coakley, “God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity'”

Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Amazon Indiebound

Why should Mormons read (or even care about) a work of Anglican systematic theology about the Trinity, a doctrine in which we are prone to saying we do not believe? (But which we enjoy probing around here: see J. Stapley’s recent post, which links to several earlier Trinitarian BCC musings—get this—by three men, including me.)

Here’s why: some of the most urgent theological questions currently occupying Mormonism have to do with gender and the divine. Not only has the Ordain Women movement raised (once again) the issue of women’s ordination, but people are asking questions about Heavenly Mother (see the “Connecting to Heavenly Mother” series at FMH, or the Heavenly Mother category at the Exponent II blog), with some wondering whether she can be separated from earlier teachings about Adam-God and polygamy. A recent review of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling with the Angel drew attention to the ways that our theology (along with Givens’s account of it) struggles to make sense of gender or even to find a place for women. In sum, although many members of the Church (female and male) do seem satisfied with present teachings and practices around gender, a growing minority can’t help butting up uncomfortably against questions about how women fit into the economy of heaven. [Read more…]

Grace and Friendship

Some of life’s best examples of grace come through friendship, in little moments of surprise that remind us of the whole world that exists beyond ourselves. Sure, there are the graces that happen when strangers are unexpectedly kind, but what makes grace in friendship interesting is that we expect goodness from the other person. What is grace when kindness and generosity are the rule (even if moments of prickliness do intrude, as they will)? [Read more…]

Emmeline B. Wells

On this day we honor the example of Emmeline B. Wells, whose deep commitment to the gospel drove decades of devotion to the cause of women’s rights.

Her faith was tested severely at a young age. After joining the Church in Massachusetts and marrying while still a teenager, she came to Nauvoo, only to be abandoned by her husband. Then, when Joseph was killed, her in-laws decided to return to Massachusetts, but rather than leave the Church with them, Emmeline made Ruth’s choice:

Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!

The Restored Gospel was her Naomi. [Read more…]

Called of God? Don’t Inhale.

In a 2010 General Conference address, President Uchtdorf told of when he, as a newly called General Authority, was riding in a car with President James E. Faust, who talked about how members of the Church would behave toward him because of his calling:

He said, “They will treat you very kindly. They will say nice things about you.” He laughed a little and then said, “Dieter, be thankful for this. But don’t you ever inhale it.”

In practical terms, a worldwide Church needs General Authorities to administer it, and yet such “high” callings bring the risk, as President Faust pointed out, of going to the heads of those who hold them. [Read more…]

The Genesis Fall Stories #ldsconf

In his conference talk, Elder Holland set out to preach Jesus as one who can save us from the Fall. I was very grateful to hear such a sermon on Easter Sunday. To make his point about Jesus, Elder Holland insisted on the need to believe in a literal Adam and Eve who fell in the Garden of Eden so that Jesus could become, as Paul would have him, a second Adam who brings life after the first brought death. I’m not going to argue about whether we need to take the story of Adam and Eve literally or not (even though I don’t think we do); rather, I aim to show how Genesis offers a second perspective on the Fall, one in addition to the familiar story of Adam and Eve. [Read more…]

Bishop Caussé’s Invitation to Attention and the Question of Grace #LDSConf

Bishop Caussé opens his talk with a stunning acknowledgement about failing to pay attention: his family lived in Paris for 22 years without ever making time to visit the Eiffel Tower! Similarly, he suggests, we can all too easily miss occasions for spiritual wonder all around us. In a monitory tone, he says:

Our ability to marvel is fragile. Over the long term, such things as casual commandment-keeping, apathy, or even weariness may set in and make us insensitive to the most remarkable signs and miracles of the gospel.

Later, he quotes Marcel Proust by way of inviting us to undertake a wondrous spiritual journey made possible by the simple mechanism of paying attention: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” This quote marvelously captures both the “renewing of [the] mind” that Paul makes a consequence of grace and the spiritual riches that await those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
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Easter Day

At last the day of rejoicing has come!  Our Lenten afflictions now past, we echo the Psalm: “The LORD has punished me sorely, / but he did not hand me over to death.” Indeed, through Jesus we have been handed over to life! Whatever satisfaction we found in anticipation during the dark days of Lent has now become reality with the risen Jesus. “[We] shall not die, but live, / and declare the works of the LORD.” [Read more…]

Elder Perry: World Religion vs. Religion of “The World”

Elder Perry’s talk reflects on his visit to the Colloquium on Marriage and Family held at the Vatican last November. This event gathered representatives of 14 different faiths—and as such, the participation of Church leaders raises once again the question of whether Mormonism is a world religion. Elder Perry does not address this question directly, but his use of the word “world” in ways that both harmonize with and run counter to usual LDS usage suggests that answer might be “yes,” albeit not for reasons we might usually suppose. [Read more…]

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday represents the time in between, the time when Jesus had died, but before he had risen again. We read in the Gospel that two of his disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” and then “wrapped [the body of Jesus] with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” Having thus laid him in the tomb, how might they reasonably expect to see him alive again? [Read more…]

Poem for Good Friday

O Jesus, on the cross, alone,
you are the only God I know;
my pleading heart a barren stone
no heaven finds but here below.

I met you hanging on a tree
in woods obscure, half spent the day,
forsaken by your God, like me,
without a friend to share the way.

Companionship then let us keep—
though mortal fear each footstep bars—
as we descend through dark and deep,
together searching for the stars.

Tuesday in Holy Week

Part of the punitive appeal of crucifixion lies in the fact of public display: nothing says “remember who’s in charge” quite like a bunch of corpse-bedecked crosses outside the city gates. So, too, with Jesus, crucified as a troublemaker alongside two thieves and atop a hill, such that the scene might be visible from a distance. The message from the Romans: “We will not tolerate that business about destroying the temple and raising it up in three days, no sir, so don’t even think about it.” [Read more…]

Louise Yates Robison

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 Louise Yates Robison, who notwithstanding deep shyness served effectively as the General Relief Society President during the difficult years of the Great Depression. [Read more…]

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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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…]

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…]

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…]

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