“Life withers when there are things we cannot share”

Virginia Woolf2

I don’t have a testimony.1

This doesn’t mean I don’t seek to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, or that I don’t believe Joseph Smith is a prophet or that the Book of Mormon is scripture or that the Church is the vehicle through which we can be sealed in lasting relationships, etc. But nevertheless, I don’t have a testimony. It might seem like I’m playing little word games here, but the idea of “having a testimony” doesn’t seem adequate to what I actually experience as a devoted student of Mormonism. Having suggests solidity, perhaps a sense of completeness, or a claim that I possess something. Over time, instead, my religious experiences have left me feeling incomplete in some ways (and not just in the “I’m not perfect yet” sense), and feeling possessed by faith more than being a possessor of it.

So I don’t have a testimony because I don’t feel like a testimony is something I can personally and actually have.

Especially not all to myself. [Read more...]

Book Review: The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns

enns coversPeter Enns is an evangelical Christian and a Bible scholar—two identity markers that’ve raised a few conflicts for him. Which really is too bad, because he seems like a pretty faithful, intelligent, funny guy. At least, he seems like that based on this faithful, intelligent, and funny book he just wrote about the Bible. It’s called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

I think a lot of Mormons could really benefit from Enns’s experience.  [Read more...]

Book Review: Neylan McBaine, Women at Church

women at churchWomen at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (released today) appears at a tense moment for LDS church members with regard to gender issues. Some members have advocated for ordaining women to the priesthood while others have asserted that manifesting dissatisfaction with the status quo is inappropriate. As for author Neylan McBaine, she loves being a Mormon woman. But she also believes “there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women at church” (xiii). Situated between these two poles without disrespect to either, her book has two main goals: First, to identify and acknowledge the real pain felt by some LDS women, and second, to offer solutions to provide a more fulfilling church experience for them—solutions that fit within the Church’s current administrative framework. [Read more...]

“Blogger’s Anonymous,” or, thoughts for when you’d rather visit the Bloggernacle than do your Visiting/Home Teaching

ijDavid Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest explores the problem of entertainment-fueled solipsism (getting stuck inside your own head). The massive novel was published about a decade before we began carrying around Internet chat rooms, blogs, message boards, and Facebook in our pockets, but it anticipated some of the anxieties people feel about recent technological developments. In the book, a group of wheelchair-driving Canadian separatist terrorists from Quebec (don’t ask) are trying to get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction in order to bring the United States to its knees. It’s not a nuclear bomb or a toxic virus or anything like that. The weapon is a movie. A film. A film that is so perfect, so pleasurable, so captivating, so entertaining, that the moment you begin watching you will forgo everything else in your life (food, sex, friends, sleep, everything) just to keep watching.

Pretty much until you literally die. [Read more...]

Spamming Flooding the Earth

The good folks at LDS Living have been burning the midnight oil, scouring the Handbook for the latest in correlated rubricking. They discovered some interesting changes in the section on Internet usage. We know missionaries have already stepped up their Internet game, so it looks like members are being invited to be better member missionaries along the same proven and effective lines. The excised bits are stricken out below and the new bits added in bold:

“Members are encouraged to be examples of their faith at all times and in all places, including on the Internet use the Internet to flood the earth with testimonies of the Savior and His restored gospelIf they use They should view blogs, social networks, and other Internet technologies, they are encouraged to strengthen others and help them become aware of that which is useful, good, and praiseworthy as tools that allow them to amplify their voice in promoting the messages of peace, hope, and joy that accompany faith in Christ.

This calls for deep analysis. [Read more...]

Do Mormons do theology?

mcginn coverDepending on who you ask you’ll get a different answer. I offer a qualified “yes,” which may be against the grain depending on who you ask and how the discussion goes. BYU professor James E. Faulconer has called Mormonism “atheological,” stressing that Mormons emphasize history, practice, and lived experience above rational, propositional content.1 In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Louis C. Midgley characteristically skewers theology along similar lines, saying that in spite of a few caveats, theology is “not entirely at home in the LDS community.”2 Philosopher Adam Miller has paradoxically or puzzlingly depicted theology as excess, likening his own work to the construction of a Rube Goldberg machine (it depends on how you read Miller whether this is a good or bad thing).3 Blake Ostler’s three volume series is heavily theological, but he uses a different “T” word in the title: Exploring Mormon Thought.4

Soon, Terryl Givens will publish his ambitious overview of “the foundations of Mormon thought.”5 [Read more...]

Review: Joseph M. Spencer, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope

Did the law of consecration become effectively suspended or temporarily replaced by the law of tithing when the early Latter-day Saints couldn’t make it work out? Joseph M. Spencer answers with a definitive “no” in For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. Spencer’s latest book offers an analysis of the law of consecration through a close and detailed reading of selections from Paul’s letter to the Romans and Joseph Smith’s revelation now canonized as section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants. [Read more...]

Come see the symposium on “The History of the Mormon Family”

summerseminarclaudiaEach summer for the past seventeen years or so Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens have gathered a number of young scholars together to take part in a research seminar on Mormon culture. Bushman and Givens have both benefited greatly from the gatherings—Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling and Givens’s forthcoming Wrestling the Angel were informed by seminar research—but I think the primary beneficiaries have been the participants (myself among them). Now that I work at the Maxwell Institute where the annual gatherings are currently held it’s been a real treat to get to know some of the participants and to reflect back on the great time I had in 2010.

This year the seminar is being directed by Claudia and Richard Bushman. The theme is “The History of the Mormon Family,” which they outlined here. A symposium featuring papers written by this year’s participants is being held this week on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at BYU. (More info is available here.)

If you happen to be in Provo you might stop in and say hello.

Come watch a panel discussion about the relevance of scripture Wednesday in Provo

If you haven’t had a chance yet to dig in to the new books from Adam Miller (Letters to a Young Mormon) Joe Spencer (For Zion: A Theology of Hope) or David Bokovoy (Authoring the Old Testament) you have a perfect chance this week to become more familiar with their authors. On Wednesday night, ZION’S BOOKS in Provo is hosting a roundtable discussion featuring Miller, Spencer, and Bokovoy. Each author will deliver a brief lecture on the relevance of scripture followed by an audience Q&A. Janiece Johnson (BYU-Idaho) will moderate the discussion. You can pick up copies of their books and get autographs and enjoy some free light refreshments and give me a hard time for using this blog post for promotional purposes.

But if I were you, I’d want to know about this, too. So would this guy: [Read more...]

Idle gaming in a very long night

lettermanfireLetter to a Man in the Fire* is a brief meditation on the question of God’s existence and God’s goodness in the face of inexplicable suffering in the world. (Really brief. I read it in about two hours.) Reynolds Price’s letter, written in response to a young man dying of cancer, is suffused with an unusual mix of uncertainty and devotion. Price spends a lot of time agonizing over whether it’s appropriate to even write a letter recommending the existence and—in some sense—the goodness of a Creator to someone whose present suffering directly calls those views into question. Price’s reluctance is appropriate especially because so many people who write answers to theodicy questions forge ahead with affirmations of God’s goodness without dwelling long with the sufferer in their very real pain. He wants neither to “diminish for an instant my sense of the grinding wheel you’re presently under” by offering weak platitudes, nor “burden you further with darker thoughts than you’re otherwise bearing”—a frighteningly acute description of the strange negotiations comforters must make as they go along trying to “mourn with those that mourn” as well as “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (80; Mosiah 18:9). [Read more...]

How to “know Brother Joseph again” using the First Vision

linford-first-vision[Another part of my ongoing "Tips for Teachers" series. See the associated links here.]

My friend’s ward has an interesting Elder’s Quorum lesson schedule and I’m not sure how wide-spread it is in other wards. It goes like this:

1st Sunday: EQ Presidency Message
2 & 3rd: PH/RS manual
4th: “Teachings for our Times” (usually a conference address)
5th: Bishopric message

As EQ president, he gets to select lesson topics once a month. For the past few months he’s made use of the Church’s new Gospel Topics essays on issues like “Race and the Priesthood,” “Becoming Like God” and “Book of Mormon Translation.” This month he decided to focus on the new piece about the First Vision so I told him about a lesson I put together back when I taught Elder’s Quorum lessons in my Maryland ward.

[Read more...]

Holding out for a (recognizable) hero

[soundtrack]

Bonnie_Tyler_Holding_a_Hero

Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods?

The need for heroes seems to be a human thing, but the type of hero desired seems more generational. See the hand-wringing over the new Captain America films, for instance. Maybe this hero phenomenon gives us another way to think about current discussions about “faith-promoting” versus “warts and all” history. Perhaps the sort of heroes people prefer today differs from the sort of heroes older members of the Church felt a need for. I struck on this probably-obvious idea while reading a book about gone-too-soon author David Foster Wallace.

Wallace half-joked that his deep love for the film Braveheart was due to familial connection. But he also explained that he couldn’t really connect on a gut-level with his famous forefather:

wept as he cried “Freedom.” Which I’m sure from the outside looks so cheesy. [...] He was perfect though: he was never weak, he was never cowardly, he was never . . . There was no, there was nothing in there—I couldn’t recognize myself in him at all, you know?1

[Read more...]

Is the new Sunday School curriculum a step forward?

A while back I gave a sacrament talk about how the Restoration is an ongoing thing. It was tough to gather enough recent rhetorically requisite quotes from authority to uphold my main thesis, so I was particularly happy when President Uchtdorf delivered this one:
Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.”
It’s wonderful (and for me, paradoxically egotistically self-affirming) to hear from the pulpit that we still have important things to learn as a Church, not just as new converts. But isolated statements like this one are up against some institutional inertia sustaining the view that we have pretty much everything figured out, especially Truth-wise. If we want to know how the “ongoing process” perspective play out in our actual church lives we might take a look at the Church’s recently announced plans for a new Sunday School curriculum for adults. The new curriculum has the potential to paradoxically affirm the idea of an ongoing process of Restoration while also denying or obscuring it.

[Read more...]

Book Review: Richard J. Mouw’s Talking With Mormons

cover mouwLast week, popular Christian evangelist Ravi Zacharias returned to Salt Lake City to address Mormons and other Christians from the Tabernacle pulpit. Back in 2004, Zacharias’s historic Tabernacle address was overshadowed in the news by Richard Mouw’s controversial introductory remarks. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, issued an apology to Mormons on behalf of evangelicals who he said had sinned against Mormonism by misrepresenting their beliefs and practices. Over the past decade, the evangelical (Calvinist) Christian has continued to dialog with various Mormons in order to promote better interfaith relationships. During the last two presidential elections he became one of the many go-to sources for news outlets seeking soundbites on evangelical views of Mormonism. He’s taken a lot of heat for this within his religious community–early on being told that he didn’t know Mormons well enough and so would easily be deceived by them, later being told he had become too close to Mormons to have a clear view of their dangerous heresies.

His new book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals is an effort to educate the evangelical community about his ongoing work with Mormonism.  [Read more...]

Review: Stephen H. Webb’s Mormon Christianity

webbcoverWhat if Joseph Smith’s vision of God really does have something important to say to all Christians today?
— Stephen H. Webb

The recent “Mormon moment” exasperated theologian Stephen Webb. It wasn’t that Mitt Romney’s presidential run lent undue legitimacy to the LDS Church, or that Webb thought the media went too soft on the religious background of the Republican nominee. Although he is not a Mormon himself, Webb was unnerved by shallow discussions about Mormon underwear and other apparent trivialities. According to Webb, such conversations fail to pay due attention to Mormon metaphysics—the way Mormons understand the nature of matter, humans, God, and existence. His new book, Mormon Christianityexplores the development and coherence of this core belief taught by Joseph Smith: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes…” (D&C 131:7). Mormons make no ultimate distinction between spirit and matter, the natural and supernatural, which largely sets them apart from the broader Christian tradition. “The Mormon imagination is solidly grounded in material reality,” writes Webb, “but it takes the physical world to new and unheard-of heights” (10). Webb believes Christian lungs can benefit from the rarefied air of these heights.
[Read more...]

Review: Jack Harrell, A Sense of Order and Other Stories

asenseoforder-cdI didn’t like every story in Jack Harrell’s collection of short stories, A Sense of Order and Other Stories. But a few of them have stuck with me over the past few months, occasionally surfacing at the shoreline as the cognitive tide recedes just before sleep. [Read more...]

Review: Christopher Higgs, Becoming Monster

higgs-cover

What is a human? [Read more...]

Not power; but confidence and faith

old-womans-hands-emanuel-tanjalaMormon women used to give blessings similar to–but not necessarily the same as–the ones currently restricted to male priesthood holders. This is a historical fact. I know of no revelation declaring such practices as being contrary to God’s will, but we’re at a point when many members of the Church feel that even bringing this up is somehow dangerous, irreverent, disrespectful, or otherwise suspect. There’s an “Ordain Women” movement going on which provokes some intense reactions (whether passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive.) There are other movements–like WAVE–which seek more incremental goals like finding better ways to include women in the Church without even requiring Priesthood ordination. (Neylan McBain’s 2012 FAIR Conference address is a must-read in this regard, and I think it could usefully be offered to bishops for their consideration.)

So we have a variety of ways that tension about this issue manifests itself. I was discussing things with a friend when someone called into question the motives of women who feel a desire to exercise priesthood power.

[Read more...]

Sunday Sermon: “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs”

I spoke on the assigned topic, “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs,” today in my Salt Lake City ward. 

0301-dream-james

A boy’s depiction of the tree of life, including the mists of darkness.

We don’t have a written record of the prayer Joseph Smith offered in a grove of trees in the spring of 1820, when the Father and the Son appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven. But we’re fortunate to have the words of another prayer the Prophet offered, a prayer much more troubling, a prayer we’ve all become familiar with since it was placed in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants: [Read more...]

“Give them space”

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_002 Sorrowing Old Man 'At Eternity's Gate'

“Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’),” Vincent van Gogh

I had an interesting  conversation yesterday with someone who, despite feeling deeply Mormon, has more recently felt disconnected from the Church. Without going into too much detail, my friend was on the verge of tears explaining how s/he had come to be seen as a danger by certain members of the ward due to political views perhaps-infelicitously shared on Facebook. This feeling led to deeper online engagement with people who have likewise felt they didn’t fit in at Church, whose activity had lapsed, and some of whom had turned bitter against a Church they feel had rejected them first. They looked to my friend for some measure of solace, she was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but in good Mormon fashion recognized the significant influence our communities of choice have on our emotional and spiritual lives. In such cases I typically refer people to Eugene England’s classic essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel,” while recognizing it’s not a silver bullet. [Read more...]

In the world and of the world

istareatthestarsandconsidermyinsign

This is from “Exploding Dog,” a webcomic by Sam Brown (no, not that Sam Brown)

In a short story by Stephen-Paul Martin, a discontented American copes with despair following the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush by fleeing to a Zen Buddhist retreat.

“What appealed to me about Zen was its technique of destabilizing human arrogance,” he writes, “humbling its practitioners by leading them into radical uncertainty, relentlessly making them see that any assumption they might make about anything, no matter how logical or factual it seemed, was nothing more than a verbal house of cards” (48). [Read more...]

Review: Jacob T. Baker, “Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology”

Paulsen coverTitle: Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen
Editor: Jacob T. Baker
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Year: 2012
Pages: 422
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1589581920
Price: $31.95

When it comes to academic engagement with philosophy and theology, Mormonism largely lacks two things: People and place. Mormons who are interested in making a comfortable living typically don’t seek higher education in these areas. The Church’s schools, seminaries and institutes focus more on devotional approaches to the faith. Such circumstances help explain why some of the most sustained work in recent Mormon theologizing and philosophizing has occurred in interfaith settings, which can provide interlocutors and institutions for participation and publication. When the topic of Mormon/Christian interreligious dialog arises, people are likely to think of Stephen E. Robinson’s How Wide the Divide, or Robert Millet’s books attempting rapprochement with various Evangelical scholars, books published mostly by non-Mormon presses. David L. Paulsen’s name is less likely to be recognized by the average Mormon than Robinson or Millet, but it is arguable that Paulsen has done more than any currently-living Mormon scholar in advancing sustained and rigorous interfaith exchanges. The scary and valuable thing about exchanges is that everyone usually departs changed in some sense. [Read more...]

Review: Jane Barnes, “Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet”

barnesTitle: Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet
Author: Jane Barnes
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
Genre: Biography/Memoir
Year: 2013
Pages: 304
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: 1585429252
Price: $25.95 (or $10 on Amazon)

In this quirky autobiographical biography of Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet, writer Jane Barnes offers an overview of Smith’s life intertwined with her own life experiences of love, loss and death. [Read more...]

“If there are faults they are the mistakes of men”: On fallibly reading fallible scriptures

pinnochio

We’re a Church with a canon. An agreed-upon book of authoritative stories, teachings, commandments. Sometimes I feel canon claustrophobia, other times I sense a liberating opportunity. I’ve gone through periods when I put my scripture study on hold. Sometimes an excerpt of scripture off-ends me when I’m simply seeking stability. A curious chapter in John describes such a moment:

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Verily, verily, I say to you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I’ll raise them up at the last day.’ From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:53-54, 66).

[Read more...]

“On the edge of beatitude”: Another review of Adam Miller’s “Rube Goldberg Machines”

rgmTitle: Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology
Author: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Philosophy/Religion
Year: 2012
Pages: 132
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-58958-193-7
Price: $18.95

[Note: Adam Miller is co-founder of Salt Press, an independent publishing outfit whose books were recently brought into the Maxwell Institute at BYU where I work. This book isn't a Salt title, but I thought I'd mention the connection anyway.]

I watched Groundhog Day the other night. I’ve owned the DVD for years but never tore the plastic wrapping until Adam Miller put a bug in my ear via one of his theological essays. (It was just as good as I remembered it!) Miller, the theological film critic. I laughed when Phil, Bill Murray’s character, punched Ned Ryerson in the face at a busy intersection and I teared up as he fruitlessly pummeled the chest of a dying homeless man in a freezing alleyway. “Come on, pops, come on pops, don’t die on me.” Watching Phil struggle through incomprehension, laugh at absurdity, and find joy in relationships, reminded me a lot of reading Miller’s book. I’d already read great reviews of it, I couldn’t wait to get a copy. But I hit many more brick walls than I anticipated. This deceptively thin volume will take much more of your time than you might think. It felt at times like the alarm clock kept hitting 6:00 AM, February 2, and I was in for another round of difficulty. Not that all the essays were the same, but that they were each difficult in their own way. It’s way above my level to feel confident in doing this, but my review is an attempt to help readers like me have a better chance at making it through the book. [Read more...]

Christ’s Pathetic Majesty

Having grown up with the stories, I tend to forget just how strange this Easter thing really is. I found myself thinking again this year about the incredibly perplexing central claim of Christianity. To the declarations of faith delivered by poets and prophets, I add the voices of two who decried the scandal of the cross. Their unbelief lends clarity to my belief:

“Obtuse to all Christian terminology, modern people can no longer relate to the hideous superlative found by an ancient taste in the paradoxical formula ‘god on the cross.’ Nowhere to date has there been such a bold inversion or anything quite as horrible, questioning, and questionable as this formula. It promised a revaluation of all the values of antiquity.”1 [Read more...]

A Teaser from the Maxwell Institute

A little over 20 years ago, Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke to BYU educators about a certain kind of distribution of labor in the Church:

The member who is an automobile mechanic does not likely have all the skills of a scholar, and not likely you the mechanic’s [skills]. But both of you are under the same spiritual obligations to keep the same commandments and the same covenants. Furthermore, the mechanic is under the same obligation to develop the attributes of patience and meekness as are you.

The Institute that bears his name has undergone some changes over the past year. My perspective on them is obviously skewed; after all, I’m the Maxwell Institute’s new public communications specialist. So take it with a grain of Salt when I say I’m excited to be looking forward. [Read more...]

Defects in the Garden of Eden and Evolutionary Theory

I don’t know the title of this painting by Brian Kershisnik, but I like it.

Part 8 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…

Throughout the nineteenth century the concept of the “natural” was largely replaced by the concept of the “normal.” This was a massive cultural shift which was produced by and which produced various new social sciences, statistical analyses, Darwinian evolution, and the industrial revolution. This shift is detectable in the writings of various political, religious, and social thinkers all across the spectrum. For example, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine alike leaned on the rhetorical power of the natural versus the unnatural or monstrous. As one historian described the shift:

The natural was good and right because it conformed to the intent or design of Nature [as for Paine] or the Creator of Nature [as for Burke]. Normality, in contrast, was an empirical and dynamic concept for a changing and progressing world, the premise of which was that one could discern in human behavior the direction of human evolution and progress and use that as a guide.

The ascendance of normality [in the work of people like statistician Adolphe Quetelet] signaled a shift in the locus of faith from a God-centered to a human-centered world, from a culture that looked within to a core and backward to lost Edenic origins toward one that looked outward to behavior and forward to a perfected future. Just as the counterpart to the natural was the monstrous, so the opposite of the normal person was the defective.1

Mormonism was born as this shift was underway, a fact which is reflected in its developing theologies. [Read more...]

Day One: Loading the truck and driving


[Read more...]

Intelligences and the Mythology of Coherence

Part 7 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…

Brian Kershisnik, “Burden With Wheels”

You’d imagine one of the fundamental problems to address when considering  “intellectual disability in Mormon thought” would concern the nature of “intelligences.” You’d be right. The problem is, the literature on this point often seems to be “without form and void,” to borrow some scriptural language. That is to say, it is in a chaotic state, awaiting some organization. Without question, one of the biggest theological puzzles Joseph Smith left in his wake regards the nature of the human spirit, or the “intelligence,” and its origin. In his most famous sermon, Joseph had declared that “God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself–Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it.” He went on to claim that God found himself “in the midst of spirit and glory [and] because he was greater saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.”1 In a subsequent sermon, Joseph spoke of humans as “Sons of God” who, like Jesus, “can cry Abba Father.”2

In other words, intelligences are apparently in some sense eternal and self-existent, but also sons and daughters of God the Father. Joseph Lee Robinson, an associate of Smith, reported confusion on this point shortly after Joseph’s death. Joseph taught “that our spirits existed eternally with God,” which led church elders to ask “’How is God the Father of our spirits?’ … There was not a person that could or that would even try to explain the matter.”3

But the truth is, they did try. [Read more...]

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