Seasons of my imprecise, ambiguous, unfinished faith (a prayer)

cityrainThe last few months of my mission changed my relationship to God in a very unexpected way. That’s when it seemed to me God decided to go home early while I finished my full two years. I noticed God’s absence most during personal prayer. What formerly seemed like a welcome opportunity to express gratitude and ask for assistance, or like an intimate confession or reunion, became to me like speaking alone to a bare ceiling.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…

[Read more…]

Elder Nielson and the dawn of the prodigal #ldsconf

Elder Brent H. Nielson spoke about something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: interacting with people who no longer associate with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Mormonism burrows deep. Its roots spread throughout our soul’s soil. Disaffiliation can lead to heartache, anger, confusion, or shock for those who remain in communion with the Church as well as for those who don’t. Pulling up roots is disruptive and messy. [Read more…]

A few confessions to people who’ve left the church

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

When the Mormons met Darwin’s Origin of the Species

brighamyoungdarwin

A copy of Darwin’s Descent of Man from Brigham Young’s collection. Courtesy of Ardis Parshall.

Are science and religion mutually combative foes? The question’s not a new one, nor is it necessarily more pressing today than it’s been in the past. The turn of the twentieth century marked another period of intense cultural shifts, not least of all regarding widespread views about the relationship between the natural sciences and religion. [Read more…]

Taking on the princess problem

princessproblemLOADED TOPIC DISCLAIMER: Let me apologize in advance if you or your loved ones are fans of the Disney princesses or the “princess phenomenon” in general. I don’t mean to unduly demonize princess culture or depict it as though you must either be for or against princesses. Please bear with me because you might find something useful here after all.

I’m a relatively new dad. My daughter is just over two years old. Her mom and I love her with the heat of a thousand suns and we want the best for her. We want her to become faithful, independent minded, strong-willed, kind, and courageous. We want her to be herself. I used to always call her my “little baby” or “the tiniest baby in the whole wide world” and other diminutive and cute phrases parents attach to their little (there I go again) sweethearts. Over the past few months as she’s become more aware of the media and merchandise all around her my anxiety has increased. The Church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet understates the problem this way:

“Choose wisely when using media because whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you.”[1]

[Read more…]

Seed from stone

slidingstonesThere’s a crazy man out by a river on the edge of the wilderness. He’s dressed in old rags. He’s eating insects. He’s putting people in the water and pulling them out again and telling them that they’re reborn naked newborn babies. He’s foretelling someone greater. The appearance of the expected Messiah.

What he says surprises the living daylights out of the covenant people. [Read more…]

Sunday sermon: Understanding atonement

A talk delivered in my ward on Jan. 11, 2015.

reconciliation-coventry-statue

Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos.

Sometimes when I think about the atonement I think about an elephant. Most of you have heard the little story about the blind people who encounter, for the first time, an elephant. Each person feels a different part of the elephant’s body and offers a unique description of the strange beast. For two thousand years followers of Jesus have struggled to come to describe the most mysterious, puzzling aspect of the “good news” they’ve proclaimed. As I’ve spent some time reviewing various ways people have described the atonement through the years, and as I’ve thought about some of the ways I’ve personally experienced the atonement in my life, I have to confess that I feel like I’m blindly reaching out. [Read more…]

Religious studies and Mormon studies: Good or bad?

MormonStudiesCover_Vol2What’s it like to study about religion in a university setting?

I’ve come to believe that the answer to this question largely depends on what university you attend. Some universities are privately owned and overseen by particular religious organizations. Others are overseen by state governments. The immediate context of scholarly pursuits always impacts the work that results, but not always in predictable ways. As with many academic pursuits, there’s no simple one-size-fits-all definition of religious studies. This suggests we should be skeptical when we encounter generalities like this: “Religious studies is a secular enterprise which excludes and damages faith and dismisses believers,” or “Religious studies is what happens when apologists and theologians try to gain academic respectability.” [Read more…]

Book Review: Hicks, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography

hicks coverTwenty-five years ago, Michael Hicks published one of the most enjoyable books about Mormon history I’ve ever read. Mormonism and Music still flies under the radar when people compile lists of their favorite Mormon history books, but his analysis of LDS music as influenced by nineteenth and twentieth century culture holds up as a must-read study of Mormon religiosity to this day. He also contributed the entry on Music to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Hicks is adding upon that solid foundation with a new book: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography. And it’s just as fun, lucid, and intriguing as his earlier effort. [Read more…]

Mormons and Muppets, Secular and Sacred

counttabernacleIt felt like I won the lottery when I received them in the mail: four tickets to see my long-beloved Muppets join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City. That’s because I literally did win a lottery to get the tickets. Last night they kicked off a short series of shows with a public dress rehearsal. Here are a few quick thoughts. [Read more…]

Polygamy as Discussed in the Church Today

Plural marriage is in the news again thanks to the Church’s new Gospel Topics essays. National news organizations have picked up the story and the Church responded with a note of clarification from the Newsroom. The basic idea is this: some news outlets are reporting this as though the Church was somehow denying that Joseph Smith instituted or practiced polygamy. I can’t recall when I first learned that Joseph instituted and practiced polygamy, but it was sometime before my mission. As Kristine just wrote about, some church members, even life-longers, report that they never heard about it, and the new essays come as a surprise to them. It’s worth taking a look at the Church’s handling of polygamy in its official materials to get a sense of why some members never knew about Joseph’s polygamy until this week.

If you don’t have time to read the whole post, let me summarize first:

The Church has not removed all information regarding plural marriage and Joseph Smith’s involvement from its manuals. At the same time, polygamy has clearly not played a prominent role in official LDS literature, sermons, and lessons. It has been discussed much more in “unofficial” writing including Dialogue and even BYU Studies, which has published a few articles about plural marriage over the past few decades, as have other non-official LDS publications such as Sunstone, the Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, etc. Many active members of the Church do not have a full grasp of polygamy, the extent to which it was practiced, how it began, the sacrifices involved, and the reasons participants themselves—actual women and men—gave for living “the principle.” The new essays are not a new “admission” by the LDS Church as to the existence of polygamy pre-Brigham Young. They are the culmination of a number of historical studies and initiatives by historians who were sometimes seen as enemies of the Church, and now a new effort on the part of the Church to be more transparent when dealing with LDS history.

Now that the conclusion is out of the way, let’s look at the details. [Read more…]

A gentle man, acquainted with pain

swkMormon Lectionary Project: President Spencer W. Kimball, d. November 5, 1985

One of his several biographies bears the subtitle A Short Man, a Long Stride. In his physical prime he stood at five feet six inches. His voice, soft sandpaper. The result of a throat surgery. Having neither the appearance nor the bearing of your prototypical leader, Spencer W. Kimball served for twelve years as the twelfth Church president (1973-1985). It was an unexpected presidency, considering his advanced age and health problems compared with the relative vigor of predecessor Harold B. Lee. It was a presidency of unexpected developments. President Kimball oversaw some of the most significant changes in the modern Church—doubling the number both of operating temples and missionaries, inaugurating what would later become the General Women’s Session of General Conference (October 1978), and extending the priesthood to all worthy male members and temple blessings to black members of African descent (June 1978). The Lord has said “I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.” [Read more…]

“You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive”

2000px-BYU_Medallion_Logo.svgPretty much immediately after changes in BYU’s Religious Education curriculum were leaked yesterday a lot of people busted out their sackcloth and ashes. I confess that in looking over the four core classes I was less than enthused. I think Julie Smith made some great points about the way we study our scriptures, too. But before we sound the requiem bell let’s take a second, breathe, and think about a few things.  [Read more…]

“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…]

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