Reading Moses 1 as an invitation to greater ecological awareness

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...]

Review: Bringhurst and Foster, eds., “The Persistence of Polygamy”

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
Genre: History
Year: 2010
Pages: 306
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1-934901-13-7
Price: $24.95

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...]

Review: Steven L. Peck, “The Quickend Chronicles: The Rifts of Rime”

Title: Quickend Chronicles: The Rifts of Rime
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Cedar Fort
Genre: Fantasy
Year: 2012
Pages: 263
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-1-59955-967-4
Price: $14.99

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...]

Review: N.T. Wright, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels”

TitleHow God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: New Testament
Year: 2012
Pages: 282
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-173057-3
Price: $25.99

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...]

Critique the preface from Spencer’s new book, “An Other Testament”

As promised, here’s the preface to Joseph Spencer’s new book, An Other Testament. The book, which offers a fresh “typological” reading of the Book of Mormon, is available for free in .pdf form here, or in hardcover here[Read more...]

A sample from Spencer’s new book, “An Other Testament”

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...]

Review: John Dominic Crossan, “The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus”

Title: The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus
Author: John Dominic Crossan
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: New Testament
Year: 2012
Pages: 259
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-187569-4
Price: $25.99

Jesus was so meta. In his famed parable of the Sower “the word” is compared to seed being cast onto the ground where it might grow or perish. And the word “parable” itself comes from the Greek—para (“with” or “alongside”) and ballein (“to put” or “to throw”). As popular biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan observes in his latest book: “Jesus was not trying to improve the agricultural yield of lower Galilee.” The activity of sowing is “cast alongside and compared with” the dissemination of the word; this is essentially a parable using parable as parable (10).

Crossan explores this manner of teaching in his provocatively-titled The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. [Read more...]

Review: Paul C. Gutjahr, “The Book of Mormon: A Biography”

Title: The Book of Mormon: A Biography
Editor: Paul C. Gutjahr
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Genre: Religious Studies
Year: 2012
Pages: xix, 255
Binding: Cloth with jacket
ISBN13: 978-0-691-14480-1
Price: $24.95

The Book of Mormon, that curious text said to be dug from a hill in upstate New York and translated by the gift and power of God, has been reincarnated over its 180-plus year lifespan into an interesting variety of bodies: from its various print editions, to films in silent black-and-white and full color, as children’s editions and comic books, even inspiring an award-winning Broadway musical. It’s spawned paintings, cartoon show episodes, and action figures. Since its birth in 1830 the Book of Mormon has been argued over and analyzed in print—approaches ranging from polemical to academic and any mix of the two. Most significantly, it has served as a key religious devotional text within the still-growing branches of Mormonism, the most prominent being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has shepherded the text through translation into 109 world languages from Afrikaans to Zulu, with more on the way.1 All of this and other interesting elements of its impressive life are explored in Paul C. Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, part of Princeton University Press’s impressive new “Lives of Great Religious Books” series—handsome little clothbound volumes short enough to get through in one or two sittings. [Read more...]

Review: Joseph M. Spencer, “An Other Testament: On Typology”

Title: An Other Testament: On Typology
Author: Joseph M. Spencer
Publisher: Salt Press
Genre: Scriptural Exegesis
Year: 2012
Pages: 193
Binding: Cloth (or .pdf)
ISBN13: 978-0-9839636-2-2
Price: $18.95 (or free, but the clothbound volume really is quite handsome! And if that ain’t the coolest looking cover I’ve seen in a while…)

What’s that you say, Joseph M. Spencer, graduate student of philosophy at UNM? You’re just out offering a radical new textually-based interpretation of the entire Book of Mormon in your spare time, hmm? Radical and new. Sounds like a nice little project you got there, yes. Wait, what?! [Read more...]

Teaching Chapter 10, “The Scriptures, the Most Valuable Library in the World”

George Albert Smith repeatedly referred to the scriptures as “the greatest library in the world” (TPC:GAS, chapter 10). During his October 1917 conference address he stood before the congregation and read the entire first section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Read: D&C 1:37-39.

“Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled. What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. For behold, and lo, the Lord is God, and the Spirit beareth record, and the record is true, and the truth abideth forever and ever. Amen” (TPC:GAS, 106).

This was actually not an easy task for President Smith. His reading an entire section is particularly significant considering what “The Life and Ministry of George Albert Smith” chapter describes regarding his health: [Read more...]

Review: Joanna Brooks, “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith”

Title: The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith
Author: Joanna Brooks
Publisher: Self published (but not for long…)
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Pages: 204
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 9780615593449
Price: $11.99

Rumor has it Joanna Brooks’s self-published memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl has been picked up by Free Press/Simon & Schuster for national publication this August with an expanded chapter-and-a-half. We’ve seen a lot of chatter about her book online recently, so I thought I’d venture a review. I hope you’ll excuse my decision to kick things off with an observation based on personal experience. (The Book of Mormon Girl is, after all, a personal memoir!) My own undergraduate years were spent writing and editing articles for a variety of small Utah newspapers. I remember how daunting it felt to be assigned an article on a subject I knew next-to-nothing about, like computer animation, mechanical engineering, or say, feminism. Oh, how comforting to a journalist is that friendly, articulate insider willing to endure the inane questions of—and likely later misrepresentation by—the stammering cub reporter! [Read more...]

Review: Salt Press, “Experimenting on the Word” and “Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah”

Adam S. Miller, ed., An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Salem: Salt Press, 2011) ISBN: 978-0-9839636-0-8; Paperback; $12.95; 99 pages, and Joseph M. Spencer and Jenny Webb, eds., Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27 (Salem: Salt Press, 2011) ISBN: 978-0-9839636-1-5; Paperback; $12.95; 158 pages.

At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.…[And] I kept asking myself how a book could be infinite.” –Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 96-7.

The Book of Mormon is a curiously self-referential book. Perhaps its greatest conceit is the fact that it just can’t quit talking about itself. OK, books don’t talk, but the scribes who kept the original records from which the BoM was constructed seem unable to avoid writing about their project in their project. How many books have you read that focus so intently on their own production? So here we have a book that contains scattered pieces of its own interpretive instruction manual—a manual which has largely been overlooked in the hundred-and-eighty-plus years since its original publication. [The cheerful reader asks, “Overlooked?”]

Yes. [Read more...]

Tips for Teachers: “Outsourcing”

From my ongoing “tips for teachers” series especially for Sunday School, RS and PH instructors. See here, here, here, here

The teacher-to-student talk ratio is tough to navigate. The manual repeatedly reminds teachers that if they are taking up most of the time they’re doing it wrong. Chapter 6′sTeaching help” says carefully listening to questions and comments is an “expression of love.” Chapter 9′sTeaching help” says teachers ought to refrain from being the “star of the show” by putting the pupil “into action.” Chapter 16 says skilled teachers ask themselves “What will my students do in class today” rather than “What shall I do in class today.” And I’m particularly fond of Pres. Packer’s quote, the “Teaching help,” in chapter 2:

“Quite a bit of teaching that is done in the Church is done so rigidly, it’s lecture. We don’t respond to lectures too well in classrooms….teaching can be two-way so that you can ask questions. You can sponsor questions easily in a class.” [Read more...]

A Response to Matt Bowman on Beards and Correlation (p.3 of 3)

This 3-part series is a response to Matthew Bowman’s excellent Slate article, “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.” I’m going over my three quibbles/expanded analyses: First, the article paints a flatter evolutionary model of LDS history than I believe Bowman himself advances in his book. Second, as a result, Bowman glosses over some important distinctions between Mormon pop-culture and correlated materials. Finally, Bowman also might have drawn attention to how the shifts he describes directly relates to the present discussions of “official doctrine.” Expansion #3:

III. (Un)Official

So there’s been plenty of chatter lately about what does and doesn’t count as “official Church doctrine.” The LDS Newsroom has published statements on the subject–one perhaps a response to Romney’s last campaign effort, the other a response to Bott-gate–and a member of the Quorum of the 12 addressed the issue explicitly in Conference. There are various motives for advancing this distinction, but here I’d like to make one quick comparison which, like Bowman’s column, can be mercilessly nit-picked due to its terseness. [Read more...]

A Response to Matt Bowman on Beards and Correlation (p.2 of 3)

This 3-part series is a response to Matthew Bowman’s excellent Slate article, “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.”

I’m going over my three quibbles: First, the article paints a flatter evolutionary model of LDS history than I believe Bowman himself advances in his book. Second, as a result, Bowman glosses over some important distinctions between Mormon pop-culture and correlated materials. Finally, Bowman also might have drawn attention to how the shifts he describes directly relates to the present discussions of “official doctrine.” Nitpick #2:

II. Glossing Correlation and Broader Mormon Culture [Read more...]

A Response to Bowman on Beards and Correlation (p.1 of 3)

A few weeks ago a friend posted an article on Mormonism written by a former member of the Church which, for the most part, did a fine job of describing Mormonism for outsiders. After I “Like”‘d the link and responded with some clarifications another guy replied “BHodges would quibble with the angel Moroni himself.” Well, if not the Angel Moroni, I’m quibbling here with one of the most notable academic angels of present Mormon Studies, Matthew Bowman. I recently did a podcast with Bowman, author of a great new book from Random House called The Mormon People, which I pitch to you now.

The prolific Bowman has yet another article out this week in Slate called “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.” It’s another specimen of Bowman’s typically fun, frank, and insightful analysis. But I think the piece requires a bit of quibbling, as such popular columns always do, and I’m feeling a bit audacious today, so here goes nothing. [Read more...]

Updating the RS/PH Manual Mid-Year?

Last night I noticed a change on lds.org. I’m not sure when it happened, but a new page has been added called “Common Questions for Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 2012.” (Notice the site dates the GAS manual itself as 2010, so this is evidently quite new.) Only one link appears in the list, pointing to chapter 6, “Sustaining Those Whom the Lord Sustains.” The new info has its own page, but also appears in the sidebar of the lesson itself under a section called “Applying the Lesson to Our Time”: [Read more...]

Tips for Teachers: “Confronting Manual Balrogs”

You, brave teacher, are like unto Gandalf the Grey, Mithrandir, gatekeeper of the manual. Suddenly, just as you and your Hobbits are enjoying the recitation of a quality quote, a Balrog rears its head.  The most recent manual has a fair number of one particular Balrog I’ve come to fear on my journey to Mount Doom: “The World.”

Yes, that mystical and mythical entity we’ve heard much about but never seen. “The World” is everything we’re not. When we say “potato,” the world says “deadly napalm sandwich with a side of war on religion.” In chapter one alone I encountered five references to “The World,” about one every other page (TPC:GAS, 3, 5, 6, 7). What to do?

YOU…SHALL NOT…PAAAAASS!!!

[Read more...]

Teaching Lesson 7, “The Immortality of the Soul”

In this post I highlight a few excerpts from chapter seven of the George Albert Smith manual and offer some suggestions for class discussion.

1) Eternal Life in the Present

The introduction to this lesson proposes an interesting, if not unique, conceptual shift for the term “eternity”:

He frequently reminded the Saints that “we are living eternal lives”—that eternity doesn’t begin after this life but that mortality is a crucial part of eternity (67). [Read more...]

Bulgakov’s “Pontius Pilate”

The Pilate Stone (apx. 26–37 CE) is the only universally accepted archaeological find with an inscription mentioning the name "Pontius Pilatus" to date.

If you’re looking for a way to spice up your Easter festivities with some unusual literature, this post is for you. Historical fiction isn’t my cup of tea, with very few exceptions, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Pontius Pilate, a novel-within-a-novel which recounts the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha-Nozri under the direction of the famous Roman procurator. Pontius Pilate is supposed to be the magnum opus of a Russian author who becomes bitter when the Russian literati reject it, leading him to burn the manuscript and move into an insane asylum. Chapters from the story are scattered within Bulgakov’s stunning work of Russian magical realism, The Master and Margarita.

Pontius Pilate plays on the idea that the gospels as we have them today are unreliable, but are nevertheless based on actual historical circumstances obscured over time. The story begins on Good Friday as a prisoner is brought before Pilate, the Roman procurator, after being accused of inciting the people to destroy the temple and teaching that the rule of Caesar would come to an end. As in the New Testament account, the Sanhedrin has sentenced him to death and the procurator must sign off.  [Read more...]

Sealing slaves to masters, and other proxy problems

After the recent “Bottgate” hullabaloo and opposition to proxy baptisms of Shoah victims, we might have expected a bit of a break. But a new Slate column has again called our attention to skeletons in our communal closet. The column’s author, Max Mueller, is a Ph.D. candidate in religious history at Harvard University and specialist in early Mormon history and race relations. (See my recent podcast interview with him on blacks and the priesthood here.) He writes about the discovery that Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings has been sealed by proxy to him. He relates several other troubling historical examples of proxy sealing in a balanced, informative, and sensitive approach that deserves our careful attention. I look forward to other forthcoming responses from those who are more familiar than I am with all of the historical nuances. In this post I’d like to call attention to two specific theological tools Mormons might use to help mitigate these problems. [Read more...]

Muslims, Christians, and shifting from scientific to cultural arguments regarding evolution

Nadia Yassine is a Muslim intellectual/activist from Morocco. She doesn’t embody the sort of “above the fray” intellectual, detached from untidy personal connections and political motives. Instead, her combination of roles reflects a recent trend in Islamic thought aiming to rehabilitate a religious tradition through local and international activism. In the US we’re more likely to hear about “radical” Muslims who might train with al-Qaeda than about people like Yassine. Such folks make for better newscopy than intellectuals, after all. But she offers much food for thought in her book Full Sails Ahead by taking aim at the West, and critiquing elements of Islamic culture, modernization, and globalization. In a disenchanted modern/post-modern world she hopes Islam can provide a moral compass to guide humanity’s great ship, the sail of which is represented by hijab, or the veil worn by many Muslim women. She’s an eminently snappy author, and while the book is a translation from her French original, I don’t believe much of her sarcasm, wit, puns, or jokes were lost in translation. Is this a common French intellectual style? It felt very Nietzschean to me. Fun, thought-provoking, and aggravating by turns.

What I find particularly interesting for discussion here is the similar way she shifts discussion of Darwin away from scientific claims toward cultural assertions–a move also made by certain Young Earth Creationist Christians in the US. Mormons aren’t the only ones who’ve sadly outsourced views on evolution to fundamentalist Christians. [Read more...]

Teaching Lesson 6, “Sustaining Those Whom the Lord Sustains” p.2

See part 1 here.

In this post I’ll highlight a few excerpts from chapter six, “Sustaining Those Whom the Lord Sustains,”  and offer some suggested questions for discussion. As the manual’s introduction suggests, “You could also develop your own questions especially for those you are teaching” (vi). There’s plenty here and more to fill up the time. If your class is anything like mine much of the discussion will actually come from the seats in answers to good questions.

I’m interested to hear your feedback on how this lesson is structured and on the content itself. You’ll notice most of the questions lead into the next quote or talking point but I tried to keep the overall structure flexible enough to allow for skipping around if class members bring up points from later in the lesson. How did your teachers share this lesson? Also feel free to suggest your own favorite scriptures/anecdotes/quotes for use in this lesson.  [Read more...]

Teaching Lesson 6, “Sustaining Those Whom the Lord Sustains” p.1

Here’s a post to ponder while preparing for the upcoming RS/PH lesson, Chapter 6: “Sustaining Those Whom the Lord Sustains,” whether ye be a teacher at the front of the class or a teacher from the seats.

I noticed an interesting trend while preparing for this lesson. Seventeen of the twenty-one quotes in the chapter predate George Albert Smith’s serving in the office of President of the Church. Following the manual’s selection, quotes given from before he was president tend to emphasize the importance of sustaining the President of the Church whereas quotes after his sustaining tend to focus on his own weaknesses and desire to serve.

Quotes while serving as President:

Two of the four quotes related after he was sustained as president in 1945 refer directly to the office of President, and they are excerpts from his first General Conference addresses as President. His emphasis is on his own weakness and his need for sustaining from the membership.1

“I thank you for the confidence that has been manifested…in hoping that I may succeed, and promising as some of you have, that you will help me to succeed, because I am only a man, one of the humblest among you…I will need the help of every man and every woman and every child, not for my blessing, but for your blessing, and for the blessing of the children of men wherever they may be. That is not my responsibility, that is our responsibility” (TPC:GAS, 57, italics in the manual, not noted whether in original).

[Read more...]

What has the “Joseph Smith Papers Project” to do with Islam?

Or, “an ode to invested Latter-day Saint history”*

Yesterday, various bloggers and writers were invited to a meeting
with the editors of the most recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers
Project to discuss the new “Histories” volume. This post is partially
a reflection on that event, and you can expect other blog posts and reviews to come.

In a revelation dictated on the day of his church’s founding, Smith reported God’s command: “there shall be a record kept among you.”1 And so it was; with various fits and starts the early Saints strove to fulfill what they took to be a divine mandate. Mormon history, from the very beginning, was invested. It was Mormon history. Much of our earliest material was recorded under the dictation, direction or influence of Joseph Smith. It doesn’t take a genius or a meticulous historian to recognize that such records will carry deeply impressed fingerprints of the personalities, prejudices, and perspectives of those doing the recording. And such records are invested.

You might sense a problem with this. We want people to simply tell it like it is, enough cheerleading, tell the truth, lay everything bare. However, I’m suggesting that those who complain loudest about the obviously-partisan nature of official accounts might find it more fruitful to deeply consider the initial impulses behind the records Mormons kept. Why did they record this and not that? What are they focusing on, and what seems to escape their gaze altogether? Invested history won’t often provide distanced, dry, meticulous, disconnected accounts though the stuff from which it is crafted might very well seem less-than-exciting. I’m asking you instead to conceive of our earliest historical accounts with close attention to their context. Such accounts include personal witnesses of spiritual experiences (visions of the heavens, visitations from heavenly beings), shot through with political, economic, and social concerns. Words like “bias” and “objectivity” should give way to words like “perspective” and “values.”

Perhaps this is the grand secret of understanding Mormon history! [Read more...]

Review: Justin L. Barrett, “Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs”

Title: Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs
Author: Justin L. Barrett
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Religion/Science
Year: 2012
Pages: 336
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9781439196540
Price: $26.00

Belief in God is childish. So reports Justin L. Barrett, an Oxford University professor who studies the cognitive science of religion, in his new book Born Believers. [Read more...]

Jacob, Isaiah, and Social Justice in the Book of Mormon

I’ve taken greater interest in the concept of “social justice” ever since Glenn Beck warned us all to leave the Church over it.1 “Social justice” as a theological concept initiated mainly by Catholics, it receives close attention in what is referred to as “Liberation theology” (especially in Latin America), and it has more recently been embraced by John Rawls and other secular political philosophers. The phrase itself is seldom used by Mormons and a full treatment of social justice in Mormon thought has yet to be completed, although restoration scripture is bursting with opportunities for social justice exegesis.2

Joseph A. Grassi’s book, Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament presents an overview of social justice themes throughout the Bible.3 He deftly demonstrates ways that social justice ideals embedded in the Old Testament are carried through the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus. Many of these same themes permeate the Book of Mormon, too. [Read more...]

Review: Stephens and Giberson, “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age”

Title: The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Author: Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson 
Publisher: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
Genre: Evangelicalism
Year: 2011
Pages: 356
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780674048188
Price: $29.95

If the word “Evangelical” popped up in a word association game, hair-trigger responses might include words like “Republican,” “anti-evolution,” “Jerry Falwell,” or “fundamentalist.” Word association games aren’t usually the best way to understand religion. (When it comes to Mormons, “polygamy” usually tops the list.) Numbering an estimated one hundred million people—sixteen million in the Southern Baptist Convention alone (7, 187)—the American evangelical community is actually more diverse than these labels can hope to communicate. Politically, the spectrum ranges from conservative to liberal (though perhaps heavily weighted toward the former), all bound loosely together by a common commitment to the necessity of being “born again” through Jesus Christ. Such Christians have no central authoritative body and no single all-encompassing creed. But the open marketplace of religion in the United States has provided space for an evangelical “parallel culture,” complete with its own schools, publishing houses, music industry, summer camps, school accreditation agencies, historians, scientists, and family counselors. [Read more...]

Frederick Douglass’s dark night of slavery, dark night of the soul

“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it”—an obscure beginning for Frederick Douglass, one of the most distinguished abolitionists of the nineteenth century (41).* So he chose tomorrow, February 14, to celebrate his birth. Now February is set apart in the United States and Canada as Black History Month. Born in Maryland in 1818, Douglass ultimately toiled twenty years in slavery, nine more as a slave fugitive, and spent an entire lifetime fighting for abolition. He protested slavery twenty years before the Civil War and lived to see black emancipation, though the fight continued long after his 1895 passing, his exact age unknown, but not his name. Douglass’s ultimate weapon in this battle was the power of his own personal witness. His pen proved mightier than the whip. His book An American Slave is “the most artistically crafted and widely read of all the American slave narratives” (vii).

Frederick Douglass’s book has been dissected by historians, feminists, and literary critics. This epic account of slavery and freedom was deeply informed by his familiarity with the Bible and his recognition of the power of religious symbols in fighting oppression. It appealed to many of his contemporary Americans by drawing on the literary approaches of escape-from-captivity narratives, tales of self-made men, and spiritual autobiographies (11). But Douglass didn’t preach an easy faith to comfort the pious; he issued a stinging Jeremiah-like rebuke of religious and political establishments which countenanced oppression (11). His powerful voice is perhaps best remembered today for his utterly remarkable 1852 speech (one of the greatest American sermons of all time) “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” but his autobiography (actually one of three he wrote) is so eloquent and stirring that many of his contemporary whites couldn’t fathom that a black man could possibly have written it. The book relates his earliest memories of slavery and the circumstances of his flight to freedom. Can I deny God’s hand in this man’s work? Latter-day scripture admonishes: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I have no doubt that Douglass’s book is one of the best we are so enjoined to read and ponder. [Read more...]

Happy B-Day, Charles Darwin!

To say Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species changed the landscape for discussions about science and religion would be a drastic understatement. Origin’s publication in 1859 was more like a new big bang; its aftershock has rippled through discussions about the relationship between science and religion to the present. Articles describing the interaction between Mormonism and Darwinism tend to focus mainly on the disagreements between Joseph Fielding Smith and B.H. Roberts, or perhaps the unfortunate 1911 BYU controversy when several brilliant professors were dismissed from their posts. But the story extends long before and after that crucial point in Mormon history.

As for BYU, the school has come a long way. In 2009 the school celebrated Darwin’s 200th birthday anniversary with a series of lectures in praise of his work, and the biology department is first class. But a recent Pew Forum survey suggests that Mormons lag behind when it comes to understanding evolution. 22% of Mormons said “it is the best explanation for human life,” while three-in-four (75%) disagreed. Perhaps the numbers reflect poor question phrasing, but my limited personal experience suggests the number isn’t entirely off-base.

And yet, it need not be so. Mormon responses to Darwin date back to 1860, within a year of the publication of Origin. While they were initially skeptical if not hostile, some Mormons took a “wait and see” approach as scientists worked through the implications. Some Mormons even labored to find solid reconciliations between their faith in the restored gospel and the discoveries of modern science in Darwinism. Such efforts continue to the present.* In memory of Darwin’s birth (12 February, 1809), this post includes a 1954 General Conference shout-out to the famous naturalist. [Read more...]

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