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...]

Tom Mould on Folklore and Personal Revelation

I think the most underrated Mormon-themed book of 2011 was Tom Mould’s Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition. As its title suggests, the book explores how the Spirit’s “small voice” is still an important part of religious life for Latter-day Saints. It’s is a folklorist’s examination of the stories Mormons share about personal revelation.

Mould is associate professor of anthropology and folklore at Elon University in North Carolina. He recently joined me as a guest on the “FAIR Conversations” podcast. His work is thought-provoking, challenging, and inspiring, both religiously and academically. He brings the perspective of a thoughtful outsider but speaks with an insider’s knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from the interview. You can hear or download the full episode here.

***

BHodges: Tom, in the beginning of the book you give a brief outline of personal revelation as something that is foundational to Mormonism perhaps beginning with Joseph Smith reporting his visions and revelations. But you say that [such foundational stories] are the tip of the iceberg in Mormonism when it comes to personal revelation. Can you explore that metaphor, the tip of the iceberg? [Read more...]

Thinking about Mormonism and “critical thinking”

…Or, my re-view of Philip Lindholm’s book, “Latter-day Dissent”

I read the news today, oh boy. The New York Times has a little series on Mormonism, tidbits from five writers, “What is it about Mormonism?” It presents, for the most part, highly caricatured pieces of polemic. (Maffly-Kipp and Reiss hold their own, however.) Elsewhere, Tricia Erickson recently published a scare-all book warning America about the dangers of a Mitt Romney presidency. She’s appeared on various news shows and in articles as an expert on Mormonism. Here she is at something called One News Now:

“I grew up as a Mormon bishop’s daughter, so I know how they think; I know how they program their members…Mormonism is no different than any other cult. It’s very likened to Islam because they’re not really allowed to have critical thinking.”

She cites her mo-credentials to back up the claim that Mormonism doesn’t allow “critical thinking,” just like Islam. Yes, those scary Muslims. One of my grad courses this semester is “Contemporary Islamic Activist Intellectuals.” This presents an odd spectacle. I’m a Mormon, surrounded by Muslims, all of us engaging in critical thinking about Islamic intellectuals. Clearly, there must be more to the story than what Erickson lets on about. Or are Mormons a bunch of uncritical dupes? [Read more...]

Opening Anecdotes of General Mormon History Overviews

Back in 1976, LDS historians James Allen and Glen Leonard published The Story of the Latter-day Saints, still one of Deseret Book’s finest publications to date. They issued a prophecy that anyone could’ve made: “The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been written many times before, and will be written again as new information becomes available and as succeeding generations ask fresh questions about their past.”1

More than thirty years later in the middle of this “Mormon Moment,” the MoStudies community has been abuzz about Matt Bowman’s brand spanking new book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012). Bowman’s opening chapter got me thinking about the use of anecdotes in the opening of such historical overviews. If you were writing such a book, where would you stick your foot in the stream?

Bowman surprised me (not merely because he didn’t go with a pioneer tale). Here’s the beginning of chapter one, called “Joseph Smith and the First Mormons”: [Read more...]

Review: Stephen H. Webb, “Jesus Christ, Eternal God”

Title: Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter
Author: Stephen H. Webb
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Theology
Year: 2012
Pages: 368
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-19-982795-4
Price: $65.00

On a blustery April afternoon in 1844, Joseph Smith stood before a congregation of thousands and fought the wind, and we’re still fighting that wind today. It shuffles the scattered notes of the men who scribbled the funeral sermon Smith was preaching at the top of his lungs. In the midst of creaking tree branches, sentence fragments and shorthand, Willard Richards seemed to catch hold of something crucial Smith was claiming, hold enough to record the gist of it in Smith’s journal:

If men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves.1

Smith had his finger on the pulse of the deepest theological questions. At least since Genesis (“let us create man in our own image”) humans have wrestled with two fundamental questions well-phrased by Catholic theologian Stephen Webb:

“First, what features of human nature—mind, body, soul, gender—best reflect God’s nature? Second, what features of God best provide the source of the image in which we are created?” (177, see also 148, 192, 274).

Webb seeks answers to these and other questions in his amazing new book, Jesus Christ, Eternal God. I’m impressed, exhausted, and definitely taxed.  [Read more...]

“Spoiling the Egyptians”: On Non-LDS Source Usage

I once made the silly mistake of suggesting that members of the Church might beneficially learn from non-LDS sources, or more specifically, that non-LDS sources might have messages for people in the world, messages from God that could only viably come through them and not from our own leadership. The sentiment itself might not sound so objectionable to most Mormons. My mistake was that I made this suggestion during a Sunday School lesson. And I compounded my error by later reading a quote from a non-manual source.

As former GOP presidential nominee candidate Rick Perry once said, “Oops.”  [Read more...]

“To wander at will in the garden of the Lord,” or: an apologia for “Added Upon”

In my last post I looked at the “War in Heaven” as depicted in a late-19th century work of Mormon fiction: Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon. I want to respond to one of the comments from that post, but rather than humbly making use of the comments section there I decided to go ahead and grandstand a bit because my response to the comment gets closer to the root of what I really intended by writing that post, and what I hoped to see in the comments.

KaralynZ: “My mom had a copy of this and I read it several times growing up. I consider it as much of a useful source of truthful theology as ‘Saturday’s Warrior’ is.”

This seems to imply that Anderson’s book is useless, trite, or vapid (ties to Saturday’s Warrior are seldom complementary). I don’t mind a snarky or funny reply here and there, and such a reply comes pretty easy for Added Upon. Like I mentioned, the dialogue can be wooden, it’s extremely didactic, the characters can often be seen as cardboard props rather than complex persons, and in some cases it perpetuates what we see today as harmful theological ideas (e.g., less-valiance in premortality stuff). Why dig it up, then? Why bother with it? “Truthful theology” is all I bother with, after all! [Read more...]

A different take on the War in Heaven from Nephi Anderson’s “Added Upon”

Nephi Anderson’s Added Upon has been called “the most popular and enduring nineteenth-century work to emerge” from Mormonism’s “home literature” movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.1 Anderson’s goal, according to the superscript in Added Upon, was to “assert eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men,” though he would one-up Milton through the unique Mormon perspective. It was the original Saturday’s Warrior: two lovers meet during pre-mortality, find each other on earth, and return to a heavenly kingdom for a happily ever after. Givens identifies the book’s main flaws: “The dialogue is often wooden…and Anderson expounds, rather than depicts, his theology through blatant authorial intervention.” Still, by wedding sentimental romance with the plan of salvation, Anderson’s 1898 book lived through thirty-five editions and you can get it for free on Kindle.2

Anderson’s chief literary sin was his privileging of dogma over experience—it was as much a work of theology as a story in its own right. Anderson acknowledges at the outset that his story “is suggestive only” in areas “where little of a definite character is revealed.”3 Examining the theology reveals a different perspective on the War in Heaven than current Mormons generally hold.4 Rather than depicting Lucifer as offering to save everyone by force, thus depriving God’s children of their agency (a la evil contemporary government programs and socialism and evil communism), Anderson took a different approach:

The hosts of heaven—sons and daughters of God—were assembled. The many voices mingling, rose and fell in one great murmur like the rising and falling of waves about to sink to rest. Then all tumult ceased, and a perfect silence reigned.

“Listen,” said one to another by his side, “Father’s will is heard” (7). [Read more...]

The Silent “and…”

Digging up the root of my confusion,
if no one planted it, how does it grow?
And why are some hell-bent upon there being an answer
while some are quite content to answer “I don’t know”?

–David Bazan

I’m conflicted about an aspect of our faith which stretches back into the fuzzy past and seems to be reaching through our future. If anything, Mormonism has had a strong confidence, even outright pride, in knowing God. Who God is, what God does, our relation to God then now and always. In our more polemical moments, church leaders have even ridiculed the God of the creeds; a God without body, parts, or passions is simply a God “without”– a nothing. Our philosophers have dissected the “omni” God as impassible and thus impersonal, incapable of being moved by our troubles or pleased by our happiness. Mormons have (sometimes confidently and sometimes not) described God as embodied. God is one who took upon flesh and lived and suffered and died. In this we join with broader Christianity, although others restrict this embodiment to the Incarnation, to the person of Jesus Christ while Mormons typically include God the Father in this same category of embodied beings. And we’re comforted to proclaim and to believe that we “know God, and Jesus Christ” who he sent because such knowledge is “eternal life” (John 17:3). But I’ve never seen God, though I’ve felt that I’ve seen the works of God’s hands. And I’ve never heard God’s voice, not audibly at least, as far as I know, though I’ve felt God’s guidance and comfort, sometimes rebuke, at times in my life. But I’ve also sensed God’s absence. [Read more...]

Did President Hinckley downplay deification?

“Do Mormons believe they can become Gods” is a question that requires much more than a yes or no answer, to be sure. If members of the Church are reluctant to answer with a simple “yes” or “no”, they seem to be trying to hide something, or to be unversed on the subject. This circumstance is reflected in an oft-cited response President Hinckley gave to various public interviews. I’ve seen it on facebook, I’ve seen it on message boards, I’ve seen it on blogs and in various columns. Hopefully this post can help clarify.

Pres. Hinckley has been accused of being dishonest or evasive on the subject of deification–whether humans can become gods. He is depicted as saying something to the effect of “we don’t know anything about that.” I believe a closer look at the respective interviews suggests that Pres. Hinckley was more specifically saying Mormons don’t know much about God’s past, rather than humanity’s future. Here’s the selection from a 1997 interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, wherein Pres. Hinckley affirms the divine potential of women and men:  [Read more...]

Requiem, 2011

Hands on clocks seldom pull our eyes in circles anymore,
we, the guided-by-pixel ones, no less captivated by time.
We, the archaeologists of old experience turned architects of a new year,
our implements are senses, memories, books, arts and friends.

And some mock me for aspiring to create worlds:
“ye shall be as the gods”; to some a blasphemy, to others absurdity,
not realizing I’m already a fashioner—
and they too—of worlds.
Worlds without number, create we them,
in every face encountered, every landscape
glimpsed in a rear-view mirror, making order from chaos,
firm foundations fashioned by a new year’s Eve, her eyes open wide.

Living in built worlds of blood and hair,
building new worlds with and from traditions and hope.
Holding hands and hopes in our pockets or against our breasts (feeling time),
We, fashioners of the deep. We, imaging the gods watching mortal creations die (watching time).

Knowing good and evil, not knowing whether God
speaks Elizabethan English, misuses verbs.
The Fashioner of worlds abusing tense? Is this time?—
and has ever so been—the sin and salvation of auld lang syne[Read more...]

Review: Reid L. Neilson, “Exhibiting Mormonism”

Title: Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the 1893 World’s Fair
Author: Reid L. Neilson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: History
Year: 2011
Pages: 240
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780195384031
Price: $29.95

It really goes without saying now that we’re in something called the “Mormon Moment.” Two presidential candidates, a hit Broadway musical, and a massive advertising campaign are just a few things on the list current public opinion shapers on Mormonism. Still, about half of all Americans apparently still claim to know very little or nothing about the faith. It’s hard not to feel like we Mormons are really in the thick of things like never before, but taking the long view provides some fascinating context.

If you think we Mormons get a bad rap in 2011, you should’ve been at the Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. Right on the heels of the Manifesto, Mormons showed up to claim their place as respectable and patriotic Americans. Historian Reid L. Neilson’s latest book Exhibiting Mormonism tells the story of how the Church sought to shape public opinion by participating in the Exposition and in subsequent world’s fairs and expositions through the 1930s. It’s a pretty straight-forward book, not a lot of bells and whistles, most significant, perhaps, for describing the Church’s shifts in PR attempts. [Read more...]

Remember that time P. Diddy quoted L. Tom Perry?

It was only 17 hours ago:

The quote is from Elder Perry’s 1974 BYU devotional talk, “Be the Best of Whatever You Are.” It also makes an appearance in the Young Women Manual 1. I’ll bet the latter reference is where he found it.

Review: Molly C. Haslam, “A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability”

Title: A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being As Mutuality and Response
Author: Molly C. Haslam
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Genre: Theology
Year: 2012
Pages: 134
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-8232-3941-2
Price: $24.00

Here’s another (perhaps over-long) review. For the benefit of people wrapped up in the holiday season and not able to spend much time on a blog post, here’s a little synopsis of the review:

SYNOPSIS: Theologian/physical therapist Molly Haslam claims that Christian theology is problematically biased in its typical definition of “human being” according to attributes such as agency, rationality, and intelligence. Christian anthropologies thus marginalize people with profound intellectual disabilities. She describes several recent attempts to account for the disabled in Christian theology. She finds them inadequate because they still seem to privilege the rational self. She seeks to construct a theology which explains how people with severe intellectual disabilities can be seen as being created in the image of God. Her account is excellent despite a few internal contradictions, and it has interesting implications for how a Mormon theology of intellectual disability might look. Above all, it very fruitfully invites you, good reader, to think about what it means to be human.

Now for the full review.

Chan was born with cerebral palsy. [Read more...]

Pop Culture Theologizing with “The Walking Dead”

*Caution: This post contains spoilers.*

It was summertime and I was home alone for a few weeks. AMC was replaying their series The Walking Dead all the way through and, although I’m not a horror/suspense/zombie fan per se, I’d seen enough chatter by Facebook friends to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. On its face, The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to be FHE fodder, but you’d be surprised at the deep theological and philosophical reflections zombies can foster.1

The Walking Dead follows a small group of survivors from Atlanta struggling to endure a zombie apocalypse. In their world, the idea of zombies didn’t previously exist, so the characters are forced to work out for themselves the nature of what looks like a spreading disease. Government structures are in complete disarray and people are fending for themselves. “Walkers” roam the streets seeking to eat human flesh; their bites and bodily fluids spread the disease. The virus essentially invades human neurobiology, killing the consciousness of its host and taking control of the body through the brain stem. The only way to kill a Walker is by destroying the brain.

Instead of being a scare-em-and-shoot-em-up thriller (though it has its moments!), overall the series finds its real emotional power in the conflicts of the human protagonists. Its true genius is underscoring the fact that many of the problems we encounter aren’t black and white; The Walking Dead focuses on complexity and shades of gray.2 The rest of this post highlights three areas of off-the-cuff theological reflection the show spurs.  [Read more...]

A Few Recommended Books on Science and Religion

Heidi A. Campbell and Heather Looy, eds., A Science and Religion Primer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), $15.99.

Dialog about the relationships between science and religion is usually an interdisciplinary endeavor, with all the jargon and assumed knowledge you can shake a stick at. The editors decided a “crib sheet” of key terms and figures would provide “a way in” to the currently central discussions about religion and science (13). The first section of the book contains intro essays about the respective roles of history, philosophy, theology, and technology in discussions of religion and science. The second half is a collection of A to Z entries on a bunch of different SR topics, including Chaos Theory, Darwin, Ecofeminism, Emergence, Fideism, Intelligent Design, Metaphysics, Panentheism, Spinoza, Theodicy and a bunch more. Each entry contains key points and suggestions for further reading. I worried that the book would be a bit boring, but each article is written by a talented and knowledgeable scholar who brings a unique voice to their subject without straying from the introductory purposes of the book. If you’re looking for a nice intro, I definitely recommend this book. I could see it coming in handy at seminars and in study groups like the one Steve Peck recently participated in at BYU. [Read more...]

“Vive la différence, and the potential for fruitful union”

Stephen Jay Gould died too young. He was a controversial paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, historian of science, and a fun writer. Targets of Gould’s criticism range from fundamentalist creationists to sociobiologists. In the “science vs. religion” debates he’s best known for proposing “NOMA,” or “non-overlapping magisteria”; the modern sciences shouldn’t be at war with religion because they don’t address the same questions. He distinguishes science’s description of “is” from religion’s claims of “ought.

In his final book (published after his death), Gould expands the terms from “science and religion” to “science and the Humanities.” He explains: “[Scientific] facts may enrich and enlighten our moral questions (about the definition of death, the beginning of life, or the validity of using embryonic stem cells in biological research).” However, “our yearnings and quest for morality and meaning belong to the different domains of the humanities, the arts, philosophy, and theology—and cannot be adjudicated by the findings of science” (106).1 These domains must work together in order to help us  humans make the most of our existence. This book is Gould’s argument for mending the old breach between science and the humanities by stressing what they share in common and by proposing a merger of their respective strengths (144). [Read more...]

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