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 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…]
Title: Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen
Editor: Jacob T. Baker
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
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…]
Title: Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet
Author: Jane Barnes
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…]
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).
Title: Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology
Author: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
[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…]
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 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…]
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…]
Part 7 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
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…]
J. Stapley’s recent post talks about how we as a people tend to sanctify any and all procedural decisions made by the institutional Church. As a result, he says “we can become burdened by the worst of our past culture.” Call it the “Sacred Status Quo” rule, described by someone on the Bloggernacle as follows:
“If there’s one thing Mormons excel at, it’s enshrining the status quo and assuming that if we do anything, there must be a good reason for it, and if there’s a good reason, it must have been revealed as the only way to do it, and if so, then it must have always been that way in all dispensations.”
We’re supposed to “be one,” and “love one another,” and avoid “contention,” and “build up Zion.” We’re supposed to defer to our inspired leaders who’ve been given stewardship over their flocks, and who sacrifice an immense amount of time to serving us. Obedience keeps things running smoothly, and it’s the least we can do. At the same time, expectations for obedience aren’t always realistic. We Mormons are great at backing such things up using scriptures. This post provides the top three scriptural justifications for culturelag, i.e., the continued presence of unnecessary or outdated policies and procedures. I describe the stories, list some of the rhetorical purposes they’re used for, and describe a few problems resulting from such usage. Especially in cases where Church norms have no reasonable justification, it usually boils down the simple concept of obedience.
We are fond of quoting an Article of Faith to the effect that we believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly. It provides a nice escape hatch in the event someone brings up a scripture that seems to contradict a cherished Mormon doctrine. I wonder how many Mormons can actually point to a specific place where the Bible hasn’t been translated correctly? While we have the opportunity to take a very nuanced approach to scripture it seems we more often operate unreflectively as “selective literalists.”
Part 5 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
We’ve been tying intellectual disability to the issue of “accountability,” and thus the scriptures which discuss little children, since the 1830s. Explicit discussion about intellectual disabilities in the eternal scheme of things went under the radar for the next century for reasons I attempt to outline in my thesis. But when the subject cropped back up again we picked up right where we’d left off. Bruce R. McConkie took the time in his Mormon Doctrine to add an entry on “Idiocy.” It simply said “See YEARS OF ACCOUNTABILITY.”1 This not only reminds us of the longevity of a by-then outdated term, but indicates that intellectual disability was at least on McConkie’s radar enough to merit inclusion. People with intellectual disabilities also play a supporting role in his 1977 Ensign article, “The Salvation of Little Children“:
What about the mentally deficient? It is with them as it is with little children. They never arrive at the years of accountability and are considered as though they were little children. If because of some physical deficiency, or for some other reason unknown to us, they never mature in the spiritual and moral sense, then they never become accountable for sins. They need no baptism; they are alive in Christ; and they will receive, inherit, and possess in eternity on the same basis as do all children. [Read more…]
Part 4 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
Jim Faulconer has depicted Mormonism as “atheological,” meaning that Mormonism lacks the sort of systematic theology found in other traditions, especially Catholicism. He writes that Mormonism privileges praxis over doxy, but I’m not convinced these two elements can be so neatly separated. Belief and practices are intertwined; they inform each other in ways I doubt any researcher can fully untangle. Still, perhaps Faulconer is right to say that, with a few exceptions (the Lectures on Faith, for example), Mormon belief and practice has often been created according to pressing concerns and needs, and is thus not formulated in a systematic manner. Pieces of theology would crop up not only in revealed scripture, but also in table conversations, in a red brick store, in council meetings, in sermons lost to time, in missionary journeys.
This non-systematic development of Mormon thought leads to interesting contradictions. Joseph’s theological project was incomplete at the time of his death, and the “chaos of materials prepared by” the prophet, to borrow a phrase from Parley P. Pratt, have proven fertile ground in which subsequent church leaders and members have harvested a variety of fruits. Joseph’s scriptures and sermons have been employed in a piecemeal fashion to answer questions he didn’t apparently ask. This is especially true in regards to intellectual disability. [Read more…]
Part 3 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
Through the process of working on my project in Mormonism and intellectual disabilities I’ve had some time to reflect on how my methodological approach stacks up in the present state of Mormon studies. I’m coming from the multi-disciplinary approach of religious studies, but my focus will tell a historical narrative about how Mormons have represented intellectual disabilities over time. History is still king in Mormon studies.
In 1986, shortly after the twentieth anniversary of the Mormon History Association, a young fellow named Grant Underwood published “Re-visioning Mormon History,” a sort of “state of the union” address for Mormon historians. He talked about the direction of historical studies of Mormonism, challenged one of the most dominant aspects of the MoHist narrative (that the faith underwent a monumental shift around the time polygamy was abandoned) and offered suggestions about how future historical works might improve upon the past. The entire article is *highly* recommended, but here’s a brief look at a few specific points and my reflections as to how they relate to my project. [Read more…]
Part 2 of my series, “Intellectual disability in Mormon thought…”
When political tabloidist Ann Coulter called the President of the United States a “retard” via Twitter the other night she received a number of responses reminding her that the “R” word is considered by many to be an offensive slur. Ironically, some of the folks responding to her tweet referred to her as a “moron,” a term which itself is a distant cousin of “retard.” This got me thinking about one aspect of my current project on Mormonism and intellectual disability. This project requires me to pay close attention to the historical terms used to describe and classify variations of disability, and to trace how those terms shift over time.
Suppose this kerfuffle happened back in 1910. Coulter wouldn’t have used the word “retard,” which didn’t come into prominent use until the mid-twentieth century. Now the term has become too pejorative and has been replaced with “disability,” preceded by a modifier like “cognitive” or “intellectual.” Also, those replying to Coulter wouldn’t call her a “moron” which was actually a new diagnostic label used to differentiate “high-grade idiots” from more-obviously disabled people. Today, Coulter will deservedly get a lot more criticism for saying “retard,” while others can use “moron” as a way of saying she is stupid, without being reprimanded for insensitivity. Word connotations change.
The obvious similarity between the words “Mormon” and “moron” has proved handy for folks looking to make an easy wise-crack about Latter-day Saints, as a simple Google search reveals. Interestingly, this connection hasn’t always been so obviously made. I argue this is because the term “moron” itself emerged at a time when Mormons were already well into the process of assimilating to wider American culture, thus it wouldn’t make sense to attach a medical label to them. Despite being homophonetic, “moron” and “Mormon” weren’t immediately connected so far as I’ve seen. Here’s why: [Read more…]
[*Please tread respectfully and carefully in the comments*]
Americans watch in shock and disbelief as riots in the Middle East are explained to be the result of a terribly-produced video mocking the prophet of Islam. Having been born and raised in a place where freedom of expression, however repugnant, is protected by law with First Amendment authority, we miss the fact that, in such highly moderated countries, the allowance of such a production is understood as being ratified by people and state, rather than being something to snicker at given its fundamental silliness and ill-execution. Strength, for us, would best be shown by ignoring rather than igniting.
But Mormons are typically highly attuned to ways video and images can be used to trample sacred-held beliefs. When it comes to us, the ultimate taboo isn’t placed upon any prophet, but rather within rituals enacted in Mormon temples.
“We were just walking, and he looked back and flipped us off,” [Elder] Brezenski said, adding the driver was carrying a cigarette in the hand he used to make the gesture. “Then the car flipped 10 to 12 feet in the air.”
Giving missionaries the bird + smoking + driving drunk = Invoke the wrath of God.
A combination of blunders and a marvelous slap from above.
This is the stuff of missionary folklore.
The car accident happened this week in Indiana, and the Elders were restrained in their description to local media, making no mention of whether feet had been dusted prior to the collision.
Rewind to 1935. Legrand Richards, then-President of the infamous Southern States mission, shared a similar story of missionary-vindicating justice in General Conference. I came across the legend while researching the history of LDS views on disabilities, and this may be one of the most unfortunate examples I’ve found so far: [Read more…]
The Plan of Salvation is one of Mormonism’s chief selling points. Douglas J. Davies argues that its power resides in the fact that it is presented as a sweeping narrative, and narrative “is of the essence of humanity.”1 According to Davies, shifting Mormon emphases on certain elements of the Plan are good indicators of Mormonism’s creative adaptation to changing historical circumstances. Mormon theology is influenced by the wider culture in which it participates, even as it influences believers. Such influence can be detected in the sort of theological questions Mormons confront, the language used to confront it, and the ways Mormons draw on LDS scripture and tradition to resolve theological problems.
One of the chief uses to which the Plan of Salvation has been put over the years is to confront the problem of suffering/evil/tragedy. In this post I’ll quickly discuss only two instances when the Plan has been used to account for difficulties in the Mormon experience. [Read more…]
Originally delivered on 29 July 29 2012.
If you open that green hymnal resting in the back of the pews and turn to the first hymn you’ll find a song Parley P. Pratt published in England in 1840, ten years after the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
The morning breaks; the shadows flee;
Lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled!
The dawning of a brighter day
Majestic rises on the world.
Parley wrote of the Restoration of the gospel. But his song calls to my mind a much older morning—the morning of God’s initial creation. Perhaps this ancient morning is the one physicists say happened about 13.75 billion years ago. Most refer to it as “the Big Bang,” but some have suggested it would be more appropriate to call it the “Flaring Forth.”1 According to Joseph Smith, you and I perhaps were there, perhaps angelic assistants in the creation of this world. A world as a place of progression for God’s family, a home for the family of God. This puts a different spin on Parley’s concluding verse: [Read more…]
Title: Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader
Author: Stephen C. Taysom
Publisher: Signature Books
Genre: Religious Studies
Back when he was a doctoral student in religious studies, Stephen C. Taysom wished he had a collection of “fine scholarship” he could use to show professors and others “who expressed skepticism about the fitness of Mormonism as an object of serious academic study” what they were missing (vii). Now Taysom is a professor of religious studies at Cleveland State University. His reworked dissertation, Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries, was published in 2011 by Indiana University Press. Enough has changed within the academy (and within Taysom’s own circles) over the past few years to turn his professors’ skepticism into inquiry: “I have received requests from colleagues for a selection of readings that might be used profitably in courses dealing with Mormonism,” Taysom reports in Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader (xi). The reader is a collection of fifteen essays analyzing Mormonism through literary, ritual, film, gender, folklore, and other studies. Taysom argues that the collection’s very existence bears witness that “Mormonism is a rich field of inquiry into which theories and methods of a vast array of disciplines are being widely and skillfully integrated” (viii). Rather than describing a few of the papers Taysom selected and giving them a thumbs up or down, I’d like to use the book as a way to examine a few key issues being debated—or not—in discussions of Mormon studies today. [Read more…]
…Or, a few thoughts on a recent missionary experience
and the ritualistic invocation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
When I was a missionary I knew I was surrounded by a million Joseph Smiths. Every day I’d anticipate meeting Joseph all around me–on the bus, at a front porch, on the street. When I found a Joseph I was sure all she or he would need is to hear me read James 1:5, hear me recite Joseph Smith’s words, “I saw a pillar of light…” and BLAM! the Holy Ghost would whack them in the heart with feelings of peace, love, joy, and the other fruits of the Spirit. I was even familiar with the folklore which told me that the adversary would certainly try to interrupt me just as I recited Joseph’s words–a phone ring, a visiting neighbor, a barking dog. If only these Joseph Smiths would just recognize that they were Joseph Smiths!
I had the chance to join my local elders the other day for their first appointment with a woman from Nigeria who was visiting a family on my street. The elders tenaciously stuck to their script, I recognized it from the last pair of elders I went along with. The woman we were teaching was very bright and inquisitive, but also cautious, a good combination, I think. At the outset she was chiefly interested in the Book of Mormon. What is this book? How does it compare to the Bible? What is it about?
The elders had other plans. [Read more…]
In June of 1830 Joseph Smith recorded a strange revelation proffering the beginnings of a stunning cosmology. Smith was working on a project he referred to as his “translation of Scriptures,” whereby he read through the biblical text and recorded suggested changes, adaptations, and additions to the text, some thought to be original to the ancient documents, others understood to be inspired expansions lost to time. Some Mormon scholars have compared Smith’s new scripture to “midrashic commentary, much like the targumin…and pesharim “attested amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.”1 One of the longest of such additions audaciously serves as a sort of new preface to the Hebrew scripture, expanding upon on the traditional Genesis narrative, now part of the official Mormon canon of scripture (try to avoid the tendency to skip the verses even though you’ve read them before):
The words of God, which he spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain. And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence. And God spake unto Moses, saying:
“Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name…And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease….And now, behold, this one thing I show unto thee, Moses, my son, for thou art in the world…” [Read more…]
Title: The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy
Editors: Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster
Publisher: John Whitmer Books
We usually just want the unvarnished truth. Tell us the facts. Drop the spin. Lay it all out on the table. State your case objectively and we’ll decide to believe you or to reject your views. Give us some easy bullet points, a quick overview, a succinct argument, and the jury will return shortly with the verdict. The problem is that we all too often forget we’re all incapable of constructing, let alone judging between, contrasting claims about our past in an “objective” way. This is my non-comprehensive way of explaining our persistent interest in history, of course. “History speaks not only of the past but also of the present.”1
So it is with books about polygamy, one of the most debated subjects within the history of Mormonism. Not merely about Mormonism, but within it. [Read more…]
Title: Quickend Chronicles: The Rifts of Rime
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Cedar Fort
C.S. Lewis was underwhelmed by “namby-pamby” Christian children’s books. Such books, he felt, were “calculated to nauseate any child worth his salt” with weak symbolism and lame platitudes.1 He was both “grieved and amused” that few reviewers recognized the Christian overtones in his science fiction series Out of the Silent Planet, but he became confident that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.”2 If his Narnia series can be criticized today for its rather overt symbolism, it is perhaps as much due to our knowledge of Lewis as a Christian as it is with his series’s obvious symbolism. Despite his cover being blown, I think Narnia holds up today because of Lewis’s willingness to place his theological ideas within a fiercely imaginative world containing moral ambiguity, death, doubt, and redemption. And above all, despite sneaking Christian doctrine into fiction, Lewis insisted that the “first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY.”3
Steven L. Peck’s new novel for young adults, The Rifts of Rime, succeeds in precisely Lewis’s prescribed way: it’s a “good story” first and foremost, even while weaving theological ideas from Mormonism into a tale of moral ambiguity, death, doubt, and the hope of redemption. [Read more…]
Title: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
Author: N. T. Wright
Genre: New Testament
The crux of Anglican scholar N.T. Wright’s latest book, How God Became King, can be summed up quite easily, if quite dramatically: “most of Western Christianity has simply forgotten what the gospels are really about” (ix). According to a dominant Christian view today, God created the world and called Israel to be His people, and upon their failure he sent down Plan B, Jesus, to fix everything up and take us away to heaven (84). This is all wrong, Wright says, and reflects an over-emphasis of the early creeds on one hand and problematic Reformation additions or over-reliance on critical scholarship on the other, more than it reflects the stories or purposes of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John: [Read more…]
I believe Salt Press is at the cutting edge of Mormon scripture studies not merely because of the fresh ideas they spread and the methods of study they enact, but also because of the way the press itself actually operates. They follow an “open access publishing” model, which means all of their work is available for free online. But they also publish physical copies for folks like me who prefer to read away from the tyranny of digital pixels.
Over the past month I had the privilege of reading, reviewing, and recommending a few of their recent publications, including a new book about the Book of Mormon by Joseph Spencer called An Other Testament. Adam Miller, one of Salt Press’s managing editors, wrote the forward for Spencer’s book, which we offer for your consideration to give you a sense of what the book offers. Next week we’ll follow up by posting Spencer’s own preface. It’s an exciting book and I hope it generates some conversation. [Read more…]