Letter 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…]
[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
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:
I 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
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.”
Last 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…]
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 Christianity, explores 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.
I 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…]
Mormon women used to give blessings similar to–but not necessarily the same as–the ones currently restricted to male priesthood holders. This is a historical fact. I know of no revelation declaring such practices as being contrary to God’s will, but we’re at a point when many members of the Church feel that even bringing this up is somehow dangerous, irreverent, disrespectful, or otherwise suspect. There’s an “Ordain Women” movement going on which provokes some intense reactions (whether passive-aggressive or just plain aggressive.) There are other movements–like WAVE–which seek more incremental goals like finding better ways to include women in the Church without even requiring Priesthood ordination. (Neylan McBain’s 2012 FAIR Conference address is a must-read in this regard, and I think it could usefully be offered to bishops for their consideration.)
So we have a variety of ways that tension about this issue manifests itself. I was discussing things with a friend when someone called into question the motives of women who feel a desire to exercise priesthood power.
I spoke on the assigned topic, “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs,” today in my Salt Lake City ward.
We don’t have a written record of the prayer Joseph Smith offered in a grove of trees in the spring of 1820, when the Father and the Son appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven. But we’re fortunate to have the words of another prayer the Prophet offered, a prayer much more troubling, a prayer we’ve all become familiar with since it was placed in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants: [Read more…]
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…]